Dec 28, 2011

Small Farmer Commentary

The Fundamental Questions Don’t Change

by Mary Fund

I have been reading through old Small Farmer Commentaries I've written in order to pull a few end-of-the-year pieces together in a small volume as a Christmas gift for my sister. It was her idea; more than a few include family stories or memories, so I am not indulging in a totally self-centered exercise.

But in re-examining all those back issues of Rural Papers, I am impressed at the constancy and commitment of the themes and questions KRC has addressed over the years.

Corporate dominance (globally and locally), disregard for the environment, decreasing numbers of family farms, dwindling opportunities for youth, and increasing dysfunction at the highest levels of government-- and irritation expressed by those who prefer to remain deaf to criticism—we have reported and worked on many fronts affecting all of the above.

We’ve been called “Chicken Little” (among other less printable things) for predicting the sky is falling. But in all those newsletters explaining the problems our food and farm system faces, we have also presented alternatives for production and marketing and a more sustainable local and regional food future.

The fundamental questions that KRC asks have remained the same: Who benefits? At whose expense? And what are the true costs—to the environment, to communities and to our future?

Now, thanks to the Occupy Movement, we can add the question: does it benefit the 1% or the 99%? Does it add to democracy or take away from it?

Unlike many in the economy, farmers are having a good year, at least those who were lucky enough to have a crop to harvest this past fall. Crop prices are high and farm income is predicted to be 28% higher than in 2010, and 50% higher than the 10-year average.

But the high prices come at a cost. Part of the reason for good times in farming is the demand for grain -based biofuels, low supplies worldwide, and rising global food demands. Not so bad for the farmers with lots of grain to sell, but bad for the hungry and those wanting to get into farming, and not so good for the environment, as fragile land is moved into production, and management decisions are increasingly made based not on long- term conservation needs but on short term profits. Also, as crop prices are high, so are fuel, feed, seed and fertilizer prices. And farmland prices have increased, soaring in some states beyond the reach of many.

The high capital demands of agriculture (for land, equipment and inputs) make it next to impossible for youth to enter the game. So we have a huge question mark looming over who will produce food and fiber in the future? Who will make the decisions over what we eat and how it is raised? And who benefits from its production?

Our recent Sustainable Agriculture conference drew a fair number of young people interested in getting into farming. (Nationwide, the number of farmers over age 65 far outnumber those under 35.) Those young want-to-be farmers I spoke to at the conference and heard speaking up in the workshops, were articulate, their questions well-prepared, and they were committed to finding a future in farming and food production or a related business, primarily with a local or regional production thrust.

They were also deeply troubled. Lack of credit options, faulty public policy and lack of technical assistance hold them back—and like many young people in other fields, they see their options narrowing in today’s economy. The current industrial ag model appears to have no place for them, but they understand the importance of building a new model.

That new model, like the criticism we have levied at the conventional system over the years, has always been present in KRC’s work. Promoting an economic system based on fairness, need and justice-- on food, shelter and meaningful work for all our citizens-- seems critical not just for sustaining the food system, but democracy.

Working toward farm, food, and trade policy that treats farmers and workers with respect, protects our natural resources and the environment, and provides a decent quality of life for people does not seem like criticism to me, but is again basic to meeting human needs.

KRC is entering the New Year with a new Executive Director, new energy, and I hope a re-commitment to a more sustainable future for all sectors of our economy and for urban and rural citizens alike.

May 2012 be the year we all learn to ask the fundamental questions: Who benefits? At whose expense? And what are the long term costs? and above all, how can we make a difference?

Best Wishes for the New Year.

(In addition to her KRCwork, Mary Fund and her husband Ed Reznicek own and operate a 400 acre certified organic crop and livestock farm in Nemaha County.)

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