November 4, 2019

The fog this morning that followed the rain we received last night appeared surreal, creating a kind of mysterious alien landscape. The dogs and I took an early morning walk to explore and appreciate such a beautiful autumn morning. By the time we returned, the sun had penetrated and dissipated the fog, leaving a somewhat colorless landscape in its wake. The leaves had all fallen after last week’s snow and cold blast, and only a little grass remains green. The rest of the world has settled into a brown, almost colorless hue that indicates that winter is quickly approaching. I consider myself lucky to be alive and witnessing such a beautiful morning, and my three dogs seem to appreciate the morning with me.

The scene is strangely beautiful, but it masks a problem that is hiding in plain sight. The anomaly in this scene is that the fields around us should be mostly harvested and empty. They are not. While some fields are harvested near us, most still are not.  The wet year has plagued the farmers well into the harvest. When I look deeper into the scene, I realize that there is a struggle for existence and relevance that is taking place around me, and I feel deep empathy for the families who are farming.

Muddy fields and continued rain are making it difficult for most farmers to complete their harvest activities. It has been a challenging season for these farmers, and the uncertainty of the harvest and the prices they will receive once they get their crops off the field, contributes to the stress and unease omnipresent in the homes of our farmers. The plight of the farmer will most certainly be the plight of society as we move into the next decade. As small farms continue to fail and go bankrupt at alarming rates, small agricultural communities are failing too. There is a social breakdown in these communities that has led to everything from a rise in suicide rates to a significant increase in opioid overdose deaths in these small communities that once fed the nation proudly. Meanwhile, large corporate farms and developers are buying up the land that had remained within farm families for generations. The feeling of responsibility to their ancestors and current family if they fail, has proven too much for some, leaving them feeling isolated and hopeless.  

There are no easy answers for these farms. One line of thought, subscribed to currently by the USDA, is that these family farms are an anachronism, and that it is natural for them to disappear to make way for the efficient systems of modern agriculture. At first, this may make sense. Other industries have automated and created efficiencies that let them compete globally. The problem is, however, that efficiencies gained in many industries have come at a much greater cost to our planet and all who inhabit it. For example, the textile industry offers great diversity in selection at low prices, supposedly due to modern business efficiencies gained from large companies. Yet, the costs seem high. A reliance on non-renewable, oil-based products, and over-exploitation of developing countries’ resources and workers, leaves one wondering if these advances in production are truly advances at all.

Large, “efficient” agriculture is based on a few key principles. Firstly, large agriculture, or for that matter, large anything,  demands an unfair playing field that eliminates competition. This is done through policy manipulation and legislation at the highest levels. Politics aside, large agriculture only works well for crops that store well, like corn, soy, and wheat. These grain crops can be stored for years and speculated on by market speculators, who are the real winners in a centralized agriculture system. With four major companies controlling most of the world’s grain production, their interests are well represented in the system that feeds us all (see for more information on this).

Further, as with all exploitative endeavors, labor must be exploited. Farm and farm processing workers are often paid sub-living wage incomes. This allows cheap food to be produced that creates the maximum profit for the food manufacturers. Yes, I said manufacturer because much of our food is manufactured with the three grains listed above. Lastly, growing these crops efficiently demands pesticides and herbicides, some of which are poisoning our wildlife, water systems, and bodies.

I firmly believe that if we do not save small farms, we will be left with fewer healthy options for foods. It may be too late to expect major policy shifts to save the small farm, but each of us gets to vote daily with our money. Yes, we also need to vote for our representatives, but we can also help small farms by supporting them. There are several ways to support small family farms. First, buying as much as possible of your produce and other locally grown food at farmers markets will help support farms, but we can also do better. There are coops that are run by local farms, like Organic Valley in Western Wisconsin and even local businesses that add value to food, like bakeries, grocery stores, and restaurants, can be encouraged to buy grains and produce from local farms. In other words, if you buy it, they will grow it. Remember that the price of food is artificially subsidized to be low, and you will certainly have to budget more. Yet, you will get more for your money, better taste, better nutrition, and better health. 

To be sure, small family farms are in danger of being lost in our modern world. I, for one, think that it would be a tragic loss for all of us to lose these traditions. In addition to losing the cultural aspect of farming however, is the real danger that we could lose our healthy and ethical food options. The good news is that we all get to vote daily with our money. When you spend a dollar on a local farm, you get so much more than a delicious and healthy meal. That dollar will get spent again in your community, and it turns out that the economic benefits exceed those of sending that dollar out of your community. Most importantly, however, you will give hope to your neighbors, and hope is something that is contagious in a community. 

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