What we can learn from free roaming dairy cows, uneven corn stalks, and an idealistic rancher?
Unconventional Farmers Setting the Tone for the Future of Agribusiness per Lisa M. Hamilton
In her book, Deeply Rooted, journalist and photographer Hamilton builds an intimate portrait of three families looking outside of the conventional market, and working outside the support of urban areas, to maintain their connection to their land and save their farms. Embodying ethics and practicality, these families give voice to a larger group of people, setting the tone for the future of agribusiness. Throughout her book, Hamilton strives to change the role farmers play in our society, starting with “How much we ask them to participate, how much we respect them and how much we reward them.”
Sulphur Springs, TX
“Conventional agriculture doesn’t need people for much more than to run the machines and carry the debt.”
Due to increasing emphasis on industrial practices and efficiency, coupled with a 1964 report from the Committee for Economic Development that proclaimed an ‘excess of resources’ in agriculture, the 1980’s brought a ‘Get Big or Get Out’ mentality.
While the average farm size until then was small and manageable by families, banks began offering loans for farms that had over 200 cows. Knowing this would affect the supply-demand dynamic negatively, the USDA even sponsored buy-out programs to fight over-supply. These programs involved the USDA buying out a farm’s herd and exterminating it, just to keep its milk off the market.
This ultimately led to a loss of about 400 family farms in the county by the end of 2007.
Harry Lewis’s Farm, where Pasture is King
Harry’s herd of 80 milk cows of varying ages and breeds roam in the pasture and, for the most part, live their lives as nature intended. Harry and his son milk each cow by hand in a barn that was built in 1952.
Harry holds dearly to two principles:
1) Don’t take loans
2) Pasture is king
Allowing cows to roam on open pasture embodies Harry’s ideals of farming — pasture is a binary principle that you either respect or do not. Yet, while roaming cows are healthier and happier, turning a profit from them requires attention, energy, and care; all of which imply costs which ultimately keep the operation small.
It is Harry’s conviction to keep his farm afloat that has kept him away from the trap of incurring debt to pay for new gadgets. Purchasing new equipment would require him to produce more the next year in order to pay off debt, which of course would depend on the weather and other uncontrollable factors. While upgrading equipment would seem like a simple strategy of re-investing to grow a business, in agribusiness, this implies launching a risky cycle where the fate of the farm is left to chance.
Organizations like the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP) represent growing initiatives to ‘Stay Small and Stay In’. Best known for its Organic Valley dairy brand, CROPP lets its members set their own prices at the beginning of each year and offers farming education programs to help farm owners become their own experts.
While technological advances expose new insights and offer automation, farmers like Harry Lewis and the founders of CROPP evidence that it is not necessary to sacrifice people for profits. Scaling should not be a farmer’s sole goal and should not cause the farmer to lose control over the rate at which he/she scales.
LaMoure, North Dakota
“The very nature of these commodity crops is to eliminate people from the rural landscape.”
Stepping into the world of grain farming, Hamilton reflects on the nature of commodity crops. As with cows, standardized corn is easier to manage, reducing costs to the grower and leading to greater profits.
Yet, having a standardized crop is not natural and requires the use of genetically modified (GMO) seeds. For farmers, this implies signing a contract saying they will not save seed and granting the GMO seed producers access to their farm at any time to come inspect their crops in future growing seasons (to ensure they have not saved the seeds), thus forcing farmers to buy seeds every year. Further more, modern farming conventions encourage a dependence on the use of pesticides, monster-sized machines, and genetically modified seeds — a combination that Hamilton refers to as ‘the scaffold’.
The Podoll Farm, Where the Family Garden is the Center of Attention
In 1974, David Podoll set out to prove that organic methods were pointless, but his research converted him to traditional farming methods instead.
The Podolls maintain a garden from which they harvest each of their meals — a practice that has been lost as most farmers eventually neglect their gardens in the interest of prioritizing their farming business. The Podolls hold strongly to the principle that the garden should make up the core of the farm, and constantly take the lessons they learn from tending to their garden and apply it to farming.
Lesson 1: Resisting GMO Seeds
While GMO gets a bad rap, its use is understandable. If someone offered me a seed that would survive the disease that wiped out my whole crop last year, obliterated my whole year’s profits, and put me in debt, I would probably take it. But, the downside to GMO, other than making me a lifetime customer of GMO seeds, is that when managing standardized crops, it only takes one unforeseen condition or disease to wipe out the whole crop.
Instead, the Podolls save the seeds from their best crops each year, just as they do in their garden. They simply select the best tasting, best looking, most weather- and disease-resistant items from their dinner table and save the seeds to plant in the next growing season.
This practice conserves the role of stewardship for the farmer as he/she still needs to care for and protect the crop and has “intimate participation in the evolutionary process”.
Examples of ‘evolved’ seeds which yield more nutritious, resistant, and appealing crops than GMO seeds:
· FBC-Dylan (Wheat)
· Crimson Sprinter (Tomato)
Lesson 2: Resisting the Use of Pesticides
The Podolls use a method called crop rotation whereby they alternate crops methodically to suppress weeds naturally. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of this method is attenuated by changing and unpredictable climate conditions. Thankfully, the Podolls provide their own mitigation by constantly producing more and more climate-change resistant crops and saving those seeds.
While the Podolls are considered pariahs in their county, they are at times pulled aside by neighbors to be reassured privately. Their methods are not perfect, but they continue to learn and innovate on their methods each and every day, always maintaining their connection to and respect for the land.
Abiquiu, New Mexico
Conventional commodity farming trends towards getting big. With land, a limited resource, being mostly owned already, the only way to get more land is to take it from someone. Thus, taking land has become a survival skill among many.
This is reflected not only in the consolidation of farms in the Midwest, but in the sequestration of land in the southwest.
Virgil, Who Believes in the Heritage of Land
Virgil Trujillo is a New Mexican rancher whose ancestors passed down land from generation to generation, but who works for someone else in order to survive. He believes the key to maintaining the spirit and health of land:
“is to trust in the experience of people who have lived on and worked with the land… and invest in the creativity that can come from their knowledge.”
His ancestors were firsthand witnesses and victims of the exploitation of legal technicalities and lack of English knowledge in order to seize land on which families had lived and worked for centuries. To them, the idea that a piece of paper held by someone who had never set foot on the land could carry more weight than their physical presence and history on the land was completely nonsensical and unfamiliar.
Virgil himself is a firsthand witness to a shrinking population of farmers and ranchers. As he puts it, what’s the point in enduring such a stressful occupation for a low quality of life and low profits if you can buy your food at the supermarket and work an easier job that will pay more? Of the people that have managed to hold on to some land, many are forced to sell it in order to qualify for general assistance from the state.
Yet, to Virgil, owning and maintaining land still represents purpose, independence, and continuity, and as the range manager of a land grant, he is working on various initiatives that would make agriculture more worthwhile for people. For example, he advocates for the planting of more native grazing plants on the land grant to increase the land’s yield throughout all seasons. He would also like the land’s board to invest in cattle to help the grant members who have lost cattle during droughts to get back on their feet. While it is true that under current conditions, farming currently does not promote a high quality of life, in isolated Northern New Mexico, the exodus from the practice has only created an occupational void that is being filled by drug use and state assistance.
Virgil has spent his life investing in land and cattle, but is not often willing to take a gamble on selling as he suspects he will come out on the losing side. To many in his community, he appears greedy and self-serving when trying to improve conditions for land owners and ranchers, but this does not deter him from attempting to rekindle his town’s well-being and purpose.
What Do We Learn from These Stories?
Returning to Hamilton’s initial three prompts:
1. How much should we ask farmers to participate?
Farmers and ranchers have one of the most impactful roles in maintaining the health of our planet. Currently, agriculture is the main driver for deforestation, biodiversity loss and poverty. I believe we should promote the role of a farmer to be one of stewardship. This role embodies the responsible planning and management of resources with the planet’s health and ecology as priorities.
2. How much should we respect farmers?
The way I see it, in business, those usually asked to absorb financial risk are investors. These are people with an asset who choose to give up liquidity in the hopes that they yield a positive return, while always knowing that the money could be lost completely.
In farming, absorbing risk seems to be an occupational hazard which farmers may or may not have chosen to take on, and who more times than not, do not have the means to take a loss.
While it would be easier for them to throw down the hatchet and take a better-paying job and enjoy what would most likely be a higher quality of life, we need people to produce food. What’s more, we need people that will produce our food while preserving the health of our planet, and we should respect their decision to stay in the game while keeping the full weight of their role in mind.
3. How much should we reward farmers?
The industrial era made it possible for food to be produced at a low cost. While the possibility exists, that does not mean it exists by sustainable means. As consumers, we cannot condemn unsustainable or unethical practices if we are not willing to pay the fair price for the labor and stewardship that goes into a food product. We should have a higher awareness of how resource intensive each of our food products are and value them in the way they deserve to be valued. Ultimately, I believe we as consumers should promote an economy that encourages individuals in agricultural areas to take on a role upon which we all depend.