Due to low activity this blog will be closing soon. All of the blog posts have been moved to https://sustfoodfarm.org/.
Thousands of organizations seeking food system change have pointed out the negative environmental and societal consequences of our current system, which many say is propped up on “too big to fail,” hyper-efficient production. The often quoted, Nixon-era agricultural mandate of “get big or get out”—a widely attributed pivot point in American agriculture from a diverse family farming system to the current corporate business form—mirrored the business zeitgeist of the time, building on the mid-20th-century ideal of industrialization and globalization.
Other systems, including our energy, water, and transportation systems, also fell in line with that ethos; but unlike the food system, these sectors are undertaking 21st-century upgrades that comport better with our modern norms and realities by creating more decentralized systems that are better adapted to local geography and sociology. Food system change agents stand to learn from the public policy trajectory of renewable energy in particular. The renewable energy industry currently employs 6.5 million worldwide with $329 billion in investments in 2015, and a number of its effective strategies would adapt well to food system reform.
1. Using public contracts to express public values and create markets for smaller producers.
The starting point for renewable energy was the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), enacted during the oil crisis of 1978. It opened the door to a new energy system structure by requiring that utilities source a percentage of their energy from independent producers. Building on that, many states later required metric-based targets (Nevada set an early example with its goal of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025) as part of a suite of policy tools supporting the development of renewable energy, called renewable portfolio standards (RPS).
This metric-based approach finds parallel in the food procurement power of public institutions. A national example is Brazil, which passed a law requiring that schools spend 30 percent of their meal budgets on food produced by the country’s millions of smallholder farmers. The program is credited with providing economic viability to that farm sector, through access to a guaranteed market in a direct relationship with government.
School food is also a large public food sector in the United States. The National School Lunch Program spends more than $11 billion annually to feed the 30 million children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The USDA Commodity program provides an additional $200 million or so per year in supplemental food to schools. Given this, federal targets to support local farms in school food purchases would undoubtedly make a meaningful shift in supporting the local farm economy, bolstering its existing Farm to School technical support and grant program.
But such targets would address only part of the food system picture. Community and environmental health are also important parts of a modern food system. Metrics based on these values (such as targets for healthy corner stores, sustainably produced food purchases, and purchases of food from fair labor producers and suppliers) would drive healthy food access, economic viability for the range of participants in the food chain, and a system of agriculture that supports regenerative farming practices.
A number of food procurement programs already incorporate environmental sustainability values into their goals, including Real Food Challenge for universities and Health Care Without Harm for hospitals. The Good Food Purchasing Program is even more analogous to the RPS system, in that it targets the public procurement dollars of school districts and is metric driven, emphasizing in equal measure five core values: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition. It is designed to work for the food system in the way that LEED certification works for energy efficiency in buildings; it has a flexible, performance-based set of guidelines within a metric framework, as well as a ratings incentive.
A region could leverage these program tools and others toward achieving food system goals. Such regional goals for school food, hospitals, military bases, and other publicly funded food programs in each area would create more than enough aggregate dollars to make a notable difference in the food chain. Nationally networked, regional procurement goals would also have a powerful influence on the federal role in the food system.
2. Recognizing that regional governments are nimble leaders.
The generation of renewable energy accelerated when many states developed RPSs alongside federal and state tax incentives. The progress of these states toward their various mandated goals contributed to the current success of renewable energy worldwide. Target levels and motivations of each state vary according to their resources and attributes. For example, water-locked Hawaii is nearly halfway to the most ambitious goal in the United States: It plans to reach “100 percent renewable” by 2045. California recently upped its renewable energy goals to 50 percent by 2030, building on the success of its prodigious entrepreneurial ecosystem and diverse landscape in creating more than 21,000 megawatts of clean energy and 400,000 clean energy jobs.
Similarly, cities or states can become regional leaders of value-based food procurement goals designed for the characteristics of their area, and advance a suite of policies that would create a community of personal, environmental, and economic health in food. Cities are especially well-poised to do so: Most of the world’s population now lives in cities, and because city governments are closer to the ground than federal governments, they have a working understanding of the needs of their residents, and a better sense of the programs and processes that can work for them.
Of course, implementing value-based food system goals will require more than procurement metrics. We need policies and incentives to back them up. California is a good example. The state has consistently ranked first on the US Clean Tech Leadership Index, credited to the fact that it has the largest collection of clean energy policies and incentives (over 270, by some counts) backing its metrics. These include: rebates, low or no interest loans, loan guarantees, financing programs, tax exemptions, bonds, grants, favorable permit standards, access easements, building standards, zoning codes, and small business assistance.
An impressive number of food policies and incentives are already in place around the country. Pennsylvania’s well-known Fresh Food Financing Initiative, for example, became the basis for the small-market conversion programs in Philadelphia and the creation of Philadelphia’s Common Market food hub, a mission-driven, nonprofit aggregator of locally produced food distributed to schools, hospitals, and communities. And New York State recently gave a $15 million grant toward a $20 million food hub in New York City to implement its goals of supporting local farmers.
Another opportunity is to update tax incentives for food donations to extend to programs like Boston’s Daily Table, which addresses food waste and food insecurity by using otherwise unused, “imperfect” produce to prepare healthy food on a food stamp budget. California recently updated its agriculture tax incentives to include urban agriculture. Philanthropy, and local governments could also set up matching funds—modeled after the Veggie Voucher farmer’s market programs—for schools and small neighborhood markets that participate in values-based regional procurement programs.
With regional metrics as an organizing framework, these programs and tools could become even more powerful drivers of food system design.
3. Creating coordinated networks to amplify best practices.
Affinity groups of cities can share best practices, operating as networked nodes of change. In 2005, Mayor Ken Livingston of London launched the C40, a network of the top 40 world cities that meet regularly to address climate change and energy efficiency. The group works to develop and implement policies and programs that generate measurable reductions in both greenhouse gas emissions and climate risks. When the C40 cities decide on a best practice—such as replacing incandescent bulbs in street lights with LEDs—they pool their combined buying power to create a bargaining block to obtain fair prices for both themselves and, because of the large size of the order, the manufacturer.
The Urban School Food Alliance, which includes the six biggest school districts in the United States, uses the same approach. In 2013, it asked tray manufacturers to develop a Styrofoam-free lunch tray. The manufacturers complied, motivated by the size of the order. This “alliance of alliances” between six cities represents 4,536 schools, more than 2.5 million students and 46 billion school meals, and a combined $552 million in food service. It has now turned its attention to the poultry supply chain with the aim of getting antibiotic-free chicken into schools.
As with renewable energy, regional metrics for food that support community, economic, and environmental health would strategically align policies, programs, and organizations toward those goals, as well as accelerate progress and encourage entrepreneurship. By turning the wheel of the existing system toward proportionally designed and well-supported regional targets, cities can lead a flexible, village-within-a-global-world framework that provides the responsiveness and resilience our communities deserve.
MATTERDALE, England — I am a traditional small farmer in the North of England. I farm sheep in a mountainous landscape, the Lake District fells. It is a farming system that dates back as many as 4,500 years. A remarkable survival. My flock grazes a mountain alongside 10 other flocks, through an ancient communal grazing system that has somehow survived the last two centuries of change. Wordsworth called it a “perfect republic of shepherds.”
It’s not your efficient modern agribusiness. My farm struggles to make enough money for my family to live on, even with 900 sheep. The price of my lambs is governed by the supply of imported lamb from the other side of the world. So I have one foot in something ancient and the other foot in the 21st-century global economy.
Less than 3 percent of people in modern industrial economies are farmers. But around the world, I am not alone: The United Nations estimates that more than two billion people are farmers, most of them small farmers; that’s about one in three people on the planet.
My farm is where I live, and there is actually no other way to farm my land, which is why it hasn’t changed much for a millennium or more. In truth, I could accept the changes around me philosophically, including the disappearance of farms like mine, if the results made for a better world and society. But the world I am seeing evolve in front of my eyes isn’t better, it is worse. Much worse.
In the week before the United States elected Donald J. Trump to the presidency, I traveled through Kentucky, through endless miles of farmland and small towns. It was my first visit to the United States, for a book tour. I was shocked by the signs of decline I saw in rural America.
I saw shabby wood-frame houses rotting by the roadside, and picket fences blown over by the wind. I passed boarded-up shops in the hearts of small towns, and tumbledown barns and abandoned farmland. The church notice boards were full of offers of help to people with drug or alcohol addictions. And yes, suddenly I was passing cars with Trump stickers on their bumpers, and passing houses with Trump flags on their lawns.
The economic distress and the Trump support are not unconnected, of course. Significant areas of rural America are broken, in terminal economic decline, as food production heads off to someplace else where it can be done supposedly more efficiently. In many areas, nothing has replaced the old industries. This is a cycle of degeneration that puts millions of people on the wrong side of economic history.
Economists say that when the world changes people will adapt, move and change to fit the new world. But of course, real human beings often don’t do that. They cling to the places they love, and their identity remains tied to the outdated or inefficient things they used to do, like being steel workers or farmers. Often, their skills are not transferable anyway, and they have no interest in the new opportunities. So, these people get left behind.
I ask myself what I would do if I didn’t farm sheep, or if I couldn’t any longer farm sheep. I have no idea.
Perhaps it is none of my business how Americans conduct their affairs and how they think about economics. I should doubtless go back to the mountains of my home here in Cumbria, and hold my tongue. But for my entire life, my own country has apathetically accepted an American model of farming and food retailing, mostly through a belief that it was the way of progress and the natural course of economic development. As a result, America’s future is the default for us all.
It is a future in which farming and food have changed and are changing radically — in my view, for the worse. Thus I look at the future with a skeptical eye. We have all become such suckers for a bargain that we take the low prices of our foodstuffs for granted and are somehow unable to connect these bargain-basement prices to our children’s inability to find meaningful work at a decently paid job.
Our demand for cheap food is killing the American dream for millions of people. Among its side effects, it is creating terrible health problems like obesity and antibiotic-resistant infections, and it is destroying the habitats upon which wildlife depends. It also concentrates vast wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands.
After my trip to rural America, I returned to my sheep and my strangely old-fashioned life. I am surrounded by beauty, and a community, and an old way of doing things that has worked for a long time rather well. I have come home convinced that it is time to think carefully, both within America and without, about food and farming and what kind of systems we want.
The future we have been sold doesn’t work. Applying the principles of the factory floor to the natural world just doesn’t work. Farming is more than a business. Food is more than a commodity. Land is more than a mineral resource.
Despite the growing scale of the problem, no major mainstream politician has taken farming or food seriously for decades. With the presidential campaign over and a president in the White House whom rural Kentuckians helped elect, the new political establishment might want to think about this carefully.
Suddenly, rural America matters. It matters for the whole world.
James Rebanks (@herdyshepherd1) is the author of the memoir “The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches From an Ancient Landscape.”
New bills in Montana and California would make it easier for small food entrepreneurs to thrive and for consumers to have more choices.
Newly proposed legislation in Montana and California could loosen restrictions on millions of small food entrepreneurs in those states.
In Montana, the Local Food Choice Act would “allow for the sale and consumption of homemade food and food products and… encourage the expansion of agricultural sales by ranches, farms, and home-based producers” in the state.
The law would exempt those who make and sell such foods directly to consumers from mandatory licensing, permitting, packaging, labeling, inspection, and other requirements. The law doesn’t exempt those who don’t sell food directly to consumers—as in the case of those who sell to restaurants or grocers—or to those who sell food across state lines.
“Eating what we choose should never be a crime,” said State Rep. Greg Hertz (R), as he introduced the bill last month. Indeed, Hertz’s bill would effectively legalize in Montana what is now a crime there and in almost every state: the act of selling something as basic as homemade cheese dip or pickles to your neighbor.
Hertz’s Local Food Choice Act is fashioned after Wyoming’s groundbreaking Food Freedom Act, first-in-the-nation legislation passed two years ago that deregulated many direct-to-consumer food sales within the state. As I detailed here, Colorado passed a similar law last year. Other states have also considered similar measures.
In California, a bill introduced this week by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D), the Homemade Food Operations Act, “would allow home cooks to sell hot, prepared foods directly to customers.”
The California bill isn’t as ambitious as those adopted in Wyoming and Colorado or that proposed in Montana—it still contains requirements for sanitation, training, and permitting—but it’s a giant leap in the right direction.
“Many of my constituents have expressed their concerns and frustrations trying to work in compliance with the existing, overly complicated cottage food laws,” said Assemblyman Garcia in a statement announcing the bill, referencing the state’s overly restrictive cottage food laws.
Not surprisingly, all this talk of deregulating local food sales has some people nervous. State and local health officials in Montana, for example, have spoken out against the state bill, claiming it could lead to a rise in cases of foodborne illness.
“Every state that looks at setting their local food economy free inevitably finds food police lining up with statistics on how freedom of choice is a danger,” said Wyoming State Rep. Lindholm (R), who sponsored the Food Freedom Act in his state, in an email to me this week. “These individuals, bureaucrats, and industry associations all espouse their merits as to being defenders of ignorant consumers that cannot be trusted to make their own decisions as to what is best for their family.”
I asked Lindholm if there’s been any uptick in foodborne illnesses in Wyoming since the law’s passage.
“Wyoming has seen the exact opposite that these do gooders predict,” Lindholm tells me. “Wyoming[‘]s local food options have exploded and we still have had 0 foodborne illness outbreaks due to this Act passing into law.”
I’ve chuckled while hearing more than one overly cautious eater tell me they’d never eat food that was prepared in an uninspected home kitchen. Everyone should be free to avoid such food if they want, of course. But keep in mind that your own home kitchen isn’t inspected. Your parents’ kitchen and your grandparents’ kitchen weren’t inspected, either. Your friends’ and relatives’ kitchens aren’t inspected. The baked goods you took to school to sell to other kids as part of a bake sale (or that you send with your own kids to school today) haven’t earned any government seal of approval.
Avoiding all foods save for those prepared in an inspected kitchen means dining out at every meal or not eating at all. If one or both of these are your choice, then so be it. But Montana and California have moved to allow others to exercise their own choices. And I hope they succeed.
The Wall Street Journal is predicting a farm bust on the horizon, as America’s role in the global grain market shrinks, and the price for corn continues to drop. Reporters Jesse Newman and Patrick McGroarty write
The Farm Belt is hurtling toward a milestone: Soon there will be fewer than two million farms in America for the first time since pioneers moved westward after the Louisiana Purchase.
This number definitely reflects a growing decline in farming. But what the Wall Street Journal doesn’t note is that the nation’s largest farms are only growing more powerful and large. We have fewer farms, yes, but largely because we have a greater share of larger, industrialized farms.
How America’s Heartland Farms Are Hurting
As you read through the Wall Street Journal’s article, a general outline of the farmers interviewed falls into place: 50-plus years of age, farming more than 1,000 acres, dotted across America’s flyover country in states like Iowa and Kansas. They’re all struggling to make ends meet:
Across the heartland, a multiyear slump in prices for corn, wheat and other farm commodities brought on by a glut of grain world-wide is pushing many farmers further into debt. Some are shutting down, raising concerns that the next few years could bring the biggest wave of farm closures since the 1980s.
The U.S. share of the global grain market is less than half what it was in the 1970s. American farmers’ incomes will drop 9% in 2017, the Agriculture Department estimates, extending the steepest slide since the Great Depression into a fourth year.
Many of these farmers need a second career in order to keep their businesses afloat.
‘No one just grain farms anymore,’ said Deb Stout, whose sons Mason and Spencer farm the family’s 2,000 acres in Sterling, Kan., 120 miles east of Ransom. Spencer also works as a mechanic, and Mason is a substitute mailman. ‘Having a side job seems like the only way to make it work,’ she said.
The History Of American Agriculture’s Decline
How did we get to this point? The WSJ gives a mini history lesson midway through their article:
From the early 1800s until the Great Depression, the number of U.S. farms grew steadily as pioneers spread west of the Mississippi River. Families typically raised a mix of crops and livestock on a few hundred acres of land at most. After World War II, high-horsepower tractors and combines enabled farmers to cover more ground. Two decades ago, genetically engineered seeds helped farmers grow more.
Farms grew bigger and more specialized. Large-scale operations now account for half of U.S. agricultural production. Most farms, even some of the biggest, are still run by families. As farm sizes jumped, their numbers fell, from six million in 1945 to just over two million in 2015, nearing a threshold last seen in the mid-1800s. Total acres farmed in the U.S. have dropped 24% to 912 million acres.
This short account of the jump from subsistence-style farming to today’s industrialized farming could easily fill thousands of pages (and indeed has—from John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” to Wendell Berry’s novels).
Today’s Farms Still Follow an ‘Industrial Paradigm’
The Industrial Revolution shaped and transformed farming in seismic ways. As I wrote for Comment Magazine last year, “farming in the new, industrialized era began to favor quantity and specialization—because new machines worked most efficiently when farmers chose to harvest large, homogenous acreages instead of the small, diversified crops of the past. Farmers sought bigger and bigger swaths of land, seeing in them the promise of greater funds in the bank.”
American farms are still stuck in this “industrial paradigm,” says sustainable farmer Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms. “Just like the agrarian economy gave way to the industrial, and the industrial to the information, and now the information is giving way to the regenerative economy, agriculture is changing. Because farmers tend to be conservative, agriculture is the slowest of all economic sectors to embrace the new economy.”
When Salatin’s father bought their family-operated farm in Swoope, Virginia, the land was severely eroded, and soil health was poor. “When my dad, in the early 1960s, asked agricultural advisors to tell him how to make a living on this farm, they all encouraged him to abuse the land more aggressively,” remembers Salatin. “He eschewed that counsel and did the opposite of everything they said. Today, we are healthy and profitable. Every person must decide whose advice to follow.”
Incentivizing Farmers to Destroy Neighbors’ Businesses
The WSJ piece goes on, “For some, the slump is an opportunity. Farmers with low debts and enough scale to profit from last year’s record harvests could be in a position to rent or buy up land from struggling neighbors.” In other words, large (most likely government-subsidized) farms can use this opportunity to buy out their smaller counterparts. Sounds like a great thing for the economy long-term, doesn’t it?
One chilly afternoon in October, Mr. Scheufler steered his combine across the first field he bought. The machine’s giant claw spun through rows of golden soybeans. A hawk circled the combine’s wake, hunting for exposed field mice. He recalled farmers whose land he has taken over: Ted Hartwick ’s, the Matthews’, the Profits’, his father’s.
Yes, building a large and profitable business is usually seen as an integral part of free market economics. We don’t want to prevent successful farms from getting larger. But it’s crucial to ask a few questions here: first, are these farms growing via their own merits—or via the support of the federal government? (Often, the answer is the latter.) Is their business model truly sustainable (and therefore, “successful” long term)?
Too often, the growth of a commodity farm means taking diversity, sustainability, and community, and turning these goods into homogeneity, depreciation, and solitude. This may not be Scheufler’s story. But it is, increasingly, the story of America’s heartland. As another interviewee tells the WSJ,
There were 28 students in Mr. Scott’s graduating class at Ransom’s high school nearly four decades ago. Most were farmers’ children. This year there are nine students in the school’s senior class. ‘Farms got bigger to be more efficient, but it’s caused these towns to die a slow death,’ Mr. Scott said.
It’s not just farm towns that are ill-served by the way agriculture currently works. Land erosion, water contamination, and soil pollution are just a few of the ecological consequences of bad farming practices. “The current debacle has been coming for a long time,” says Salatin. And, he adds, “It will not end quickly. Rectifying our decades of abuse will not be easy. Healing will be disturbing.”
Farmers Aren’t Encouraged to Diversify Their Operations
Part of the problem here is that farmers, rather than diversifying their farms to protect against commodity price drops, have been encouraged (largely by subsidies, sometimes by the market) to always produce more of the same.
“Rather than studying how nature works, the informational component of the agriculture sector tends to throw out historic templates and remake life in a mechanical hubris of fatter, faster, bigger, cheaper,” says Salatin.
Many farmers who’ve expanded their enterprises have continued to grow the same exact crops on all that land. Now, writes Newman and McGroarty, “Corn and wheat output has never been higher, and never has so much grain been bunkered away.” So when the price of corn, soybeans, and wheat drops—as it is now—farmers don’t have another crop to fall back on.
In the short term, diversifying your farm operation can be more expensive, time-consuming, and physically demanding. But it also creates job security. Long-term, it protects both your farm and soil health.
When we focus on producing a few commodity crops, any country can beat us at our own game. We produce a glut of grain that global markets are no longer buying. Meanwhile, Americans living in the heartland of Iowa buy their tomatoes and peppers from South America. It seems strange, doesn’t it?
How Can Farmers Adopt to a Changing Market?
“I am concerned about the trend of making farms bigger and bigger, and more impersonal,” Maury Johnson, owner of Blue River Hybrids, told me in an email. “American consumers have more interest in how their food is grown and produced, and the impact our conventional food system has on the environment. I personally am troubled when I drive by the feedyards and confinement buildings, and have found it difficult to eat the products coming from those environments.”
Promoting a different farming model could prove salutary for farmers. But it requires a drastically different way of thinking, and many are deeply (albeit understandably) opposed to it.
Interestingly, though, a younger generation is increasingly embracing new farming trends, seeking to build smaller, diversified, and local farming operations. As Philanthropy Daily reported last week, “All around the United States, young men and women are joining the ‘new food economy’ of small farmers and food producers. Since 2006, local food marketing channels have seen substantial growth: Farmers’ markets have grown by 180%, reaching 8,200 nationwide. 7.8% of farms in the U.S. are marketing locally, and local food sales have reached $6.1 billion.”
What Might Rebuilding a Local Food Economy Look Like?
These younger farmers, however, are struggling against the orthodoxies of their elders in the agricultural community.As author and farmer Forrest Pritchard noted in an email, “it’s no accident that the youngest farmer cited in this article is 56; the U.S. average age for a farmer is 58 and rising.”
He adds, “It defies explanation that our nation’s food security receives such low priority in our culture. The aging of our American farmers reveals a crisis of neglect—a neglect of training young farmers, a neglect of overhauling our education system to promote alternatives to commodity-dependent agriculture, and a neglect of investing appropriate research and development for alternative types of agricultural models.”
Eduardo Andino’s article in Philanthropy Daily considers a promising shift in farming support, however. He profiles a farm loan business founded by Silicon Valley businessmen. These businessmen decided to leave the world of international business to go local. Their story, which directly addresses the plight of American’s grain farmers, is worth quoting at length:
… Sam and Scott are interested in helping Maine rebuild a local food infrastructure: By giving farmers loans to build grain mills, slaughter houses, distribution plants, and more.
Scott, who some years ago formed a social investing strategies division at TIAA-CREF’s investment department, says that infrastructure is key. ‘100 years ago, you would’ve had local financial institutions that understood how local farming worked,’ and who could help build up local processors and distributors. Today, however, everything has gravitated up to the level of big ads and ‘big food.’
… Based on their international experience, Scott and Sam have concluded that the best thing they can do for agriculture worldwide is to go local. Scott describes his desire to transition ‘from a very top down high level job to a very bottom up job’ as being partially motivated by seeing the work of Rockefeller impact investing in Africa. While observing their work on a sustainable agriculture program in Africa, Scott realized ‘the best thing anyone could do for agriculture all over the world, from poor peasant farmers in Bangladesh to anywhere else, is to fix American agriculture.’
To Survive, American FarmsNeed To Change
Farming in America is undergoing a series of shifts—hopefully for the better. But the challenges today’s farmers face should not be taken lightly. Salatin urges his fellow farmers to consider making some changes in the way they do business—not just for their bottom line, but for the sake of the next generation, and the long-term wellbeing of the land.
“I know change is difficult for everyone, but I think conventional farmers have to take a hard look at breaking out of the conventional farming scene,” Johnson says. “I understand there’s limitations … but the future does not look good for medium to small conventional farmers, and help will likely not be coming from the government and its farm programs.”
“The regenerative economy is now knocking on the door of agriculture, but nobody is listening,” Salatin says. “The soil does not enjoy being mechanized and industrialized. The agricultural orthodoxy has not asked how ecology works. … Now, nature is batting last. And all the cleverness in Wall Street ultimately can’t prevail against nature’s balance sheet.”
For a long time, the prevailing mantra of farming in America has been simple: “Get big or get out.”
That mantra traces its roots back to the late Earl Butz, who President Richard Nixon appointed as U.S. secretary of agriculture in 1971. He held the position for five years.
Under Butz’s watch, domestic farm policies shifted to favor large, industrial operations planting mostly corn and soy and shun smaller farms that favored organic, locally sold crops. That legacy has continued to this day, as evidenced by U.S. farms’ dwindling crop diversity and the massive environmental footprint — like degraded soil, excessive water use, and heavy use of pesticides and herbicides — such approaches to farming leave behind.
Despite this, alternative approaches have continued to survive — and even thrive. A growing number of Americans want to know where their food comes from, connect with the families producing it and buy products at farmers markets and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs.
But how, exactly, can small farms capitalize on that interest and earn a living? Can farmers markets and CSA boxes really sustain a farm, especially at a time when the incoming administration has signaled a push to fight the local food movement’s recent gains?
Josh Volk thinks so. He’s the owner of Slow Hand Farm in Portland, Oregon, and he has a lot of evidence to back up his argument.
In a new book titled Compact Farms, out this week, Volk highlights 15 different farms across the country ― all of which are located on no more than 5 acres ― and the hard-working people who run them.
Volk details how each farm grows and sells its products, even offering advice to aspiring farmers who are interested in taking up the trade themselves. And through telling their stories, Volk pushes back against the “get big or get out” narrative, making a strong case for how smaller farms can, and do, contribute to our nation and planet’s health and livelihood — and will continue to do so regardless of the current political climate.
The Huffington Post recently spoke with Volk about farming and the future of food policy under President Donald Trump.
What inspired you to write this book that’s a how-to guide for small farmers?
I wanted to create a dialogue around how these things work and how can we make them better. I wanted to look at this smaller scale of agriculture and find out from the people what they are doing that is making them so successful, to put those ideas out into the world and try to generate more discussion around the topic.
How did you select the farms you highlight? What made them unique?
Narrowing it down was a little bit tricky. I was looking for a cross-section of farms. I wanted to have urban examples and rural examples in all different parts of the country. I ended up with more of a mid-northern tier and didn’t get farms further south, but I had so many good examples from farmers in the northern tier that just ended up being the way it was.
I was also looking for diversity in markets and to have a good gender balance. What I didn’t end up with, which I wish I had found more examples of, was a more racially diverse audience. It would have been interesting to find more examples of those farms ― they are out there, but that just wasn’t where my connections were.
You’ve been in this business for some time. You know your stuff. What surprises did you encountered along the way of working on this?
The most surprising thing to me was how many examples of these farms there were. And some of these examples went back 15, 20, 30 or more years. There are many people who have been doing this for a significant amount of time. This is something that’s out there. It’s not new. I knew that to some extent but was surprised at how easy it was, in some ways, to find examples of that.
This all pushes back against the “get big or get out” idea — do you think that idea is dying out? Is there momentum here, or still a long way to go?
We always need more education about how successful these [small] farms can be. These examples of folks doing it for 20 or 30 years show you can maintain this. That this is sustainable in the environmental sense, in the social sense and in the business sense. I also included some examples of farms in their third or fourth or fifth year to show that it looks like when you’re first starting this. I don’t know if those farms will continue to succeed, but so far they have. But I think this is getting easier and there is a lot more information out there, and a lot more acceptance. I think it is gaining momentum.
I also don’t think that means that “small” is the only way. There needs to be a place for the mid-sized farms and even the bigger farms. But I think the landscape needs to be more open and more accepting of all of it. I hope this book will help make this more of an option of people who don’t want farming to just be the one way.
Farm policy has been in the spotlight recently thanks to Trump’s late nomination of a U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary. There have been reports of some farm groups being anxious about Trump. How are you feeling about the future of small farms, given the current political climate and incoming administration?
From what I’ve seen over my last 15 to 20 years in small-scale agriculture, the organic farming movement operated without any help — and, really, antagonism — from the USDA and government entities and it still successfully grew. There’s no question in my mind that when the USDA took over the organic label and started the National Organic Program that that really kickstarted a lot of help from universities and other organizations and things have been much better. That’s not to say that they couldn’t be better than they are right now, but they are better than they ever were.
I think it’s almost impossible to think there won’t be a major step backwards [under the Trump administration], but I don’t think that step backwards will be particularly problematic. Certainly, with the very minimal subsidies there are and the kind of momentum there is in terms of interest in research, I think we’re still on solid ground. But we’re going to have to make major efforts to continue to move things forward now more than ever.
It sounds like you’re feeling more optimistic than many people might guess you would be. Why is that?
I live in a bit of a bubble here in Portland. We’re so progressive in some ways and there is so much support at the local level, not just in terms of local government, but with the customers — the people at the farmers markets and the support for the CSA growers and restaurateurs using local produce and buying from local farmers. It doesn’t feel like any of that is going to change. If anything, I think in some ways, there’s more of an excuse than ever for that core group to put their support behind these small farms, to double down on that.
I’m optimistic, too, because I do travel and visit farms in other parts of the country. And over the past five to 10 years doing that, I’ve always been impressed when I go see these places. I grew up on the East Coast and in the Midwest, and it was not like that when I lived there 30 years ago. The food scene is changing. Maybe it doesn’t look the same as it looks in Portland, but there are a lot of the same aspects of support for local farms. I meet a lot of farmers who are making it work because restaurants are buying from them and people want their produce at farmers markets. I don’t just see that in this bubble in Portland. I see it everywhere I go.
What are other indications of this movement that you’re seeing?
When I first moved to Portland in 2001, I think there were maybe 15 CSAs serving the area. Now I think it’s at least five or six times that. There were no training programs for new farmers starting out, unless you consider the on-farm jobs, which were limited at the time. Now you have formalized training programs at community colleges and private organizations, as well as through farms. And all of those programs exist because people are interested in getting involved at this scale in this type of agriculture. It’s a huge leap forward. If you track it year to year, it doesn’t seem like much, but if you compare it to 20 or 30 years ago, it’s a leap forward. I don’t see that slowing down. I see it accelerating.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@ .
Buying certified organic meat doesn’t guarantee the animals were treated humanely. And while there’s no cure-all for an industry that often prioritizes economy over animal welfare, things may be looking up for all animals raised on organic farms in the U.S.
That’s because a set of rules called the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) won last-minute approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and could make it onto the Federal Register to become law within the week. The OLPP enacts comprehensive animal welfare standards covering living conditions (particularly for poultry), healthcare, slaughter, and transport.
The proposed rules are the product of decades-long conversations involving the Organic Trade Association (OTA), animal welfare and consumer groups and they’re based on formal recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the 15-member public advisory group to the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s National Organic Program comprised of organic producers, environmentalists, and consumer advocates, among others.
The rules aren’t as extensive as some advocates had hoped for, but they are a significant step. “We didn’t get all that we wanted. It was adequate given the state of animal welfare in the organic program,” says Dena Jones, the farm animal program director at the American Welfare Institute. “You can’t go from 0 to 100 miles an hour in five feet.”
Some are more optimistic, like John Brunnquell, President, Egg Innovations and Organic Egg Farmers of America. “Our customers support and expect organic farmers to uphold a higher standard of animal treatment. The value and integrity of the organic seal depend on meeting these expectations. By restoring that integrity, these rules will benefit producers who adhere to the true spirit of organic production. We commend USDA and look forward to the implementation of these rules,” Brunnquell said in a statement released by the