There's farming and then there's farming

by Donella H. Meadows

This article was originally published in June 2001

Awhile ago Beth Sawin and Phil Rice, researchers at the Sustainability Institute, put together a graph that I can’t get out of my mind. It shows Midwest corn yields doubling from about 60 bushels per acre in 1950 to 120 bushels on average today. Despite the doubled yield, gross earnings per acre have stayed essentially constant. The net return to the farmer, after the costs of growing the corn, has also stayed constant, right around zero. If it weren’t for government farm payments, the average corn farmer would have been working for decades for free.

My first question on seeing that was: How does the system DO that? How does it so infallibly keep farmers from making money? My next question was, why do farmers put up with it?

Later, Beth and Phil showed me some figures that explain how they put up with it. Farm families in two Minnesota counties consistently get more than half their income from off the farm. In recent years 85 percent of their income has been off-farm. The farmers are living mainly on subsidies and outside jobs. They are literally farming at night by tractor light.

Why? Two whys. Why do we pay so little to the people who feed us? Why do they keep feeding us?

The proper economic answer to the first question is: there are too many farmers. With those higher yields, they raise more food than the market wants, so prices go down and forces some of them out of business. Then yields go up more, price goes down further, more farmers go under. My economics professor taught me that this process is rational and admirable. It’s the market weeding out inefficiency. It enables a tiny percent of us to feed everybody else, reducing food costs for all.

Now that I think for myself, I don’t see the rationality, and I don’t admire the process. WHY should yields keep going up, when the market is not calling for more food? And what about soil erosion, water pollution, poisoned ecosystems, fossil fuel use, broken communities, shattered lives, dubious food quality? The market makes food look cheap only by not counting all the costs.

The answer to the second question, why farmers keep at it, has got to be, at bottom, because they love it. John Peterson of Angelic Organics in Caledonia, Illinois, explains why he farms: “The land has a feel under foot that can melt a person to it. There’s the rhythm — the barn door opens and closes; the swallows return; the brome grass swishes … I don’t stay on this farm because brome grass swishes. That’s a fringe benefit. The closest I can describe my bond to it is a shudder I get … when it’s time to work in the fields.

“My legs take me to the work, put me on the tractor; I am all surrender. And the joy of pushing dirt around, the thrill of organizing little dots of green into straight lines on bare soil — these invoke in me a subtle delirium.

“Fuzzy rows of carrots streak to the west, flanking scalloped tufts of green and red lettuces. Palm-tree-shaped Brussels sprouts transform a service drive into The Grand Boulevard. Massive cabbage leaves gradually hug themselves into a big ball. Enormous heirloom tomatoes hang voluptuously on avenues of trellising. To gaze at the lush display of textures, forms, colors, to notice the daily changes, is a privilege of being a farmer.”

Peterson is not farming a monocrop straight to the horizon by tractor at night. He grows organic vegetables for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm — a farm that serves nearby subscribers, who pick up once a week a bundle of whatever is ripe. Fresh food, straight from farm to kitchen. No chemicals. No subsidies. Payment direct from consumer to farmer, no middlemen, a decent living for the farmer.

That is a food system that works, though many of its benefits are not measured in dollars. Freedom, stewardship, fidelity, family, community, all are casualties of a mechanism that selects only for cheapness and a narrowly measured efficiency that turns a living farm into a mechanized, chemicalized, one-product factory.

Here’s the good news. A new food system, one that uses dollars but is not ruled by them, is growing so fast that no one can keep track of it. There are at least 600 CSA farms across America, some count as many as a thousand. Sales of organic produce have been growing by 20 percent per year.

Farmers markets, consumer co-ops, and CSA farms practice a new economics, economics as if, as E.F. Schumacher once said, people mattered. As if the land mattered. As if we valued farmers who work with love and beauty to bring forth from the earth health for us all.

Reprinted with permission of Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont from “Sharing the Harvest,” by Elizabeth Henderson and Robyn Van En. 1-800-639-4099.

Donella H. Meadows was a teacher, a farmer, and a founder of the “sustainability movement.” She was best known as the lead author of the international bestseller “The Limits to Growth” (1972), and of the follow-up study, “Beyond the Limits” (1992). Recognized as a Pew Scholar and MacArthur Fellow, her work has had a formative influence on hundreds of academic studies, government initiatives, and international agreements. She founded the Sustainability Institute as a “think-do-tank,” combining research in global systems with practical demonstrations of sustainable living. Donella died early this year at age 59, after a brief illness.

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