AgDM newsletter article, April 2003

Can We Save “Agriculture of the Middle?” *

Frederick Kirschenmannby Frederick Kirschenmann, retired director, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, 515-294-3711, leopold@iastate.edu

. . . if agriculture is to remain productive it must preserve the land, and the fertility and ecological health of the land; the land, that is, must be used well. A further requirement, therefore, is that if the land is to be used well, the people who use it must know it well, must be highly motivated to use it well, must know how to use it well, must have time to use it well, and must be able to afford to use it well. Nothing that has happened in the agricultural revolution of the last fifty years has disproved or invalidated these requirements, though everything that has happened has ignored or defied them. - Wendell Berry

I first ran across these words by Wendell Berry when I read his book What Are People For? in 1990. As a farmer who managed a 3,500-acre grain and livestock farm in North Dakota, I couldn’t deny the impeccable logic of his thesis. But neither could I escape the demands of the industrial farming culture, of which I was a part. That culture imposed on me the singular requirement of producing more commodities cheaper than anyone else - regardless of the cost. I felt caught between my long-term goal of maintaining the productivity of my farm by ensuring the ecological health of my land and the social health of my community, and the short-term requirements to produce as much as possible. Almost every farmer I know feels caught in the same dilemma.

Ecologists and farmers alike have understood for some time that natural ecosystems can be managed well only by having people live in those ecosystems long enough and intimately enough to learn how to manage them well. We must, as author Barry Lopez reminds us, live in our neighborhoods long enough to know the “local flora and fauna as pieces of an inscrutable mystery, increasingly deep, a unity of organisms.”

This is the strongest - and perhaps the only - argument for maintaining our independent family farm system of agriculture in which land is passed from generation to generation. As I have come to know such landed farm families in Iowa and listened to them describe their farms, I have been struck by the fact that they always talk about their farms as members of the family. That is as it should be. That is what it must be if we are going to remain productive.

We have now reached a point where that kind of agriculture is about to disappear. Since about 1960 the demands of our industrial farming culture have required farmers in Iowa to spend all of their gross income (including government subsidies) to pay the bills associated with producing that income. The result has been that farmers’ net income has remained flat, leaving no money to pay for living expenses, let alone investment in land care or community well-being. Meanwhile, farmers are under enormous pressure annually to add more units of production (more animals and/or more acres) just to generate the additional income to pay last year’s bills. Little attention has been paid to motivating farmers to use their land well, or even allowing them time to get to know it well.

At the same time, corporations that purchase farm commodities want to reduce transaction costs and, therefore, tend to give preferential contracts to the largest producers, placing smaller farms at a competitive disadvantage. Very small farms have gravitated toward various direct marketing schemes to survive, selling produce direct to customers through farmers markets, community-supported agriculture and other direct market arrangements.

Farms in the middle - those between the direct markets and the markets available through vertically integrated, multi-national firms - are most at risk.

This is not strictly a farm-scale issue, although it is highly scale-related. There are very large, multi-family units that still retain some of the principles in Berry’s premise of a farm that can use the land well. But increasingly it is precisely the farms that fit Berry’s description that we are losing.

A study prepared by Mike Duffy at the Leopold Center shows that the greatest percentage loss of Iowa farm operators (in acres and total sales) between 1987 and 1997 was among farms of 100 to 900 acres. Meanwhile, the total percentage of sales for farms under 100 acres and over 1,000 acres increased between 40 and 55 percent. Clearly we are losing these “middle” operations, which make up more than 80 percent of Iowa’s farms.

As farms consolidate, land continues to be farmed, likely with less labor, and this transformation has been welcomed by many in the agricultural economy. Indeed, some see it as a necessary “correction” in the market. But Berry reminds us that we stand to lose something much more important—the capacity of the land to remain productive.

At the Leopold Center we believe that the loss of “agriculture in the middle” is not inevitable. We see new opportunities - in alternative production systems and new market resources - that can create a comparative advantage for these farms.

At this year’s Practical Farmers of Iowa conference, SYSCO Corporation president and CEO Rick Schnieders told the audience that “markets for sustainably-produced products are there - what is needed are supply chains to deliver those products to the consumer.” Building those supply chains is an opportunity for economic development in Iowa’s rural communities.

Alternative production systems that are more productive but less costly to the farmer and to the environment must be researched and developed. New supply chains can be built that enable farmers to produce more value and retain more of that value on the farm and in their rural communities.

We also know that additional new public policies could be crafted to help farmers move toward these new systems and encourage them to use the land well. Our goal at the Leopold Center is to bring people, organizations and industries in Iowa together to achieve these goals.

* This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of the Leopold Letter, a quarterly publication of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. The newsletter also is available on the Web at: http://www.leopold.iastate.edu.

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