Mar 17, 2011

Small Farmer Commentary

Building Resilience at the Grassroots

by Mary Fund

Uncertainty seems to be the common theme in our lives these days. Despite the recent excitement about an increase in the number of jobs created nationally, a slight drop in unemployment rates, and polls claiming more people feel optimistic about our economic future, most people I know are skeptical at best. Most of us simply don’t count on national polls and talking heads for an accurate description of what we see around us. And we certainly don’t count on them to tell us what to do in terms of defining our own sense of security.

From my vantage point here in rural Kansas, what we see coming at us is not pretty. We see a state budget (like many other states around the country) in crisis with a $300-$500 million shortfall for the remainder of the fiscal year we are in, not to mention the next year. Locally, this means cuts to schools, possible closings and a new round of consolidations. It means cuts to other basic programs and services. At the federal level, these cuts are only amplified as are their impacts.

We see people hanging onto jobs they have and a shortage of other job options. We see rising prices at the grocery stores and rapidly rising gas and fuel prices. Young would-be farmers watch land prices rise far beyond their reach- and beyond the capacity of the land to pay for itself, even with high commodity prices. We see fewer high school graduates able to afford college or technical schools. And we see college graduates unable to find jobs in their new areas of expertise.

But as the old Chinese adage goes, from crisis there is opportunity.

Increasingly, people are asking just what can they do – in terms of creating a business or filling a need? In other words, if the larger more abstract economy of Wall Street and the role of government fluctuates or pulls away, what can we do that will meet our needs? Necessity has always been the mother of invention, and that may be what we need a good dose of now to create an economy based on use value and not speculation.

Not to downplay the importance of fighting for the programs and protections government is supposed to provide in terms of offering a level playing field, so that small farmers and businesses have a fair chance against giant corporations, who can never actually have our best interests at heart, but we also need to find ways to support each other as we struggle to create communities for our families and neighbors.

Building resiliency at the grassroots is what happens when we begin asking what is important to our communities, our farms, and the quality of our lives. What kinds of enterprises or collaborative efforts can we promote or adopt to meet our needs here in this place we have chosen to live?

The trend toward ever larger farms and giant corporations controlling our food supply is not only unsustainable, but it is not what people want. A food system that consolidates inputs, homogenizes the landscape and creates dependencies on the very corporations and technologies that created it, provides neither security in today’s world, nor good places to live and raise our families.

Small though they may be, KRC sees signs of farmers, consumers and communities beginning to take steps toward a more sustainable future. For instance, more farmers and ranchers are showing interest in an integrated approach to crops and livestock production with reliance on cover crops and legumes for nutrients, forages, and erosion control, and exploring alternative markets for crops and livestock. Designing systems based on these lessens dependence on expensive outside inputs and opens up new options for marketing.

While no one argues that all food can be produced locally, growing interest in strengthening local food production with hoophouses and development of farmers markets and direct marketing to institutions and food services is a step toward greater food security. It also provides an entry point for young farmers, and more business opportunities for value added or related food enterprises.

The number of communities developing economic development plans based on existing talents and skills of stakeholders, and importing the skills and services needed (medical, manufacturing, communications, energy etc.) is growing. Building a local food system is often a part of these plans.

In Kansas, the push to involve watershed stakeholders in decisions about water quality protection locally has generated discussion about less expensive management based options available to a wide range of producers. Connecting what happens on the individual farm to broader watershed goals protects the resource base critical to building local communities and the local economy.

These are small steps to be sure, but they are all part of building resiliency into our local economies, and thus into the national economy. Debate should be focusing on how to do more of this.

Mary Fund is editor of Rural Papers and coordinates the Kansas Rural Center's Clean Water Farm Project. She and her husband have a certified organic farm in Nemaha County. Kansas.

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