The point of my first two posts were to shed light on the challenges faced by farmers in America today, and to point out that the farm and food landscape in this country has changed dramatically in the past 75 years, in ways far beyond what people realize. When you gain a little insight as to what is happening in agriculture, the selling of farm land for development in our local community begins to make more sense to us. The fact that farmers are selling off their land is not the core issue. The core issue is why can’t farmers afford to hold onto their land and make a reasonable living farming it.
And that issue is not easy to talk about in isolation, because it is so interconnected to the bigger economic and governmental system.
Human societies have struggled with issues of labor vs. capital since the dawn of civilization, much as we have issues of environment vs. economy. And in our current iteration, we seem to be nearing some important limits. Wealth and pay disparity are extreme. Not to mention carbon levels, chronic disease levels, extinction rates, and topsoil loss. And the more our society pushes up against these natural limits, the more stress it creates, and the less able we seem to be to find solutions. Democracy and Capitalism have truly been a big experiment, and in our current iteration it seems like we’ve allowed money to capture much of the power. And perhaps that’s just human nature, and that will always be the outcome? But I know that there are many people dissatisfied by current events and our current trajectory. Let’s face it, a lot of children are depressed at the state of the world that adults are handing them. $20 trillion in debt, a climate crisis, uninspiring job prospects, and a dysfunctional government is not exactly a gift for a bright future. Where one stands on the socio-economic ladder will impact whether you agree with me or not. But I believe the corporate media wants us to get bogged down in the issues of guns, abortion, politics and immigration for the very fact that they are divisive, which keeps us preoccupied and distracts us from looking behind the curtain for the real issues. What we really need to be working on is fostering a regenerative approach moving forward..not just in farming, but in all aspects of life. And I think we need to realize that, as individuals, we have more power than we like to think. Maybe not in the same way as a corporation, but we all have personal agency and the ability to wield our energy in meaningful ways.
And we need to do more of this, because the traditional tools we’re taught are available to us to change things, such as voting or using our purchasing power, are no longer effective (I’m not saying voting is not important, I’m just saying we’re not getting as much choice as we are led to believe, and that power and money is bi-partisan and will use every trick at their disposal to ensure all candidates are not a major threat to their cause) So, we either go along for the ride, or we seek ways to resist and buffer the impacts of this dominant system. You know the saying “Think globally, act locally”. It’s important to understand the big issues at play, but we can’t get bogged down at that level. A better approach is to affect change at a local or community level. In many ways, it’s why Rebecca and I farm. It’s an act of service to our community and planet, advocacy for a better path forward, and resistance to a corrupted system. Depending on my mood on any given day, which one i focus on might vary 🙂
The agribusiness industry is aware of all the issues i’m writing about, and it understands that many consumers want a healthier system. While there is some hope that farmers will start to implement basic practices like cover cropping or crop diversity, the overall mindset of the industry is not going to change. The only way that farmers seem to be finding success is by realizing they would be better off selling direct to consumers, and many are finally choosing to take control and develop new markets that serve them better than the commodity market. And regenerative practices are giving farmers and ranchers the tools they need to break out of the chemical system and to get off the treadmill (see Gabe Browns book “Dirt to Soil” for an example of this movement) But the industry does not seem willing to change, because as my original chart in part I showed, it’s doing great in the current system. Instead, what the industry is doing is co-opting the messaging from the Organic and Regenerative movements by greenwashing it’s marketing and packaging so that they can keep the status quo in place, but act like they are doing the right thing. This misleads consumers into thinking they are getting what they want, while behind the scenes it is putting real organic and regenerative farmers out of business.
This is no more evident that the recent decision by the USDA Organic program to begin certifying hydroponics and industrial confinement-animal production (meat, dairy, and eggs). It is not only a violation of trust on the part of the USDA, but it is literally in violation of the federal law (the Organic Food Production Act) that lays out the framework for organic production. When industry influence is so powerful that it can corrupt the regulatory function of government agencies, consumers lose. While the story of this process in Organic is a fascinating, and depressing journey, I’m going to skip it for today. The take home point is that industry is taking away your choices. And organic food is going to increasingly come from industrial sources. Did you know that 99% of non-organic meat, dairy, and eggs sold in groceries stores comes from industrial confinement facilities? They are called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s). Now that market dominance has been achieved in non-organic food, the industrial mindset is planning to do the same for organics, even though we know that’s not what consumers want.
So how does the industry reconcile that? Greenwashing. When you go to a grocery store and look at two different brands of milk, they look the same, except one has a higher price. Both have pretty imagery of healthy cows standing in lush green grass. But one of these comes from cooperative of small farms that raise cows on lush green grass. And that is the more expensive one, because farming this way takes a lot of care and effort. The other one comes from a confinement dairy in Texas where 12,000 cows are packed together with little access to pasture. This milk is cheaper because this is a lower-cost, higher efficiency production model…it’s just happens to produce lower quality milk from stressed out cows. As a consumer, there is no way for you to tell the difference. So, as is natural, we reach for the lower cost milk. And this kicks off the “race to the bottom” that I talked about. Once a industrial method is allowed, whether by skirting regulation or by corrupting regulatory agencies, all the producers doing the right thing can no longer compete. They either get driven out of business or have to switch to similar practices.
We are seeing this right now in New England where Horizon Organics has yanked contracts from 89 family dairy farms in order to switch to a CAFO dairy approach. And we are seeing it in organic fruit production where hydroponic berry production has already put a lot of soil-based strawberry and blueberry growers out of business. And I expect to see the same in the vegetable world. The news is full of new technology, and the “amazing” future for vertical farming and hydroponics. But what the marketing doesn’t tell you is all of these approaches are highly reductionist, ignore the natural process, and result in lower nutrition food. And lower nutrition food is definitely not what this country needs more of. And these issues hang heavy on our minds as small farmers who are Certified Organic and believe in the organic cause.
So what are we to do? This brings up a HUGE issue that is very relevant to our community, because we are at a point in our journey where we have become a country of consumers. Our first thought might be…”this is terrible, I’m going to support better food or products, how can I buy it?” But this is not a problem that we can all purchase and consume our way out of. Think about that. In our community, the demand for local organic food is higher than the supply. Lot’s of people want to buy it, very few people want to grow it (whether that’s in your own garden or by becoming a farmer). And if people aren’t interested in becoming PRODUCERS, then perhaps we have no choice but to accept the industrial system.
As I’ve mentioned, we’ve gone from 6.5 million farmers down to 2 million. And given recent advances in autonomous tractors, Big Data, and precision agriculture, the Industial Agriculture Complex seems content on driving that number down to zero. The fact that Bill Gates is the largest landowner of farm land is concerning to me. And at risk of sounding nostalgic, a national landscape with no farmers on it, or in the communities, is not a future I support.
If our community seeks a better food system, we need to realize that it’s taken us a 100 years to get where we are at, and so building a community food system that promotes health and wellness is a very long journey. And that it’s up to us an individuals to make that change happen, because it’s not coming from the top down. And we can’t simply throw money at. It requires people willing to do the work. And I fully realize the weight of this, because the existence of Two Bear Farm is hardly secure due to work force issues, let alone an entire food system. So many of the issues we face in our community today are interconnected. Affordable housing, workforce supply, healthcare, the role of philanthropy vs. the role of gov’t or civic institutions. I realize it’s much easier to just stay on the current course and go along for the ride, because seeking improvement or developing alternatives takes a lot of work. And there is no judgement there, because fighting for change is stressful, and in the end, one could argue it is not a good way to spend your limited time on Earth. For others, there is no choice but to push for change.
And if you are a change seeker, I think the best approach is to start small. And to start thinking creatively. While the common mantra of “support a local farm” is true, we need to think about how to get more farmers on the landscape. Back to my point, we can’t just consume our way out of this issue, we need to produce our way out of it. The movement needs money and resources, but it most of all needs people. And if we can’t address that issue, then all this romantic talk of a regenerative system is moot.
Most of all, I think we should all realize it’s ok to push back on things that aren’t good. The Farmers’ Stand is a great example of that. It was never our dream to own a grocery store. But we have long been concerned about the health impacts and economics of traditional groceries, and know changing that entrenched system would not be easy. However, starting a store that represents the values we believe in was a feasible and tangible approach. So we tried it. It’s a lot of work, but it appears to be proving that people want better access to healthier food. Believe me when I tell you this was not a get rich quick scheme….it was an act of resistance and hope. As the industrial world is getting more opaque and hiding the source of your food, local farmers and The Farmers’ Stand are offering your transparency and the story of your food.
What other ways can all of us resist by working to create positive alternatives (as opposed to tearing each other apart or entering a state of depression)?
There are creative solutions out there to many of the problems we face, they just haven’t been discovered or talked about yet. Our community is in a challenging time of growth, emotions are high, rent prices are even higher, and I applaud anyone who is having civilized dialogue to come up with win/win solutions. There are ways we can all engage. Maybe you get involved with SaveFarmland or Land to Hand, two local non-profits doing great work. Maybe you go to the DMV and get those license plates for the Western Sustainability Exchange or AERO, to support regenerative food systems. Maybe you teach your children to grow food. Or encourage them to pursue regenerative farming? Or teach them that work can be fulfilling, as opposed to something that should be avoided. Maybe you work with young people and encourage ( or benefit from) their hope? Maybe you move to a food desert and start a farm and a local grocery store? Maybe you can put positive energy out there by being nice to people you meet on the street, or helping out a neighbor? Maybe you can take better care of yourself, get your stress down, play more music or get outside, so that we have a healthy mindset from which to tackle these challenges we face, and will likely always face.
So, with that in mind, the moment I hit send, I am headed to the Utah desert to enjoy some nature and a change of scenery. It is long overdue. While I know this series covered some serious and complex topics, and that I did not do justice to them in such a short format, I bring them up only to help us recognize why positive change is so important. And to suggest that life is better when you take hopeful action (win or lose) than being resigned to a life of problems you feel powerless to change.
Take care of yourselves, remember to laugh and smile, and do all the other little things that make a difference.