On the Agripositive Side. . . .

by Jeremy Beer on March 16, 2009 · 20 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire

moo cow Milford, Indiana. We’ll take what we can get. In this mysterious, sky-drenched land of contradiction–where letter jackets are still common and a tapas bar, of all things, has recently been opened (by my intrepid second cousin, to the great and entirely understandable confusion of the natives)–we see some positive signs. For one thing, the number of farms is actually growing in this part of the country (and nationwide, actually); this growth is happening with smaller farms, especially those producing value-added and organic products. Saturday’s edition of the Goshen (Indiana) News (sorry that I can’t find the stories online; perhaps you can) reported that in LaGrange Country, which is heavily Amish and Mennonite, the number of farmers farming organically seems to be approaching 10 percent (about half of these are not certified because of the expense and red-tape involved, so this is my own educated guess).

Furthermore, the massive layoffs in the RV and light manufacturing sectors here have led a number of young men to work at least part-time on small farms of just ten acres or so. These aren’t “hobby” farmers; just families who can get their hands on some land (very hard to do up here; most of these guys have family connections) and are realizing anew the value of having a diversified income stream-not to mention ready access to food. The gub’ment, saith the News, via Purdue University, is assisting with a small-farm program on how to successfully and sustainably farm one- to nine-acre plots.

More evidence that to be big is, among other disadvantages, to be vulnerable: in the same edition, the News reported what everyone around here already knows: that big (say, 200+-head) intensive/industrial dairy operations are going through hard times, as milk prices drop (partly because New Zealand is back in the international dairy market–New Zealand!) and grain input prices soar. But the News also quotes dairy farmers with small (forty to fifty cows), relatively diversified operations, and low debt-service obligations. And they’re relatively sanguine, in part because they supply their own grain, in part because some of them are getting premium prices by dairying organically.

Summary: here in northern Indiana we’re seeing more, smaller, and better-farmed farms. If the private and public sectors would work together to encourage even more of this (better said: if the feds would largely just get out of the way with their myriad subsidies to and supports for larger, poorly managed farms), we’d really be on to something.

Next step: Indiana should legalize raw milk.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar James Matthew Wilson March 16, 2009 at 9:58 am

This looks like a reverse to the trends measured almost ten years ago, when it was thought only in New England would small farms survive. I’m sure there are still more small farms in New England, put wouldn’t it be nice to see a proliferation around Elkhart and the rest of the heart of the Midwest?

avatar Katherine Dalton March 16, 2009 at 11:13 am

I heard just the other day that a neighbor who milked cows for years, and sold the herd several years ago, is considering starting back. Why? Because his eldest son, about to graduate from college, doesn’t want to do anything but farm, and to get started he will need his father’s help.

I also hear locally that several families are considering raising flocks of chickens for eggs and meat. The barrier, as Jeremy you hint at the end, is health regulations. In this state you cannot sell farm-slaughtered chicken to someone else, which means you have two options: take your flock to Frankfort and use Ky. State University’s specially outfitted trailer (it requires a special site, so it’s not easily used elsewhere), or get on the schedule for the one, that’s ONE, plant in the state that processes independent farmers’ chickens. It’s way down in Bowling Green, and it can get booked.

But good news is good news.

avatar Nathan P. Origer March 16, 2009 at 12:10 pm

Jeremy, you should move back to northern Indiana. (For that matter, perhaps Professor Wilson you re-relocate to South Bend!) We need more intellectual agrarians contributing to our culture. They tell us that Indiana suffers a brain-drain; how can we expect more Booth Tarkingtons if this is so?

Just yesterday, I, home from Maryland for spring break, remarked yet again that I’d love to convert my family’s hundred-some-year-old far, currently rented to a larger farmer, into an intensive organic farm. I’ll help to lead the agrarian revolution if you will join me!

Thanks for this happy reporting.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 16, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Connecticut’s agricultural economy is dominated by ornamental horticulture now. The farms, in particular dairy farms are dropping like Gordon’s troops defending Khartoum. One farm up and sent its entire herd to Delta,Utah where feed cooperatives release the farmer from the onerous task of growing feed here in New England. I would have loved to have a marginal capacity to commune with said Bovine when they got off the truck in Delta and saw not the gentle hills of green New England but the vast desert spaces of ancient Lake Bonneville. Them was, no doubt, quizzical bovinicals. I seem to recall a new move toward further restrictions on Raw Milk…although it remains possible to actually get some. On the other hand, local market farming is beginning to really gather steam and there is now a web site devoted to putting young farmers who cannot afford to buy farm land together with landowners who primarily appear on weekends from the big city. Land Trusts have generally been a little chary of getting involved in agriculture on their conserved lands but the new mood may be opening up this vein. Reading Salatin’s books conveys the welcome idea that large institutional and subsidized farms or single crop paradigms are not the only way to go. An ominous note, as least in terms of the nascent idea of a kind of new “share-cropping” is that rumor has it that the tax deduction incentives of Conservation Easements are about to become history and in the Northeast, that spells doom for open space acquisition. Lacking pressure for the ooze of McMansions, will this mean small agricultural ownership plots will actually return? Who knows?

Still, I would very much like to see every state in the Union perform an Agricultural Self Sufficiency Analyisis of the type Ms. Dalton explored…if only to stand back and shiver…and then get down to work. We demonstrate that we can bomb ourselves into belligerency, perhaps we could rub a few rough edges off by revealing we could more easily feed ourselves back into pacifity.

avatar Brett Beemer March 16, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Jeremy,

I have a some quick questions and a small comment on your wonderful news. The first while there may be more small farms is there actually more acreage under production? I know this mean seem obvious to some but I have seen many times family farms are made smaller as the head of the family dies and the acreage under production is the same but the number of farmers greater. This leads to a family having less than the previous generation.

The other item I notice you mention is that large farms are poorly managed. I do not understand this comment. How are large farms more poorly managed than small farms? What makes a large farm large versus a small farm? Is it how the farm is managed? Are they poorly managed because they can actually put more land under production? Are they poorly managed because they can buy big machinery and produce large quantities with less labor? Are they poorly managed because they are competing in a larger market? I just wonder how poorly managed these large farms are if they are still in existence today.

I do agree that the government should quit subsidizing farms but I think many would be disappointed when most of our product would then come from third world countries where human labor is still cheaper than mechanization. Let the farm industry fight competitively like all the non subsidized industries do.

avatar Nathan P. Origer March 16, 2009 at 5:11 pm

Brett:

The first while there may be more small farms is there actually more acreage under production?

This is a fair question, indeed, but it presupposes that increased acreage is necessarily a good thing. If the farming is organic, and more extensive, rather than intensive, it needn’t necessarily to be done on more acreage.

Jeremy:

Next step: Indiana should legalize raw milk.

My grandfather, a dairy farmer from youth ’til 1978 (He’ll be ninety-five at the end of this month; that is, he farmed for many decades.), is a freakin’ genius. I was, very briefly (It’s hard to talk in too much depth, because of his hearing.), talking to him about the raw milk debate. Marketing is everything. We shouldn’t, he said, call it “raw milk,” but “natural milk. “Raw” is scary sounding; “natural,” well, sounds natural!

avatar Nathan P. Origer March 16, 2009 at 5:48 pm

Brett,

I should clarify my comment about small-vs-large and extensive-vs-intensive. It depends on for what purpose the farm is being used. If the farmer seeks to compete in the commodities market, what I’ve said is perhaps naïve; however, if they’re looking merely to be a self-sustaining farm, maybe to contribute to local markets, then my point, I think, stands.

Best,
NPO

avatar Mark Shiffman March 16, 2009 at 6:03 pm

In response to Brett (can’t get away from me can you?):

One aspect of poor management I would suspect Jeremy has in mind is the one memorably formulated by Wendell Berry. Separating growing crops from raising livestock turns one solution into two problems. If you’re not producing your own fertilizer (of a kind that helps sustain soil quality long term), you’re using tons of petroleum products to give the soil its annual fix, producing troublesome runoff waste and gradually diminishing the soil. And if you’re not shoveling cow or sheep or chicken dung onto crop land, you’ve got to dump it somewhere else. I don’t think you have a lot of large operations doing both, but a small farm that has as one of its goals to provide the family farming it with food generally does both (which in any case is much more economical if you’re not banking on big margins). So better management has to be understood not only in terms of short-term efficiency, but (among others) in ecological terms both short and long.

avatar kara March 16, 2009 at 7:34 pm

@Nathan–your grandfather *is* a genius–love the “natural milk” terminology and will start using it asap.

avatar Caleb Stegall March 17, 2009 at 7:42 am

Kate, you left out the best option– engaging in some patriotic civil disobedience. Stick it in the eye of the managerial-Empire!!

There are actually legal outfits cropping up all around that will defend small growers and producers from state harrassment along these lines. Just costs a subscription fee.

avatar Nathan P. Origer March 17, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Mr. Stegall:

Kate, you left out the best option– engaging in some patriotic civil disobedience. Stick it in the eye of the managerial-Empire!!

Amen, sir! How is it even legal for you to hold office whilst making public such radical statements as these?

avatar Brett Beemer March 17, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Nathan:

I agree that your point stands from the aspect of the local community and I do see value in small farms especially in family run farms that help keep the family together. I also see value in large farms that feed lots of people as there are many starving people in the world.

Mark S.:

I wouldn’t want to get away from you as you have made me think about things I normally do not. =) As for most if not all large farms not being run well because they do not plan to be fully efficient and chase the almighty dollar I cannot disagree with. I look to see what they could do not what they are doing. Many people hide behind the corporate face (Large farms included) and do things that are evil that they would never do if they had to stand there and do it personally in front of people. It is not much different than the personalities that come from people on the internet. The evil we do is easier when it is in the dark and we are nameless. That is why we need more light in the world.

avatar Josh Cooney March 17, 2009 at 8:42 pm

Mr. Stegall,

Can you direct me to some of these outfits? I don’t need them at the moment, but I’d like to know about them anyway. Thank you.

Josh Cooney

avatar Patrick F. March 18, 2009 at 9:25 am

Jerome,

First, congratulations to you and your confreres on a first-rate web log; it has filled an important niche in the ethereal world.

Secondly, I suspect I have told you at one time or another that the only way of life to which I ever felt called was that of a farmer. But I have only ever been acquainted, through my extended family, with operations of the middling large (though still solely family run) variety. As a result, I have been in the habit of simply lamenting that fate did not see fit to place me, as it did my kin, in line to inherit a family farm. After all, I thought, the equipment alone required to run such an operation is worth millions of dollars, not to speak of the land, buildings, etc. How could someone of strictly limited financial means, such as I, ever hope to break in to that field from the outside?

Lately, I have been entertaining thoughts of one day running a much smaller farm of the sort you’ve discussed in your post. The problem is that I still don’t have the first clue how to begin! I am willing to overcome the steep learning curve with some nose-to-the-grindstone studying about agricultural methods and practice; the primary problem, for someone in my situation, is still financial. You hint at this in your post: most of the small farmers you write about are just “families who can get their hands on some land (very hard to do up here; most of these guys have family connections)”; this is not, I suspect, a problem limited to the lovely Midwest. It is probably the single greatest obstacle facing most people in my situation.

With all that in mind, I propose that you and/or other interested parties on this site post a sort of primer on starting a small, self-sustaining family farming operation. How glorious for all of us arm-chair farmers (most of us on this site, I suspect, have done no real farming to speak of). This short-course would be an eminently practical supplement to this (happily) theory-laden web log.

As you and Kara look forward to another six months baking in the asphalt- and concrete-insulated Phoenix heat, spring is aborning here in the Brandywine Valley. Of course, my days are not spent enjoying that bloom of life, but rather inside, in endless crisis-driven “strategic planning meetings.”

Best to Kara from Erica and me.

avatar Nathan P. Origer March 18, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Brett:

I also see value in large farms that feed lots of people as there are many starving people in the world.

Yes and no. Theoretically, this is a fair defense of large farm outfits (if we’re willing to overlook the detrimental effects that the intensive technology used by bigger farms (and, often, smaller, too), e.g., pesticides and herbicides, non-manure fertilizer (As Prof. Shiffman notes above.), monoculture crop production with little or no rotation).

However, we run into a serious problem when we consider how relatively little of the produce from these farms actually goes toward feeding the world’s hungry. You have to remember that copious amounts of grain go to feeding cattle and other animals (when grass is much more natural for them and better when looking to produce good meat from said animals) and is wasted on, say, high-fructose corn syrup.

The arguments against agribusiness aren’t just cultural; there are serious ag-/health-/food-related charges sincerely to be leveled against the big farms.

avatar Kevin J Jones March 18, 2009 at 11:15 pm

How does ranching figure into agrarianism? It seems like this material is all written by farmers, and not cowboys. The two haven’t always lived in peace, so at odds were their ways of life.

avatar Nathan P. Origer March 19, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Kevin,

This is a reasonable question to ask — although in fairness to farmers, I’m not sure how many of us are actually farmer, rather than just agrarian sympathizers, although Jeremy and I have farm roots; perhaps others, too.

I’m not sure that this passage responds to you as aptly as I should like, but Wendell Berry offers the following, about exactly what you ask:

“The long-standing division between conservationists and small-scale farmers, ranchers, and other private small-business people is distressing because it is to a considerable extent false. It is readily apparent that the economic forces that threaten the health of ecosystems and the survival of species are equally threatening to economic democracy and the survival of human neighborhoods.”

We’re all on the same side; and some of the points made above (e.g., my note about grass-fed, rather than corn-fed, cattle) apply to farms and ranches. Just as we side with the small farm over the large, we recognize the important role — I presume, anyhow — of ranches and side with the small outfit, the small, sustainable (and personal) ranch over the faceless, unsustainable outfit. Just as small farms contribute to the locale and, we hope, are more attuned to the entirety of the needs of the community (as broadly defined by Mr. Berry), so to is the same with the small ranch.

(Deep down, I have a little bit of cowboy lurking in me, somewhere.)

Bringing forth the peace the lack of which you speak is an important goal, particularly if, as I believe is so, Berry is right in suggesting that we’re on the same side, and that we’re on the same side as the conservationists.

avatar Typical Whitey March 19, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Great article Jeremy. I have worked on a fairly large – 350A – tree farm. It was a wonderful way of life. I learned in ag school that the only way to own a farm was either marry into one or inherit it. The capital required to buy a farm outright is prohibitive.

avatar Katherine Dalton March 21, 2009 at 9:49 am

Caleb, I too would like to know about the farmer legal defense organizations. Please write about them.

I have bought farm-slaughtered chicken, and would so again, but for Kentucky farmers now it’s a big risk. The prospect of losing the farm (literally) will keep a lot of them from selling underground, and they have my entire sympathy. I’d rather work to change the state health department regulations, which is possibly possible.

It is not impossible to buy a farm. But it’s pretty hard. We watched some neighbors do so last year, a couple who had nothing to start with. But they worked as tenants on a place in the county, proved themselves to be good growers and hard workers, made some good friends, and when it came time to buy a farm, several of those friends helped them buy it. It also helped that we have a locally owned bank here who worked with them, hard, to get a reasonable deal made.

The issue is not just initial capital, it’s yearly cash flow. Farming in our current economy is (especially for those working without gov’t subsidies) a low-return business, subject always to the weather. Which has been pretty odd here recently. The couple I mention above run a CSA, and while that is rewarding work, you have to 1) know how to raise a host of different crops 2) find your own market, and 3) deliver picked and cleaned produce weekly, which in their case means a 40 mile drive to their customers in Louisville. I don’t know what they gross, but I bet it’s under 30K, probably well under, for two, no kids–yet. If they have health insurance I’d be very surprised.

I think people who want to farm should go work for an experienced farmer. Or, since you can do a lot on a few acres, at least towards maintainig your own family, grow a big kitchen garden and raise some livestock. When my family and I visited Belgium two summers ago, we saw vest-pocket farms everywhere: a house, a grape arbor or row of berries, some goats, or a calf, or chickens, or all three, and a garden. Of course they have lots of rain there, but some equivalent should be possible in many areas of the country. (I just don’t know what Jeremy can do in Phoenix. Harvest cactus juice or something.)

avatar Peter S. March 27, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Cheers for small, family-owned dairy farms and natural milk! My family started drinking it a few years ago and we won’t look back. Check out Real Milk for some information on the health benefits of raw milk–and on the legal struggles natural milk farms face.

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