I attended the Acres USA conference a couple of weeks ago. The magazine, Acres USA, is often referred to as the voice of alternative agriculture, or at least used to be. It gets more mainstream all the time. It has been years since the last time I attended and I was struck by the change in tone and temper of the attendees. People I talked to are convinced, utterly convinced, that the day of large scale industrial grain farming is coming to an end. The fact that big grain farms continue to get bigger does not impress them in the least. The first conference I attended, in the 1970s as I recall, was a rather motley affair with lots of wild eyed devotees of various kinds of wild eyed notions and practices to improve soil health and fertility. At this 2014 version, however, there was a strong current of self assurance, cool success— quite a few ties and suits and fashionable dresses, speakers with all kinds of academic degrees, a general aura of having arrived.
Acres USA was founded by Charles Walters about 50 years ago. He filled its pages not only with what for me were strange new agronomic practices and theories, but with fiery rhetoric against conventional farming or anything else that might be displeasing him at the moment. Lots of fun to read. When I finally met him, I was surprised at how amiable and good-natured he was. I worked up enough brass to ask him why he published so much information on whacko farm practices. He smiled and responded: “New ideas are always perceived as whacko when they are first introduced.”
Charles is gone now but his son, Fred carries on ably. This year some 86 vendors were on hand. “We had to turn about 40 away,” Fred says. “We’ve quadrupled our business over the last 20 years.”
The first person I met, by happenstance in the hotel lobby, was John Kempf, a young farmer, a “designer of innovative soil and plant management systems,” as he describes himself, and founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture. I heard him speak to a group of organic grain growers last year and was impressed by his vast store of agronomic knowledge. I asked him if he still believed what he had written awhile back in Farming magazine—that “GMO foods are a sunset operation” and that “agricultural production and food processing will become increasingly decentralized.” His answer: “Of course. I see it happening every day.”
Another sign of the times is a new book by John Emrich, titled The Local Yolk: Beer, Backyard Chickens, and the Business of Building a Sustainable Food System (self-published, available through Amazon. Mr. Emrich also has a website: http//thelocalyolkbook.com). What makes the book different from scores of others about the localized food movement is that Mr. Emrich has already spent one career as a professional financial advisor. It is his straightforward, business-like approach to sustainable agriculture that I find appealing. I also happen to agree with everything he says. That has never happened before.
Hard to believe, but Mr. Emrich left the corporate investment world and started, of all things, Backyard Chicken Run, a sort of consultant and service supplier to the people in the Chicago area who are now keeping backyard chickens. He also got involved in Iroquois Valley Farms LLC, an investor group that buys farmland and leases it to small farmers who can’t afford to buy themselves. One of the major points of his book is that organic and local farms and food processing businesses, done with careful, ecological, lower cost methods will survive society’s headlong rush into economically unsustainable farm technologies.
From an email to me, he outlines the reasons he is bullish on small and local farms. 1. Organic food growing is up 11% to 13% with plenty of room for more growth. 2. The trend is “secular,” not just a fad or business cycle. By secular, he means that “we are careening into walls in environmental, human and financial health— the old way is going to give way.” 3. The Iroquois Valley farmers that he works with are increasingly getting calls from big branded businesses like Seneca Falls, Chipotle, and Organic Valley, wanting their production. “Sometimes the big brands are going directly to farmers with a blank piece of paper saying tell us what you need and promise us everything you grow.”
As an investor, would you put your money into farmland that is kept productive by costly chemicals or into farmland where sustainable soil management at much less cost can raise the organic matter content back up to nearly virgin soil?