If the small family farm is so great that thousands upon
thousands of us want to "get back" to one of these days,
how come the families who were already on those farms left
their 40 and 80-acre spreads in the first place? Well, the
truth be known, most of those families didn't leave the
land because they wanted to. They were forced off
and — most especially since the end of World War
Two — they've been forced off by a big business-big
labor-big politics monster known as "agribusiness."
Now, agribusiness means a lot of things to a lot of people,
but to the down-home farm family it has mostly
meant a combination of spiraling costs for the fertilizers,
hybrid seeds, pesticides, inoculations, barns, silos, and
ever-bigger row-crop machines they were told they needed to
buy to "be competitive" ... and plunging prices for those
row-crop harvests they sold as they and their neighbors
did, indeed, become more and more competitive.
Thanks to that squeeze, millions of small farmers — the
traditional "backbone of the nation" — have been and
are still being forced to sell out, move to the cities, and
try to fit into an alienating world of increasing
congestion, mounting pollution, rising crime, and plastic
distractions that they never wanted any part of. And the
big insurance companies, banks, investment organizations,
and corporations continue to transform the countryside into
instant suburbs and the kind of factory farms that spew out
the fertilized, sprayed, treated, enhanced, fortified,
processed, enriched, homogenized, and preserved foods that
our advertising and marketing establishment tells us we love so
dearly. It's a tragic waste of good land and good lives.
Sooner or later someone, somewhere, just naturally had to
take a stand against such insane "progress." That
someone was Earl Shell of Coffeyville, Kansas.
Shell—an expert horticulturalist who once earned a
substantial living as a garden farmer near Topeka,
Kansas—has long known revenue earned by cash crops like strawberries was higher than that of other crops traditionally grown in the area; an old saying has it that, "you can make more money
with an acre of strawberries than you call with 100 acres
of wheat." It seemed strange to him, then, to watch one
little farmer after another "starve to death on a tractor"
trying to play the agribusiness game when Earl knew that
those same little farmers could "prosper with a hoe."
The irony of the situation particularly galled Shell when
he looked around the nine-county area where he lived in
southeast Kansas' Ozarks region. By the mid-60's that area
was already run down and spotted with the empty and
deserted houses of what had once been reasonably prosperous
small family homesteads. In 1967, the average farm income
of that section of Kansas was estimated at less than $3,400
and it was obvious that just an extra $1,000 annually
could well make the difference between success and failure
for the families that were still trying to hold on. Earl Shell
decided that he'd just dang well help each one of those
families earn that $1,000 ... and maybe an extra $3,000 or
$4,000 to boot!
Early in 1968, Earl joined prominent men in the Coffeyville
area and began organizing Farm Products Management, a non-profit growing and marketing co-op designed to tackle the
problems of southeast Kansas' little farmers with what Earl
and his backers called the "Eight Acre Plan."
The Eight Acre Plan is not based on dreamy illusions.
Rather, it's a hard-nosed, practical program designed to
raise — by $3,000 to $5,000 a year — the net income
of any farm family who will plant one acre of strawberries,
two acres of blackberries and raspberries, and five acres of
apples or peaches.
"The Eight Acre Plan is tailored for our section of the
country," Shell says, "but it should work almost anywhere
with only minor modifications. We recommend an acre of
strawberries because the fruit grows well in the Ozarks
area, its fresh market demand is unlimited, and the net
yield per acre on this berry is higher than for any other
fruit or vegetable we know. The varieties we
recommend — Surecrop and Red Star — produce 5,000
to 12,000 quarts per acre and the grower usually receives
30¢ a quart wholesale for strawberries. Figuring
conservatively, a family that follows our directions should
net at least $1,200 a year on this acre.
"Red and black raspberries and blackberries wholesale for
double the price of strawberries and demand for them is
also good but their net return per acre is not nearly as
high. Still, such berries will quite easily return their
grower $500 per acre and the average should be a good deal
higher than that. At even the low figure. though, that's
another $1,000 a year for the farms that follow our plan.
"The semi-dwarf apple and peach trees planted on the
remaining five acres of the Eight Acre Plan will bear on
the fifth year and, after amortization of all costs, should
net a bare minimum of $1,500 a year from the fifth year on.
Actually, the average should be in the neighborhood of
$3,500 to $5,000 annually. And don't forget, that orchard automatically increases the value of the land it's
on by $200 to $1,000 an acre."
Although Earl Shell knew that his figures were correct, the
debt-ridden farmers he first talked to four years ago
didn't. They were skeptical, "Well, that's an interesting
notion" they'd generally say, "but I believe I'll stick to
my wheat. I never heard of anybody making money with
strawberries around here."
"No," Shell would answer, "you haven't, because the
people in this area who've tried it in the past have always
attempted to market their produce through roadside stands
or one or two independent grocers. But we're going to
organize a co-op, hire the best marketing specialist we
can find, and sell our berries and fruit by the truckload.
Matter of fact, once we're rolling, we'll probably be able
to guarantee you a market for everything you raise before
you even set out a crop."
Shell's arguments and promises only brought 21 growers into
FPM's program during the first two years, but those 21
soon found that Earl's ideas worked! By late 1970 FPM's
original farmers were happily tallying up thousands of
extra dollars and enthusiastically spreading the word about
the Eight Acre Plan. One — Donald Duff, who'd been
slowly going under trying to raise cows and soybeans on
640 acres near Thayer, Kansas— said, "For us, it's
the difference between sticking with the farm or giving up.
Now that I know FPM really works, I'm getting in deep.
We've planted 1,500 apple trees and three acres of
The association currently has a membership of 120 and Shell
expects to count over 250 participants in the program by
the end of 1972. "There's a tremendous enthusiasm for the
idea now," he reports. "Most of our people are between 40
and 50 but we're signing up new fruit growers all the way from
retired folks right down to teenagers. Those youngsters are
the ones that really make me happy. We'd like to help them
stay on the farms and there's only one way to do that:
see to it that they can make as much money farming as at
anything else. We think we can do it."
Right now, FPM is furthering that dream by concentrating on
breaking into the apple market ("We'll change the entire
economic picture down here!"). The association's members
have already planted 15,000 semi-dwarf trees and will set
out another 25,000 this year. The first harvest from these
quick-developing orchards will come in 1974.
By that time, FPM plans to have a network
climate-controlled warehouses in operation. Everyday's
picking of fruit will be driven to the nearest warehouse
each night where experienced fruit handlers will grade,
package, and label the apples before loading them into
refrigerated trucks to be shipped to their wholesale
destination. Moving the produce from field or orchard to
the food distributor's warehouse should take no more than
Farm Products Management will require financial muscle to
accomplish all of this — and the association's
revolving capital investment fund, into which each grower is
expected to put $200 — just won't be enough. Ultimately
large loans will be necessary and some help may be
forthcoming from FPM's affiliation with the Ozarks Regional
Commission, a joint federal-state effort to improve the
economic situation in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and
Earl doesn't regard such government assistance as charity.
"This is no handout" he declares. "We don't want that. But
there's no getting around the fact that at the point where
we'll have to start buying expensive refrigeration
equipment, we're going to need help. That money isn't a
giveaway. It's an investment in the future of this
"Farm Products Management, remember, is a non-profit
corporation. Everyone connected with us has to be
dedicated. There isn't a person on the staff who couldn't
be earning more money somewhere else. We're here because we
believe this thing is going to work. And it will!
We're on the way now.
"I hope that in 10 years we'll have 10,000 members in this
area alone. By that time, similar groups all over the
country will be following our lead. This can be a terrific
force in our nation,"
It certainly can, and a force that is long overdue.
Think of it: hundreds of regional growers' associations...
a revival of the old cooperative spirit among small
landholders ... fresher and more nutritious food for
everyone... bankruptcy for corporate agribusiness ... and
a reversal of the country-to-city migration. The potential