Six successive generations of my family have lived in the clapboard farmhouse I now call home. But unless farming as we know it today changes dramatically, it is likely that the seventh generation will be forced to move on, that the farm on which they grew up will be lost, and that the farmhouse itself will disappear from the landscape. Neighbors who once talked of improving their homesteads to make sure their children had a good place to start off are more likely now to sigh and say, “I’ll sell when I retire, so the kids can have a little money and won’t have to go through all I did.”
There are points of debate regarding how best to help small farmers, but in this, the 11th hour, two things are clear: Farmers must market their crops directly to consumers, and the government must cease subsidizing conglomerates at the expense of small growers. Only under these conditions will farm families be able to remain on their land. Otherwise, it is almost certain that three or four huge corporations will own a series of subsidiary supermarkets, food distribution companies, and millions of acres of farmland. Farming itself will not exist, at least not in the traditional way agriculture–the “culture of the soil”–has been practiced during the last 2,500 years of Western civilization.
Instead, “agriculture” will be run as an assembly line, where specialized workers in distant and often-unseen factories raise genetically cloned species whose DNA has been altered to resist insects, fungi, and viruses. Farm workers will know nothing of food per se, and their tasks will be so specific that they will remain ignorant about the majority of farm work. On any given day, today’s small farmer may drive a tractor, haul fruit to market, repair a ladder, lay cement, call a food broker, and manage the farm finances. The farmer of the future will most likely scan a computer screen or supervise laborers assigned a single task, like spraying chemicals or monitoring a drip hose stretched out to irrigate thousands of uniform acres. Tomorrow’s farm workers will also punch a clock at the start of their shift and work an eight-hour day–something no small farmer in America has the luxury of doing.
There is, of course, an alternative to this fare. We can support zoning laws that mandate greenbelts and open space around suburbs, thereby helping to integrate farming and residential areas. Small farmers themselves can once again supply much of America’s fresh fruits and vegetables by raking advantage of potential sales available to them via the Internet, rural stores, regional farmers’ markets, and direct delivery service. By forging ties with the community, farmers can let their gardens, orchards, and dairies once again become community institutions, places where people go to buy everything from holiday gourds and Christmas trees to weekly supplies of apples, canned peaches, hams, eggs, and milk. And as families become accustomed to fresh, seasonal produce, farmers will seek out tastier varieties–not genetically modified crops that are designed to look attractive and ship well. As a result, the DNA of food will stay pretty much as it has for the last 7,000 years of civilized agriculture.
The choice of which world we will inhabit in the next century is largely our own. Luckily, the challenge is not farmers’ alone, as there is much that suburban families and consumers can do to ensure the small farm’s existence as a way of life. For starters, we can make a commitment to buy local and regional produce in season and then patronize grocery stores and farmers’ markers that do the same.
We also need to become concerned voters and support agricultural policies that favor family farmers. As things stand now, very little of the billions spent on agriculture goes to family farmers; most is allotted to corporations, universities, research centers, and commodities exchanges. As voters, we should demand that politicians specify exactly how our $35 billion of taxpayer money is allotted, for whom subsidies are targeted, and for what purpose they are spent.
Another step in the right direction would be a radical overhaul of federal and state taxation. Family farmers should be exempt from inheritance taxes; there should be enhanced property-tax incentives for keeping land pristine and protected from urban sprawl–especially since the easiest way for struggling farmers to raise capital now is to sell a parcel of their land to developers. “No one cared when I was going broke farming,” one retiring farmer told me, “so why should I care now if I sell my vineyard to a guy who’s going to build a shopping center?”
It is also high time for antitrust legislation to extend to agriculture. Just as doctors cannot own the drugstores that fulfill their prescriptions, so, too, food processors and brokers should not own land. If the agribusinesses that now control food from the field to the store were broken up, a stable class of farm producers could negotiate with shippers, who would then have no recourse other than to buy directly from the men and women who grow the foods they sell. Likewise, food brokers, who could no longer own their own megafarms, would be required to visit farms, court families to buy their harvests, and compete to find reliable, trusted producers.
There must be responsibility–and honesty–on the part of consumers as well. We cannot rail about pesticides and bland-tasting fruit and then expect to eat peaches in March, asparagus at Christmas, and oranges in August. If you truly want to help farmers, buy foods in season, and look for regional produce.
Likewise, the farmer who cultivates 100 acres of string beans, corn, and lettuce on the fringe of town can no longer be totally independent. My own family used to chuckle about “them”–the “city” people who, we felt, knew little and cared less about farming. But no longer. Over the last decade we learned that “they” are, in fact, the hundreds of loyal customers who have helped us stay afloat.
Let’s hope that America’s 21st-century agrarians will emerge as entrepreneurs and teachers combined, men and women who through perseverance and hard work can help to preserve our nation’s countryside. These new agrarians may not resemble the elderly farmers perched on the front porch in TV advertisements, but if they can save family agriculture, they will in some ways be tougher, more enterprising, and more valuable than any generation of farmers in our nation’s past