Farm Justice for Beginning Farmers

We’re Missing the Biggest Part  (Subtitle, optional) 


This was written on the occasion of a Post on the “GOAT” (4 coalitions “getting our act together,”) list about a Report from the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota on the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The report is important, and shows the kind of policy innovations that have come out of the Sustainable Agriculture Movement (esp. starting in the 1990s). It can be found here (http://landstewardshipproject.org/repository/1/1543/bfrdp_report_2014.pdf ), and see the more concise blog about it here (http://landstewardshipproject.org/posts/740 ).

See also the other work on Beginning Farmer issues by LSP (here http://landstewardshipproject.org/organizingforchange/federalpolicy/conservationstewardshipprogram/beginningfarmersrancherspolicy ), and by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (here http://sustainableagriculture.net/our-work/issues/fo-fc/ ).

My view of the general approach taken by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and others, is that it’s great, but that there’s another whole category of policy needs for Beginning Farmers. Stated differently, there’s another whole category of policy that can address important needs of Beginning Farmers in general, including those related to sustainability. Additionally, there are important needs that go beyond those that the proposals of NSAC and LSP address. Both sides need support.


Two decades ago Loni Kemp laid out four “policy approaches” for the Sustainable Agriculture Movement, (in order,) Voluntary Actions, Incentives, Removal of Barriers, and Regulation. (“Clean Water and Thriving Farms: Mutual Goals for Sustainable Agriculture” MSAWG, 1994) To those I add a fifth category, Market Management, which affects the whole of agriculture.

Applying this to the situation for Beginning Farmers, we see that the corporate rationale for reducing (1953-1995) and eliminating (1996-2018) Market Management programs included a call for getting rid of “excess resources (primarily labor,” to get rid of 1/3 of US farmers within 5 years, (according to one think tank report from 1962 [see section on CED in “Four National Farm and Food Policy Plans: Part 1,” http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/12/04/1349380/-Four-National-Farm-and-Food-Policy-Plans-Part-1 ]). This included a special emphasis on programs to get farm youth to move away and not go into farming (Committee for Economic Development, “An Adaptive Program for Agriculture,” p. 34+).


Recently, (and for decades,) we see that there are a lot of young people brought up on farms in rural areas who would like to go into farming, but prices have been too low. I’ve certainly seen this in Iowa, and Joel Greeno, president of Family Farm Defenders and a board member of the National Family Farm Coaltion, has discussed the problem with reference to Wisconsin.

(This may not be known to others working on farm and food issues, as I saw recently at a “food justice” conference at Harvard Law School that I attended after the last GOAT meeting. One speaker* claimed that there really weren’t any such aspiring farmers, at least meaning white farmers. He called for help for hispanic farmers to make up for the lack. It’s great to help hispanic people to become farmers, they’re often very hard working, with important skills, and we certainly need more farmers, but this is definitely the wrong kind of narrative to be using. It is, in fact, a disaster waiting to happen. I assume that the comment about the lack of (i.e. white) people wanting to farm was simply an opinion based upon a lack of experience with what’s been going on in farming regions like mine. [*Chris Brown, Executive Director, Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, in a workshop, “The Whitest Profession: Combating Racial and Class Inequality in American Agriculture,” at “Just Food? Forum on Justice in the Food System,” Harvard Law School, 3/29/15])


At the same time, in running so many farmers out of business, (especially minority farmers,) and in the resulting impact on small towns, we’ve lost a lot of the infrastructure (and info-structure, these farm youth, who may have had many years of experience by age 18) for diversity, for sustainability. (And that includes fellow minority farmers and minority farm-related businesses, and the help that they can give in situations of structural racism.)

For me this has included, for example, the fact that my elevator quit buying oats or grinding feed. The loss of livestock to CAFOs via cheap feed policies is a big part of this, as we’ve been losing our sale barns and local lockers, and here in Eastern Iowa we’ve lost at least two major smaller scale poultry processors. (There are state policy needs also, for the latter situation.)

I also notice that ridge-till equipment and service, which started small and rose up, seems to have turned back downward. In the short run, organic systems can use equipment that is no longer used in chemical farming, so there have been benefits from farmers going out of business, but that older equipment can have a lot of problems, as well. In the longer run, it’s a disaster. We have desperately needed that mass of other farmers farming in more diversified ways.

Newer infrastructure for sustainability and local food is also at risk. Our town had a new cheese maker (Jersey! some awesome cheeses,) and a local meat storefront. We’ve now lost both. The ridiculously low, crucifyingly low conventional prices hurt their premium prices.

All of this puts about all of organic/sustainable agriculture at risk. I think it’s often “the elephant in the room,” a huge dark cloud that is being ignored.


While it’s great to call for new programs for Beginning Farmers, with an emphasis on the subcategory of sustainabilty, it’s a mistake to ignore this much larger, farming-wide issue, of how cheap market prices are destroying local and regional infrastructure and the info-structure of kids raised on diversified farms. This may really be a much bigger “beginning farmer” issue and sustainable agriculture issue than the ones emphasized by NSAC.

As I recall, in the past LSP has called for adequate Price Floors for small grains (i.e. oats, barley, rye, that are nurse crops for alfalfa and clover,) that are important to Crop Rotations, (which relates to the infrastructure for small grains that I mentioned above). That would help infrastructure. These grains also need government research support, such as making more choices available for different climates (barley; berseem clover, which is much better for bloat, but which winter kills, etc. etc.)

For some time now, (as I understand it,) LSP has not supported Market Management (Price Floors and supply reductions as needed, and Price Ceilings to trigger the release of Reserve Supplies). This is a key issue in the split off of the “Sustainable Family Farm Movement” from the “Family Farm Justice Movement.” When I was Iowa CCI rep to MSAWG, some of us were working on keeping the two sides together on Market Management. We failed.

One major reason for this division was probably the bitterness of organic/sustainable farmers regarding Farm Program weakenesses, where the visibly glaring issue seemed to be farm subsidy unfairness, (less subsidies for Resource Conserving Crop Rotations). That wound has continued in every subsequent farm bill. Organic farmers also had bad experiences with government Extension, government farm credit, etc.).

At the same time, or leadership on both sides didn’t adequately see the importance of fair prices for sustainability. We now can see that, in losing most livestock to CAFOs, (i.e. 2/3 of hogs to just 4 corporations!), we ALSO lost a ton of sustainability for those left behind. Conservatives argued that the 1996 Farm Bill was “Freedom to Farm,” and it did include increased options for sustainability, including subsidy-related components, like the Integrated Farm Management program, (a precursor to CSP). You could use a very sustainable crop rotation and still get subsidies as if you were raising 100% corn-on-corn, (or 67%, or corn/beans, if that was your history). Unfortunately, our predictions (“freedom to fail”) are what came true, probably far beyond what we anticipated (4 corps 66% of hogs), and, with most farms losing livestock, farmers lost the much of the economic foundation for including alfalfa and clover, oats and other small grains, in crop rotations.

We see then that, all along, it wasn’t just about subsidies and sustainability. The bigger issue, surely, was the massive reduction in farm prices that has so damaged Resource Conserving Crop Rotations in these ways.

We see, then, that this hurts Beginning Farmers two ways: there isn’t enough money to bring them in, and the kind of farming that they need, (sustainable, more labor intensive,) is penalized at the same time. Reduced, eliminated Market Management for ALL farms is a huge factor affecting both.

Our divided and so often conquered Farm and Food Movement, (& where the food side has not yet known, technically, how to advocate against cheap food, cheap corn,) needs to be brought back together, and that requires getting past the bitterness and misguided bashing of conventional farmers. The bad things about conventional farming are the result of their victimization. They’ve never been “favored” in the Farm Bill (cheaper market prices plus subsidies has resulted in net reductions of $1 up for every $8 down! [http://www.slideshare.net/bradwilson581525/presentations ] [https://zcomm.org/zblogs/the-hidden-farm-bill-secret-trillions-for-agribusiness-by-brad-wilson/ ]). Agribusiness, the output-complex, the input complex, and the CAFO complex, are the mega-beneficiaries.

The Food from Family Farms Act needs to be re-tooled to address these concerns (for Beginning Farmers) and others (i.e. to use Market Management to better support other historically oppressed farmers as well).

For one thing, in addition to fair prices, and returning greater labor needs to farmers to address public concerns, implementation of supply management could favor Beginning Farmers and others using high standards of sustainability. Set Asides could be used more freely for livestock production, to counteract CAFOs, and the damage they’ve done to crop Rotations, and to Beginning Farming generally.


In sum, this is a big general category of assistance for Beginning Farmers that is being neglected. We can do better, but that requires some tough discussions over the sensitive, historical issues that have divided us, and enabled us to be conquered so massively.

This is a place which the National Family Farm Coalition should develop, as part of (the rationale for) the Food from Family Farms Act, and as an update of that proposal. As a rationale, what’s needed is to tell the story, to develop the narrative for messaging in the importance of the general provisions of the Food For Family Farms Act for Beginning Farmers. Beyond that, provisions of the proposal should be added or revised to better address this need.  It’s a shame that this proposal, which is so huge in it’s U.S. and global impact for justice, and for sustainability through justice, has not been seen for its full value.  That needs to change.

Leave a comment