“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm (after they’ve seen Paree?)”
~Walter Donaldson, Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis
In my mind’s eye, I see a comfy two story white house with a wrap-around porch, shaded by tall cottonwood trees. An old wooden red barn sits in back next to a corral with a couple of plow horses munching apples. The farm dog sleeps on the top step of the porch keeping an eye on the chickens in the yard and other comings and goings. (If Timmy falls into the well, he’ll be ready to sound the alarm.) Two small boys struggle to bring in the bucket of milk fresh from the cow in the barn. A small girl returns from the chicken coop with a basket of fresh eggs. The family gathers around the kitchen table, and the father says grace before they eat.
Family farm. That’s the image I have, but I know it’s false, just like the image of a family ranch having a corral full of horses, broken to a saddle by the hired hands, and used to ride the fences and herd cattle. Ninety-eight percent of all farms (broadly defined to include all agricultural products, such as beef, wine and honey) in the U.S. are family farms per the USDA, but they only account for twenty-seven percent of U.S. agricultural output. We seem to like our food “commoditized, processed, shipped and relatively inexpensive”.
The reality, however, is that it is extremely difficult to survive as a farmer. They say that “behind every successful farmer is a wife who works in town.” Successful family ranches I knew about in Texas had oil wells to provide a steady extra income stream. As soon as they were old enough, the ranch kids I knew took part-time jobs after school and on weekends, an added burden to their already time-consuming chores.
For new farmers, buying out an existing farm is financially improbable; older farmers are overcapitalized and younger ones are undercapitalized. A farm requires a heavy initial investment and will take years before its first returns. The Colorado farmer’s average age is about 60, a little higher than the national average. For farm families that do not want to continue to farm or where no heirs exist, Colorado offers tax incentives to farmers to lease operations to new farmers, but this does not overcome all the hurdles.
One problem, of course, is that the price of our food does not reflect all the costs of production. The government subsidizes all agriculture heavily, and provides cheap transportation systems that favor large industrial agriculture. Fees for grazing on public lands are a fraction of government expenditures; corn is subsidized to the point that ethanol production operations were put in place to use up all the extra corn. The government buys surplus milk, cheese and butter for welfare and food stamp programs. The system is rigged against small agriculture, and food prices ignore environmental and social costs.
Years ago I traveled a lot for work and enjoyed local beers available in different parts of the country. Colorado had Coors; Chicago had Strohs; Texas had Shiner, Pabst and Pearl; Pennsylvania had Rolling Rock; San Francisco had Anchor Steam; Seattle had Oly and Ranier – you get the point. (Somewhere I had Lucky Lager, but that’s an experience best forgotten.) Then over time, it seemed all the beers became alike. Coors, Miller and Bud dominated and there was no longer a local experience in having a beer. They all tasted the same. Then miraculously, people started making local beer in craft breweries. This has changed the beer-drinking world, but Coors, Miller and Bud are still around.
I wonder if agriculture isn’t undergoing the same transition — shifting from mass production to more local craft operations. If the growth of Whole Foods and Natural Grocers is an indication, people are willing to pay more for better food. The organic movement, concerns about GMOs, interest in heritage species and demand for hormone-free meats reveal consumer preferences can change the market.
The market change may make it easier for small farmers to sell their goods locally, avoiding the downsides of mass production. Farmer’s markets are helping to raise awareness of local production, and food co-ops are providing a mechanism for stability for the farmers. Maybe these and other changes will cause or allow a resurgence in small, family farms, mirroring the Back-to-the-Land movement of the ’60s with the Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News.
I know the tomatoes I grow taste better than anything I buy, even from the farmer’s market, which is heads above the stuff from the big farms in central California. I don’t mind paying a little more for the local Colorado Olathe corn, Rocky Ford melons and Palisade peaches since they taste better than other options. Buying them also makes me feel better. I may not be able to save the planet or prevent climate change, but I can do my bit to save local farmers and their production.
All it takes is to eat a peach!