The term “small farm” may conjure up ideas of aging red barns, the family’s dairy cow with tinkling bell around its neck, and the general twee of an era in which the culture of Americana reached its zenith. Maybe these visualizations are directly influenced by the paintings of Grant Wood, who can say? We see them dotted along the landscape on long car rides, and we may even know one that is right around the corner – the little farms and their diligent caretakers that remind us nature is never too far away. While for many of us, the value of small farms may reside in the personal glee you feel when you drive past a brand new calf one spring morning where only an immensely swollen heifer stood the evening before, but what else do small farms bring to the table? And what’s more – what happens when these small farms go under?
The harsh reality is that many small farm operators, maybe even the one’s greeting you with a smile at the farmer’s market, aren't making a living from farming. They are forced to find additional work to make ends meet. So where does our food come from? According to the US Department of Agriculture’s 2012 survey…the big farms. In fact, just 4% of farms in the United States currently produce 66% of our food. And that is not distinct to the United States. It’s a world-wide problem.
The ruin of small farms is cultural and ethical, economical, and ecological. As bleak as these statements may seem, there are active and practical solutions underway that aim to restore agriculture to a healthy equilibrium. We’ll get to that shortly.
Donna Kilpatrick, land steward at Heifer Ranch with over 30 years of farming experience, took the time to explain the tremendous impact that small farms have on so many facets of American life.
“Farming is the backbone of our nation. It’s our culture and heritage,” She tells me, “And our culture pays the price when we lose small farms because we lose the connection to each other.”
Kilpatrick argues that as we march into this new era of rapid consumerism we disconnect from people in that supply change; we disconnect from the farmers, the harvesters, the drivers, the grocer. Removing small farms from a community breaks down the connective tissue of that community. Our relationships are ultimately degraded.
The cultural degradation of losing a small farm can’t be overstated. Without small farms to feed Americans, there is only one option to turn to and that is “Big Ag.”
There is an ethical conundrum in the space between big agriculture and small farms. This idea that big ag proposes – the more we can take from the land, the happier we’ll be – is one that not only leads to the destruction of a healthy economy and environment but also the cornerstones of our society.
Robin Wall Kimmerer said it best in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, “If we understand the Earth as just a collection of objects, then apples and the land that offers them fall outside our circle of moral consideration. We tell ourselves that we can use them however we please, because their lives don’t matter. …When we speak of the living world as kin, we also are called to act in new ways, so that when we take those lives, we must do it in such a way that brings honor to the life that is taken and honor to the ones receiving it.”
This concept of honor within farming is an idea which ultimately has been lost since our western culture caved to the idea that “if we want more and want it now, we should be able to get it”. But small farmers preserve the idea of honorable harvest by practicing the same land ethics that Kimmerer shares from the Potawatomi Nation of the Great Lakes:
Never take the first. Never take the last. Harvest in a way that minimizes harm. Use everything that you take. Be grateful. Reciprocate the gift. Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last forever.
Aren’t these the ideas that we hoped to instill in the next generation? The very ideas that nurture good relationships in everything that we do? The values that keep us from societal collapse? Most of us weren’t raised to consider our trip to the grocery store or the meals we prepare as an ethics exercise but the simple matter of fact is that in this beautifully woven tapestry we call existence, all the threads do connect and connect to the choices that you make.
But the very fabric of what it means to be human aside…small farms are also the pillars that sustain our economy and ecosystems.
Having a small farm “go under” is devastating on so many levels without mentioning the rate of suicide among farmers (Between 2014 and 2018 more than 450 farmers across 9 Midwestern States took their own lives and there is some speculation that that number was higher than reported.) The profit margins are so slim for small farmers and many of them are inundated with debt which can quickly lead to despair.
“But it’s more than just devastating for the family,” Kilpatrick explains, “It devastates the community. With that farm gone, there is no one frequenting the local hardware store when it's time to repair the fence, the large animal veterinary clinic is affected too.” What Kilpatrick describes is the effect of “Bubble up” economics. Grossly different from the “trickle-down” model. When that wellspring dries up/that farm goes under, so do all the small businesses and communities that it feeds.
That local economic impact is echoed in Walter Goldschmidt’s classic 1940s study of California’s San Joaquin Valley, As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness. He compares areas that were still supported by small, family farms and areas in which large corporate farms had replaced them. Communities living in the shadow of large corporate farms saw towns die off. Mechanization of large farms means that fewer people are employed and absentee ownership means that income is channeled off into larger cities to support distant enterprises, not circulating back into the community.
But can we feed the whole of the United States without reliance on large-scape industrialized farming? Integrated farming systems like those found on small farms produce far more per unit area than do monocultures (those endless rolling seas of corn and wheat and soy). Though the yield per unit area of one crop — corn, for example — may be lower on a small farm than on a large farm, the total production per unit area, often composed of more than a dozen crops and various animal products, can be far higher according to a study completed by PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) in 2018.
So in this world of hyper-efficient-cheap-industrial food production, why are 1 in 9 American households suffering food insecurity and why have the prices of meat, poultry, and eggs risen by 70% in the last two decades? Big farms run like big corporations, trying to return maximum profits to their shareholders. Large scale farms are in no way required to pass along any savings from their efficient methods on to the consumer, the farmers or to make food more accessible to millions of Americans. So they pocket it and continue to squeeze every person in their supply chain for maximum profit while the farmer’s share of every consumer dollar spent hit a new low in 2019 – just 14.6 cents.
Although the cultural and economic downsides of losing small farms are great, the ecological impact of losing these small farms is possibly even greater. It should come as no surprise to anyone when I say that there is trouble in the biosphere. Decades of poor land stewardship have brought us to this point where rapidly rising global temperatures threaten the very ground we stand on.
Through decades of industrialized farming techniques we’ve turned our relationship with the land into a purely exploitive and transactional one. Peter Rossett, Executive Director, Food First, The Institute for Food and Development: “Land is not just a resource to be exploited, but a crucial vehicle for the achievement of improved socioeconomic, biological, and physical environments.”
And while industrialized farming has been a known polluter of streams, air, and soil, small farming has stepped in to mitigate some of these losses.
Small farms act as carbon sinks, capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide and returning it to the soil and forests, ultimately restoring the balance of life here on earth. That may seem like a hefty claim but let's dig a little deeper. Big agriculture with its estates of monocultures are prone to pests and disease that could wipe out their entire crop. They combat this by dusting the land in powdery clouds of pesticides – pesticides which percolate through the soil, following the curvature of the land ultimately scorching a trail of destruction through our watershed systems. Once the watershed has been polluted, the gentle streams that transport nitrogen-bearing neighbors like fish become barren streambeds unable to support life within them and the canopy that once shaded them.
It’s more economically viable for small farms to plant multiple species of crop and in doing so they are better situated to be resilient to pests and disease that would otherwise wipe them out. This eliminates their need for pesticides and additionally serves to introduce organic plant matter and nitrogen back into the landscape.
In the United States, small farmers devote 17 percent of their area to woodlands, compared to only five percent on large farms, and keep nearly twice as much of their land in ‘soil improving uses,’ including cover crops and green manures. Intact woodland areas mean that wildlife have a way to thrive; birds can announce spring and eat the bugs that would damage crops, deer can pass quietly along the forest edge away from busy highways, and bees can find suitable blossoms to become honey.
Aldo Leopold, often regarded as the father of modern ecology, observed in his timeless classic A Sand County Almanac “The most important characteristic of an organism is that capacity for internal self-renewal known as health.” Leopold encourages landholders to judge the health of their land by comparing it to large tracts of wild land where native plants and animals regenerate and keep themselves and each other in balance. Using the prairies that once spanned enormous portions of the MidWest as an example, the native grasses there distribute their root system to pull from and nourish several soil levels. The grass species of agronomic rotation overdraw one level, neglect another, and ultimately result in total deficits, unable to naturally support life.
So let’s review
• Small farms are our heritage and worth protecting as systems that demonstrate good relationships to the earth.
• Small farms are the “bubbling-up” wellspring of a strong economy.
• Small farms are one of our last resources for stemming the tide of devastating climate change.
So what does this mean? Without small farms, we can expect the decline of rural America to continue unabated, we can expect our planet to become even less hospitable to human life as we march steadily toward our next mass extinction, and we lose the values of hard work, human connection, and honorable harvest.
What can we do to stop small farms from going under? We can pay farmers a living wage.
Grass Roots believes in paying farmers a living wage. A wage that sustains the good hard work that they do. A wage that means they can focus on moving their cows to fresh pasture, creating muddy pools in which pigs can wallow, and restoring habitat for native grass, forbs, and songbirds. Grass Roots gives them a wage that means they can safeguard the systems that sustain life without fear of losing the farm, letting down the community, injuring the planet, or extinguishing the values that so many Americans hold dear.
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