The Mounting Imperatives of 21st Century Agrarianism: Farms & Food Face Fundamental Forces

May 20, 2013

co2The elemental wherewithal of our farms and our food is in motion. Whirlwinds of change bear upon our land, air, water and climate. Fundamental forces have shouldered their way front and center. The land calls urgently.

As reported worldwide this month, scientific evidence shows that the level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide (CO2), has mounted far beyond the danger zone. Heat is rising. Consequences are evident.

CO2 has now reached an average daily level above 400 parts per million, a level the Earth has not experienced for three million years. That was during an epoch called the Pliocene.

The overwhelming majority of scientists understand that this current rise in CO2 portends epic changes.

“Our food systems, our cities, our people and our very way of life developed within a stable range of climatic conditions on Earth,” former Vice President Al Gore observed in the wake of the CO2 report. “Without immediate and decisive action, these favorable conditions on Earth could become a memory.”

Following the front-page news about the rapid deterioration of the earth’s climate, came two other hard news stories that underscore the matter of food vulnerability: news of the disease-driven collapse of the staple food crop for more than 500 million human beings in Africa, and news of grave troubles for citrus fruits in America and around the world.

Climate change and crop disease are serious business. Here the land is not just calling, it’s shrieking.

Cassava root

Cassava root

In Africa the cassava plant – which produces a large, edible root – is succumbing to brown streak disease. Africa already suffers debilitating food shortages. Because casava is the staple food for the continent, this plant disease is calamitous.

Meanwhile, the citrus industry is grappling with an infernal bacterial disease that has now killed millions of plants in the southeastern United States and is threatening to spread across the entire country. The disease has also been found in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Citrus Greening, also called Huanglongbing or Yellow Dragon Disease, is fatal. The bacteria devastate trees, rendering bitter, misshapen oranges, then death for the entire organism. There is no known cure.

“This year (2012-13) was a real kick in the gut,” Florida’s agriculture commissioner told The New York Times. “It is now everywhere, and it’s just as bad as the doomsayers said it would be.”

* * * * * * * *

When I absorb this short stack of climate and food news — just a fraction of the farm and food factors in flux — I realize that we must dig in now more resolutely to build a clean, respectful, sacred and sustainable foundation for civilization. That is the direction forward.

Many thousands of local, organic agrarian farm-and-food initiatives have arisen across the Americas in the last 25 years. They offer a wide array of working models. Those models can and should be replicated and emulated far and wide. They represent intelligent and promising responses to the imperative call of the land.

buccolicOrganic farms and the cooperative food systems they are entwined with (the whole, broad range of 21st century agrarian initiatives) have manifold positive responses to the central issues, and a track record of evidence. They sequester carbon in the land and thereby mitigate CO2, helping stabilize climate. They offer clean, fresh food directly to people who live near the source. They provide dignified work in nature. They knit together healthy webs of relationship, both personal and digital, around concerns of a foundational nature to every human being. They teach essential ethical values. They establish oases of radiant environmental health. And they bring large numbers of people into a more direct and equitable relationship with the human beings who grow their food, and the land it is grown upon.

21st century agrarian initiatives also provide wholesome anchoring points (network nodes) for the brittle high-tech, digital-wave culture emerging so dynamically in our world. We are just at the beginning of that, really.

This 21st century agrarian initiatives – the many thousands of urban farms, CSAs, co-ops, community kitchens, church farms, and city gardens of all sizes shapes and descriptions – constitute core elements of a more wise and respectful human response to the imperative call of the land.

The cooperative development of clean local food systems is in no way a boutique idea or a passing fad. It is a key element of modern food security, and it is emerging not just as prudent but also as essential. It is also about the renewal of our overall human relationship with the earth that sustains us.


Waves of Change: Three Strategies for Millennial Agrarian Pioneers

February 22, 2011

Waves of change have irregularly swept through the realms of food and farms over the decades. By most reckonings, another massive wave is building toward a crest, driven by oil prices, climate change, market speculation, genetic experimentation, human health corruption, corporate interest, and consumer demand.

Chuck Hassebrook

In the context of these roiling factors, Chuck Hassebrook had a message for the audience at the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society’s mid-February conference: “We can shape the next wave of change with sustainable agriculture.” But, he added, to do that we will need the same qualities of determination and perseverance as the pioneers.

Hassebrook is Executive Director of the Center for Rural Affairs (CRA). He also serves on the Board of Regents for the University of Nebraska, a powerhouse among America’s agricultural academies, where he is one voice for sustainability in an institutional chorus determinedly advancing industrial approaches to farms and food.

In his talk, he picked up on the theme of change in the historical period starting after World War II when the wave was propelled by power equipment, petroleum-based chemical inputs, and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Initially those innovations made farm work easier and more prosperous.  But now, 60 years later, we must ask ‘what hath we wrought?’

There is a new wave of change now, Hassebrook said, but if we want a better sustainable future, we are going to have to take responsibility for creating it. “Each person has a moral responsibility to leave the land in at least as good a condition as it was when it came under their caretaking, and possibly even better,” he said. Then he offered three strategies.

Three strategies

1. Sustainable agriculture needs to continue to check its authenticity and find ways to make it possible for small and mid-size farms to take a fair share of the market. Studies show consumers overwhelmingly trust family-size farms more than they trust the large corporate farms, especially when it comes to ethical treatment of human beings and animals.

We need to band together to market our products to get to a place where the majority of the people who do the work are also owners of the land. That’s what a family farm is.

In the era of the pioneers, the people who worked the land owned it. Not so much now. Instead, the corporations or people who own the land hire employees to work the land for them, and those employees are in the majority of cases poor.

Hassebrook’s observations put me in mind of Trauger Groh, my co-author for  Farms of Tomorrow (1990), and one of the founders of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire. “If you work in nature with animals or with crops you have to take a deep personal interest in it,” Trauger said while I interviewed him for the The Call of the Land. “The hired person cannot do this. A salary is insufficient motivation. We need another way.

“We have no employees on our farm,” Trauger told me. “We have partners. At the Temple-Wilton Community Farm our principle has been to run the farm by a group of independent farmers in association with each other, not employees…Employment is the last outgrowth of slavery. If you are employed, you have to work on order. The employer sets the tone and says what you must do. People won’t want that in the future.”

2.  The second strategy Hassebrook offered involves the role of sustainable agriculture in addressing climate change. As studies show, organic soil absorbs lots of CO2 from the atmosphere and fixes it in the soil beneficially, thus helping stabilize climate in an era of wildly dramatic change.

“America and the world need our participation in the debate on climate change, not just in Washington, but also locally,” Hassebrook said. “We need to talk with our neighbors. Lots of rural folk continue their disbelief in climate change and think they are being conservative. But there is nothing conservative about that position. It is not a traditional value to put your head in the sand…If we continue to keep our heads in the sand, it may be too late to do anything about it. We need to take action now.”

In that regard the NSAS conference also heard from Abe Collins, an organic farmer who raises beef in St. Albans, Vermont, and is the founder of New Soil Matrix. His talk was titled Soil Formation as the Basis of Environmental Security and Economic Development.

“Everything good comes from the soil,” Collins said. “That’s our basic assumption. Increasing soil carbon is the key to our environmental security, and to both urban and rural development.

For many years, Collins said, the common-knowledge maxim has been that it takes 1,000 years to build one inch of topsoil. But that is no longer true. We now know how, he said, to build up to eight inches of topsoil a year to pull carbon out of the air and thereby to draw down dangerous CO2 levels in the atmosphere. “We can reduce CO2 levels substantially,” he said, “while enhancing our ecosystems and increasing profits.”

Collins encouraged land managers to enter The Soil Carbon Challenge, sometimes called the World Carbon Cup. It’s an international competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter. The hope is that the competition will spur further innovation.

3. – Hassebrook’s third strategy was to rein in government subsidy of large farms so that small and mid-size farms can have a fair chance. The way it works now, he said, is the bigger you are the more government subsidy you get. As long as we keep the policies that support that approach we will not have the resources to invest in organic and sustainable approaches to the land.

In 2007, the Center for Rural Affairs analyzed farms in 13 leading farm states. They learned that in those states, just 260 of the largest farm operations received more money from USDA farm programs than all of the people and communities in all of the counties combined — a total of nearly 3 million people in over 1,400 municipalities. The reality of that gross imbalance shines a sharp light on the distortion government money has brought to the realm of food and farms, and shows why small farms struggle while huge, corporate farms prosper.

Woody Tasch of the Slow Money Alliance makes a similar point about lack of support for sustainable ag. He points out that only a tiny fraction of foundation assets are allocated to organic agriculture. “We have $500 billion of private foundation assets in the USA,” Tasch has written, “and less that 0.1 percent of that — just a few hundredths of a percent — goes to support sustainable agriculture.”

What it comes down to, Hassebrook told the NSAS conference, is a choice about the impending wave of change: “We have got to limit what the big farms get. Direct payments usually go to land that is owned by a landlord and worked by poorly paid employees. We need to stop subsidizing the biggest and most powerful, and instead use those resources to support family farms, and to invest in the future of rural communities and the millions of people who live there.

In closing, Hassebrook referred to an editorial he had read a while back in the Omaha World Herald. “We can draw inspiration from the pioneers,” he said, “for they were people just like us: good and bad, poor and rich, successful and unsuccessful. But in general the pioneers had some important qualities. They had perseverance. They were visionaries. They made sacrifices to realize their dreams. They cared about each other, about community, and about the future. They saw what could be and then they did not let challenges dissuade them. They faced reality, and they were open to new ideas.”

Those qualities and attitudes, Hassebrook said, are what modern-day pioneers of sustainable agriculture need now to shape the mounting waves of change in our farms and food.


%d bloggers like this: