Not Your Father’s Farming

A June 4 post on Farm Progress begins: “A college campus, apartment buildings and metro happenings surround the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, but it mimics a rural feeling of agriculture.”

The article explains that it is “180 acres of fields — right in the heart of the city.” The station’s operations manager describes how meaningful it can be for youth to visit and learn about agriculture and how the station has a certain “nostalgia”. He says the station serves the local community by “being open and available for people to come and learn about agriculture.”

The Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station is located on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota, one of 106 land grant universities throughout the US. Agricultural experimentation stations are a key part of the land grant system which was established in the late 1800’s to provide agricultural education. Back then farming looked like the acres and acres of fields that figure in today’s nostalgia. Over the past century the country has transitioned to a monolithic style of industrialized agriculture. Yet the ideal of small family farms passed down from generation to generation persists.

There is an interesting tension surrounding farming. Much of the unease is caused by the geographical separation between where we grow our food and where we live and work. The far-flung food system we have today was the result of fewer people wanting to farm and making it faster and easier for those who did. Capital and chemical intensive agriculture is based on doing more with fewer people. This has been the reality in the U.S. since World War II, and the rest of the world has aspired to this model as well. While this large-scale system is efficient, we’re learning that it has some big negatives: it’s energy and resource intensive; in some cases its by-products harm the environment; much of the food it produces has less nutrition; and it’s susceptible to supply disruption and sabotage.

To address this, we have started re-engineering the system to create regional food sheds that are easier to control and monitor, contribute positively to the environment and produce healthier food. But almost none of these efforts address the most obvious obstacle to this actually happening — new farmers. Some say we are going to need hundreds of thousands, others say millions. Whatever the number is, it’s big. To re-establish robust, a locally-based food production that contributes significantly to the nation’s food supply, we have to make farming attractive and economically viable to the next generation of farmers. The most cited barrier is land. A less obvious one is the traditional stereotype.

Trying to jump that period in history where we started pulling up fences and paving over farmland by expecting people to wander back to the good old days is not realistic. The woodlot that was used to grow firewood and lumber for building; the kitchen garden near the house used to grow table foods like salad; larger areas away from the house used for storage crops; grazing lands turned to an orchard to harvest deep nutrients. None of this is relatable for most people.

According to the US government census office, 1920 marked the beginning of the shift in the country’s population from urban to rural. Today it is about 80%. The urban/rural classification drives government aid programs so statistics are shifted around, but erosion of the rural way of life has been evident for years. Small farmers have been losing ground for over a century. Yet, encouraged by beginning farmer training and support programs offered by the government and the vast network of advocacy groups, some do try, by heading back to the land. Most often their farm dream is a homestead set amid whatever open space can be found, a tractor and barn and sizeable operating overhead. This is what makes it so challenging to start as a business.

The model new farmers are using based on our rural heritage is no longer supported by modern economics. This cannot be fixed by growing practices no matter how sustainable/organic/regenerative/climate smart they are. When the inevitable financial difficulties arrive, they re-enforce the widespread perception that farming requires a life dedicated to hardship and taking a vow of poverty. Few want to sign on to this.

There are more people looking for a small business opportunity than there are looking to return to the land. Some could be convinced that farming is a good one. How? Change from the mindset of trying to create the perfect image of a farm out in the country to building a business that serves local markets. Highlight that there is money to be made doing this.

More farm progress can happen with a more expanded vision, one that looks at a college campus, apartment buildings and metro happenings and sees urban farms and the markets they can serve. It requires demonstrating and developing a new model that recasts farming as a small business in a city or town, one that compliments rather than conflicts with the built environment. It uses practices that are neighbor friendly. It is doable without having to move, make a change in lifestyle or invest in land and expensive equipment. It quantifies revenue in addition to yield. It generates enough income to make it worth the farmer’s while. It’s low risk.

As we near the end of the first quarter of the 21st century the separation of city and country is not as defining as it once was. For those of us trying to revitalize, reform or redeem the farming profession, it is limiting. By broadening the mindset of where you can farm, you expand perceptions about who can farm, and open up the profession to those who, rather than following the iconic agrarian ideal, can get started in farming wherever they happen to be.


Farm Progress post is here