Originally published on Counterpunch, Aug. 1, 2011.
Who Will Feed the People?
Obstacles to Small-Scale Agriculture in the US
by KOLLIBRI terre SONNENBLUME
“In the future, more people will have to grow their own food” has become a truism among pundits and observers who are paying attention to the changing state of western industrial civilization, and of the U.S. in particular. Declining energy resources, ecological degradation, and global financial disolution are a few of the trends that are and will be impacting agriculture-as-we-know-it, and forcing agriculture-as-it-will-be.
That chemical-based farming is a failing experiment has been well-documented elsewhere; numerous books and articles have explored declining soil fertility, chemically-resistant weeds and pests, the tainting and depletion of irrigation water, the shrinking diversity of seeds, the dangers of genetically modified crops, and the plummeting nutritional value of fruit, vegetables, and grains. I will not reiterate these issues here, except through examples that address my points, which concern the future of agriculture.
The “need” for a smaller-scale, non-chemical-based agriculture is clear. So are the attributes that it must have. This agriculture will be regionally-based, because the means for shipping produce around the world will no longer be profitable. This agriculture will be based more on animal power (two-legged and four-legged), because machines will be few, and the fuel for them too expensive or unavailable. This agriculture will focus on soil-building rather than chemicals, because the chemicals are sourced from the same raw materials that make the fuel. This agriculture will break with monocropping over hundreds of acres and instead utilize small parcels intercropped. And, this agriculture will have to involve much more than 2% of the population, even if that population is in decline.
I must mention that, in my opinion, the forces at work in the world today — energy, ecology, economics — are of such a large scale and their inertia so powerful that we are being coy when we say we “need” to switch to a smaller-scale, non-chemical agriculture. I suspect that we “will be” making that switch, like it or not, planned or not. No need to rally for the ball that was tossed in the air to come back down. It’s on its way, like all things that go up. But the transition — the beginning of which we are living to see right now — is a very tricky one, to say the least!
Despite appearances — which include the mainstreaming of “Organic”, and the growth of farmers’ markets, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), and urban agriculture — very little fieldwork (pun intended) is happening that meaningfully addresses the emerging challenges of our time. A “100 mile diet” for more than a few “sustainability” geeks is still the stuff of fantasy. The mega-farming system born of the 60′s “Green Revolution” is still what puts food on the table of almost everyone in the U.S.
I am a farmer in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. This season I have partnered with two other farmers and we are working about seven acres together, trying to grow vegetables, medicinal herbs (not OMMP) and staple crops such as legumes and grains. In the recent past, we were urban farmers in Portland, growing produce for our CSAs in little yards and empty lots while experimenting with staple crops on larger suburban and exurban plots.
Among us, we have over ten years of farming experience, a botany degree, and work in the restoration field, as well as above-average intelligence, impressive resourcefulness and a dawn-to-dusk work ethic rarely seen anymore these days in the U.S. (at least among white people). We are not trying to get $-rich, but we are not idealistic money-haters. Until the seed-and-feed, gas station, and hardware stores take barter, we need the cash. We do not limit ourselves to a single doctrine, such as permaculture. We are unconcerned with the pettiness of politics or the vagaries of the nation’s culture. We are simply people who are aware of the emerging food crisis, and want to see what it takes to grow a sustenance-providing amount of food and medicine for ourselves and a few friends and family who threw investment our way.
We are farming on land that was formerly used for grass-seed production, and has been hammered with chemicals and big machines for decades. Over 50% of the cropland in the Willamette Valley is planted in grass-seed, so the lessons we are learning are potentially valuable for future farmers who will be attempting the same in this area. But the issues we are facing — lack of soil fertility, residual chemical effects, out-of-balance insect populations — will be found across the nation for anyone trying to farm on land that was conventionally abused.
While in the city, my bicycle-based CSA operation gained much media attention, so I was able to raise enough resources to give urban farming a very serious try. Unlike most urban farmers, I did not have rent or other bills to pay, so was able to devote myself full time. Having thus immersed myself in the practice, theory, and context of agriculture, both urban and rural, for the last several years, the following obstacles to sustainable farming have become obvious to me.
1) Not Enough Farmers
Less than 2% of the U.S. population is directly involved in farming. Two hundred years ago, it was over 90%, and as recently as the 30′s it was still 40%. Increased mechanization and cheap fuel were the paired enablers of this historic shift to giant farms manned by a handful of people. The so-called “Green Revolution” of the 60′s, with its “better living through chemistry” was the hammer that nailed shut the coffin on small-scale farming, which has been dying a drawn-out death in the decades since. Despite a small uptick in the number of small farms over the last decade — due largely to the Organic trend — most agriculture is still huge and corporate-run. The population of the U.S. and much of the world is utterly dependent on this system for sustenance, and will remain so while any transition takes place.
This 2% will have to grow, but how? Who wants to give up a working week of five 8-hour days for one that is seven 12-16 hour days? Who wants to give up a regular check for financial uncertainty and perhaps impoverishment? Who wants to give up their city socializing and entertainments (both increasingly electronic)? Or maybe their electricity and hot running water? Not most people I have met, whether the proposition is to farm in the country or in the city.
Many Portlanders I met were inspired by the urban farming beginning to take place in the city, and some dreamed of Havana. As portrayed in the film, “The Power of Community”, a radical rearrangement of agriculture took place in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union and the attendant loss in resources. Non-chemical farming became the only viable option, and the practice of urban farming grew dramatically. The makers of the film claimed that Havana was now growing over 50% of the produce it consumed within its own city limits. Impressive and inspiring, on the face of it.
But Portland is and was not Havana. A few dozen people starting CSAs and selling to restaurants does not a food revolution make, and besides, Cuba’s very different style of government was likely the major steering and empowering force in that shift. Most Portlanders would probably not appreciate the contrast in ownership models, etc., used on that island, were they to be imposed to them and their neighborhoods (which is not to denigrate Cuba or its response in any way).
Portland is a hypey town, and the press that urban farming got made it look much more impressive than it was. I know this from reading the articles about myself and my own operation, all of which but one had glaring errors that presented things not quite like they were. One result of the press coverage was that people made the assumption that “OK good, somebody’s taking care of that,” and went on with their days.
But no, nobody’s taking care of that yet, really. Urban farming has still not attracted enough practitioners to be taken seriously.
2) Lack of Equipment for Small Scale Farming
Suppose you want to plant an acre each of wheat, soup beans, and millet. How does one plant, cultivate, harvest, and process crops on this scale? Wheat can yield over two tons per acre, beans and millet half a ton each. You can’t efficiently seed plots of these size by hand. Or weed them, or harvest them, or thresh and winnow them. Not without a lot of people, that is, and the days are over when the whole village would drop what they were doing and turn out to bring in the harvests from the fields.
The vast majority of machinery available on the market today in the U.S. is geared toward the hundreds, or thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of acres. It’s too big to move around in such a small area.
The equipment needed for small acreage farming is no longer manufactured in the U.S., and hasn’t been on a mass scale since the 70′s. Most of the old stuff is sitting in rusty heaps at the edges of fields or has been repurposed as “yard art”. Earlier this season, we watched helplessly as scrappers hauled away an old combine they had found in the blackberry brambles on the property we are farming. Being lessees, we were unable even to buy enough time to see if it was repairable, but we saw pieces go by that could have been used on their own for seed-cleaning at our scale.
Equipment for small acreage farming is still manufactured and sold in other parts of the world, including Europe, China, and India. The technology has continued to develop in these places, with new innovations improving on tried-and-true designs. We farmers have drooled over the beautiful machines that Ferrari is making. But the cost of purchasing and shipping this equipment to the States is a prohibitive factor for our operation.
The Amish and a few hobbyists have been keeping alive draft animal practices, but these folks are also few and far between. Animal husbandry is not a skill learned overnight, and, as with vegetables, some heirloom breeds that are good for field work have been lost or are dwindling.
In the city, the situation is easier, because the plots are usually small enough to be polished off with a walk-behind rototiller. Here, too, there are serious quality issues, and the best machines are made overseas, many of them in Italy. Regardless of how good the equipment is, some knowledge of small-engine repair will really help the farmer, especially to avoid costly by-the-hour fix-it shops, who might or might not do the job right.
Additionally, for farmers rural and urban, parts could eventually become an issue. If the economic fabric frays to the point where shipping becomes expensive, then the next skill the farmer will have to take up — or better yet, find in someone else who wants to barter for food — is metal fabrication, including welding. If you don’t feel like picking up a pitchfork, consider enrolling in a VoTech.
3) Lack of Knowledge about Small-Scale Farming
The knowledge of how to grow on a smaller scale is also disappearing. The average age of an Oregon farmer is 67. If he (usually) even remembers how things were done before, who knows if he is capable of changing, or if there are enough of him around who are willing or able to teach younger people. The big equipment he uses cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and isn’t paid off yet. What else is he supposed to do? Federal agricultural subsidies aren’t going to Grandpa Grass Farmer; they’re going to ConAgra, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland.
We have the pleasure of knowing the farmer in our area, Harry McCormick of Sunbow Farm, who founded the Willamette Valley Grain and Bean Project. Harry has been farming near Corvallis since 1972, and has a wealth of knowledge and experience about growing horticultural and field crops. He started the Grain and Bean Project a few years back to try to help farmers get out of the grass-seed business and start growing food. Thanks to his efforts, thousands of acres are in transition, but that’s not as impressive as it sounds. Harry himself describes this work — the work of cultivating staple crops on a small-scale basis — as “fringe”.
Old USDA publications from the early 20th Century (and earlier) will become more useful again, as they describe in detail many practical, reliable techniques that don’t involve 40+ foot wide combines.
4) Lack of Financial Resources
Will there be a Marshall Plan for small-scale agriculture in the U.S.? Not from a president who appointed someone from Monsanto to the USDA. How about from the cities, counties or states? Nope. They’re going broke and cutting essential services already. The private sector? There’s no money in it. The non-profits with their grants? Only if you fit their ideological stripe and promise to play by their rules. Ralph Nader’s bizarre vision of the super rich saving us is only slightly less far-fetched than the idea that the Galactic Federation will be raising us to the next level of consciousness in December 2012.
Though I had no difficulty selling shares to my produce CSA in Portland (and could in fact have kept a long waiting list), I have not had similar success with raising funds for our current project. I don’t know why, for sure. Possible reasons: Staple crops and herbal medicines, delivered once at the end of the season, doesn’t offer the same gratification as twice-weekly produce. Or, grains and beans lack the trendiness of urban farming, which in Portland has reached the status of sexy (for which I will gladly accept some credit!). Or, having moved to the country, I am now out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Or, I was just too outspoken for some people’s standards, and their self-obsession led them to take personally what I meant culturally. Who knows?
The bottom line is that there ain’t much of one. In our case, the only way we were able to invest as much as we have (a low five-figure amount), is because one of us had an inheritance from a recently deceased mother to draw on. Which is not exactly what most people would wish for, or that many can even look to as a possibility. Going into this year’s season we had seeds, tools, books, and other hard-good resources (altogether worth another low five-figure amount) only because we had invested in those things so well during the urban farming years. We were not starting from scratch. In these ways, we had a financial and material advantage that other people can’t count on.
Not that these resources have been adequate to the task; they haven’t. We estimate that our project could only be truly effective if we had a low six-figure sum for a three year period. Who is going to hand that out, to tens of thousands of farmers across the nation?
5) Lack of Market
One farmer in the Grain and Bean project is sitting on 17,000 lbs. of garbanzo beans because he could not find a buyer willing to pay a reasonable price. While the big boys are continuing to be subsidized — not just by the USDA, but by the U.S. military holding control of various regions and their resources — the non-chemical farmer coming up in this country is unable to compete on price.
One year in the city, I calculated that my hourly wage was something like 5 cents. Even in a so-called “Foodie Town” like Portland, it was challenging to find a market for my produce. Most consumers, including restaurant owners, are still shopping for produce with a list in their hand, rather than learning from the farmer about what can and can’t be grown in their region. On the first hot day of Summer, which happens sometime in late June in the mild Northwest, everyone wants tomatoes, watermelon, and corn. Nevermind that those crops are still 2-3 months away at that time of year (if they ripen at all).
The farmers bring some of this on themselves, by choosing to cater to perceived customer desires, rather than by concentrating on what grows best and presenting a balanced, nutritious diet to the customer, and educating them about it. For example, the Pacific Northwest is the best place in the U.S. to grow parsnips: the roots can winter in the ground and don’t need to be dug up and stored, and, the sweet flavor comes out only after a couple-three freezes, but the ground doesn’t get cold enough to kill them. For this second reason, California parsnips never taste as good. The temps just don’t go down enough. Here is a delicious — almost sugary when roasted — vegetable to get you through the winter, along with carrots and turnips also from the ground through the cold months, and very few Oregon farmers are growing them.
Even if you grow something people want, making a profit is still a challenge. Restaurant owners want to pay a wholesale price that compares well with Cash-and-Carry, and farmers’ market customers are often looking for a bargain, too. Farmers’ Markets can be expensive to attend for the starting-out farmer, what with the costs of a tent, table, bags, a legal scale, etc., and with market policies such as mandatory liability insurance. Most Farmers’ Markets would more accurately be called Farmers’-Market-Manager-and-Their-Non-Profit-Board Markets, as they have become highly regulated structures, making demands of farmers in the interest of creating their own personal vision of a market that matches their effete tastes. Gone are the days when you could just drive a truck up and sell produce out of the back, with no cost except gasoline and a tarp.
6) The Wasteland Left Behind by Conventional Farming
Much of the farmland in the United States is a wreck and not ready to eat out of. Here in the Willamette Valley, over 50% of cultivated acres are in grass-seed. Another sizeable percentage is in Christmas trees, for which very poisonous chemicals are used, including Atrazine, a ground water contaminant. Nurseries of ornamental plants account for another chunk. Only 5% of the Valley is in food production. That’s a lot of poisoned, not-ready-to-farm land.
We are seeing first-hand the issues in making a grass-seed-to-food transition, and the picture is sobering. The first thing we discovered is that you can’t simply till the grass under and plant. The list of crops that can grow unaided in our particular toxic circumstance doesn’t go much beyond jerusalem artichokes, chicory and horehound. Soon after arriving, we transplanted healthy perennial medicinals into the ground and watched as they turned red immediately. Some grew out of it, some did not. They have all been stunted and in some cases misshapen. These were the kinds of plants that are said to thrive in poor soils, and which we had never amended before. Tough old birds reduced to clipped weaklings. Sad to see.
Without the money to amend all the soil, we took to carefully dressing each spot or row where we would be seeding or transplanting. This has worked somewhat well, but is not a farming-technique that I would recommend. The result has been a field that is still predominantly infertile, with little “pots” of short-term fertility plugged into it. An act that’s difficult to follow the second season, and not at all a long-term solution.
We were able to get a list of the chemicals used by the grass-seed farmers. Broad-leaf herbicides, 10-10-10 fertilizer, fungicides, and growth regulators were their main tools, with Round-Up at the end of the five to seven year planting cycles. A toxic brew, to be sure, but not nearly as intense as what people will find at sites where other crops were farmed.
The effects of these chemicals are persistent, even when the chemicals themselves are (allegedly) not. Fungicides take out the mycorrhyzal bacteria so important for healthy root growth, and must be re-introduced. When artificial nitrogen is used, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil stop fixing, and must be restarted. When broad-leaf herbicides are used, the diversity of plant life becomes constricted to those tenacious weeds that can survive the pounding, and their vigor in the absence of chemicals can quickly overcome the organic farmer’s new crop.
Cover-cropping and other methods could eventually fix these hurting lands, but they take years. So, when people realize that they can’t wait any longer to switch to small-scale, non-chemical farming, will it be too late? If it’s going to take empty shelves in stores to make more farmers, then the future will bring starvation.
Interestingly, we found that the soil in the city was much cleaner and more productive than any of the country land we have worked (five different locations). The image in city minds of a pristine countryside is false. Many agricultural chemicals are flat illegal to use in urban areas. Nope, the country has become a toxic wasteland, and people have another thing coming if they think we’ll just be able to fan out into the fields around the cities and start growing our own food when the machine breaks down.
7) Extreme Weather
The apparently more common instances of extreme climate events such as droughts and flooding are leading to crop losses around the world and in the United States. I will take no stand here as to whether these events are caused by human industrial activity, HAARP and weather modification, or are merely another trend like the “Little Ice Age” or “Medieval Warming” of the past. But as a farmer who closely observes the local weather, and who keeps up-to-date about other farmers’ weather, it is clear to me that we definitely are in a period of increasing climatic instability as relative to immediately preceding decades.
Hundreds of hours of work and many months of growing can be wiped out by an early frost, a record heat-wave, or an unseasonable rain. You can’t eat your insurance policy, even if you have one. This year, in our location, we experienced precipitation high above average in March, April and May, preventing tilling and hence the planting of spring grains. Then, in June, we got rain twice, the second time only a sprinkle. In July, we had one two-day rain event. Last year, the rains didn’t stop until early July, also preventing tilling. Then the October rains started in September. Going back season-by-season, each year of the last six has been marked by different extremes of wet, dry, hot and cold, all considered atypical. So, abnormal is the new normal, which makes it very difficult to plan, if not plant.
Historically, agriculture has been marked by famine on a regular basis. That the U.S. has not experienced widespread crop-failure since the Dust Bowl is an historical abberration. With the floods in the Midwest and the droughts in Texas and the Southwest, perhaps we are witnessing the end of that lucky streak currently. In any case, the drama of weather will play itself out region-by-region, farm-by-farm, farmer-by-farmer, and does not seem likely to be easily predictable.
8) The Social Challenges
Sometimes when I’m out there in the field doing repetitive and arduous by hand because there’s no other way to do it (sometimes because that’s just how it’s done and always has been done), I find myself wondering, “How do people think we are going to switch from conventional to ‘sustainable’ agriculture?” The on-the-ground facts paint a picture of mind-boggling challenges, tangled (by nature) logistics, steep learning curves, tremendous labor, and radical lifestyle change for which no one seems ready.
The people of the U.S. are, by and large, the pampered children of Empire, unaware and uninterested in their own priveledge, taking their war-won comforts as an entitlement and their narcissism as a birthright. For much of the rest of the world, the view is different: the globe is a plantation, its people slaves, and the U.S. is the master’s house on the hill. The flabby inhabitants of that mansion don’t want to go out into the fields for fear of getting their hands dirty. Or chop their own wood, or carry their own water, or so on.
Why does this matter? Because although we are all individuals, we are all — whether we like it or not — “in this together”. U.G. Krishnamurti put it in terms of the cells in the body; each cell is its own individual entity, but each cell is dependent for its survival on all the cells immediately surrounding it, each of which is dependent on the cells around them, etc. There is no going-it alone. “Rugged individualism” has always been a myth.
When it comes to my own current dedication to farming, I have personally experienced what I can only describe as some kind of instinct with a species-centered focus, to work on our collective survival. I do not consider myself better or worse than anyone else for choosing this work. There is not for me a political, philosophical, or sentimental motivation. I offer no vision and have no hope. And I do not believe that I will survive trying times just because I am trying. I say all this to dissuade you from your own delusions of hope, if you have any.
Wishing, praying, or (a la Portland) “manifesting through intention” do not grow crops. Neither does hard work on a piece of land if that land is poisoned, or you lack the equipment or resources, or if the weather knocks you for a loop. Those are the circumstances that all the farmers, old and new, will be facing. Agriculture has always been a crapshoot, and it looks to me like the odds against are rising.