Small Is Beautiful: The Need for Job Satisfaction in Traditional Farming

New models for growing and distributing food could improve the job satisfaction of American farmers.

| June 7, 2012


“The Good Food Revolution” is Will Allen’s extraordinary tale of transformation of the cultivation, production, and delivery of healthy foods for underserved, urban populations.


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.

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