Living off the Land

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Photo courtesy of Fresh Earth Farms

Old MacDonald had a farm. And so did the Olsons, the Smiths, and the Taylors–until it became too challenging to compete against large commodity businesses producing generic goods for less.

In today’s world, local farms are vanishing breeds.

In the 1930s, there were nearly 7 million farms in the United States. Today, there are roughly 2 million. Every week, approximately 330 farmers leave the land. 

Local farmers Randy and Lynn Anderson bought their farm in 1994 after outgrowing their vegetable garden. They wanted to continue growing organic food and today  sell organically-raised beef, chicken, and pork on their farm in the small community of Arkansaw, Wis.

The Andersons say their biggest challenge is trying to stay small yet efficient enough to produce a high quality product while making a decent living.

According to Ohio State University, the average living cost of a farm family is $40-47,000. This requires $225-300,000 gross revenue. (In farming, the average operating expense can be as high as 75 percent of the total gross.)

Consider this scenario: if a farmer raises corn and soybeans and grosses less that $300 per acre, it’s easy to see why 1,000 acres might not be enough to pay the bills and invest for the future. Only 14 percent of U.S farms generate more than $100,000 gross income. Because of this, many farmers have to work second jobs off the farm to subsidize their lifestyle. Others still make the tough decision to sell their family farm, the product of decades of hard work (and great joy).

Adding to the struggles of small-scale farmers is the fact that people today want fast, cheap, and convenient food. The never-ending quest for cheap food is what transformed the world of agriculture in the first place.

“In the U.S., there’s a culture of cheap food,†says Christopher James of Fresh Earth Farms, a locally owned and operated Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in Denmark Township (one mile west of Afton State Park). “Look at grocery store flyers–they’re all about how inexpensive their food is.â€

With this type of mentality, it’s difficult for farmers to make a living, and equally hard to hire help at a reasonable wage when the price for the crops doesn’t cover the costs to grow them, James says.

Why, exactly, aren’t more people buying locally grown food?

For many it comes down to simple dollars and cents. Rather than keep their money in the community and support local farm families–the cheapest product often wins out. Small-scale farmers competing against large-scale agribusinesses can’t keep up with the higher production levels, lower retail costs, and greater efficiency of megafarms.

And while factory farms may be successful in producing the highest output at the lowest cost, the costs to the environment aren’t as easy to calculate. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that manure runoff from factory farms is a significant factor in the growing problem of soil erosion and ground and surface water pollution. Trying to control soil loss through reduced tillage leads farmers to rely on herbicides that pollute streams and groundwater.

Local, sustainable farms only lack the highly chemicalized, mechanized, specialized, and industrialized methods of many large factory farms. Traditional methods of sustainable agriculture do not deplete soil, water, air, wildlife, or community resources. Chemicals, fertilizers, and herbicides are kept to a minimum.

Food grown or raised close to home also doesn’t have to be transported across the country–another boon to the environment.

For some, buying locally is a matter of taste. Fruits and veggies grown in your community were probably picked within the last few days–so they’ll be fresh, crisp, sweet, and packed with flavor. 

Minnesotans can support local farm families by buying their products at local farmers’ markets, in certain co-ops, grocery stores and restaurants, and through the Minnesota Grown program. Another way to support local producers is by joining Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs that offer memberships in seasonal growing operations.

“By joining a CSA, you get as close to the farm and farmer as you can possibly get,†explains James of Fresh Earth Farms. “Most CSA farmers are available to speak with you about how things are grown, why snap peas and tomatoes are never in the same box, etc. You can be more assured you are getting local produce by joining a CSA.â€

Ask your local supermarket, restaurant and school why they’re not serving local food. Challenge your city to do more, and support laws that protect small-scale farmers.

Josephine Williams, 24, works at the Women’s Environmental Institute (WEI), a center for environmental justice advocacy, research, and retreats and conferences. The WEI features an Alternative Farm Campus providing outreach and education in organic agriculture, sustainable development, and organic food production. While Williams didn’t grow up on a farm, she would one day like to farm full-time.

“I always felt a connection with the environment, but I took it for granted until I moved to the city and lost that connection,†she says. “I think, in general, human beings have a fundamental need to relate to nature.â€

This fundamental need isn’t nurtured the way it was for her parents generation, when just about everyone had a connection with a farm, she points out.

“Young people growing up today think food comes from the store; we don’t think about what’s behind it,†Williams comments.

She suggests encouraging young people to get outside in the fresh air, into nature, into the garden in order to better appreciate and respect the environment.

 “If we get children outdoors, they’ll find wonder in the natural world. That’s the key to raising the next generation of environmental stewards,†Williams comments.

Teaching the next generation to respect and appreciate the earth could be the answer to safeguarding the future of remaining family farms across the United States.

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