Our Farms and Gardens: Growing the Party of the Local Economy
by Elizabeth Henderson
I am very pleased and honored to be here.
Maybe I've been going to too many conferences, meetings and workshops, but it seems to me that it's time to stop making speeches to one another about the many things on which we already agree. Instead of preaching to the choir, let's just form a real choir and sing our points of unity. Then we can save the speeches for new territory, information, ideas, and thorny points that we need to discuss and debate. While I am not much of a songwriter or a singer, I can carry a tune well enough to get this started. Hopefully, a few of you know this old song. I've made up some new verses - I challenge you by the end of my talk, to come up with a few of your own on the points in my speech you think we can stop discussing and sing together instead.
You get the idea!
Despite all the information out there, I am not sure that we all realize what a critical juncture we have reached in this country. Since the government eliminated parity price supports in 1952, the number of farmers has plummeted from 23 million to 1,911,850 according to the latest ag census. Just under half of these claim farming as their chief occupation. Black farmers have been squeezed off the land even faster than white farmers: in 1920, one out of every seven farmers was black; in 1982, black farmers counted for only one out of 67 and operated only 1 percent of the farms. 7.2 percent of the farms (130,000) account for 72.1 % of all farm sales.
The Land Grants have been telling farmers to "get bigger or get out." Many farmers have tried to follow this advice, transforming their farms into industrialized agribusinesses. A few have succeeded, and many have failed. Despite $6 billion in relief payments, the 1998 farm income is lower than 1997, and USDA predicts that it will continue dropping through 1999. Of course, 30% of those government payments go to only 5% of the farms. Farmers who depend upon selling basic commodities - corn, soybeans, wheat, potatoes, milk - do not receive enough for their crops to cover the costs of the reproduction of their farms. By reproduction I mean not just the annual costs of production, but also the costs of farm maintenance, the full ownership costs of capital replacement, operating capital, land, unpaid family labor, and money towards retirement. So even when they sell their entire crop, they are falling farther and farther behind. Eventually, it catches up and there's another farm auction.
In a booklet published in 1979, The Loss of Our Family Farms, Mark Ritchie asked whether this is the inevitable course of history or the result of conscious policies. He concluded that the loss of so many farms is not the unfortunate result of policies which failed, but rather the result of a concerted and unrelenting drive by agribusiness, government, banking and university forces to restructure agriculture by reducing farm price supports, manipulating the tax structure and conducting research and development in support of large-scale agricultural enterprises. The men who made these policies were representatives of the largest corporations, banks and universities who saw their work, in their own words, as contributing "to the preservation and strengthening of our free society."
The biggest farms may be getting bigger, but the farming sector of the food system is losing control to the increasingly consolidated multinational corporations like Novartis and Cargill. The processing and marketing sectors are returning 18 percent on investment, and grabbing ever larger portions of the consumer food dollar from the farms. Stewart N. Smith, former Commissioner of Agriculture for Maine and an agricultural economist, has traced the downward trajectory of farming:
"The food and agriculture system has changed remarkably through this century under the regime of industrial agriculture, especially in shifting economic activities from the farm to the non-farm components of the system. Farmers contributed 41 percent of the system activity (and got 41 percent of the returns) in 1910, but only 9 percent in 1990. On the other hand, input suppliers increased their share from 15 percent to 24 percent, and marketers from 44 to 67 percent."
According to Smith's calculations, if current trends continue, farming as such will disappear completely in the year 2020.
The passage of the GATT and the NAFTA remove what few protections were left for the 93 or 94 percent of the farms that do not rank among the big boys. The Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) will forge the final link in the choke collar of corporate control. Under GATT regulations, US agricultural exports have risen 5 percent, but imports have gone up 32 percent. In 1997, this country imported $36.2 billion worth of food products, and that wasn't all coffee, chocolate and bananas. It included many crops we can produce right here. In the first six months of 1998, we exported $3.2 billion worth of fruit and vegetables, but imported $3.4 billion worth. According to a USDA study released September 3, 1997, the economic impact of the NAFTA on the balance of agricultural trade between the US and its two neighbors has been a negative $100 million. Mexican tomatoes are underselling Florida tomatoes. US corn growers, however, like the NAFTA because it opened Mexican markets to them and even helped raise the price of corn 8 cents a bushel. The cost has fallen on Mexico where from 600,000 to a million small corn farmers, who could not compete with the lower price of the imported corn, have been uprooted from the countryside and forced into the army of unemployed in the towns or into the masses of migrants pouring over the borders to work in the US.
When international trade heats up, the greatest benefits go to the corporations that control the markets. Fewer than five companies control 90 percent of the export market for corn, wheat, coffee, tea, pineapple, cotton, tobacco, jute and forest products. Those same big traders - Cargill, Continental Grain, Bunge, Luis Dreyfus, Andre and Co. and Mitsui/Cook - also control storage, transport and food processing. (Incidentally, Daniel Amstutz, a former Cargill executive, drafted the US agricultural proposal for GATT under President Reagan, and when Mickey Kantor, Clinton's top trade official left office, he took a seat on the Monsanto Board of Directors.) Cargill is in the process of purchasing Continental Grain's worldwide grain operations, which will give Cargill control of 42 percent of US corn exports, 20 percent of wheat exports , and 31 percent of soy bean sales.
The consolidation of control of the food system inside the US is also increasing. Six
Rather than larding on more statistics, I would like to comment on some of the new trends in the food industry. We need to keep a sharp eye on what the "health food" processors are up to - because they are busy stealing our most important messages, and then twisting them to squeeze out every bit of profit they can get. At a time when upsetting food related illnesses and hormone disruptors are in the news, we have attracted consumer attention with our emphasis on living soils and health. So Monsanto and Novartis stop calling themselves chemical companies and become leaders in the"Life Sciences" industry. Small, local farms attract loyal customers because we offer services and freshness, so the food industry is packaging that -sales of pre-cut salads his $1.09 billion in 1997; overall sales of all kinds of "fresh-cuts," fruit, stir fry mixes, salads and my favorite - baby carrots (full-sized carrots cut into pieces and lathe turned for that baby shape), reached 10 % of all produce sales in 1997. Industry publications predict $19 billion in sales by 2003. American consumers will pay 2 to 3 times the cost of buying the separate ingredients to have their carrots peeled or their lettuce washed and cut up for them.
The food processors play on consumers' longing for health and their frantic life styles by offering nutraceuticals - supplements and vitamin pills aimed at the latest fear fad - cholesterol reduction to reduce fat, or anti-oxidants to ward off cancer. And since vitamin pills and supplements are selling so well, the processors are busy venturing into "functional" foods. Silly me, I thought that all foods were functional and contributed to human nutrition, but that only shows how naive I can be. The new functional foods, such as Kellogg's psyllium-laced cereals designed to lower cholesterol, have medicinal qualities engineered into them. The next step is "Identity Preserved" crops: the big seed companies are selling farmers seed designed for targeted end purposes, such as high lauric acid canola, and high oil corn and sunflower blends. Research is under way to boost the anti-carcinogenic substances in grapes, onions, garlic, and other vegetables.
The seed companies offer growers the choice between "input enabling technologies" (for example, Round-up Ready crops), and "output enabling technologies" (Identity Preserved crops), but no choice about whether to use genetically engineered seed. To purchase these seeds, growers must sign contracts with the patent holding seed companies, which just happen to be conveniently connected to the processors who manufacture the end product. What ever happened to the idea of a balanced diet of fresh foods in season?
Instead of cleaning up the health problems created by industrialized farming and food production, the big processors want to impose more expensive technologies to sanitize the final product. It would be too expensive to pay food industry workers enough to have decent health insurance and healthy working conditions, or to reduce e-coli in beef by feeding them on pasture instead of feed-lot grains. So the Life Sciences people hire demagogues like Dennis Avery to attack organic farming with out and out lies about how organic food causes a higher percentage of food illnesses because we use manure.
And of course, everybody wants a healthy sex life. On her birthday, a bouquet of roses arrived at the home of a woman I know in the city of Rochester, New York. She was surprised and pleased. As she unwrapped the shiny paper covering, she wondered who could have sent such fragrent flowers. Then she found the card. The roses came from the local super-supermarket. My friend belongs to their shoppers' club - and they know all about her, her tastes and preferences, exactly what she buys every week, her credit rating, her age, her birth date. She doesn't need admirers anymore. She has Wegman's Supermarket! Former vice president Dole has been on TV proclaiming the benefits of viagra. If you put in a few aerobic hours on an organic farm or garden, and then eat a meal of freshly picked food with some good friends, you won't need a supermarket swain or dilation booster so you can get it on with your sweetie. Surely we have more to offer than puppets of the multinationals like Dole.
We are living through the culmination of the era of the transnationals, the mega-corporations like Monsanto, Novartis, Cargill, Philip Morris and ConAgra. They have no allegiance to any particular nation or group of nations, and they are manipulating the rules of the World Trade Organication to increase their power to intervene in the economy of any country as they see fit. Clinton wants fast track authority to expand the NAFTA and also to negotiate the Multilateral Agreement on Investment that would give multinational corporations the freedom to do business by their own rules in any country without the control of the national government under threat of trial in the WTO court. The food system is global - and that means that food and fiber will be produced wherever in the world it is cheapest and shipped to wherever in the world people have the money to pay.
Deciding to farm organically and to join in a movement to create a sustainable, regional food system is like jumping into a swiftly flowing river of icy water and swimming against the stream. Does anyone want to leave now? No one? All right. We may be swimming against the current, but we are not out there all alone. Let's stop for a moment and look around - in this hall are the people with whom we are going to be working against the odds for the rest of our lives. Please introduce yourself to someone you don't know.
When I started farming back in 1980, the crisis in farming and the food system was well underway. At that time, it was probably easier to see in the Northeast than in other parts of the country. Our small rocky farms could not hope to compete with the midwest and the west where bigger machines can maneuvre over larger flatter fields, where chemicals and technology have reduced the need for horse and human power, and where crews of poorly paid migrant workers do their jobs and then move on. Our food production was irrelevant to the emerging global supermarket. But there were people who could see that the farms and gardens were important to the region for all the reasons we now cluster under the heading of local food systems - sources of fresh, local food in season, regional connectedness, protection for open land and watersheds, the farms' contribution to the regional economy. We formed NOFA in 1971 to help organic farmers connect with NE markets, to share the how-tos of organic growing on all scales, and to begin building a regional, sustainable food system. The NOFAs and MOFGA resonate with the resolution passed this year by the Northern Plains Sus. Ag. Society - "Feeding the village first is a concept which suggests that local, community economics are healthiest when they are as self-reliant as possible, especially where food and agriculture are concerned."
We cannot take the Global Marketplace head-on. But that does not mean we should passively bow to our fate as contract-farming peons and GMO-eating guinea pigs. Remember what Jim Hightower says about the power of the big corporations: "No building is too tall for even the smallest dog to lift its leg on." We need to be very shrewd in assessing what we can do so that we use our scarce resources to greatest effect.
We have some excellent planning, decision-making and evaluation tools to guide our progress toward self-reliant, interdependent sustainabilty. I suggest that as many of us as possible get ourselves trained in Holistic Resource Management, but maybe we should call it Whole Farm Resource Management. For us as organic farmers and gardeners, there is no great paradigm shift to make to adopt this way of thinking - we already have a sense of the interconnectedness of everything. HRM gives us a systematic way to take all the interrelated social, economic and ecological factors into consideration on our farms and in our lives. We can apply HRM on our farms - we can also apply it on the level of our organizations, and even our regions. I have suggested to the NESAWG that, for our next annual meeting, we consider attempting HRM for the food system of the northeast. It will be challenging, but I think we can do it.
The first step in HRM is assessing what the whole is you want to make decisions about, and who is directly, indirectly or peripherally affected by your decisions. Then you do the very hard work of developing a three-part set of goals for quality of life, form of production, and future resource base - that is, spiritual ( personal, social), economic, and ecological objectives. You test out each decision, never assuming your decisions are correct, constantly monitoring progress toward your goals. Rather than talk about this in the abstract, let me take my farming and related activities as an example, so you can see what I mean.
Over the past year, I have moved from Rose Valley Farm, where I lived and worked for 10 years, to a piece of rented ground north of Newark, NY., where I am starting over again. My partner Greg Palmer (who started as an apprentice at Rose Valley 7 years ago and became our regular hired hand) and I have decided to call our new farming enterprise Peacework Organic Farm. The whole that we have to manage includes the 20 acres we are renting, to some limited extent the entire 600 acres of the Kraai family's Crowfield Farm, and the 50 acres Greg owns with his wife Ammie. The people directly affected by our decisions include Greg and me, our families, the Kraais and also all the members of the Genesee Valley Organic CSA, for which I have been producing for 10 years. My first draft of my HRM goal for our future resource base reads: land regenerated, healthy soil, biodiversity below and above ground, lots of wildlife, and not too many close neighbors. These are my ecological objectives - I am most confident about realizing these by continuing to use and improve upon the organic methods our movement has created:
The foundation of our growing practices is based on careful rotations and building healthy soil. We minimize tillage, using a chisel plow for primary tillage. We produce our own compost - at Rose Valley we combined aquatic vegetation from Lake Ontario, horse manure and bedding from a local race track, and organic materials from our own and neighboring farms. At Peacework we do not have access to the lake weeds, but there are food wastes from a nearby processing plant, and a lot of horses. Will Brinton labels our low work method "no-till composting." His research shows that making compost in this simpler way takes up to 3 weeks longer than the Luebke method, but the final product is comparable in quality, if rougher in appearance. We spread our compost at the rate of 14 to 20 tons per acre per year. At Rose Valley, we raised the organic matter in the sandy soils from 2.5 to 3.5%. At Peacework, the soils are even lighter, so we decided to build permanent beds, using a chisel plow and a spader to cut them into the sod, leaving 30 inch sod strips between the beds. This enables us to leave 1/3 of the field in cover all the time and will greatly cut down on wind erosion that was sometimes severe at Rose Valley. With the help of a mycologist, we began studying the mycorrhizal associations in our soils with the goal of adjusting our rotations to maximize their effectiveness. We use a variety of cover crops and green manures, and we underseed most crops with a cover crop to prevent erosion, and whenever possible, grow the fertilizer for the next crop.
To achieve truly healthy soil and biodiversity, we need to understand a great deal more about how to nurture the microorganisms which team in a healthy soil. I want to work towards less tillage - so far, the no-till systems I have seen require herbicides. The last frontier is under our feet.
I conceive of our crop production as integrally related to the ecology of the entire farm. Our approach to pest control is through cultivating biodiversity by improving habitat for birds, toads, snakes and other wildlife in our ponds, hedgerows and woods. We have a lot more to learn about living in peace with the wild critters. As summed up in The Real Dirt, organic farming in the NE has done well in moving towards our ecological objectives, just using our own "indigenous" resources. Now that we are starting to get some help from the research establishment of the Land Grants, we should move ahead faster.
Economic objectives: The first draft for my form of production reads: organically managed market farm as self-sufficient as possible with regional links of interdependence with other farms. Excellent quality, sense of order, and calm. Optimal mechanization.
For the economic viability of the farm, our strategy has been to find people who value our existence and are willing to be our loyal supporters. At Rose Valley, we drew a circle on the map, with a radius of 60 miles , and made that our marketshed. Peacework will continue to sell to people and stores within an hour's drive. We grow a great diversity of crops for direct sales to supply neighbors, and the members of the Genesee Valley Organic CSA. Over 10 years, GVOCSA grew from 29 families to 184. Much of the growth was by word of mouth. To make if affordable to middle and low income people, our members decided that for every share, their commitment is to work 12 hours at the farm and 4 hours on distribution, or as a member of the core group of 21 which administers the project. One of the core jobs is to coordinate bulk purchases from other organic farms, such as wine, maple syrup, sheep cheese, fruit. GVOCSA accepts food stamps and offers scholarships so that a few members pay as little as $3 a week. Growing for the GVOCSA reduced Rose Valley's economic insecurity by providing a contract for 9/10ths of our produce. The members of the CSA have stuck with us through a flood, a drought, and the dissolution of our partnership. When I left Rose Valley, and decided to continue farming, after ascertaining that David no longer wanted to produce for them, the CSA made a commitment to help me get started in a new place. In 1998, the group purchased vegetables from other farms while doing their farm work helping with forming beds, design, and construction of cold frames, a walk-in cooler, and a greenhouse. When I told the core group that we were short $5000 on what we would need for start-up, within two weeks I received 3 checks in the mail, anonymous contributions of $1000, $2000 and $3000!
Peacework will be certified organic by NOFA-NY. I did a lot of work to establish the NOFA certification programs: what makes them special is the local control by our alliance of farmers and consumers. Until about 5 years ago, organic certification helped small NE vegetable farms stay in business. Ironically, the big increase in demand in the marketplace is resulting in sales for CA, not for us, and at prices that we cannot afford.
In terms of economic objectives, my farm, and organic farming in general in the NE, has done modestly. The findings of the National Commission on Small Farms apply as much to organic farms as to conventional ones. Despite strong markets, we are a long way from economic security. Our farm has some healthy connections with other area farms - the members of the GVOCSA buy chicken and egg, winter vegetable, and wool shares from neighbors, as well as bulk orders from more distant farms. This season, we are starting up a CRAFT-like cooperative intern training program with 5 other central NY farms, and participating in two recruiting events with the 3 other CSAs in the Rochester area. Rose Valley never borrowed money, and was in the black as long as I was there. If we did not have the cash, we did not buy things. I hope to maintain the same record at Peacework. Of necessity, our farm is a business. It has to cash flow, and pay taxes. The challenge for an organic farm is to create a business that is not driven by competition and the orthodox view that "if you are not growing, you are dying." To be sustainable, our business must achieve a dynamic equilibrium, a balance among our energies, economic resources, and the carrying capacity of our land. We need to learn more about this from stable eco-systems - the forests of the NE or the prairies of the mid-West, and not model ourselves on the rapacious practices of the ever larger, ever fewer transnationals.
And finally, social objectives: My personal HRM list of values for my quality of life reads: "fresh air, close to nature, working cooperatively with other people, independent (no debt, political, financial or psychological), with time for my family, culture, politics, learning and spiritual growth, human relations on the basis of mutual respect." Aside from the mortgage I had to take out to buy a house, I am pretty much living up to my notions of independence. The rest is a constant balancing act, probably a little long on ag. politics these days, and short on family life, culture and just plain fun. If we hope to attract a next generation to continue our work, we need to improve our life styles - less stress, more love. Why would any young person want to emulate elders who are unhappy, overworked at dangerous jobs, and underpaid. Within three years, I am determined that at Peacework, Greg and I will average 40 hours a week, with 6 weeks off in the winter, and that we will find a younger person who could start as an apprentice and work into my job.
As a movement, I think we have been effective in empowering a growing number of people to supply some of their food needs, to take more responsibility for what they put in their mouths, and to understand more about the existing food system. Through the NOFAs, and groups like MACSAC, we have provided ourselves with wonderful support networks. For myself and for Peacwork, the members of my CSA have become much more than customers - close friends, financial backers, and colleagues in the creation of a new kind of sustainable community.
In the Northeast, we are very close to having at least the beginnings of a program for a cradle to grave system to introduce all children to food growing, to provide training for young farmers, technical support, access to land and capital, continuing education for professional farmers, and a pension plan so we can retire without selling off our land to developers. We know that consumers will buy food identified by taste, place and the face of the people who grew it. We have a shared vision, and we are learning how to make our program into a reality. Needless to say, we still have a long way to go, but we have a great team. We need to keep up the cross-fertilization with you in the mid-west.
As some of you may know, I have been co-chairing the organic committee of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. When the Organic Food Production Act was passed in 1990, I represented the NOFAs on the Organic Farmers Associations Council. OFAC's consensus building process brought some of the best language into that bill, and prevented some of the worst mistakes. As organic farmers, we were not savvy enough about the political process. That is why in 1992 we joined up with the National Campaign, to work with a much broader coalition including people with many more years of experience in national policy. The Campaign committee has put in many hundreds of hours over the last year helping to coordinate the response to USDA, and doing everything in our power to maintain unity among the widely disparate forces and interests within the organic community and its supporters. Three areas of most intense debate at the moment are livestock standards - should organic require pasture; processing standards - how many synthetics, if any, do we want in organic processed foods; and social standards - do we want to exclude from organic certification farms which use exploitive labor practices? and if so, how?
The cost of the whole system of certification and accreditation we have set up - whether administered by the feds or in the private sector - is too high for farmers to bear alone. You are the largest group of organic farmers I will get to address this winter, so I would like to ask you a question. Keith Jones has spoken enthusiastically about finding a way for the government to cost share organic certification fees. How many of you like the idea of taking your certification papers down to the nearest USDA office for a rebate?
This is a time of testing for the entire organic community. Like never before, we need to pull together - and that means everyone - farmers, processors, handlers, retailers, certifiers, and consumers. For the guiding principles that have served us so well in organic farming to prevail, we must find ways to enforce our own set of high ethical standards on our farms and businesses - whatever USDA decides to do. My fervent hope is that we will rise to this occasion with the dignity, unity, mutual support and respect worthy of our calling as stewards of the earth.
What we do here at home is important not only for our own lives, but for organic farming all over the world. Bernward Geier, Executive Director of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, lent me these slides of organic farmers around the world:
We have brothers and sisters everywhere!
In conclusion I would like to say that our movement for a sustainable food system has been largely a-political in terms of affiliation with the major parties. Many of us share a sense of betrayal by both the parties - neither represents our interests - so we focus on the concrete work we can do on our farms and in our communities. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we can create sustainable farms in isolation from the dominant society around us. We need a truly broad and popular movement for social change. I believe it is time to start thinking about reentering the political arena by creating what Wendell Berry calls the party of the local economy. This party would cut across the usual party lines to unite the many many people who care about our local communities, who want to take back control over the important decisions in our lives - what we eat, how we love, what kind of work we do to make our livings. Our favorite jargon - organic, sustainable - translates very well into small town republican -care for our common wealth, long-term economic viability and food security. We can build our platform on the common ground where the conservatisim of organic farming meetings the conservatism of small town people of both parties who also understand the value of neighborly acts, the urgency of protecting the purity of local land, water, air and wild creatures, and the need to build cooperative links between our rural areas and community minded people in nearby towns and cities.
A while back, I asked you to look around and introduce yourselves to people you don't yet know in this audience. When we are alone on our farms, or in our gardens, it is sometimes easy to give in to loneliness and discouragement - growing food is hard work, and you don't often get much recognition for doing it. But look around you here - with our farms, small and large, marketing coops, value-added enterprises, CSAs, urban gardens, farmers markets, food coops, buying clubs, sustainable networks - we are making the only encouraging statistics in the US food system. We are laying the groundwork for a sustainable, regional food system based, not only on hard-nosed economics but on priceless values:
We may grow old together in the struggle to make this vision a reality. Our lives are the process. With persistance, mutual respect and fierce insistance on learning to cooperate with one another, we will survive the present era of cheap global food, and bring our liberated territory into a future of peace and abundance.