With a title like “The Way Forward,” you must be expected a substantial amount of profundity. It’s true – this post does (eventually) put forth a proposal for the future of American agriculture – but I do not pretend to have the final solution. In fact, I see my contribution herein as merely one of the many perspectives that is slowly building toward a broader policy goal that places a much higher value on land than we currently do. With that said, I sincerely believe in what I am saying and entreat you to read, think, respond, and then share this information with others.
If you go back through the archives of this blog and read my earlier posts “The Story of the Small Farm” and “The Great Land Transfer,” you will be able to get a background for the content of this blog post. However, for those who may not have read them (or may not care to read them – I know, you’re reading this out of pity), here is a synopsis of what I discussed in those posts:
- Since the Great Depression, farms have grown exponentially and crop production has become less diverse and more mechanized.
- Agribusinesses – both growers and input producers like Monsanto now dominate the agriculture scene. Small family farms are a thing of the past.
- Large-scale production eventually caused large-scale inequality and thus supposedly required large-scale governmental intervention. A subsidy program was created, but that too has tipped significantly toward large farms.
- Land prices are rising; new farmers are few and far between; and most of today’s farmers will be dead in 30 years. Mechanization of agriculture requires fewer people and less skill and knowledge of the land. In short, the next 30 years of agriculture look quite bleak.
Depressing, I know. But before you throw in the towel, hear me out. I believe there is a path toward a more just and sustainable agricultural future and I’ve outlined it here for you to consider.
Rather than work from the top down, I propose that the government and the policy sector take a secondary role to local communities. I don’t mean this as an endorsement of the exercise of privilege by affluent suburbanites known as “living organically”; I say it in full belief that it is the most effective way to create societal change in a republic. This view is clearly proven by centuries of history. In the book The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto examines societies throughout history and traces large-scale societal changes back from their policy implementation to their true starting point. In every case, the change started many years before it was ever even attempted as a policy. One of the examples de Soto gives is westward expansion in America. Property rights weren’t established in the western part of the country until well into the 19th century, but local communities had sprung up and developed their own ways of demarcating property long before then. Eventually, the government caught on and signed the Homestead Act as merely a recognition of what had been happening in smaller societies for decades. One can see this trend in nearly any era of history one chooses to look. For instance, the Impressionist painting style that we enjoy didn’t begin with a famous artist like Monet creating a masterpiece of lily-pads. It began with a group of poor, unknown painters let by Manet who believed in Impressionism and slowly built a following over time. Once Monet came along, public opinion was already swayed toward Impressionism enough that his lily-pads were immediately placed in the Louvre. Here, again, we see that bottom-up changes are often in existence long before the policy sector recognizes their value. Therefore, if we want to effectuate change on behalf of land, agriculture, and the environment, the best thing to do is to start normalizing it in our locales. This is not wishful thinking in ignorance of the realities of human nature. It is simply a call to participation in the republic.
An effective policy will then come on the heels of these changes. I would advocate for a restructuring of the agricultural subsidy system as the foremost priority in any policy effort. Again, I won’t go into as much detail as I have done in the two posts mentioned above, but suffice it to say that our agricultural subsidy system is based on an economy that no longer exists and has negative effects far beyond our borders. While agribusinesses are flooded with subsidy funding and over-incentivized to the point of surplus production (which then gets dumped on the developing world’s emerging markets, effectively stifling their growth), small farms are slowly getting squeezed out at the margins. (See my post “A Global Disadvantage” to read the story of personal experience with the international side effects of America’s agricultural subsidy system). The primary priorities for a subsidy restructuring effort would therefore be to 1) do more to keep small farms alive, 2) eliminate overproduction and therefore also dumping excess crops on developing world economies, and 3) provide subsidy support for more than just a few crops. It is my hope that, if NAFTA is renegotiated, these international effects of our agricultural financing decisions might be taken into more serious consideration. Unfortunately, such changes do not appear likely. In the meantime, the rest of the world – particularly the developing world, with all of its agricultural potential – would do well to not follow our example.
Other possible policy developments include: making it easier for new farmers to enter the profession, providing more incentives for farmers to use cover crops, subsidizing diversity of crops rather than mono-cropping (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/unearthed-a-rallying-cry-for-a-crop-program-that-could-change-everything/2015/02/01/ea7988b2-a741-11e4-a06b-9df2002b86a0_story.html), providing more tax incentives for the use of conservation easements, reward proper treatment and use of land and water resources, implement long-term lease options for new farmers, and much more (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/eight-ideas-for-improving-ag-policy-to-benefit-farmers-and-the-planet/2016/09/23/dc2b0f4c-800c-11e6-9070-5c4905bf40dc_story.html).
The primary barrier to accomplishing these changes is therefore not in the legislative, political, or institutional realm. It is rooted at the personal level, where it manifests itself in our concerning cultural conception of the value of land and agriculture. Americans see farming as a redneck, lower-class job rather than the noble, worthwhile profession that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (both of whom I would venture to say we, as Americans, look up to) saw as the foundation of a virtuous society. Americans need to view agriculture as a lifestyle and a value system, not just a rural business avenue. We need to see the farm – in whatever form that may take – as a complex, diverse and complete ecosystem. This calls, along with David Brooks, for a return to the idea of stewardship and the virtue of conservation that is associated with it (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/25/opinion/this-american-land.html?ref=oembed). The difficulty of such a return, however, will be apparent when we realize that it is a long-term process that requires a certain character. It is a character that values heritage, land, place, and the institutions that made us. It is also a character that is patient, consistent, and content to be a part of the process rather than a recipient of the solution. I would submit that we Americans not only lack this character but don’t care to attain it. We are accustomed to quick fixes and fast solutions, which is also why we cannot grasp the reality of climate change without either dismissing it or over-reacting. When we realize that this approach is going to require such values, as well as compromise and an ability to navigate social strain, very few of us will stay committed to the process.