No thanks

Farming continues to suffer two losses: farmers and farmland. Farmers keep aging out of the profession, and new ones aren’t stepping up to take their place. Farmland keeps turning into homes, big box stores, malls and warehouses.

According to the latest US agriculture census total farmland acreage is about 880 million acres, down from 900 million at the time of the last census in 2017.That’s a loss of 20 million acres. In response, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak recently said, “This survey is a wake-up call. It’s essentially asking the critical question of whether as a country we are okay with losing that many farms, okay with losing that much farmland? Or is there a better way?”

Over the years governments, land trusts, farmland preservation groups and beginning farmer programs have tried to answer that question with programs to protect rural areas from development and return farmers to the land. One recent example funded by the federal farm bill is called the Transition Incentives Program, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program. Farmers who had been paid to take some land out of food production and turn it into environmental service areas to control soil erosion, improve water quality, and enhance wildlife habitat were also incentivized to lease or sell some of their land to beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers.

Participation in this program has been low. A study conducted to find out why identified two key reasons:

>> the available farmland was not where the beginning farmers were

>> additional technical assistance and support were needed to help beginning farmers take on these properties

In other words, there was a mismatch between where established farmers were located and the farming systems they used, and where beginning farmers were and what they were equipped or willing to handle.

Development is steadily encroaching on the agricultural landscape, but even as the amount of farmland has been shrinking, productivity has been steadily increasing. US Dept. of Agriculture statistics show that total agriculture output increased on average 1.53% a year for the past 69 years, despite a nearly 20% decrease in farmland over that time. Statistics don’t tell the whole story but there are no other indicators that the country is facing famine any time soon.

SPIN farmers know why. We use strategic growing techniques and efficient management to greatly reduce the amount of land needed for commercial crop production. Large scale farms use capital and mechanization to do the same. Though the models are very different, what unites both agribusiness and very small farmers is that they are finding profitability in making more from less.

While many of the challenges of farming get boiled down to land access, what is really at issue is the viability of the farming profession. Efforts to revitalize it still haven’t caught up to the reality SPIN farmers are creating:

>> new farmers can start their operations wherever they happen to be, even on small plots in densely populated areas where the largest demand for local food happens to be

>>production and revenue can be measured in square feet, not acres

While government and farm supporters continue to worry about running out of farmers and the ideal number of farms, their solutions focus on remaking new farmers into old ones. This only perpetuates the challenges that have been causing many of them to call it quits. SPIN farmers know that keeping a farm’s size manageable for an owner/operator and serving a narrow customer base are valid strategic business decisions, not a limitation or failure. Those of us who have expanded say that starting out small contributed to their long-term success. They’re making it all work as measured by two of the most important statistics of all — income and years in business.

In the end the issue is to get more new farmers started without initially having to relocate, change lifestyles or make sizeable investments in land, gear or infrastructure, and getting beyond the premise that farmers need to continually grow in size and expand their businesses. It is not only about getting more people started in farming. It’s getting them started in a way that they are profitable enough to want to keep doing it.


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