On Small Farms and a Sustainable Food Supply

by Catherine Haug, June 10, 2012

The June 3 issue of the Great Falls Tribune featured a great article: Wanted: Big crop of young farmers and ranchers (9). It speaks of an “epidemic of sorts sweeping across America’s farm and ranch land… The average age of Montana farm/ranch operators was 56 in 2002 and 58 in 2007“. This aging of farmers and ranchers, the reluctance of young people to pursue this career, and a net decrease in working farms and ranches could mean “unspeakable woes” that will descend upon our children and grandchildren if we don’t retain and repopulate our working lands. It could even mean food shortages today.

Depopulation of working lands is only part of the problem; because of world population increase, we could “require 70% MORE food production by 2050“, including a “doubling of animal agriculture” (9). Yet along with the decline in farmers comes the decline of working lands, such as we’ve seen right here in the Flathead, as these lands are developed for housing and commercial interests.

This brings two challenges: inspiring our youth to an agriculture career; and preserving working lands. While the answer to these challenges is complex, one way to encourage young adults to pursue food production as a career, is by  providing incentive to make it pay. And the Farm Bill 2012 can help with that.

Making it pay, making it attractive

From the Tribune article (9):

“Young agricultural operators face significant challenges with high capital requirements to get started in the business. Land, equipment, and livestock prices are at an all-time high, stretching the capital requirements to get started. Additionally, net commodity prices struggle to keep pace with inflation and higher input costs.

Estate planning, including financial and legal advice, is one option senior operators have to pass the ranch or farm operation on to the next generation. USDA also offers some other program to beginning farmers and ranchers. “

Frankly, I believe the effort requires the support of the local community. It requires an openness of our schools to portray farming/ranching as a noble profession; to introduce our youth to the value of good, fertile soil and to the foods it can produce. We need to help our youth appreciate our working lands and the families who work them.

I also believe that the trend toward large, corporate farms needs to be reversed, and it needs to happen quickly. But this won’t happen if there are no passionate young people to make it work.

Farm Bill 2012

From the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (10): “The future of American agriculture depends on the next generation of farmers and ranchers.  Congress needs to hear from you today that support for beginning farmers and ranchers must be part of the 2012 Farm Bill!”

If you care about the future for your children and grandchildren, make that call or send that email. Lets make this the Farm Bill for Small Farms and Sustainable Local Food Supply. See Contact Our Government. See also House Ag Committee Members (4) and Senate Ag Committee Members (5).

Here’s sample text (from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition):

I support sensible farm policy and programs that help beginning farmers and ranchers succeed.  Please support the Leahy Agricultural Land Easements for Beginning Farmers and the Brown-Nelson AGI amendment!”

Watch this inspiring 4 minute video of a real small farmer from rural Maine: “We are Farmers, We Grow Food for the People” (6), produced by Food Democracy Now.

What is a farm bill?

It is the federal government’s primary agricultural and food policy tool, and deals with all affairs of the USDA. It impacts “what crops are grown; where, when and how the land is farmed; and who benefits from this production.” (1)

“The larger public is discovering that policies in the Farm Bill affect not just farmers here and around the world, but rural communities, the environment, health, hunger and even immigration. Literally everyone has a stake in the Farm Bill.” (2)

For example, the farm bill sets farm subsidies, which in turn impact food prices and what your family can afford to eat. The current (2008) farm bill subsidizes primarily soy and corn crops produced by large corporate farms, with little to no support for small family farms that produce fruits and vegetables to feed your family. This policy ensures that processed foods are vastly less expensive than fresh, whole foods.

“Our current food system is broken, and it didn’t happen by accident. Decades of bad food policy designed to benefit agribusinesses and mega-farms, combined with unchecked corporate mergers, have wreaked havoc on family farmers, public health and rural communities.” (3)

What a fair farm bill would look like

A fair farm bill is fair for the average American family by (3):

  • Providing better choices at the grocery or market. Breaking up the ag monopolies will bring a more vibrant and fair marketplace;
  • Stabilizing proces with such practices as the ag reserves to prevent speculation from driving up food prices;
  • Providing a stronger local (food) infrastructure.

It would also provide (3):

  • A level playing field and fair marketplace for all farmers large and small;
  • Environmental stewardship through conservation programs to improve biodiversity, minimize pollution, and conserve essential resources;
  • Support for sustainable farming: ndependent farmers will receive support to help them shift to more diversified operations.

Congressional Farm Bill Committees

  • The House committee on Agriculture has six subcommittees concerned with rural development, conservation, dairy, specialty crops & nutrition, and credit programs. Committee members are listed at House Ag Committee Members (4), should you wish to contact them.
  • The Senate committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry has five subcommittees concerned with general topics of commodities, jobs and rural economic growth, conservation, nutrition and livestock. Committee members are listed at Senate Ag Committee Members (5), should you wish to contact them.

This Land is Your Land

Those universal words by Woody Guthrie (This Land is Your Land) are also the title of a Time Magazine article about Joel Salatin, “the rebellious Shenandoah Valley farmer who has emerged as a sage and celebrity in the sustainable-food movement” (8), [NOTE: if the link no longer works, here’s a pdf version on the ESP site: This Land Is Your Land, Time Magazine – pdf]


  1. American Farmland Trust: Farm Bill Facts (FarmBillFacts. org) NOTE: Link removed because contains malware; do not try to connect to the site. FarmBillFacts. com is also affected by the malware.
  2. Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy (www.iatp.org/issue/agriculture/farm-bill)
  3. Food and Water Watch (www.foodandwaterwatch.org/food/farm-bill-2012)
  4. House Committee on Agriculture and House Ag Committee Members (agriculture.house.gov)
  5. Senate committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and Senate Ag Committee Members (www.ag.senate.gov)
  6. YouTube:  “We are Farmers, We Grow Food for the People” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsNUqK6saMU)
  7. YouTube: Woody Guthrie and This Land is Your Land (www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaI5IRuS2aE)
  8. Time Magazine article about Joel Salatin (www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2096846,00.html)
  9. Great Falls Tribune: Wanted: Big crop of young farmers and ranchers (www.greatfallstribune.com/article/20120603/BUSINESS/206030308/Wanted-Big-crop-young-farmers-ranchers)
  10. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (SustainableAgriculture.net

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