In 1993, Will Allen cashed out a small retirement package from his sales executive position at Procter & Gamble and bought a plot of land with crumbling greenhouses a few blocks from Milwaukee’s largest public housing project. He had a simple dream: to bring fresh food to an inner-city neighborhood without healthy options. In The Good Food Revolution (Gotham Books, 2012), Will Allen shares the story of his unlikely return to agriculture in mid-life, and his efforts to transform the food system in underserved American communities. The following excerpt from the chapter “Overnight Success” explains how and why the job satisfaction of Americans tied to traditional farming methods is steadily declining.
In 1890, researchers for the U.S. Census Bureau ranked professions that had the highest rate of suicide. Tailors, accountants, bookkeepers, clerks, and copyists suffered the most. At the bottom of the list was a career least likely to lead to self-harm: farming. Today, the suicide rate for American farmers is double the national average for everyone else. In an effort to combat mental health problems among farmers, Congress authorized the creation of a Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in 2007.
Several recent studies, including a report by the USDA, have attempted to understand why many farmers are struggling emotionally. Some farmers who are asked about the high rates of suicide speak of a sense of loss: the loss of community, the loss of income, and not least, the loss of independence. Many rural farmers say that they are increasingly paid less for more work, and they owe more today for their seeds, fertilizers, equipment, and pesticides. They work one or two jobs outside of their farm in order to stay on their land. They feel ashamed that they cannot be self-sufficient in the way they believe their ancestors were. Instead of growing many crops, they plant hundreds of acres of corn or soybeans. They spray their fields with fertilizer and work off the farm while the corn grows. At the end of the season, the crop is harvested with a large combine.
This is an agriculture controlled by large machines. The land and the people on it are only units of production. The farmer may be compelled to grow on a scale that is uncomfortably large to him. He may borrow money for equipment he can’t afford, and he may never meet the people (or the industrial animals) who eat what he produces.
The economist E. F. Schumacher wrote a book a quarter century ago called Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, in which he argued that the belief that “bigger is better” was not always true when you considered the emotional health of human beings. Schumacher argued that people need jobs where they “have a chance to enjoy themselves while working, instead of working solely for pay, sure time.” He argued for new agricultural methods that “build up soil fertility, and produce health, beauty, and permanence.”
If we are to make farming a profession that young people want to enter, we need to create new models for growing and distributing food that are emotionally satisfying. We have to be guided by the principle that small is beautiful. I feel fortunate that I have found a way to grow food on a human scale, and I have secured a certain kind of independence. I seed with my own hands. I participate in the harvest. I have always loved the process of trial and error in organic agriculture and the way the work engages both my body and mind.
At its best, farming can provide a lifelong education that engages you physically, intellectually, and spiritually. It takes intelligence, instinct, and lived experience to be able to predict when your crops are about to go south before they do, to know when they have been planted in the wrong spot or overwatered—and how to compensate for these problems before it is too late. I once spoke to an eighty-year-old farmer who told me: “I’m just learning how to grow food.” I feel this way.
I think if we are going to foster a revolution in the methods of American agriculture, we must pioneer ways to make small-scale farming economically viable. We need to create farms that can grow multiple crops in an intensive way, even on small plots of land.
We can’t expect our food of the future to be produced only by traditional farming families in rural areas. These families have increasingly been pushed off their land, and the quality of the soil has been degraded. If we can figure out ways for more people to control the growth, marketing, and distribution of food on a local and regional level—and even to grow some food within cities—I believe we can play a part in remedying some of the problems that are troubling us as a country right now: the absence of jobs, the problems of waste, the crisis of rising energy costs, and the lack of access among low-income communities and people of color to healthy, affordable food. We need to create farmers who can produce $200,000 intensively on a single urban acre as well as those who can grow $500 on an acre in the countryside.
In the last several decades, the industrial agriculture system has depended heavily on chemical fertilizers that are high in nitrates, which farmers feel are necessary to produce high yields year after year. Plants use these fertilizers inefficiently, and when it rains, the fertilizer ends up running off into our drinking water. More than a quarter of wells in the United States now contain levels of nitrates that are considered higher than the acceptable standard. Excess human consumption of nitrates has been linked to gastric and bladder cancers. High levels in drinking water have also been connected to a condition called “blue baby syndrome.” The nitrates begin a chain of biological reactions in infants that deprived the child’s organs and tissues of oxygen. This syndrome is most common in rural agricultural areas where chemical fertilizers are widely used.
The gradual depletion of the land’s natural health has also meant that most of our crops are now less nutritious than they were even fifty years ago. The amounts of protein, iron, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamin C have all declined noticeably in all harvested fruits and vegetables in the United States from 1950 to 1999. Riboflavin, a B vitamin that helps the body convert food into energy—and that is necessary for healthy skin, eyes, hair, and liver—declined overall in fresh foods during that time period by nearly 40 percent.
I wanted to farm in a way that healed that damage. With my worm castings and compost at Silver Spring Drive, I believed that I could meet one of the biggest challenges of growing food in an urban environment: the problem of the land’s fertility. I knew that healthy food starts with healthy soil.
Excerpted from The Good Food Revolution by Will Allen with Charles Wilson. Copyright (c) 2012 by Will Allen with Charles Wilson. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.