Sunday, March 8, 2015

Farming Mythology

I'm currently teaching a course on natural resources conservation at our local community college.  Last week, we discussed sustainable agriculture.  I started with a group exercise, asking my students to describe a "factory farm" and a "sustainable farm."  Each group described factory farms as large, monoculture, corporately owned farms that rely on chemical inputs and that focus on global markets.  Each group described sustainable farms as diverse, small-scale, family-owned farms that are focused on local markets.  Having helped to teach beginning farming and farm business planning courses with our local cooperative extension office, I think these perspectives about farming are pervasive.  Many of the new, locally-focused farmers and ranchers in our community come to farming as a avocation as a rejection of their perceptions about large scale agriculture.  And I'll admit that my own approach to raising sheep is motivated in part by my desire to take a different path than conventional, large-scale livestock production.  But I'm beginning to think that some of our perceptions are based on mythology - that large is bad and small is good, that organic production (by it's very nature) is more sustainable.

First, contrary to what my students believe (as do, I suspect, most Americans), farming in the United States is still largely a family affair.  According to the USDA Economic Research Service, family-owned farms account for 97.6 percent of all U.S. farming operations, producing 85 percent of all farm production.  As with any complex system, family farming in the U.S. takes many different forms.  Again, according to ERS:

"Farms in the United States tend to be much larger and are operated differently than smallholder family farms in developing countries. Large U.S. farms are frequently run by extended families, with multiple owner-managers specializing in different parts of the farm business. Many large farms produce only a few commodities and often specialize in particular stages of commodity production. They often purchase the services of outside firms to handle some farm tasks (such as field preparation, chemical application, or harvest), relying on those providers for expertise, labor, and equipment. They may also rely on hired and contract labor in addition to the labor provided by the operators and their families. Nevertheless, most U.S. farms still rely primarily on labor provided by the farm family, and most large farms, which rely heavily on non-family labor, are still organized as family businesses. Family organization remains an essential feature of agriculture in the United States, just as it does throughout much of the rest of the world."
To bring this to a personal level, most of my friends who operate or work for large scale farming operations are part of family owned farms.  The sheep and grain operation I worked for last year would fall into this category.  At 3900 acres, it can hardly be considered small, but it is owned and operated by a husband and wife team.

The economic realities of farming (at any scale) have required all operations to increase labor efficiency.  For large-scale U.S. farming, many of these labor efficiencies have focused on technology and mechanization.  For small-scale "sustainable" farms, at least in my part of the foothills, these labor "efficiencies" have required the farm owners to work for less than minimum wage - in other words, many of us subsidize our operations by working for free at least part of the year (and often by holding down off-farm jobs).  I'm not sure either model is ultimately sustainable.

For me, factory farming has more to do with attitude than scale, ownership or crop diversity.  A factory acquires inputs, transforms these inputs through a manufacturing process, and sells out puts.  This can be accomplished at a variety of scales and regardless of ownership.

Sustainable farming, by contrast, involves the careful management of living systems and renewable resources.  Sustainable farming essentially requires us to combine living soil, sunlight, water and carbon in a way that sustains the biological, economic and social life of our farm, our community and our planet.  This also can be accomplished at a variety of scales and regardless of ownership.  That said, I think families who live and work in the communities where they farm ave better suited to this approach than corporate officers who are physically separated from the act of growing food.

In some ways, I wonder if American perceptions about factory versus sustainable farming are both directly related to our collective disconnection from the act of growing food.  When we demonize "factory" farms, we tend to forget that we want cheap food.  When we canonize "Organic" production (I capitalize the word to refer to certification rather than actual production practices), we forget that Organic farms can operate at a large scale and on the input-output model of a factory.

Returning to my own farming experience, I find that scale and efficiency have been critical to our efforts to be "sustainable." While I am proud of the attention we pay to the health of our soils and our animals, and of our role in our community, our inability to build our business to an economically viable scale (at least for now) suggests that true sustainability is an elusive (and difficult) goal.  And while social attitudes about food production are changing, we've not yet found a way to translate these attitudes into economic success for the types of farms we say want.  We have difficulty letting go of our myths!

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