The measuring sticks that gauge the success and survival of a farm have been whittled upon and brandished both as tools and as blunt cudgels. For many years, those sticks have prioritized and shifted investments for success by measuring the efficiency of labor (how many people are used to grow and pick a bushel of tomatoes or wheat for example); by encouraging growth in the size of a farm (clearly stated by a former US Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz as “get big or get out”); by upping the level of technology employed (GMO’s, pesticides, machinery, the latest hybrid seed, global positioning systems or precision agriculture); by utilizing the land grant university system for research and then extending that information from academia to the field; by lowering food costs to the consumer; and by building a consumer economy based upon food abundance making stable politics and affordable food. By these measurements, the farms who succeeded were those that were able to efficiently deliver abundance. As a result, Americans on average spend less than 9% of their household income on food. By many measuring sticks, the changes in our food system over the past 75 years tell an amazingly successful story. The farmers producing in that system believe deeply in the good created by growing affordable, abundant food.
To stay in business, farmers applied these complex and changing tools and kept adapting and adopting. The pathways for millions of farm families bumped along flirting with hardship and disaster as they sought to change — always producing more for less. To succeed, a farmer had to be smart, nimble, creative and shrewd. Those who survived to farm today, learned the lessons of early adoption of new ideas, with an aim to lower costs and eliminate labor. For many farms there was little opportunity to evaluate new tools and technologies in advance because to hesitate was to be left behind. The results were a contradiction of astronomical individual productivity (output per farmer) while farms went out of business. With the impoverishment and emptying of rural America, youth, farm families and rural businesses closed doors and headed for cities. The economic strategy of more for less at any cost left behind empty towns and farm houses and drained away the brain power needed to shape a rural economy that was vital and vibrant. Most youth simply left and were advised to do anything but farm.
The last census showed rural population slipping from 20% of the US population in 2000 to 16% today. Farm size, consolidation in the food industry and the average age of farmers continues to increase, while the number of farmers and farms fall. Farm children see, and rightly so, more opportunities and creativity in the cities, and continue the migration away from dying communities. The loss was profound. Skill, stewardship and knowledge of place were abandoned as cultural priorities so that institutions and government policies could focus nearly exclusively upon production. The human communities that produced our food were abandoned to the ”˜invisible hand’ of markets that drove farmers to choose any tool that kept them viable for another year of production. We failed to have a national rural policy that prioritized long land tenure, healthy rural communities or stewardship of our natural resources. In short, today we have the food system that reflects our investments.
How do we reverse these trends? Is it simply inevitable that we will continue the way we are going? There are new models arising for food production and distribution that may be the seeds for resetting the priorities of the US food and farming. This healthy arising of new farms and young people learning to farm are now part of the conversation about food. That conversation is driven by consumers who are asking for local, organic or seasonal food. With those requests, the public is slowly moving the marketplace. Suppliers are paying attention and some are diversifying their purchases.
A regeneration of rural population, with new producers as an engine, is only positive. These new rural entrepreneurs are entering in the only place possible — as small farms and with direct relationships to their market”¦ through CSA’s and farmers markets. These producers are putting a new face on the farm, and the model is being embraced by urban planners and health professionals around the country. The system of small farms however produces only a fraction of what people eat today. Rather than dismissing the small farms as irrelevant, or assuming that all agriculture will change back to small farms, both large and small farms need to move to models that are more sustainable. We have however, invested heavily in the scaling up of farms, and technologies based on cheap fossil fuel. It may be time to invest an equivalent amount in the technologies, market channels and skills that would support a new rural entrepreneurs.
I had a couple of days last week to reflect upon our food investments when I attended a meeting of the Farm Foundation in Chicago. We met at the world headquarters of the McDonald’s Corporation, a 60-acre campus and home to “Hamburger University.” While there, I wasn’t learning about the secret sauce in a quarter-pounder, but was involved in a conversation with others in the food industry including ag suppliers, pesticide manufacturers, NGO’s working on hunger issues, farmers, marketing businesses and policy makers. This effort, like many others taking place at this time is aimed at creating a bridge in the public understanding of our food industry and resetting priorities for public investment in Agriculture. It parallels new thinking about the pathways to empowering small farmers throughout the world in the challenge to feed the expected population of 9 billion people worldwide by 2050. It is important work that moves our Food system to a broader idea of agriculture, a system where all eaters are invested in the production of healthy food and where enjoyment of food links producer with consumer. The real cost of food needs to be reflected in the real value of growing a diversified rural economy. All good stewardship is local, and all good measuring sticks have a broad range of things they measure. It is time to make new healthy rural economies part of our national measurement of social success.