First, let’s define what having more farmers will provide the United Sates…a low unemployment rate and smaller farms. Because the more people we have farming, the more farms there will be. We won’t need as many large-scale farms because farmers will have been brought back onto the land. We’ll have put people to work and begun repairing the acres of land devastated by conventional practices. It’s a trifecta…social, economic and environmental success! As Barbara Damrosch of the Washington Post said in an article advocating for small farms, “We feed the world, fight poverty and address climate change!
But how do we get more farmers? I immediately think of the phrase, “If we build it, they will come.” In other words, create an environment that supports farmers and small-scale production. Just like plants, farmers need the right conditions to grow. We need to make it conducive to farm. In doing so, farming will be more attractive and less of an alternative but more of legitimate option. It’s not surprising that the environment is lacking. Less than 1% of the population is farming and big ag lobbyists keep whittling it down further. Just as chemical toxins kill plants in the fields, toxic energy in the business is killing the agricultural field. In the early 20th Century, nearly half the workforce in the US were in agriculture. It was not only a way to make a living but to provide for your family. People want the same two, basic things today.. .
The biggest barrier to more people farming is the lack of infrastructure. If there was a legitimate support network for small-scale farming like we have in other careers and public works projects such as utilities, roads, law enforcement and health care, farming would be considered a viable career and job opportunity.
To build that infrastructure, we need a jobs program to train new farmers coupled with a grants system and a land bank. In a survey of 1,000 US farmers by the National Young Farmers’ Coalition, “access to capital, access to land and health insurance present the largest obstacles for beginners.” USDA grants exist but it is hard to qualify and bottom line there just aren’t enough grants. Owning land is expensive and leasing land can be hard to find. Organizations like Farm Link and Farmland Trust do a great job of connecting farmers with available land but there is still lots of available land that could be acquired or repurposed to get more farmers farming.
Until that dream state arrives, there are grassroots efforts available that we can leverage to get more people farming…mentoring programs and public education. One is a short-term goal and the other a long-term goal. Apprenticeships, workshops and incubator programs exist around the country. ALBA Organics in Salinas, CA is an example. It’s a 100 acre farm where graduates can lease land on a sliding scale. They pay 20% the market value for 1/2-acre and over time will pay 100% for up to 7 acres. Farmers work side-by-side learning from each other with continued education from ALBA’s trainers. Business support is available for small entrepreneurs or farmers can sell produce to the organization’s private label brand which is sells to Whole Foods and other grocers. Land trusts could help establish more programs like ALBA or regular people with land of their own or capital to buy, could create a center like ALBA that supports farmers through the entire process.
Public education on the other hand sets us up for the long term. At the elementary school level, class-based curriculum and from-scratch lunch programs will plant the seed for tomorrow in younger generations instilling a value for food and the hard work it takes to produce it. Food has become so convenient that we are not only disconnected from where it comes from but almost how to feed ourselves. At higher-levels of education, land-grant universities all need to embrace sustainable agriculture programs making it not just a degree but a school of thought. The later has a bit more red tape to get through which is why our youth are our best hope for change. Concerned parents can pressure school districts and integrate lunch plans that are healthy and made from whole foods ideally from local sources.
In an interview with Michael Pollan, he said government driven agricultural reform will not happen till there is stronger leadership and a national organization for the food movement. But in places like Venezuela, the government under President Hugo Chávez, are helping the people acquire farm land. Venezuela realizes that their people not only have an ancestral right to work the land but that economic prosperity and food security are result of an equitable society. A society where people take pride in being able to provide and be a contributing member of the community. It’s a reminder that food justice is a social movement. If the US government saw food through a larger lens they would realize too that the groundswell they are waiting for already exists.
The current political climate doesn’t indicate that change will be happening anytime soon especially with $15 billion in cuts to the USDA budget for the 2012 Farm Bill. Progressive, conservation bills are at stake like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Act. And whatever happened to Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack’s, 2010 proposal for 100,000 new farmers in the next few years? His plan outlined the infrastructure necessary to make it happen. Guess that’s my next assignment!
Parting thought from Barbara Damrosch’s earlier mentioned article, “let’s bring a livelihood to the farmers, not just to the companies selling them products or trying to commandeer their lands.”
Here is a short 4min video from one of my favorite filmmakers, Joaquin Baldwin. Whimsical in nature but hopeful in its message, the video demonstrators the power of farmers to provide whether it be food or in this case…renewable energy! Enjoy!