News From the Farm | November 9, 2015

There are many threads of experience over the last few weeks that might be woven into a Beet article this morning.  Last night, the board of the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance came to the farm for a tour and dinner. Fifty folks, mostly from the midwest, were here as part of their annual board meeting in Sacramento.  We had an afternoon walk down the county road that divides the farm and talked about our approach to farming and the reasons that our farm is designed as it is. Most of the farmers were corn and soybean growers and all were tied deeply to these two crops that dominate the midwestern landscape.

A walk is the best way to talk about the farm and about our approach to soil health, insect ecology, integrating livestock, cropping patterns, diversity, economic viability and creativity.  Our evolving farm design came from the fertile minds of four partners, great employees, and increasingly now, from the contributions of our children. Though we talked about a range of things, we shared a common love for farming. Their participation in the Alliance was clearly anchored in their deep belief in what they were doing to produce their crops and how the public has no understanding of what they do, and is actually – in their opinion – hostile to the choices and tools that they need to stay in business.

One of the first questions they posed was about genetically modified foods and why organic is hostile to the technology. The walk around the farm was our response —hopefully conveyed without hostility, illustrated in our ongoing attempts to design a farm that integrates and regenerates the underlying ecology, plant and animal health, and healthy human community.

Integrated solutions to food system sustainability need integrated study. The focus on genetics is sucking much of the research funding from the room. In the puzzle of sustainability, genetics is only a small piece, and there is much to be gained by investing in and researching integrated systems. The social outcomes from our choices of technologies and research continue to deeply impact rural places, and ultimately who owns the technologies becomes central to that outcome.

Most of the farmers in the group farmed 2,500 or so acres of corn and/or soy. This seems to be a minimum size for an economic unit. Most expressed the concern that there may be no room for their kids to come into the farm even though there was interest. High land prices driven by competition from others in the business seeking to expand, dairy farmers who needed more land upon which to spread their cow manure, or investor groups, were making it difficult to acquire the additional land to support a new family member.

To be efficient most had a new planter and large tractor to pull it across their fields in the spring during 10 days of planting when conditions are best. This combined with the harvester to do the same in the fall might represent a million dollar investment, often owned in part by the bank. Many expressed the notion that they loved to farm and planned to do it until they weren’t able to anymore. The new integration of computers and precision farming made retirement at 65 moot. Many of these folks had no intention to retire.

I had met a 23-year old farmer’s son in Iowa two weeks before. His father farmed 1200 acres and held a second job. He said that there was no room on the farm for he or his two brothers, and that the price of farmland prohibited their entry.  He was making other career choices, and the opportunity to keep talent, youth, creativity and human regeneration in that farm community was lost.

The threads of their stories weave into our own. The place next door is for sale. It is a farm that we have been renting for the past 30 or so years and its title is wandering through probate.  The asking price reflects values that – like housing a few years ago – have been bumped up by the enthusiasm of investor capital in California farmland. In the farming world, we fear this parcel being priced out of anything that reflects its agricultural value where payments would need to be generated by its agricultural production.

It becomes clear that keeping young farmers in the community is related to the tools we choose, how we pattern resource ownership and how we integrate research to develop farming systems that diversify income for those who farm. The keys to regenerating rural communities lie in access and secure tenure for new rural-based enterprises. Perhaps a different pathway of community ownership that helps to reinvest in ways that create greater health for the whole food system is needed.

As we sat down to an amazing meal prepared by Amon and Jenna in our new kitchen, these mid-western farmers – after plying them with a bit of wine – warmed to the idea that the future of a healthy farm culture may have a myriad of different expressions and/or design, and that the gap of relationships between consumers and the farm population might be bridged a bit by a good meal and a story—something that might be done anywhere as a satisfying pathway to understanding and creative solutions.

–Paul Muller