The United Nations (UN) has declared the years 2019-2028 to be the Decade of Family Farming. With this declaration the UN intends to create opportunities for people to transform existing food systems around the world so they are clean, sustainable, and just both economically and socially.
In this manner the UN hopes our farms can be key actors in helping the world achieve the urgent markers of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Necessary goals, no debate about that. But at the end of the very first year of the special UN Decade (2019), here in America our family farms are swiftly swirling down the drain. It's an economic, climate, environmental, and social catastrophe fast surpassing the tribulations of the 1980s farm crisis. This time, for America and for the world, the stakes are heaps higher.
Time magazine just published a long story on the subject, including the sobering message of Al Davis, a Nebraska cattle producer and former state senator. “Farm and ranch families are facing a great extinction,” he's quoted as saying. “If we lose that rural lifestyle, we have really lost a big part of what made this country great.”
Mr. Davis makes a critical point about America's foundation. It's mutating at a reckless pace. As our agricultural foundation mutates, many other elements of the nation's culture oscillate unsteadily.
Small farms are being thrashed on multiple fronts: a trade war, low crop prices, tottering commodity markets, severe weather associated with climate change, and vertically integrated agribusiness farming corporations dedicated to uniformity, efficiency, and monetary profit. For thousands of farmers this formula is relentlessly leading to debt, bankruptcy, and, inevitably and tragically for some, suicides.
Paradoxically, it's just been reported that farm income for 2019 is higher than it has been for half a decade. That fact, reported by Ag Insider, radiates a deceptive picture of what's actually happening to our farms. The reason for the apparent farm-income bump? Republican-style corporate-socialism. The bailouts of Big Ag are using our tax dollars to compensate for the widespread farm damage done by President Trump's tariffs (taxes).
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the bailouts primarily help large producers, not family farmers. “Instead of helping small farmers that have been hurt by the Trump administration’s trade war," EWG's analysts have written, "the USDA is wantonly distributing billions of taxpayer dollars to the largest and wealthiest farms."
That approach is unfair, and unsustainable.
Morphing Into the Future
While multitudes of America's traditional family farms are swirling down the drain of oblivion, there are positive possibilities. Several forces at work in the world favor small farms, in particular consumer demand for cleaner, healthier, locally produced food. That movement is no ephemeral fad, but rather an impulse based on a highly intelligent and deeply rooted recognition of the facts around farms, food, human well-being, and environmental health.
Reality, not ideology, makes morphing of the family farm mandatory. By way of clarification for this article, I regard mutating as passive, a process that happens, or is imposed, upon you or your community by government or corporations. I reckon morphing to be active, to describe changing in a healthy direction that you and your community have consciously chosen, willed, and acted upon.
Officials for the UN's Decade maintain that "nothing comes closer to the paradigm of sustainable food production than family farming." They write that when family farmers are supported with affirmative policies and programs, they have "the capacity to redress the failures of the status quo world food system." But America's family farms are not getting that support.
In the context of all the relentless climate, corporate, and government forces driving the worrisome mutation of America's farm foundation, it's time to morph — to recognize and to act upon positive possibilities.
21st Century Family Farms?
About 14 years ago I researched and wrote The Call of the Land: An Agrarian Primer for the Twenty-First Century. It's a still-relevant sourcebook of positive agro-ecological pathways, a manual of morphing models, if you will, with information on dozens of individual and community pathways for food security, economic stability, environmental repair, and cultural renewal — the essence of agroecology.
While researching the book I spoke at length with dozens of people. When I interviewed Lowell Reinheimer he told me that in his work at Wisconsin's Organic Valley coop, he and his colleagues often talked about the challenges of transitioning from conventional agriculture to organic, and likewise from a market economy to an associative economy.
"We still have the family farm model in America," he said, "but the family farm is hard to define in our era." When Lowell and his family moved to Wisconsin, they looked for land and for people. They found a piece of land, and two partners. Together, they went in on buying a small farm. They were trying to create a new model for the family farmers of the future, farms populated by people who are not necessarily blood relatives.
"There's certainly a strong tradition where children inherit the farm, but that's an institution at risk," Lowell told me. "None of us inherited a farm from our family, yet we are farmers called to the land. We had no choice but to associate with each other. This may be a wave of the future."
While America's traditional family farms are falling like corn stalks before combine harvesters, many long-ago planted seeds of health, sustainability, and justice have germinated and given rise to an array of agroecological models that could — based on the choices and support of individuals and communities — be implemented on a massive scale.
Among the emerging agro-ecological models for morphing, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) continues to mature and to grow toward its promise, not just in America but worldwide.
CSA can serve as one of the models that can help make possible the survival and prosperity of family farms in the 21st century. Many of the families on those farms will no doubt be related, as is traditional, while at other farms the families may not be hereditary but rather composed of people who have entered into conscious, free-will associations. These are among the overlooked seeds of CSA farms.
Agroecology in general, and CSA farms in particular, can be part of a conscious morphing of family farms into forms that are capable of surviving and meeting the daunting challenges of the 21st Century.
Independent journalist Steven McFadden is rooted in cyberspace at Deep Agroecology. Information about his wider work and all of his nonfiction books is available at Chiron-Communications. You can reed all of Steven's Mother Earth News blog posts here.
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