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 berries."
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 36 hours.
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 Arkansas.
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 area.
"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 is mindboggling!