Signs Of Change In Food Farming


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From GENE LOGSDON

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?
~~

15 Comments

Peak oil will affect big growers, but also organic farms. Maybe more than they would like to admit.we are on the down curve now, ten years since world oil production peaked.
Totally right about farm wastes, even horse powered farms have a lot of off farm inputs, from hay etc. Check out thelatest small farmers kournal for an informative article.
With the next recession looming, I wonder how much organic food will be nought when theres less cash to go round.

Eric, I agree with the basic premises of your article, but I think you’re missing a couple of things. First, small farm diversity (i.e. manure production onsite, at least partial feed production onsite, alongside vegetables, small grains, etc.,) when practiced thoughtfully, can make a big dent in the small-on-big dependence you mention. All I have to do to prove this is look at some of my neighbors, who provide the vast majority of their own fertilizer while simultaneously reducing overall risk.
Second, there are at least some people in the world who have had enough suburban leisure already and actually are beginning to be clued into the fact that work can be fun if its met with the right attitude in a context that fosters interest. Maybe this kind of mentality will not be in the majority any time soon, but its numbers are growing. Not all work is drudgery, and its not all created equal. Hoeing weeds is, indeed, one of my favorite pastimes in the warmer months, because it gives me a chance to get to know my ground better, to watch and listen to the birds and other wildlife that coexist with me, and to get a decent workout in the process.
As for regulations, I think you’re right at a certain volume of production. But I also don’t know of any examples (not saying it doesn’t happen, I just haven’t seen it) of really small scale producers having criminal charges pressed on them by people who know them personally and have that farmer-customer relationship that is a significant part of this new economy.

As for the IVF project, I didn’t do my research before voicing skepticism. Thanks for the clarification on that line. I can certainly agree that longterm leasing would be attractive over purchasing or the traditional annual leases. If there were a program in my area that operated this way, I’d be very interested in getting involved in it. It’s really a great idea.

I’m not sure all this unrealistic enthusiasm for small and local farms isn’t harmful to the cause of small and local farms. Who’s going to go to the trouble of hand threshing grain or cleaning out hog intestines for sausage casings or hand hoeing or hand harvesting feed crops for his animals, etc., if he feels that the conquest of small and local farms is just around the corner, and that all these industrial parts of his diet and agricultural footprint will be replaced with items that small and local farms will soon sell much cheaper and easier than anything he could do for himself? What’s the point? Why shell peanuts one at a time when small and local peanut butter by the jar is imminent? Who’s going to trade in the pesticide-dependent peaches he’s always eaten and enjoyed for some organically feasible fruit like pawpaws (which he doesn’t even know how to tell when they’re ripe), when someone is about to discover the secret to local organic peaches in the humid East?
And it’s not just consumers. Small-scale local farmers are going to plant peaches for the same reasons, and then they’re either going to fail dismally or they’re going to give up on their local ways and turn to the big chemical companies. The people inspired to work on small and local farms are going to go into debt to buy land that they’re never realistically going to be able to pay off without jobs serving the corporate economy (or at best farms that put small and local window dressing on cheap corporate inputs and then sell that tiny bit of small and local added value for a huge premium.) There are lots of ways in which unrealistic expectations can undermine and wreck small and local farming efforts.
Yes, some progress in the marketplace has been made by small local farms with fresh, seasonal vegetables. However, that progress in the marketplace is mirrored by country people aging out of gardening, giving up their “small” 5000 square foot gardens while suburban yuppies start “big” 100 square foot raised bed gardens. That’s like calling it economic growth when we pay someone else to watch our own children, because we can’t afford to watch them ourselves any more. And how many categories of food are all but non-existent from small and local farms? Grain; poultry, eggs, and pork (if you consider the feed that makes the animals); nuts; oil; dry beans or other pulses… local organic tree fruits are all but non-existent for most parts of the US… not to speak of all the value added foods that are mostly too complex for small and local farms: fermented sausages (like salami), cured hams, beer, just about anything that has to be de-hulled, soy sauce, any kind of hard cheese, ice cream, etc. In terms of calories or acreage (particularly if you don’t count animal products from animals raised on feed from not-small and -local farms), even most hard-core locavores probably aren’t getting even 10% of their food from small and local farms. And restaurants and other institutional kitchens have an even harder time sourcing (and paying the price of) small and local farm products than individual households, and restaurants are a huge (and I’d guess growing) percentage of food expenditures.
The biggest obstacles I see to the growth of the small and local farm movement are fertilizer and labor. Small organic farms are heavily dependent on wastes (manure, bloodmeal, feathermeal, etc.) from large conventional farms. That may work okay when small organic farms cover 1 or 2% of the farmland, but if it takes 50 acres of large farms to generate the waste products necessary for 1 acre of small local farming (and much of those waste products aren’t convenient to the hip locations where small and organic farms want to be), small organic farms are going to have a really hard time expanding beyond 2%.
Labor is the other big obstacle. The big chemical company way of farming has allowed a tiny percentage of the population to give up their hoes and live comfortable consumer lifestyles. This is particularly true for pesticide-intensive fruits — besides controlling pests and diseases, apples are now mostly thinned with chemicals, for example, instead of by hand — and combine-harvested crops (and other mechanically harvested crops like peanuts, cotton…) To think that tens of millions of people are going to give up their suburban lifestyles to do that kind of labor-intensive farming again is wildly unrealistic.
And perhaps I should note a third huge obstacle: regulations. Weren’t the farm owners from the Colorado cantaloupe food poisoning episode convicted of criminal charges from unwittingly sending bacteria-contaminated produce into interstate trade? This is how much consumers support farmers: if they get sick, they think the farmer should face CRIMINAL penalties, even if there wasn’t any real negligence. Who’s going to go to prison to bust his butt selling 50c cantaloupes to rich suburbanites? The Food Safety Modernization Act, even though it technically has some exemptions for small farms, could also take a huge hit on the one sector (fresh vegetables) where small and local farms have seen most of their success so far. There’s hope for small and local farms, possibly even this side of the next Dark Age, but it’s not a hope without a hard and menial and uncertain fight. Those are my thoughts anyways.

Dan and John, I encourage you to check out some of the stories and more on the Iroquois Valley Farms website. It’s important to know that IVF doesn’t buy farmland and then go looking for young farmers; the farmers (young and old) bring the opportunities to IVF, asking us to buy the land and then lease it back to them on a long-term basis (very different from the traditional one-year tenant lease in conventional agriculture). These multi-generational family farmers seem to see value in a balanced portfolio, owning some land while also leasing some additional acreage. They’ve recently come to see that land ownership is not necessarily a guarantee of riches down the road and leasing land long-term significantly lowers the risk profile of their business (especially if they would have to borrow a million dollars to expand through land acquisition by themselves). Here are just a couple stories to check out. Cheers, -John
http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs150/1110009660346/archive/1112321789743.html
http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs150/1110009660346/archive/1118154635302.html
http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs150/1110009660346/archive/1118483735199.html

Gene, thanks for the great posts and the link to John Emerich’s sight. Lots of great information on that sight and a real boost to my hopes for the future. My wife and I are starting a small farm on our property (Vegetables, eggs, berries, and bedding plants) next year will be our first season with the farm. The goal of the farm is to provide a second income from a small property and prove that small organic agriculture has a place in our society (of course we not it does) But I want to make this project main stream through my blog, SustainableGardenFarming.com.

Thanks again for the informative article.

    I can’t help but believe that all the small farms producing good food are the future. Good on you! Even people who have eaten very unmindfully think twice once they have children of their own to feed. And how can the poor farmers in “big ag” possible sustain themselves??! Matt, you and those like you are our future–hang in there.

Gene,

All you need to do is look at the increase in Amish farms to see what segment of the Ag community is growing. Although they get a little more “modern” all the time, I have never seen a 1000 acre Amish farm! All of us “English” are finally figuring it out.

There is hope!

I was just getting ready to question exactly whether these land investors you mentioned are really quite so helpful, or whether they are simply a less aggressive, less bull-nosed contributor to the same problem of non-resident money pushing land prices ever higher than anyone who actually lives out here can hope to afford…But Dan beat me to it I guess

Good to hear there are some signs of change in food farming. I concur that the farms in Johnstown, OH keep getting bigger. And I think about how amazing fall harvest really is. Do we want those combines to stop or perhaps become integrated into a more diverse landscape? But what concerns me about the characters you mentioned, none are actual farmers. Farmland LP is another group of suits, looking to capitalize on the young people and ROI. I noticed the Iroquois Valley Farm group intends to sell it’s land to the farm tenants, but I just don’t know how a farmer can repay the investors 7%?

We shall see.

Happy Holidays to everybody and Merry Christmas.

Gene.

At last I see a ray of hope. Most folk who go into the type of farming enterprise espoused by this blog do so with a firm philosophy and belief driving them and often when a operational or strategic decision is to be made it is made by the heart and not the head. Of course if you survive the first 10 years or so without being gobbled up by the neighbours, bankers, financiers and/or the weather then there is a good chance that you will make the kind of choices that are sustainable both economically and managerially. If you want to foot it with the big boys (and by this I don’t mean in quantity but in quality and in the same markets) then you have to know the rules even if you don’t necessarily follow them. I guess in a sense it is a bit like a guerrilla vs a standard army; the guerrilla has it down pat because he can alter and adapt his rules of engagement instantly whereas the army model cannot break those years of habitual training. Overwhelming firepower should always win unless you pick the battleground. The big boys are locked into their operational methods and rarely can change quickly to meet threats that crop up in the natural world.

I am delighted to see the new breed coming in who obviously have the same desires and drives as we did years ago but now have the tools to make it work in this dog eat dog world we live in today.

Merry Xmas everybody and stay safe and healthy.

John

There are several dozen small (by today’s standards) diversified farms in our Valley. They sell locally and give back to the community generously. The old school in one of our villages was turned into a community center by the Township. The kitchen is inspected and used by 16 or so people to add value to their output. Baking, pickling and salsa are the more popular products. Small is BIG! Since the Agricultural Census misses a lot of the little producers there is no way to accurately gauge the real size and effect of their efforts.

A Peaceful Christmas to all and enjoy your Christmas lasagna!

Had to run out for some corn bread stuffing tonight and noticed that we now have an aisle dedicated to organic food products. All food groups were represented and what surprised me was the pricing was not a lot higher than what we find on the regular shelves. The gain in value – beyond measure.
I have met John Kempf. I wish I was 1/2 as smart as that young man. I asked him once how we could break the stranglehold that Monsanto had on the seed supply and his answer was immediate. “Easy, buy up all their shares and make me president”

“The fact that big grain farms continue to get bigger does not impress them in the least.”

Bigger is not better. Nor is it even a sign of success. A star puffs up into a red giant before blasting itself to smithereen in a nova explosion.

Consolidation is part of the “K” phase of panarchy theory. It’s what happens just before a crash. Energy and connectedness increase, until the system is so complex that all its yield goes into maintaining complexity — then, it crashes into the omega (dissolution) phase.

I recognize that people have been imagining the end of industrialized agriculture since the 70s or so. But we have never been so close to capacity. Of course, perhaps, deus ex machina, something will come along that will allow us to continue to grow, but that just puts off the inevitable, no?

Malthus wasn’t wrong. He just could not foresee that fossil sunlight would give us another couple hundred years of growth.

Your Acres, USA fans aren’t wrong, either. Will something come along to give us another couple hundred years? I think we’ll be lucky to get a couple more decades.

I think that they’re right I have to look no farther than my own area and my farm to see farming becoming less and less dependent on ‘Mainstream Agriculture’..The amount of farm production being sold locally in various ways is multiplying every year it seems.And these sales are far less dependent on some commodity market across the country setting and changing the price hourly,daily.weekly etc.It matters little or none to the consumers at the local markets what something is going for on the Chicago Board of Trade.This is the big advantage over the mega farms.Also these small independent farmers are stand alone financially solvent bunch unlike the mega farms that need various Gov’t payments and Gov’t backed crop insurance without these the mega farms are gone period,even they will admit to that.With the National Debt at 18 trillion$ and counting the folks at the Acres conference have a right to be confident because its just a matter of time.

So very encouraging. Thank you Gene for sharing. One of the best Christmas presents I could have is knowing that smaller scale farming is making a healthy comeback. Long may it continue

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