The Small Farm Question
Chris Saladino, APV Agriculture and Food Safety Policy
I am up to my ears in all sorts of research. I do research for a living, I do research for my own interest, and I now do research for APV. Personally, I find research very satisfying because the search for actual facts in this world has been generally abandoned in favor of the process of stitching random bits of information into fully opinionated arguments and calling it the truth. I usually agree with some of these arguments in principle and often despise many of these arguments for the same reason. In short, I have opinions and I like to see when my opinions match others while at the same time I like to get after those who might completely disagree with my opinions. However, I try very hard to avoid saying things like, “the fact that,” “It’s a known fact,” “the real truth is…,” and “it has been proven…,” without showing clear and convincing evidence.
I used to love the X-Files: The Truth is Out There! (Thank you for letting me steal that, Paul Freedman)
However, there is one truth that is a tough nut to crack: it is VERY hard to prove anything in politics. But sometimes that is not as important as we might want to make it.
Some of the more interesting information that I have been gathering has come from farmers. My goal was to talk to actual farmers, and I wanted to specifically target “small farmers.” I wanted to get a broad sense of what small farmers of all types thought about certain ideas, policies, trends, and the future of American farming. I thought I would have some reasonably clear and straightforward definitions and answers, but this was not the case. I was stuck with some problems with operationalizing my terms, right from the start!
Right away I ran into a “fact barrier” as it turns out that there are several definitions of “small farms” floating through the relevant agricultural, academic, and policy literature. After reading the changing definitions and features of small farms in the various federal farms bills, academic articles usually produced from Ag School faculty at large land-grant universities (like Virginia Tech) and other interested parties and institutions, I decided to craft my own consistent operational definition of an American small farm. This is not an idea type but a working definition that I believe reflects the literature effectively enough to work as a variable.
So, generally small farms are defined by size of production (not land) and participation by the land-owners in the actual production. These two components collectively distinguish the difference between small farms and those farm producers who are part of larger agri-business concerns. A small farm typically produces their goods for smaller and local markets; often they are involved in every facet of the market process up to delivery. Many have their own retail outlets via the mechanisms of farm stands, farmer’s markets, co-operatives, local back door commercial delivery, and the rise of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. Regardless of the size of their actual facilities, small farms are seen as typically producing economic output not greater than the costs of land, taxes, inputs, maintenance, labor, and salaries for the owners, with little surplus remaining. Consistently the US government, state farm bureaus, and advocates for small farmers have agreed that small farms are not capital investments. They produce their goods, pay their bills, pay their workers and the remaining profits keep the farmers and their families effectively employed. In the modern small farm model, farmers are the landowners, although in some cases small farms are leased. But they are not part of larger concerns.
So, while I could go on forever on these distinguishing characteristics, it’s not really all that interesting and to use this loose definition allows us to look at a lot small farms that meet those criteria, but are not necessarily similar in other ways.
Something very important to focus on here—small farms STILL constitute about 88% of all the entities that are “farms” in the United States…down from 90% in 2000. MOST FARMS IN AMERICA are SMALL FARMS.
This is hard for some people to believe. In my minimal research, many with a strong interest in this area strongly doubted that even most farms were small farms. Quite a few people interested in working on this research indicated that they strongly believed that small farms had all but disappeared; mostly assuming they have been gobbled up by large agri-business firms. It’s understandable, particularly given that of that nearly 90% of all farms in America, they only contribute about 38% of the agricultural output that is reported. So, the 10% of the farms in America produce 60% of all agricultural goods.
Okay, these are all quasi-interesting pieces of information (dare I say facts) but what’s the point of stating the obvious? Well, two points are driving this post. The first is that it takes a LOT OF TIME to talk to “small farmers” when that is the singular or at least primary criteria for being included in the research. This is me whining: I have to talk to tons of farmers, even though only in the general local area and in the Pungo area of Virginia Beach—the two areas where I limited my focus.
The second point is where I try to make some sense…or not. Farmers are very similar to each other in that they all farm…they work land to raise food, crops, livestock, dairy, eggs, etc. Their daily actions are pretty close…and VERY labor intensive. Farmers all farm. And that is where the similarity ENDS and in some cases, ends hard.
I found an interesting assumption among the Farmer’s Market and Farm Stand crowds I spoke with recently, both here and in Pungo. Many of the people I casually asked (NO IRB!!) believed that most small farms were actively interested in being green, organic, artisanal, even part of the perma-culture movement. I found this interesting because this is a far cry from the traditional view of the American farmer. I remember during the 90’s when President Clinton was trying to pass his Farm Bill (maybe, 1997?) and he introduced a farmer and his family in the gallery during the State of The Union address. Perhaps time has jaded my memory even more unrealistically stereotypical than was the actual case, but the “farmer” was wearing Wrangler jeans, a flannel shirt (it is cold in DC in January!) and a John Deere hat in his pocket. His wife was wearing what I SWEAR was a gingham dress and I think she may have been holding a pie. The son was wearing a baseball hat AND glove and the daughter had a Raggedy Ann doll. Okay, I may have added some of the remembrance (mis-remembering before it was cool!!) but it wasn’t that far off. This traditional idea or vision of the American farmer transcends time…and it exists today, most absolutely. I met several farmers who could have easily been that family.
But they aren’t what many people think.
First of all, many of them are conservative. AAAAUUUUUGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!! Three farmers I spoke to in Hanover County, Caroline County, and Virginia Beach, all had McCain-Palin bumper stickers on their trucks… (2 Chevy’s and 1 Ford, NO DODGES, sorry) One had a great interest in talking politics to the extent that I had to leave the conversation by saying that I taught about the United Nations…this is like a loud fart in church, be careful. I was not interested in their ideological cores, but I wanted to know about their commitment to their way of life as a part of the broader economy, of things like the healthcare act, tax policy, and the extent that the state and federal government do or do not care about small farms. I also wanted to know about their commitment to moving to more sustainable methods, organics, etc. I got lots of opinions, and they leaned hard in some directions. Every farmer I spoke with was not a conservative, but more than half leaned that way. I didn’t hear a lot of praise for President Obama.
Not only are small farmers not all earthy progressives, quite a few of them were not entirely committed to being totally organic. Pardon my double negativity, but isn’t this STRIKE TWO? Ultimately, I will contend that this is really not a problem at all, but let’s get to the reasons. The good news is that every one of the farmers I spoke to (so far I have talked to about 24 farms) had no real faults or issues with what I called “sustainable agriculture,” and most embraced the general ideas behind the term (another blog) and even noted that it was in their interest to be “sustainable.” However, there was a clear division between those farmers who fully set out to be organic farms (and therefore, certified organic as determined by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture) and/or valued this as a priority and those farmers who essentially argued that they would do “whatever was best for the crop, the land, the customers, my workers, and my bottom line.” I appreciated that last statement so much I wrote it down.
The best explanation sort of incorporated the following ideas:
·Organic is great, but we are not quite ready to lose or abandon certain crops in that pursuit
·We’ll do whatever we can to meet certain standards, but not at the cost of the quality of the product (this was LOUD in the berry farmers)
·Being organic is not easy in terms of making the switch
·We are noticing a demand for organic goods and the market will turn us in that direction more than “doing the right thing”
·Most have crops that are fully organic but others that still require them to use more traditional methods
·ALMOST ALL (save one) said that their current use of pesticides, fertilizers, and life-extenders were decidedly “greener” and more sustainable than they had been in the past.
·Most of the farmers were willing to try anything to improve productivity, combat the effects of drought, and increase their markets.
Strike Three: ALL FARMERS were motivated by profit. AAAUUUGGGHHH. They don’t just do it to be on the land. PLEASE don’t get me wrong, many of the people I talked to were amazingly committed to best practices, organic and sustainable farming and ranching, and to cooperative measures to help out with community needs, charitable contributions, and to educating the public on everything from composting to vegetarianism. But even these farmers had land notes and equipment to pay for, workers to compensate, and mouths to feed and send to college. In short, from right to left, these farmers are working for a living. They need to make a reasonable profit or they will lose their land or do something else.
So…the diversity among the farmer’s political views was vast, but their practices and their goals were similar. They embraced different methodologies but did not reject similar paths towards their ultimate ends.
And we MUST support ALL OF THEM. We must support small farms. Even ones that buy their corn seed from Cargill or Monsanto, even ones that have yet to fully embrace organic methods, and even ones that have McCain bumper stickers on their trucks.
Many of you think we should reward those small farmers who think and believe explicitly in our “progressive” vision of the world and avoid those that disagree. I disagree with that approach because they are not wrong. We are not right. I want to think we are, but I want to support “small farms.” Supporting “SMALL FARMS” is progressive…most of you have told me this. We need to support small farms. But we don’t need to have a litmus test or ideological pledge when buying summer squash and sugar baby watermelons; at least we should limit our selection based on the actual goods they sell, more than their politics. And NO, I am not saying we should start sucking down excessive amounts of chemicals and GMO’s, because these are NOT the great abusers of those inputs.
Honestly, I am no more willing to boycott a vegetable stand with amazing Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes grown 6 miles away than I am to boycott the best surgeon in the area when my child needs an operation, just because of who those people voted for. When it comes to small farms, unless we know that we are dealing with terrible people, they are part of our concern for our local agricultural economy. And all small farmers are part of the local economy. They (all of them) need more protection by the federal government than do the huge conglomerates, the ADMs, Monsanto’s, Dow’s, and Cargills. They need a farm bill that promotes grants and aid for moving to organics, for green energy technology, and for tax breaks for working with local schools and food distribution charities. We need to support them so they will continue to provide an effective alternative to mass produced, low quality, highly preserved foods. How they do this will vary, but we can also help to move them all in a better and more sustainable direction. Distinguishing which small farms are worthy is a personal market choice, but as a policy perspective, we need to support the existing “small farms,” all of them, so they don’t disappear.
Crosby Stills Nash and Young
You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye.
I found a safety pin in the carpet and remember being surprised and delighted when I got it open. I used it to scratch the paint off the face of my sister’s new dolly. After the tear fest that followed her outrage, torrents of Bible verses and lectures about jealousy fell on my young ears and then Daddy got home to teach me several other consequences of destructive behavior. I remember it well.
Feelings about fairness are rooted in every social problem.
A sense of fairness, whether innate or learned, is something I imagine most parents attempt to highlight in their children, and learning to respect the property of others is basic. Understanding why we wouldn’t is more subjective, requires empathy and addresses the feelings of persons negatively affected. When authoritative consequences drive home the point that punishment follows for those who disobey the law, it only works if the laws are understood, reflect society’s morals and ethics, and if the punishment is applied fairly across the board.
“Do as I say, not as I do” and “Do what I say without question” are old style authoritarianism, ineffective leadership, and not the least bit democratic. We need to get that mentality out of our government. When the American people react en mass out of feelings of unfairness, we don’t need to have the sin spanked out of us. We need representatives willing to listen first, ask and answer questions, and attend to our needs – whatever we say our needs are. Their secrecy and the favoritism they show to corporations is abhorrent. They need to keep their religion to themselves and legislate in fairness with the hearts and minds of the people as their priority. That could begin with laws that respect the peoples’ property.
When young lessons are twisted up in a mix of religious and economic self-righteousness, the result is confusion, then anger, then rage. The same goes for a nation with laws that allow corporations to abuse or destroy our property while others are subjected to jail time.
If my factory emissions cause your emphazima, loss of employment and homelessness, even death – that’s too bad. Illness, cancer, toxic waste, the destruction of our environment – it’s all the same. Erin Brockovich was popular because our hearts and minds were with her in a desperate struggle to right a wrong, but the rarity of her success is what made it a story.
Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.
It’s role reversal. The people are the teachers, not the government. And the parents of America’s children have their hands full trying to convey that message, I’m sure. It must be tough, for example, teaching children that their bodies are their most precious possessions, to be cared for and treated with respect by all. This, at the same time the state of Virginia among others have the audacity to force medical procedures on unwilling women for a purpose clearly not covered in the law – a future mandate for women to endure unplanned pregnancy and bear unwanted children.
Another thing I know parents struggle with today, because it’s getting difficult for everyone, is providing and modeling healthy nourishment. Having compromised the standards for the most fundamental requirements of the human body – in favor of corporate profits, government agencies have made a mockery of our basic needs. Body, heart and mind – it takes clean air and water, healthy food. John Prine suggests,
“Blow up your T.V.
throw away your paper,
Go to the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches”.
And while you’re at it, exercise the freedom to make your own spiritual choices. The religious doctrine of others is healthy food for thought and a joy to study and consider – during the process of independent, personal resolve.
I jumped off the track with John Prine, but while I’m here, I’ll say what I’m thinking: there’s nothing reasonable about making smiles illegal. “Well done, hot dog bun, my sister’s a nun.” Try explaining that one to your kids, but you might hold off on the drug war. They’ll eventually see through it like everybody this side of “Just say no”, another authoritative instruction from the old school that never worked and never will.
Back to religion – by their very nature, spiritual choices are unregulated; they come through a variety of life and family experiences. Legislation that favors your experience over mine is categorically wrong, but a good example of the confusing religious and economic self-righteousness being dished out by ‘Daddy’ these days.
Among various other discrimination, Virginia’s new adoption law allows state agencies to say, “You may adopt this child if you’re a Christian, but not if you’re a Jew”. If you live in America, have a brain cell and are raising a child, that’s another one that should be difficult to explain, especially for Christians. Subjecting the soft skin of children to the warehousing of orphanages when they deserve, have a right and an opportunity to become a family member in a safe, protective and loving home, is not exactly ‘witnessing’. If I were an orphan under those circumstances, I can’t think of anything that would drive me away from Christians more completely.
And you, of tender years,
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.
The point is, good parents are what we need and I hold them in the highest esteem. Having the know-how, intuition, courage and stamina to make positives from negatives and prepare young minds for a go at the world ahead is more than I can grasp, but I appreciate them and the challenges they face.
One of the most important lessons in fairness and how our children will work toward it is in our Bill of Rights. The First Amendment enshrines the right to assemble peaceably, to speak freely, and to petition for governmental redress of grievances. In light of what happened at the Capital in Richmond on Saturday during the rally for women’s rights, I’ve wondered how parents are supposed to teach their children to be good citizens who practice healthy, peaceful redress efforts without being afraid or intimidated. (If you don’t know what happened, here’s March 3rd, 2012 – Of Protests and Bitch Slaps, by Jack Johnson, and excellent account of the rally and of the arrests that followed.)
The following is an example of good parenting that I think fits the bill. I saw it earlier today, and don’t know the mom who posted it, but see if you don’t agree that she has the “hearts and minds” of her children in full view of their future and our needs as a nation:
“Since Saturday I have been wondering about an appropriate role in the re-surging women’s rights movement. As I watched civil disobedience play out on Saturday I kept wondering, what can/should I do? What is my role in this?
I am a mom.
I am needed at home.
My life is busy.
You are too.
I sometimes wonder if some elected officials count on us being so busy as to not pay attention to what they do. I am not *that* busy anymore. But what, given the requirements of being a mother, should I be doing?
I am a mother.
I have two daughters.
I will teach.
Today I called the Capitol Tour Desk to inquire about having a picnic with my children on the grounds. I am told that we are allowed to bring food or purchase food at their underground café and eat anywhere on the grounds except inside in the historical part of the building.
I plan to take my girls for a field trip to discuss civil disobedience, democracy, and the women’s rights movement. I may do this more than once and I am putting the intention into the universe that other mothers will feel the strength of this lesson for the next generation. The erosion of personal freedoms is not to be tolerated. This Thursday I plan to sit on the steps in the same spot that the protesters were sitting and bring my laptop with the YouTube video of what happened in that spot.
Think of the tremendous life learning opportunity we have before us to teach the next generation. I am not looking to turn this into anything other than what it is… mothers teaching their children and remaining visible even while handling our busy lives.
I was thinking I might head over there this Thursday a little before lunchtime. Anyone care to join me???”
(That will be tomorrow, March 8, 2012)
Some News from APV, Virginia:
Today Governor McDonnell signed HB 462 (the Mandatory Ultrasound Bill) into law. We are deeply disappointed by his decision, but not deterred. There is no doubt that our voices have been heard ‘loud and clear’, not just by our representatives, but by the press and therefore the country. We have gotten our message out there. We have been remarkably successful in fighting some of the worst legislation out of the GA this year with the odds against us. We have forged alliances and gathered people who will not forget, and we will continue to build momentum to take this state back. We’re in this for the long haul. Make no mistake, we ARE winning.
When our government is not only condoning, but acting to spread the contamination of the world’s food supply, what are we supposed to think … and who will lead the charge for world food safety? When the people’s opposition is as strong as it is now, why isn’t our government’s position being covered in national media forums to clarify their intentions and answer the people’s questions?
The world’s people, experts, and scientific studies are being completely ignored as the United States legislates in favor of corporations, preventing us from being able to make our own safe food choices. This path we’re on is becoming more of a super highway, and all the while, irreparable damage is being done.
The concept of what’s happening seems more like the theme for a futuristic fantasy novel where innocence is succumbing to an evil power of some sort.
It might go something like this:
Spreading at a pace that will soon leave the world-at-large dependent on the dole of corporations for sustenance, the insidious contamination continues in spite of popular uprisings. As the people flounder, the protagonist, a well-developed character on the side of innocence – always smart, usually good-looking, charms the reader by failing a few times only to get up, dust herself off and continue trying to save the day. If hunger can be used as a weapon, she knows that future freedom could be decided by those with access to viable seeds. Efforts to control those seeds are being seen around the world in court cases – usually and suspiciously settled or decided in favor of the evil power.
Planning her next move, the heroine ponders recent developments that are limiting the people’s power to resist: propaganda and the filtering of available information, changes in voting access laws and the use of dubious electronic equipment, legalized wire tapping and diminishing privacy rights, changes in class action law, union busting, the denial of free speech and the process of redress, state violence used against peaceful protesters ….
“This doesn’t look good,” she whispers to her adorable but ill-behaved dog, and her concern deepens as she continues with her list: privatized prisons with quotas, corporatized education, secret interpretations of the law. But the last item on the list, “indefinite detention of suspected terrorists”, gives her new pause.
More people are growing their own food. Private gardens that provide fresh fruits and vegetables are everywhere. The prepping process, canning or freezing to maximize a season’s bounty, is also widespread … but having seven days worth of stored food is listed as “suspicious activity” used to determine and identify citizens as state terrorists.
And so on and so forth ….
You have to be living under a rock not to be aware of this hardly debatable issue. Food safety, clean air, clean water … basic, basic stuff. And they’re all at risk because of the spread of conservative, neoliberal and libertarian ideology. Every one of their gains is a loss for the people, even as what they’re doing is against their own basic principle. What they’re doing causes damage to others. In order to continue on with their profit-driven mismanagement of our world’s resources, including our food supply, they just deny reality and hope we aren’t noticing. It’s got to stop.
A short but really good explanation of what I mean is in George Monbiot’s article about their core argument: “the procedural justice account of property rights”.
We are the protagonist of our own novel. Our character is being portrayed as weak, conflicted and ineffectual, but together we can rewrite the story. Joining a grassroots organization near you increases our strength by sheer numbers. Organizations like APV effectively join hands across the country giving our member lists the credibility of a voting bloc. As assumed voters, those lists are a force giving progressives a national voice, in some cases thwarting destructive ideas before they even become proposals. That’s what we need. We need our numbers to be threatening. Having your name on a grassroots list for progressives is the least you can do if you want to help turn things around.
Unless you have something more pressing in mind than eating food and breathing air, let’s get it done. These corporations are not holding their breath in anticipation of you taking action, but progressives are at this point! Please don’t put it off.
Here’s an example of our work. During the Alliance for Progressive Values’ lobbying event in Washington, September 22-23, members of our legislative team presented members of Congress with copies of the APV White Paper prepared by our Public Policy department on the issue of Genetically Modified Organisms.
It’s an outstanding paper, so I hope you’ll read it, too. Foxes Guarding the Hen House: Big Business, Lax Regulation and the Case Against GMOs (pdf)
The good news is, the cards are still being dealt in the political mess America is in now, but what’s showing on the table clearly indicates that we need your help. Don’t gamble on something so important by not doing something so simple. Please. Find a group that you like and join it.
You can check out APV’s website and join here if it suits you. Here’s more about having a membership – which is 25 dollars and bare bones cheap considering what we do, which you can read all about on the website.
I’m really hoping to see some new names on the list – and yours could be one of them. Think about it, please. APV has an amazing, hardworking team of volunteers, many of whom are taking time from work to do this for you, your family and the future of our country.
Thanks a million in advance!
Various media articles about the contamination of our food supply:
And this, the experts tell us, is only the beginning. The price of our loaf of bread is forecast to increase by up to 90% over the next 20 years. That will mean yet more upheavals, more protest, greater desperation, heightened conflicts over water, increased migration, roiling ethnic and religious violence, banditry, civil war, and (if past history is any judge) possibly a raft of new interventions by imperial and possibly regional powers.
And how are we responding to this gathering crisis?
Well, there’s room for improvement. In fact, our contribution of military aggression seems to be counter-productive. Realizing the nature and causes of regional hunger is critical to predicting violent conflict and government failure at home and elsewhere. Our humanitarian fabric is weakened by state policy. Fleeing hunger, a move to survive, is an unraveling condition forced on our neighbors in the world today, and unheeded, unattended will certainly be part of our undoing.
“Already the poorest on this planet spend 80% of what incomes they have on food staples and those prices are expected to double in the next two decades.”
This is a good article that includes Breaking Bread – a TOMCAST EPISODE with Christian Parenti discussing critical issues that cause hunger, and his well received new book. Climate change, crop shortages, drug cash, state policy and violent conflict are merged into a recipe for disaster – a warning that should not be ignored.
A recent case in point, the mass exodus of starving Somalis is here.
The epitome of governmental injustice is to actively or passively prevent the protection of our human rights – and safeguarding The Future of Food is surely one of those protections. This documentary by Deborah Koons Garcia, is a great watch covering the short history of food patenting, its original intentions and diabolic potential.
The force of mutation, when it’s natural, is the ultimate source of genetic variation, the process by which we gain strength and adaptability, but it comes to us with a very definite albeit complex set of built-in restrictions. Salmon does not cross with tomatoes.
Cell invasion – crossing the boundaries of nature, destroying what’s natural to create something ‘unnatural’, is usually framed for the public in terms of curing a disease. But the world’s natural food supply is rapidly being modified through cell invasion – not to cure an ill, not to feed the masses, not to help farmers – but to privatize and control base sustenance.
The consolidation of our food supply by behemoth corporations like Monsanto, is not just a disturbing trend … it’s an effort to harmonize patent laws around the world to prohibit our ability to grow our own food and eat what we know is healthy.
APV joins progressive groups worldwide in an effort to gain control over the genetic modification of our food supply and avert its grave potential. Please join us and share this information to help educate and influence the public, the media and our elected officials.