Get Small

Thirty years ago, the poet and philosopher Wendell Berry wrote “The Unsettling of America,” an extended protest against then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butt’s draconic dictum, “Get big or get out.”  Addressing the nation’s farmers, Butts was advocating not only the growth of the great agribusinesses, but firmly planting the government behind the big, and not the small farmer. A small farmer himself, Berry argued that farming by its very nature is local.  Each field or pasture, said Berry, responds best to the intimate knowledge of the farmer. Rainfall on the west side of a hill may be different than on the east; drainage is a matter of soil, elevation, and individual crops.  Berry argued further against the ever-increasing size of the machines being used to till the soil: the heavier the machine, the more it compacted the soil, and the larger the machine the less adaptable it was to uneven terrain.  Requiring farmers to purchase these huge machines to become “competitive,” Berry predicted, would only drive the farmers into debt.
In the more than quarter century that has passed since Berry wrote his book, the drastic decline of the family farm that he predicted has brought the percentage of actual farmers in the United States to somewhere between 2 and 4 per cent.  However powerful it may remain and however much market share it continues to rule, industrial-type agriculture has also suffered some blows.  Most recently, we have seen that the quality of the nation’s food supply is being compromised by the system of factory farming. Huge tracts of land being given over to monocultures have necessitated more and more powerful pesticides (now expanded to include genetically modified organisms, which increase the crop’s own genetic resistance to bugs). A nationwide threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has at least in part been brought on by the over-use of antibiotics to keep factory-raised animals from succumbing to the diseases their living conditions would otherwise create.  Vegetarianism has become fashionable.
The loss of the family farm has been felt not only in the grocery stores, but in the nation’s psyche. This is the inspiration behind FarmCity days, which invite the young people to come see the farms where their food is raised.  Farmers open their homes, their farms, to visitors from town, who may never otherwise have an opportunity to pet a cow, smell pigs, or feel the dirt from which their food is raised under their sneakers.
This year’s FarmCity days host in Groton/Lansing is not your typical dairy farm.  Rather than taking visitors through the barn to view swishing tails and rows of stanchions, the alpaca farm introduces them to a very special small farm. Raising alpacas for wool may never be as big as raising dairy cattle, but in many ways these small specialty farms seem to be the wave of the future. Farmland is being put back into use by organic farmers, by community supported agriculture groups, “hobby” farms, and people like a young woman from Downstate who stopped in the newspaper offices recently; she and her husband moved up here to  start a farm raising organic pork, and they can’t begin to keep up with the orders coming in.  Some of these farmers are the sons and daughters of farmers, but many others have little experience farming.  Often as not, they seem to be refugees from an urban way of life. Old timers might sit back and laugh at their naiveté, but their energy and inspiration (and yes, the money they bring in from other careers) work on the land like spring rain.
The cost of gas is not going to go down, and with the end of the era of cheap gasoline one of the supports for large agribusiness will also crumble.  A tomato grown in California can only be cheaper in local markets than one grown in Lansing if the cost of the gasoline used for transport stays low. As transportation becomes more costly, the price of food grown far away will no longer be competitive with food grown near to home, especially in as fertile a region as ours.  Further, people are beginning to worry about the safety and quality of food produced by agribusiness.  When salmonella or e.coli contamination becomes a real possibility, arguments that mass-produced food is cheaper just don’t seem as important.
Those of us watching for a revival of the agricultural sector can only hope Mr. Butts is rolling in his grave, and that all these little agricultural start-ups, like the CSA’s and specialty farms, continue to thrive and grow.  There’s still a lot more needed in terms of government support for small farms, but while we wait for the government to catch up it’s heartening to see that the new farmers, like the old farmers, aren’t waiting for a handout.  They’ve rolled up their sleeves and brought their shovels, and they’re doing it themselves: the old-fashioned American way.

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