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This week's Book of the Week feature is Small Farms are Real Farmsby John Ikerd.

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From Chapter 14: The Tipping Point for Sustainable Farming

For more than a decade now, I have been actively involved with the sustainable agriculture movement. Yes, I have begun to refer to sustainable agriculture as a movement — an organized effort to promote a particular cause. In the early days, I was optimistic. It seemed that developing a system of farming that was ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable was such a common sense thing to do that everyone would want to become involved with the cause. The USDA had initiated a Low Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program in the late 1980s and had reaffirmed and renamed it as the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program in the 1990 Farm Bill. Missouri, with its diverse agricultural resource base and its thousands of small farms, seemed to be fertile ground for this new common sense approach to farming. However, my early enthusiasm was soon dampened by the staunch defenders of the industrial approach to farming that had developed in America over the past 50 years.

To corporate agribusiness, a low input agriculture would mean shrinking profits from sales of commercial fertilizers, pesticides, and most of the other off-farm inputs that farmers have become hooked on over the past fifty years. They weren’t going to give up those profits without a fight. It wasn’t a matter of principle or ethics — it was strictly economics.

"To most small farmers, sustainable agriculture has always made sense."

To the larger conventional farmers, sustainable agriculture seemed to be more a threat to their ego than to economics. They weren’t even willing to consider the possibility that the way they had learned to farm, and had been farming for years, might not be sustainable over the long run. To them, the question of sustainability carried a presumption of guilt. They were the survivors of years of struggle when most of their neighbors had given up or had gone broke. They had been the winners; they didn’t want to change the game.

To most small farmers, sustainable agriculture has always made sense. It wasn’t all that different from the way most of them had been trying to farm for years. Perhaps there was more emphasis on environmental issues than some might have liked. But most small farmers knew that they had to take care of the soil and water and be good neighbors if they expected their farms to stay productive and profitable over the long run. Sure, many small farmers were no more concerned about their land, their neighbors, or their communities than were the agribusiness corporations. But most small farmers realized that the industrialization of agriculture had stacked the deck against them; they were more than willing to help change the game.

A lot more farms are small than are large. So, one might still have expected strong public support for the sustainable agriculture movement. However, small farmers don’t have much influence in the economic or political arenas. The agricultural establishment — including USDA, Land Grant Universities, Farm Bureau Federation, and most farm commodity organizations — has effectively suppressed the potential ground swell of grassroots support for the sustainable agriculture movement. The USDA SARE program has more than tripled in size, from its humble $4 million beginning, but remains well below one percent of the total USDA research and education budget. Most Land Grant Universities have at least “token” sustainable agriculture programs, but none have allowed such programs to detract from their primary agenda of promoting agricultural industrialization through biotechnology and other high-tech production systems. Some state departments of agriculture seem to be more supporting of sustainable agriculture programs, perhaps because they feel a need to be more responsive to voters. But most mainstream farm organizations openly promote the “agricultural industry” while giving only token consideration to the impact of the ultimate corporate takeover of agriculture on the future of farmers.

In spite of powerful opposition, the sustainable agriculture movement continues. While progress has been slow and painful within the agricultural establishment, elsewhere there is growing cause for optimism. In the winter of 2001-2002, I had the rare privilege of attending conferences and various other types of gatherings of people interested in sustainable agriculture almost on a weekly basis. I have crisscrossed the U.S. from Montana to North Carolina, from Pennsylvania to California, and from Texas to Michigan. I have met with Canadians in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. I am pleased to report that at the grassroots level the sustainable agriculture movement is alive and well.

"Sustainable agriculture is no longer a novelty and the people who attend these conferences include few idealists attending out of idle curiosity." (Photo from the Acres U.S.A. Healthy Soil Summit)

Several “sustainable agriculture” conferences now draw more than 1,000 people each year — including the Upper Midwest Organic Growers conference. The California Eco-Farming Conference in Monterrey in January pre-registered more than 1,200 and probably had closer to 1,500 in attendance. Conferences drawing 400 to 500 people may not be commonplace, but neither are they rare. The Michigan Organic Farming Conference, for example, drew more than 400 people in early March and the Sustainable Hog Production Summit in New Bern, North Carolina in January drew more than 500 people. The numbers of conferences routinely drawing 100–200 people are too many to count. And the numbers of people attending nearly all such conferences keep growing from each year to the next.

Sustainable agriculture has also become a featured theme at far larger gatherings of farmers, such as the Small Farm Today Conference and Trade Show, which drew more than 3,500 people last year. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have had numerous conferences across the country promoting sustainable agriculture as an ecologically sound alternative to industrial agriculture. And I have participated in a series of conferences organized by Catholic Rural Life groups, Montana’s Association of Churches, and the Missouri Center for Rural Ministries, all advocating sustainable agriculture as a moral response to the current economic crisis in rural America.

Sustainable agriculture is no longer a novelty and the people who attend these conferences include few idealists attending out of idle curiosity. Most of the people who attend are farmers. They want to learn more about what they are already doing or are seriously seeking a new and better way to farm. The sustainable agriculture movement also has strength in its diversity. The people are young and old, male and female, well educated and less well educated, well off and less well off financially. They are a cross section of the people of rural America, although not representative of the existing rural or agricultural power structures. These people are building the future of American farming and of rural America, with very little help from their government, their universities, or anyone else. These people deserve a lot more help than they are get­ting. But, I truly believe they are going to succeed, with or without help from the establishment.

More people are beginning to understand that sustainability is not about sacrifice, but is about helping people achieve a higher quality of life through a more enlightened concept of self-interest. For example, Paul Hawkins, author of Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism, recently said that he no longer talks about environmental protection but instead about enhancing our quality of life through attention to community and stewardship. Hopefully, quality of life is a “stickier” way to describe the ultimate purpose of sustainability.

And finally, more and more people are realizing that industrialization is destroying our civil society and natural ecosystems, and corporatization is destroying our democracy and our national sovereignty. We are in the midst of a great societal transition, and it is changing the ways people are thinking about everything. More and more people are realizing that there is something very wrong in America, and they are ready for fundamental change. This great transition of thought creates a hospitable environment for fundamental change.

Perhaps the sustainable agriculture movement is still at the stage of a “low grade infection.” But the “disease” is spreading and infecting more people all across rural America. As we join forces with other sustainability movements, we are helping to infect American society as a whole with the desire for change. At some point in the not too distant future, we will reach the “tipping point.” The movement will become an “epidemic of change” sweeping like a virus across American society, infecting all whom it touches with a common sense commitment to a sustainable future.

Learn more about Small Farms are Real Farms here.

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 About the Author:

John Ikerd was raised on a small dairy farm in southwest Missouri and received his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri. He worked in private industry for a time and spent thirty years in various professional positions at North Carolina State University, Oklahoma State University, University of Georgia and University of Missouri before retiring in early 2000. Since retiring, he spends most of his time writing and speaking on issues related to the sustainability of agriculture.   

Titles of Similar Interest:

Raw Materials Economics, by Charles Walters

Night Came to the Farms of the Great Plains, by Raymond D. North

In the Shadow of Green Man, by Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin



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