Creating an Environment Where Farmers Thrive

This week, I find myself at the Drake Forum on America’s New Farmers.  This great conversation is drawing people from across the US, as well as members of the current administration to engage in this conversation about how we can bring new farmers to the land.   It is inspiring to hear Tom Vilsak, the USDA Agriculture Secretary, speak directly to the issues that many of us have worked on our whole careers.

The discussion of beginning farmers often reminds me of an experience I had when I was first starting out working with farmers.   I was doing fieldwork with peanut farmers on reducing their reliance on pesticides and I got excited about the possibility for using beneficial insects to deal with insect pests. I found in a garden catalog that I could get beneficial mites to deal with the thripps that are a huge problem for peanuts in the early season.  I ordered them and a few days later a cardboard tube arrived in the mail, and I proudly took them out to the field.

As I stood on the edge of the field on a hot late-June day, I read the label on the tube, and it said, “Keep in a cool place.”  And I looked at that hot field without anything green other than the small peanut plants.  And I looked at the label.  And I looked at the hot bare crusted ground with no protection from the NC sun.  And I knew as I shook those mites out onto the plants that they might make a dent in the thripps population, but they had a snowball’s chance in hell of making it much further, much less creating a sustainable population that would provide a balance to pest populations into the future.

A few weeks later, I visited the farm of Kenny Haines, a long-term organic vegetable farmer in northeast NC.  Kenny focuses his management on soil quality and diversity and the health of his farm.  Every 5th bed he would keep in cover crops throughout the year to maintain soil fertility, but also to provide habitat for diverse insects.  During the visit, one of the NC State entomologists did a sweep for insects, and he found beneficials that they did not even know existed in North Carolina.  Kenny had never released beneficials, but because he had created the environment for beneficial insects to thrive, he never had to.

As I look at the programs on beginning farmers, too often I see what I was doing by releasing those mites.  We are assisting beginning farmers into a farming environment that is the equivalent of hot, dry ground.

In order to get in, many beginning farmers are going into high-value markets with specialty terms like local and direct and organic and grass-fed.  The cost of ownership requires that they receive more from their labor than the conventional wholesale markets provide and these are exciting, growing markets.

But at the same time, these markets provide as little protection as that NC field.  The safety net that has been so important for keeping conventional farms in business does not exist for higher-value specialty markets.  When a farmer transitions into these markets they step off of the safety net and that step has huge ramifications for the survival of beginning farmers.

Farming is one of the riskiest jobs in the world.  Researchers have documented that the risks from weather and volatile markets and all kinds of other factors make farm survival a challenge in the best of times.  For conventional farmers, Federal programs like crop insurance, commodity programs, disaster programs and farm credit provide a buffer against this risk.  But federal regulations dictate that these programs pay farmers based on conventional, wholesale prices.

If a farmer is selling their crop for two, three or four times the conventional price, as is common in specialty markets, then the percentage of their anticipated income that they can expect to be covered by federal programs is half or a third or a quarter of that of their conventional brothers and sisters.

These payments also form the basis for much of agricultural lending, so high-value farmers are also less feasible for loans, and are likely to have much more of their real property – their farm and their personal home – as collateral for their financing.  And if they cannot get agricultural loans, they wind up farming on higher-interest credit cards.  Not only are they less protected from natural disasters, but their collateral position and financing puts them in a shakier position to start with.

Many of the very small farmers who have pioneered high-value markets use their production system and their markets as a replacement for risk management programs.   They spread their sales across the year, control for the weather with irrigation and rain exclusion and produce a diversity of crops that they sell for top dollar.  But as these markets grow beyond the ability of small-scale producers to fill them, mid-scale farmers are being called upon to fill the gap.  The mid-scale producers are far more likely to require operating loans, and are far more likely to look to federal programs for their risk management.  And they are finding that these programs fail them.

This failure usually looks like the farmer’s failure.  It is in not getting a loan or not being able to bounce back from a hurricane or a freeze.  If an innovative farmer does not make it after a hurricane, their neighbors do not say “Isn’t it a shame that federal programs failed him.”  They say, “I told you that market wouldn’t work.”

Or the failure is in not being able to start farming in the first place.  In our programs at RAFI, we work with hundreds of innovative and entrepreneurial farmers.  The story that we hear over and over is of building a new enterprise to the point where they know they can make enough money to bring a son or a daughter back to the farm, but then not being able to get the operating loan because their banker sees the risk as too great.

If beginning farmers are to be successful, we need to focus on creating the programs that give them cover and protection, just like beneficial insects need the protection of cover crops and a welcoming environment.  If we only create programs that address the barriers to entry, then we are throwing our young farmers onto bare ground and expecting them to survive.  It is a strategy that mirrors the slogan of a popular snack food.  “Crunch all you want.  We’ll make more.”  If we expect to be successful in our efforts to create thriving, vital rural areas with successful farmers of all ages, we need to do better than that.

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