Industrial Agriculture is about to “bust”


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.

 The WSJ interviewed a specific type of farmer for this article: the commodity crop farmer. Yes, they represent the greatest portion of farms in the American heartland. But many are also beginning to realize that government subsidies and cushy crop insurance premiums can’t save them forever: when their supply is abundantly overstepping demand, eventually reality is going to hit. And if this WSJ piece is any indication, reality is indeed about to strike.

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.”

Original Post

Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.

Ground-Breaking Animal Welfare Organic Rules Moving Forward


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

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Boosting Local Food, One Parking Lot And Hot Pepper At A Time

Click on the image below for the radio version of this report!neprToday, the idea of “buying local” is firmly rooted in our culture.

Farmers markets flourish almost every day of the week in western Massachusetts. Community-supported farms offer the chance to buy a share of a crop. And lots of farm stands and retail stores trumpet the sale of local produce.

The value of a “local” perspective is even rubbing off on other parts of the Pioneer Valley’s economy, including financial investing. In our series, A New Kind of Local, we look at the growth and the challenges of the movement, starting with a history of local food.

Local as a movement

Pigs at the Bars Farm in Deerfield, Mass. (Nancy Eve Cohen)

The idea that consumers can help preserve farms by choosing to buy locally-grown food first began to take root more than 40 years ago.

“A lot of us thought we could change the world,” Rich Pascale says.

Pascale, 65, started farming in Franklin County in 1974. It was a time when young people moved to rural areas to build self sufficient lives.

“Live simply, grow your own food,” he says. “And from that point it was like, ‘We have to make some money,’ so we have to sell our own food.”

He’s been selling at the Greenfield Farmers Market for four decades.

“So these are $3.50 for the six packs,” he says of his goods. “And these are $2.75 for tomato plants.”

A way to stabilize prices

In the mid 1970s, as more young people, like Pascale, were choosing to farm, the state was losing farms. Nearly half of them went out of business between 1964 and 1974

The Bars Farm in Deerfield, Mass., grows more than 30 varieties of hot peppers as well as sweet peppers. (Nancy Eve Cohen)

“The Massachusetts agricultural economy was on the downward skids,” says Greg Watson, commissioner of the state Department of Agricultural Resources. “We were losing about 10,000 acres of farmland a year. And I think a lot of people had just given up.”

But not everyone.

“It was the summer of 1973 and Governor Sargent called me,” recalls Ray Goldberg, a professor emeritus from Harvard Business School.

Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent asked Goldberg to head up an emergency food commission.

“We had crop failure around the world,” he says. “Food prices were rising faster than general inflation.”

And the OPEC oil embargo forced up petroleum prices. Goldberg says the commission found Massachusetts was highly dependent on food from distant places.

“We were a high-cost food area compared to any other state in the nation,” says Goldberg. “So there was a great deal of encouragement to get more locally grown production.”

The commission’s work led to new policies. One program allows farmers to sell their development rights to the state, preserving more than 70,000 acres. The state launched an advertising campaign, with the slogan: “Massachusetts Grown and Fresher.” And it helped expand the number of farmers markets.

From farm field to parking lot

Agriculture Commissioner Greg Watson was a young man in 1978 when he was hired by the state to launch markets in poor areas of Boston. Watson says, at first, neither African-American residents nor the white farmers trusted each other.

“The first reaction of farmers to come into the city was ‘I won’t come out alive!’” Watson recalled. “And the residents were saying ‘Why should we go to the trouble of making the parking lot in the South End available for rich farmers to come in and get richer?’ So there were these really solid stereotypes, both of them really far from reality.”

Watson was able to sign up 20 farmers to come to the grand opening of the Dorchester market. It was a big deal. The lieutenant governor was there, and a bunch of television cameras.

“Opened up at 9 o’clock, not a single farmer,” he says. “About 9:20, people were getting impatient, they were nervous, a pickup truck comes down the street.”

That was the only farmer to show up. But Watson says that night on the news, instead of pictures of an empty street, the cameras had zoomed in.

“All you saw was the farmer, his wife and his daughter,” he says. “They couldn’t get the food off the truck fast enough. People were clamoring. Next week we had 20 farmers.”

Back then, there were fewer than 10 farmers markets statewide. Today, there are nearly 300.

Although the middleman is cut out, in some cases the food at farmers markets costs more than at supermarkets. Watson remembers one customer who explained why she was willing to pay more.

“‘Because my kids eat it,’” Watson recalls her saying. “They were eating raw peas. ‘If I pay a little less and half of it gets scraped into the garbage is that economical?’”

Today, many farmers markets take food stamps. Watson says perhaps farms could become more efficient to lower the price of food.

“Are there things we can do to help make this not just accessible, but also affordable? And those are challenges,” he says.

A face on the food

The state has gained back many of the farms it lost 40 years ago. But they’re smaller now – about half the size.

Dean and Allison Landale cultivate more than 100 varieties of vegetables on their farm in Deerfield, Mass. (Nancy Eve Cohen)

“Eggplant, cherry tomatoes, okra, tomatillos. We have about 30 varieties of hot peppers here,” says Allison Landale, as she points out neatly tended rows of crops she and her husband Dean cultivate on 15 acres in Deerfield.

The farm has been in her mother’s family since the 1800s. Her father farmed it. Allison says when she first started working with him in the early 1990s, at times it was tough.

“Local wasn’t anywhere near what it is today,” she says.

The farm’s sales have tripled in the past five years. The Landales say the nonprofit CISA, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture gives them a lot of support. CISA first developed the Local Hero advertising campaign in 1999.

Back in Deerfield, Dean Landale is pounding stakes for tomato plants. For him, the concept of “local” makes farming more personal.

“We see our customers,” Landale says. “We don’t ship to a supermarket someplace. So our face is basically attached to what we sell.”

That connection between farmer and consumer is strong today. But local food advocates are still hard at work.

There’s a push to bring more processing facilities, including slaughterhouses. One group says by 2060, New England farmers could produce half of the food consumed here.

Original Post


Editorial: Faces, and facts, on Valley farming

Daily Hampshire Gazette Editorial – Friday, May 23, 2014

On the Gazette’s front page Friday, reporter Rebecca Everett told the story of Abundance Farm, a project taking shape on one acre between Congregation B’nai Israel and the Northampton Water Department.

The idea is to plant fruit trees and vegetables, creating what organizers call a “food justice farm” that will provide produce for the nearby Northampton Survival Center, provide an outdoor classroom for students of the Jewish day school and be a place where everyone involved can get closer to the Valley’s agricultural roots.

abundanceThe story was only the latest of many that Everett, who grew up on a dairy farm in Williamsburg, has produced that chronicle the Valley’s agricultural life. Over the past year, she has reported on the Northampton Farmers Market’s 40 years of success. She has described after-school programs at the Crimson and Clover Farm in Florence where kids dig in the dirt for carrots and beets. She has interviewed four young farmers who are setting up what they hope will be a successful economic model at the Stone Soup Cooperative Farm in Hadley.

And she has told the stories of local family farms dealing with complicated questions: Will the next generation want to take over? And if so, what changes will they need to make to be economically viable? Will there be a future for small farms in the age of industrial agribusiness?

Taken as a whole, Everett’s stories put human faces on a newly released report — described in a piece by Everett in the May 15 Gazette — that takes stock of farming in the Valley and finds encouraging trends and signs of resurgence.

The 2012 Census of Agriculture, an update of a federal study last compiled in 2007, found that:

• The number of farms in Hampshire and Franklin counties rose from 1,452 to 1,579.

• The amount of land being used for farming in the two counties increased by 8.7 percent.

• Farm product sales in Hampshire County increased from $38 million in 2007 to $49 million in 2012.

• And in Hampshire County, the number of farms selling direct to consumers increased from 160 to 221; the number of CSA (community supported agriculture) farms tripled from 20 to 67; and the value of direct sales of farm products rose from $3.3 million to $4.45 million.

The numbers reflect trends, such as the interest in buying locally grown and produced food, that have moved mainstream, at least in these parts.

The report, to be sure, included bad news as well. It confirmed what was already known, namely that dairy and tobacco operations, traditional mainstays of agriculture in western Massachusetts, continue to slide, owing to a mix of economic and regulatory factors. In Hampshire County, dairy farms declined from 29 in 2007 to 18 in 2012, while the number of tobacco farms fell to nine, down from 33 in 2007.

Despite those losses, Everett’s reporting, and the numbers compiled by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, suggest that farming remains an integral part of this area’s economy and its identity.

It suggests that some young people who could just as easily pursue other options are choosing farming and that older-generation farmers are adapting their businesses to change with the times.

Last year, in a story about the Valley’s tobacco farmers, Everett interviewed Edward and Catherine Kelly, who have farmed in Hadley for decades. They talked about the ups and downs of the tobacco business, its uncertain future — and its rewards.

“When you’re done, the fields are empty,” Catherine Kelly said, “and you can see the results of your labor.”

That seems to be one of the rewards new generations of farmers are discovering for themselves.

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“Breaking Bad” in the heart of the corn belt

authorThe author of this article titled “Large-scale farming is Iowa’s Breaking Bad” which appeared in the DesMoines Register, teaches at University of Northern Iowa.

This could not have made some farmers happy in Iowa, as the most financially successful are “hooked” on industrial agriculture.  I don’t think we can blame the farmers…..


The TV series “Breaking Bad” has ended, but the real thing goes on in Iowa just as bad or much worse. And I am not referring to meth business, which we know is thriving in Iowa, unfortunately. The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported in November that the Tri-County Drug Enforcement Task Force seized nearly $2 million of methamphetamine in the last three months, including $1 million worth in the first two weeks of October alone. Seventy some meth labs were investigated in 2012.

As Nick Reading put it in “Methland,” “all drug epidemics are only in part about the drug. Meth is indeed uniquely suited to Middle America, though this is only tangentially related to the idea that it can be made in the sink. Meth’s basic components lie equally in the action of government lobbyists, long-term trends in agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, and the effects of globalization and free trade.”

During a conversation over coffee, I asked several friends what enterprise in Iowa would parallel the tragedy portrayed in “Breaking Bad”? To my surprise, without missing a beat, several people independently nominated commodity agriculture and the vast network of global corporations behind it.

Industrial commodity agriculture is entirely based on acres. It does not need stable communities. All that is needed are land, machinery, energy and chemical inputs to produce one or two products for distant markets. Civic organizations, schools, churches, libraries, rural businesses are all unnecessary to “feed the world” or to fuel ethanol plants. Long-term anthropological studies in many rural communities in the U.S. have confirmed these realities. As we have seen all over Iowa, in once-thriving towns a gas station and, if you are lucky, a bar are all that’s left.

Think of coffee or banana plantations. The markets are not local, the benefits go elsewhere, farmers receive very little, which means rural poverty. It’s the same in Iowa.

Sociologists and economists report that markets in nearly every agricultural sector (corn, beans, beef, hogs, corn processing, etc.) are all controlled by a handful of global corporations, leaving farmers as price takers while production expenses rise. Add soil erosion, water pollution and below-poverty wages for food sector workers, and the result is rural decline and desperate situations that are the habitat for the meth enterprise.

Among key ideas so masterfully brought to life in “Breaking Bad” were the fact that extraordinary and tragic things go on in ordinary days, in ordinary neighborhoods.

In an ordinary day in Iowa, there is pesticide drift from an aerial sprayer into your kitchen, a giant fish-kill from a manure spill, respiratory illnesses among rural residents living near confinement hog operations, atrazine and nitrate in your rural well water, salmonella poisonings from factory chicken farms with proven records of evading public health laws, and flash floods downstream due to degraded soils and impaired watersheds upstream. You are watching a season of “Breaking Bad” in Iowa.

The TV series made it abundantly clear that the waves of tragedy emanating from the meth enterprise reach far and wide and manifest their violence in ways not clearly traceable to meth. One example was the father who has a hard time dealing with the loss of his daughter who had died of meth overdose. He works as an air traffic controller and, in a moment of weakness, he neglects to warn the two passenger planes approaching one another in time. Two plans collide, with hundreds dead.

In Iowa, more than 6 million pounds of the weed killer atrazine are applied annually. This hormone-disrupting chemical is banned in Europe because of its likely connection to breast cancer and other chronic illnesses. The rate of Parkinson’s disease in the Midwest is twice the national rate, and corn and soybean pesticides are among the suspects.

As the city of Des Moines struggles at high costs with off-the-chart levels of corn fertilizer in its drinking water source, the livelihood of hundreds of fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico has diminished due to excessive corn fertilizer run-off from the Midwest down the Mississippi River.

We must chart a different path. Many Iowans are striving to change all this. They include farmers who are practicing good agronomy based on ecological understanding of the land, integrating crops and livestock, grass-based production, long-term crop rotations, organic practices.

Groups across Iowa are expanding local markets for local agricultural products to create new opportunities for beginning farmers and create markets that are fair. They include food service directors and restaurant owners who support these farms. They include ordinary Iowans who value the way these farmers are growing their food and are making a point of supporting them and the land stewardship they practice.

They include Practical Farmers of Iowa, a network of farmers and others who are proving that a sane, productive, profitable, system of food and agriculture is possible and practical.

We need state and federal policies that support these forms of being in Iowa rather than breaking bad.

Original Post

Old MacDonald had a farm – and then the neighbors sued


by Scott Pitman and Michael Pill

Published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly: May 16th, 2013

Growing up in Iowa, and now living in the fertile Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, co-author Michael Pill appreciates the American Farmland Trust bumper sticker: “No Farms No Food.”

John Gerber, professor of sustainable food and farming at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, says one reason he has a big garden, raises chickens, collects honey from his backyard bee hive, and harvests greens throughout the winter in an unheated greenhouse is “the reality of our current global situation, which in my mind includes the ‘perfect storm’ of climate change, peak oil and economic downturn.”  Gerber believes there is a need for more community and family-level self-sufficiency in the face of “this global crisis.”

Most of us depend on supermarkets with only a few days’ inventory replenished by petroleum-fueled trucks that deliver food from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. It is a complex, fragile system that we take for granted.

So who’s right in attorney Gerald Nissenbaum’s ongoing legal battle with Ingaldsby Farm, next door to his home in Boxford? The latest chapter in the conflict was summarized in Lawyers Weekly (“Lawyer loses latest round in bout with neighboring farm,” April 1).

To survive in an age of large-scale industrial food production, the family farm at issue advertises “[f]resh produce, frozen fresh foods and baked goods. Kids can feed rabbits, goats, pigs, sheep and chickens, play on a large wooden train, watch a puppet show, or just play in the large sand box.”

The Boxford battle turns on the limits of the protection afforded to farm stands under G.L.c. 40A, §3, which grants a zoning exemption (numbers in brackets added to aid in parsing statutory language) to:

“[F]acilities for the sale of produce, wine and dairy products, provided that either

[1] [a] during the months of June, July, August and September of each year or

[b] during the harvest season of the primary crop raised on land of the owner or lessee,

25 per cent of such products for sale, based on either gross sales dollars or volume have been produced by the owner or lessee of the land on which the facility is located, or

[2] [a] at least 25 per cent of such products for sale, based on either gross annual sales or annual volume, have been produced by the owner or lessee of the land on which the facility is located and

[b] at least an additional 50 per cent of such products for sale, based upon either gross annual sales or annual volume, have been produced in Massachusetts on land other than that on which the facility is located, used for the primary purpose of commercial agriculture, aquaculture, silviculture, horticulture, floriculture or viticulture, whether by the owner or lessee of the land on which the facility is located or by another … .”

Chapter 1128, §1A defines “farming,” “agriculture” and “farmer” as follows (numbers in brackets added to aid in parsing statutory language):

“‘Farming’ or ‘agriculture’ shall include farming in all of its branches and

[1] the cultivation and tillage of the soil,

[2] dairying,

[3] the production, cultivation, growing and harvesting of any agricultural, aquacultural, floricultural or horticultural commodities,

[4] the growing and harvesting of forest products upon forest land,

[5] the raising of livestock including horses,

[6] the keeping of horses as a commercial enterprise,

[7] the keeping and raising of poultry, swine, cattle and other domesticated animals used for food purposes, bees, fur-bearing animals, and

[8] any forestry or lumbering operations, performed by a farmer, who is hereby defined as one engaged in

[a] agriculture or farming as herein defined, or

[b] on a farm as an incident to or in conjunction with such farming operations, including preparations for market, delivery to storage or to market or to carriers for transportation to market.”

Based on that definition, G.L.c. 40A, §3 provides that municipalities cannot through zoning “prohibit, unreasonably regulate, or require a special permit for the use of land … for the primary purpose of commercial agriculture, aquaculture, silviculture, horticulture, floriculture or viticulture … .”

Where agriculture is permitted by local zoning, this statutory exemption applies to parcels of any size. In areas “not zoned for agriculture, aquaculture, silviculture, horticulture, floriculture or viticulture,” the exemption applies “to parcels of 5 acres or more or to parcels 2 acres or more if the sale of products produced from the agriculture, aquaculture, silviculture, horticulture, floriculture or viticulture use on the parcel annually generates at least $1,000 per acre based on gross sales dollars … .”

The Ingaldsby Farm owners chose pumpkins as their path to farm-stand exemption heaven (see [1][b] in G.L.c. 40A, §3 above), while neighbor Nissenbaum contends that apples should be deemed the primary crop, with rather different consequences.

The multi-year fight continues. Given the foregoing and the following, the ground is fertile for battle. Oranges, anyone?

A raft of other legislative and regulatory provisions make challenging farms and farm stands a daunting proposition. For example, G.L.c. 111 includes provisions protecting farming operations from local boards of health, beginning with the following definition in G.L.c. 111, §1:

“‘Farming’ or ‘agriculture,’ farming in all of its branches and cultivation and tillage of the soil, dairying, the production, cultivation, growing and harvesting of any agricultural, aquacultural, floricultural or horticultural commodities, the growing and harvesting of forest products upon forest land, the raising of livestock including horses, the keeping of horses as a commercial enterprise, the keeping and raising of poultry, swine, cattle and other domesticated animals used for food purposes, bees, fur-bearing animals, and any practices, including any forestry or lumbering operations, performed by a farmer, who is hereby defined as one engaged in agricultural of farming as herein defined, or on a farm as an incident to or in conjunction with such farming operations, including preparations for market, delivery to storage or to market or to carriers for transportation to market.”

Chapter 111, §125A includes a provision “that the odor from the normal maintenance of livestock or the spreading of manure upon agricultural and horticultural or farming lands, or noise from livestock or farm equipment used in normal, generally acceptable farming procedures or from plowing or cultivation operations upon agricultural and horticultural or farming lands shall not be deemed to constitute a nuisance.”

Legislation providing for abatement of private nuisances grants immunity to farming operations (as defined by G.L.c. 128, §1A) in these words:

“No action in nuisance may be maintained against any person or entity resulting from the operation of a farm or any ancillary or related activities thereof, if said operation is an ordinary aspect of said farming operation or ancillary or related activity; provided, however, that said farm shall have been in operation for more than one year. This section shall not apply if the nuisance is determined to exist as the result of negligent conduct or actions inconsistent with generally accepted agricultural practices.”

If a local board of health nevertheless determines under G.L.c. 111, §125A that “a farm or the operation thereof constitutes a nuisance,” that statute requires written notice which can be appealed within 10 days to the local District Court. If an appeal is filed, “the operation of said order shall be suspended, pending the order of the court.”

If that weren’t enough, agricultural activities are also exempt from the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act and Regulations (G.L.c. 131, §40 and 310 C.M.R. 10.00). The definition of “Agriculture” in 310 C.M.R. 10.04 authorizes and defines “[n]ormal maintenance of land in agricultural use” that does not require an order of conditions from the local conservation commission.

Under 310 C.M.R. 10.04, “land in agricultural use” within a wetland or buffer zone must be “primarily and presently used in producing or raising one of more of the following agricultural commodities for commercial purposes”:

“1. animals, including but not limited to livestock, poultry, and bees;

  1. 2. fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts, maple sap and other foods for human consumption;
  2. 3. feed, seed, forage, tobacco, flowers, sod, nursery or greenhouse products, and ornamental plants or shrubs; and
  3. 4. forest products on land maintained in forest use … .”

The exemption is lost if agricultural use lapses for more than “five consecutive years,” unless the inactivity is under a U.S. Department of Agriculture contract or the land is used for “forestry purposes.” Id.

That becomes an issue when land allowed to lie fallow for more than five years is brought back into agricultural production. If hay has been cut to keep fields from returning to forest, one can argue to the local conservation commission that the haying constitutes “agricultural use.”

The wetlands exemption for agricultural use is reviewed in detail in “Farming in Wetland Resources Areas: A Guide to Agriculture and the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act (January 1996) ( by the state departments of Environmental Management (now Conservation & Natural Resources), Environmental Protection, and Food and Agriculture (now Agricultural Resources).

The Massachusetts Endangered Species Act grants similar protection, defining “land in agricultural use,” G.L.c. 131A, §1, to include the following activities:

“[R]aising animals … for the purpose of selling such animals or a product derived from such animals in the regular course of business … raising fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts and other foods for human consumption, feed for animals, tobacco, flowers, sod, trees, nursery or greenhouse products and ornamental plants and shrubs for the purpose of selling such products in the regular course of business; or when primarily and directly used in raising forest products … .”

Definitions and exemptions in the Endangered Species Act Regulations, 321 C.M.R. 10.02 and 10.14(1), are similar to those in the Wetlands Protection Act Regulations, 310 C.M.R. 10.04.

The bottom line is that attorney Nissenbaum, and others who may not want a farm next door, have an uphill battle in the face of the extensive legal protection for farming in Massachusetts. Perhaps next time we won’t get to compare apples to pumpkins. We’ll miss that.

Scott Pitman practices at the Law Offices of William V. Hovey in Boston. Michael Pill is a lawyer at Green, Miles, Lipton in Northampton.

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Reprinted with permission of the authors.

No Soil – No Food

By LAWRENCE WINSHIP  – DailyHampshire Gazette Contributing Writer

One of my favorite Pioneer Valley bumper stickers proclaims: “No Farms, No Food!”

Perhaps we should modify this slogan by adding: “And No Soil, No Farms!”

Of course, farms can’t function without soil. But I’ll go much further. Nothing else can function without soil, either. Soil is much more than a place for our crops to grow: It is the foundation for human civilization. Productive, healthy soils, support food production, but also the life of all the terrestrial and wetland systems that provide essential ecosystem services — for nature itself! And those services make possible all life, including our own. For the most part, though, we’re unaware of the part that soil plays in our daily existence.

Modern citizens are increasingly alienated from our soils. We know very little about our soils and the continuing challenges to soil integrity and productivity. We purchase only Continue reading