Good family farmers are among the most admirable of people. Few other lifestyles are so honest with nature’s laws—few other lifestyles are so full. The family’s needs are met first; surplus is sold in the market for money to buy what the farm does not produce. True family farming is synonymous with subsistence farming. To choose subsistence farming is to commit to hard work and challenging conditions; to do it well requires an abundance of man’s most admirable qualities. It is an ideal condition for raising children.
Or so it was until politicians, bureaucrats and college professors collusively decided they knew best. Jefferson was prescient but incomplete with his warning: “Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want bread.&rdquo While most of today’s so-called bread is barely worth eating, what the direction from Washington has cost us is hundreds of thousands of our family farms, arguably the foundation of our society.Farmers are now members
As an ex-farmer’s son who has read the wrenching stories of farm foreclosures, suicides and killings resulting largely and directly from oppressive governmental interference in farmers’ lives, I caution you against farming if what you envision requires you to borrow money, use large machinery, compete with agribusiness, or be involved in any government program. Subsidy programs are seductive and counterproductive. A farmer’s acceptance of such programs almost inevitably leads to dependence, loss of freedom, loss of pride and dignity. That cost is too high.
Let us hope that the media coverage of broke and broken farm families has provided adequate warning to those who contemplate farming. I am reminded of the story of the old farmer who had just won $10 million in the state lottery. A reporter asked him what he was going to do now that he was rich. The farmer replied that he guessed he’d “just keep on farming ’til I go broke.&rdquo
Contrariwise, as an organic gardener and advocate who sees a swelling demand for chemical-free food, I am optimistic that small-scale producers of food and specialty products can make a decent living and enjoy high-quality lives with their families. If they follow a sound plan, produce multiple high-demand products for nearby markets, and stay clear of government subsidy programs there is good reason to believe that they can do well. Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “A Farming Revolution&rdquo in National Geographic December 1995, tells the stories of growers across the country who are producing food organically and profitably.
Midsized farmers have become an endangered species. (Too bad they are not as protected as, say, the spotted owl.) Today’s farmer can either be a small-farm operator or compete with the big boys: agribusiness, industrial agriculture, corporate food production. The odds are strongly against a midsized farmer with modest financial resources. James Bovard, writing in Government Waste Watch, reports that “the average full-time farmer—after subtracting liabilities and debts from assets—is a millionaire with a net worth of $1,044,396.&rdquo Operating on a level above small-scale farming requires substantial dollars—few midsized farms produce sufficient earnings to bridge the years of weather or market disaster. In most cases, investment capital receives a higher return from a simple savings account than from farming. College agriculture professors, machinery sellers, chemical salespeople, bankers and politicians are prone to give lengthy encouraging advice to midsized farm operators, but such farming is a much tougher life to live than talk to give. (It is not my intent to offend—if I have omitted any qualifying group, I do apologize.)
There are 3,143 counties in the United States. Of our 2,304 nonmetropolitan counties, about 700 are primarily agricultural. In 1995 there were 2,06,810 farm households earning an average of $44,392, with 89 percent of that income coming from off-farm sources. Farming operations range from immense agribusiness operations to very small herb, vegetable, floriculture, and specialty enterprises. To define this range in modern farms, rural sociologists have created a new term—two-tier farming—which relates to scale. It is as important to consider farming from the perspective of personal time commitment.
Full-time versus part-time farming
Full-time farming on a large scale requires a huge financial investment in land and equipment. It means hard work for long hours, often seven days per week. It requires knowledge of soil, crops, farm skills, planning, marketing and financial management. It means dealing with high land costs, high equipment costs, volatile interest rates, too little rain, too much rain, late freezes, early freezes, government programs and market conditions manipulated by bureaucrats, commodities brokers and five agribusiness corporations. The margin between survival and failure is narrow. The margin between farm product prices and supermarket prices is wide.
Part-time, small-scale farming is, well, a growing trend. The Census Bureau reported in 1992 that there were 554,207 farms of less than fifty acres. Part-time farmers typically work at primary jobs in nearby areas and tend their crops and livestock evenings and weekends. The rewards are often seen as quality of life rather than just dollars—meaningful work, healthful exercise, high-quality food and an opportunity to instill traditional values in children.
Corporate food giants seem determined to turn what used to be
the temples of our bodies into way stations for chemical residue.
In “Letters,&rdquo Time, 1-29-96
Do not buy property near an agribusiness operation. Modern food production has an industrialized, corporate structure. Agribusiness is owned by investors who see land as something to be mined for dividends, ignoring all consequential results, expecting and planning for the day when the land will be mined out, and using taxpayers, through government programs, to ensure their continued profits. In spite of efficiency claims made for huge acreages farmed with monster machinery, such farming is not only wasteful but threatens the food supply of future generations. The Land Institute’s Wes Jackson is one of those who point out that agribusiness consumes more calories in fossil fuels than it produces in food. We taxpayers underwrite agribusiness owners’ profits not only by subsidizing oil prices, but by paying for price support programs, footing the health costs of food tainted by pesticide residue and dealing with air, soil and waters polluted by farm chemicals. And agribusiness owners are the prime beneficiaries of land-grant college research.
In the insane hunger for profit at any cost, veal, pork, poultry, eggs and milk are now produced in animal factories—intensive, close-confinement operations. The results are literally breathtaking for those who live downwind. In northwest Missouri, six spills of hog wastes killed an estimated 267,000 fish in tributaries to the Grand and Chariton rivers in August and September 1995 (News-Leader, Springfield, Missouri, 11-12-95). In North Carolina, the nation’s second-largest hog producing state, “The worst hog-waste spill in state history sent 25 million gallons of waste gushing into the New River this week, killing fish and taking the battle over the hog industry to a new level&rdquo (The New York Times, 6-25-95). Hog feces and urine covered roads and tobacco and soybean fields.
The largest intensive hog operation in the world is being built about 190 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. More than 2.5 million hogs per year will be raised in barns that hold 120,000 at a time. The resulting waste will be greater than that produced by the City of Los Angeles (USA TODAY, 12-30-97).
Five agribusiness mega-corporations control the American food supply. Cargill, the biggest corporate agribusiness, is in sixty countries; Conagra is in twenty-three. One third of our nation’s food is produced by the largest one percent of agribusiness operations. Buying supermarket food means supporting agribusiness. Agribusiness runs on fossil fuel. Buying supermarket food means contributing to expenditures of up to twelve calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of corn used in breakfast cereal. Using such wasteful quantities of fossil fuel creates huge health and cleanup costs due to air, water and soil poisoning, not to mention the enormous diplomatic and military costs of maintaining the oil flow. Even more oil is consumed, more pollution is created, and lower-quality food derives from long-distance shipping of produce. (Yes, Virginia—we slaughtered Iraqis to ensure our access to Kuwaiti oil.)
Agribusiness is insidious. Orville Redenbacker’s obituary included the fact that Orville and friend, Charles Bowman, in 1976 sold their popcorn operation to Hunt Wesson Inc., which is now owned by ConAgra, one of the five agrigiants (The Denver Post, 9-25-95). It’s hard to know where your food comes from anymore.
This quote will be a wake-up call for anyone who still thinks the present food production situation should continue (the very careful wording was done to avoid a potential lawsuit): “The alleged philosophy for the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, uttered on tape by the chairman’s son, was supposedly, ‘The competitor is our friend, and the customer is our enemy’&rdquo (Time 10-2-95, “Too Big or Not Too Big?,&rdquo by Howard Chua-Eoan).
Family farming once was a self-sufficient lifestyle of feeding one’s family and providing surplus to nearby communities. Today’s “successful&rdquo so-called family farm is a specialized business, highly capital- and energy-intensive. It concentrates on the production of one or two market crops, uses machinery to the fullest extent on large fields and depends on borrowed money for the purchase of equipment, seeds, chemical fertilizer and pesticides to maximize yields on expensive land. Increasingly, the family that owns the farm lives in a nearby town to save the wife commuting time to her job. Two-thirds of U.S. farmers live in cities or towns.
Successful family farmers typically grew up on their farms, love the land they inherited, and continue farming in spite of the many adversities and modest income. A typical Midwestern farmer might have a capital investment in land and equipment of $1.5 million, and sell crops worth $300,000. Net income—depending on production costs, weather, market demand and other factors—might be $30,000 or less. That’s a two percent return on capital investment. It has to be a labor of love—they sure aren’t getting paid well.
The definition of a farm is a place from which $1,000 or more of farm products were sold in the prior 12 months or would normally be sold. About one-half of all U.S. farm families now derive more income from nonfarm sources than from the sale of farm products. The USDA Economic Research Service reports that 89 percent of the average farm operator’s 1995 household income of $44,392 came from off-farm sources.
In At Nature’s Pace, Gene Logsdon suggests that “gardens are the incubators of the new farm ecology. In Berkeley, California, a city ‘farm’ of one-third acre grosses more than $300,000 in salad vegetables for Konaki Farms.&rdquo
Subscription farming, membership garden farming, community gardening, community-supported agriculture—a sensible method of food production that delivers dependable, high-quality food to nearby consumers. In Japan, it’s called co-partnership farming. A natural extension of pick-your-own operations, the best method is where a grower contracts with a group of consumers to grow the produce they desire. Types of produce, quantities and prices are agreed upon before the growing season. The grower knows he has a market and an income. The consumers know they have a source of high-quality, organically-produced food at a predetermined cost. If Momma Nature cooperates. Products are harvested at peak flavor and nutrition time, often by the consumer/subscribers. It’s a win-win deal, even better than farmers’ markets because grower and consumer have a strong relationship.
Small-scale farming, easily confused with part-time farming, can be a viable full-time occupation. Organic fruits and vegetables, sheep and goats, chickens and eggs, flowers, ornamental shrubs, medicinal plants and exotic animals are suitable for modest-sized operations. A retired professor from Tuskegee Institute has developed a plan for farming on 10 to 200 acres. In his book, Booker T. Whatley’s Handbook on How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres, Whatley gives complete instructions. Key issues: buy land close to a city so that subscribers to your Clientele Membership Club will drive to your farm to pick their own produce; grow multiple high-value crops or animals that clients demand; bypass all middlemen; and adhere to a sound, year-round plan. Whatley warns that his plan is not for everyone: “You’ve got to be a good manager to operate one of these farms. You’ve got to be a good planner and you’ve got to think for yourself.&rdquo
Informed consumers are demanding and paying for organically-grown produce and animal products. Wendell Berry notes: “There is a rapidly increasing number of consumers who wish to buy food that is nutritionally whole and uncontaminated by pesticides and other toxic chemical residues. And these people would prefer not to pay the exorbitant food prices required by long-distance transportation, processing, packaging, and advertising, all of which result from ‘agribusiness’ control of food.&rdquo
The Food Marketing Institute agrees—the people there found that three-fourths of all shoppers have a major concern about chemical residues in food. This has created a great demand for food grown the old-fashioned way. Reminds me of visiting a farmer’s market in Little Rock in the late 1980s. Admiring some exceptionally fine leaf lettuce, I asked the lady behind the counter if her produce was organically grown. She looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. “Honey,&rdquo she replied, “we jus’ digs up the back yard and plants the seeds and pulls the weeds. I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout what you talkin’ about.&rdquo If we had more food producers like that, the disease care industry would lose a lot of business.
The incessant push for bigger profits is creating some bizarre and scary situations in the beef and dairy fields. A huge controversy between milk producers (back when I was pulling, uh, teats, we were called dairy farmers) and consumers concerns the use of bovine somatotropin (BST), a synthetic hormone fed to cows that causes them to produce more milk. Until, that is, they collapse from what is called “falling-down cow syndrome.&rdquo It seems their bones become robbed of calcium and their legs just can’t hold them up. And they get mastitis, which then requires feeding antibiotics to the cows. Antibiotic residue is then found in the milk. Now people are becoming immune to antibiotics. Consumers’ understandable fears of various adverse health reactions to the suspect substance create yet more opportunity for organic producers.
“In December 1994 the European Union (EU) agriculture minister extended the current moratorium on use of genetically engineered recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) until the year 2000. It is not yet clear how this will affect imports from the US and other countries where the artificial hormone is in use. Monsanto, manufacturer of rBGH, had previously warned the EU that a ban on US products produced using the drug may be an illegal ‘restraint on trade’ under the new GATT regulations. In a letter to the FDA, the vice president of the EU Agriculture Committee said, ‘Consumers in the European Union and their representatives in the European Parliament are apparently much more concerned about the unresolved human health issues related to recombinant bovine somatotropin than your agency when it authorized the product’&rdquo (Our Toxic Times, April, 1995).
I first heard about this next item while listening to Howard Lyman, who was a fourth-generation Montana cattle rancher and feedlot operator, is now the executive director of Voice For A Viable Future and who now eats “zero meat.&rdquo Profit-hungry meat producers now feed cattle “bypass protein,&rdquo a ground-up food supplement made from slaughter house waste products: carcasses, feathers, trimmings and animals that have died from various causes and are not accepted at slaughterhouses. Lyman explained that cows have been designed through evolution to eat grasses and other plants, but not meat. When they are fed meat that has disease organisms in it, their digestive systems fail to detect a problem and therefore absorb the organisms along with the meat. Cattle that eat diseased meat products can get “mad cow disease&rdquo (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE), which causes the brain of the animal and eventually the brains of those who eat its meat to become riddled with holes, resulting in dementia and eventually death. BSE was first confirmed in cattle in Great Britain in 1986. The London Times reported in December of 1995 that scientists there had stopped eating beef.
To agribusiness, profits come first, second and third. Health is not even a consideration.
Genetically altered food is here. In an article entitled “Biotech on the Table,&rdquo Modern Maturity, May-June 1995, reported on the creation of the Flavr Savr tomato, “the first genetically modified whole food.&rdquo Supermarket tomatoes are picked green, so they can be washed, sorted and packed without bruising. Just before shipping, packers use ethylene gas to induce ripening and red skin. You’ve eaten the result—a hard, tasteless joke. The intelligent answer, of course, is to buy tomatoes picked ripe locally, even if greenhouse-grown in the winter. Agribusiness does not concur. Calgene, a Davis, California, biotech firm—whose shareholders are elated—created a genetically-engineered bacterium to neutralize the production of polygalacturonase, the stuff that makes tomatoes soften naturally. Flavr Savr can be left on the vine to ripen without softening. Not everyone is thrilled. Even some supermarkets are reluctant to carry the creation. Newsweek wondered, “Will the new gene set off a chemical chain reaction that proves toxic or prompts unexpected changes in the environment?&rdquo Turns out that part of Calgene’s process uses a “marker gene&rdquo to show if the bacterium is present and that the marker gene is resistant to an antibiotic used in health care. Responding to the various concerns of consumers, Calgene senior scientist Virginia Ursin says, “The magnitude of the risk is the same as with anything else in the supermarket food aisle.&rdquo Yeah, that’s what we’re afraid of.
If you intend to grow food crops or animals organically, buy land that is not poisoned with the residue of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Some constituents of these products may persist in the soil decades after their application. Organic certification programs require soil tests to prove that the land is free of chemicals.
If you choose this route, educate yourself well. Visit successful pick-your-own operations. Check out local farmers’ markets and food co-ops. County extension agents in progressive areas are a good source of information. The Cooperative Extension Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was established in 1914 to apply the results of agricultural research done at U.S. land-grant colleges. Operating through state and county extension agents, it helps U.S. farmers to learn and use new techniques. They are becoming more responsive to small farmers. Home-demonstration agents supply information and advice on food-preserving and cooking techniques and on farm economics. The 4-H programs train young people in agricultural, food-processing and management techniques.
Alas, Big Brother has gotten into the organic act. BB involvement started with the National Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. In 1991 the USDA appointed a National Organic Standards Board charged with defining what is and isn’t organic. Now we even have a new farmer: The Transitional Farmer, who is not yet certifiable but is presumably headed in that direction. Inasmuch as it is the close collaboration of our federal government, agribusiness lobbyists and land grant colleges that has created our present poisonous food situation, consumers should be skeptical about claims of organic compliance. I suspect that federal standards will be more lax than state and local standards already developed. Should you choose to become a certified organic food producer, I recommend that you contact the local organic growers’ association in the area in which you will farm. Its members will know what is happening on the federal level and how it relates to local conditions.
Good regenerative farmers, practicing what is also called sustainable agriculture, share much with organic gardeners. In fact, the term—regenerative farming—was coined by Robert Rodale of Organic Gardening & Farming magazine. Regenerative farmers care about the quality of their products. They love their land and work to improve it. Regenerative farming is practiced by farmers who take responsibility for their actions, who are sensitive to the environment, who know that land is a national treasure. They rotate crops, use chemical fertilizers sparingly or not at all, protect against erosion, strive always to improve fertility. They are becoming more appreciated by society as a whole, which is becoming educated to the value of food grown without chemicals.
Sustainability is defined as actions that meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of future generations. Soil erosion epitomizes the need for sustainability.
“Globally, crop lands damaged between 1950 and 1990 by moderate to extreme soil erosion total an area equal to China and India combined. Yet to feed the world’s projected population, output must triple in the next 50 years, according to the U.N. Development Program&rdquo (Robin Wright, “Learning to Give as Much as We Take From Earth,&rdquo Los Angeles Times, 1-18-94). Wright’s article reports that while population is growing, the supply of food and good water is diminishing.
Farmland includes cropland, pasture, orchard and woodland. Cropland prices are typically higher than prices for woodland. Demand for farmland for nonagricultural uses is highest in coastal regions. Urban sprawl in the form of housing developments and shopping centers is converting former farmland near cities, driving up prices.
According to the USDA, the average value of U.S. farmland and buildings on January 1, 1995 was $832 an acre, a record high, although adjustment for inflation ranks 1981 the highest. Rhode Island has the top average farmland prices in the country ($6,947 per acre), and Wyoming has the lowest ($192 per acre). Average area prices, in order, were Northeast ($2,414), Southeast ($1,533), Corn Belt ($1,448), Appalachia ($1,436), Pacific ($1,190), Lake States ($1,048), Delta States ($972), Southern Plains ($550), Northern Plains ($458), and Mountain ($346).
Perhaps the USDA does not consider growing grapes to be an agricultural use. California’s Napa Valley vineyard land will set you back $40,000—per acre.
Keeping the right to farm
Forty-six states have right-to-farm laws to protect farmers from being taxed out of existence by intruding development. Some places actually pay farmers for development rights, so the landowner can realize value gain but still keep farming.
If you are considering producing food as your work, then note appropriate needs on your criteria worksheet in the areas of climate, soil quality, acreage, farming choices, water quantity and market demographics.
ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas)
P.O. Box 3657
Fayetteville, AR 72702
Its technical staff will record your needs, research your question and send you a report within two to four weeks.
Office for Small-Scale Agriculture
Ag Box 2244
Washington, DC 20250-2244
202-720-5425; Fax: 202-205-2448
Provides information on growing crops and raising animals.
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
National Agricultural Library, Room 304
10301 Baltimore Avenue
Beltsville, MD 20705-2351
301-504-6559; FAX 301-504-6409
Web site: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic
The Information Center is a source for scientific or popular literature on all types of alternative farming practices.