Are Family Farms the Answer?

family farmCountry singer Willie Nelson recently acknowledged black farmer Philip Barker and the work of Barker’s organization Operation Spring Plant, “which provides resources and training to minority and limited resource farmers, including a program that introduces young people to farming and provides youth leadership training”. Part of their goal is to to help young people “come back to the farm to understand the wealth of the land.”

In the course of Nelson’s essay, he strongly defends the future of small farming, not just as a way of life, but as a means of sustaining our food supply:

Phillip believes the next generation must see a sustainable livelihood from the land, but the wealth he refers to can’t be measured only in dollars. It is measured in the experience of working on the land, tending the soil, and caring for the animals and crops that grow from it. It’s measured in the ability to be independent, to feed himself and his family. It’s measured in the way he and Dorathy sustain and strengthen their community. It’s measured in being rooted to a place and passing something valuable to the next generation.

It seems to me that understanding the real wealth in the land is key to a sustainable future for all of us.

Our greatest challenge is in re-visioning how the majority see “wealth.” The wealth of the land cannot be boiled down to the investors’ return on investment. It cannot be gauged by the commodities it returns to us — in gallons of oil and bushels of corn.

The drive to extract as much value from the land as possible — to maximize production without regard to whether we’re exhausting the soil, to give over our farmland to Wall Street investors, to seize land held by families for generations for corporate profit — bankrupts the land, our food, our nation and our future.

I don’t doubt the value of small farms as a way of life or the vision of sustainability that infuses Nelson’s writing. But I wonder if small farms are capable of feeding the planet. Is large-scale, industrial agriculture necessary for producing the massive amounts of food required for feeding 7 Billion people, many of whom live in regions of the world that lack fertile soil and a climate conducive to productive agriculture?

I don’t know the answer to this question but paeans to the personal virtues of the family farmer often don’t raise this issue. I assume we don’t want to go back to the days when most human beings were subsistence farmers.

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