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Crisis and opportunity in North American agriculture

(July 17, 2001 -- CropChoice news) -- John Ikerd, an emeritus professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, has given us his permission to run a few of his papers about sustainable agriculture. -- Robert Schubert, CropChoice editor

Crisis and Opportunity In North American Agriculture
John Ikerd
University of Missouri

Presented at a farm conference, “Recapturing Wealth on the Canadian Prairies,” Brandon, Manitoba, October 26-27, 2000.

North American agriculture is in crisis.  Until recently, the crisis had been a quiet one.  No one wanted to talk about it.  Thousands of farm families were being forced off the land each year, but we were being told by the agricultural establishment that their exodus was inevitable – in fact, was a sign of progress.  Those who failed were simply the victims of their own inefficiency – their inability to keep up with changing times, their inability to compete.  We have no more reason to be concerned about the demise of the “family farm” than we were about the “mom and pop” grocery story or the “family restaurant” – you cant’ stand in the way of progress.

With farm prices at record low levels for three years in a row, the agriculture establishment has begun to realize that something is wrong.  The US Congress has passed “emergency” farm legislation each of the past three years – pushing US farm subsidies to all-time record levels.  But even now, the farm crisis is being blamed on such things as weather problems, loss of export markets, or unwise public policies at home and abroad.  In general, we are always led to believe that “our” problems are “someone else’s” fault.  “The crisis is a simple matter of supply and demand,” they say.  The only solutions they propose are to tinker with government policy or, better yet, to simply wait for markets to recover.  In the meantime, the only alternatives farmers are being offered are to get big enough to be competitive, get a corporate contract to reduce risks, or get out of farming.

In a recent book, “The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio,” University of California economist, Steven Blank envisions the imminent end of the American farm.  His conclusions regarding the future of agriculture in the US would seem to be equally applicable to agriculture in Canada.  American agricultural production is destined to end, he argues, but he claims this should be no cause for alarm.  He contends that the end of American agricultural production is the result of a natural process that is making us all better off.  He foresees a time in the not too distant future when North America will import nearly all of its foodstuffs from other “lesser developed” countries.  Costs of land and labor will be too high for American farmers to be competitive in global food production.  He argues that globalization of the food system is not some corporate business strategy, but is simply the inevitable consequence of individual struggles of farmers and agribusiness in America and around the world who quite logically are pursuing their individual self interests to the benefit of society in general.

Blank believes that the current open spaces of rural areas will be transformed from farms to living space for a growing and increasingly affluent population fleeing the problems of urbanization.  Cornfields are unable to compete with condominiums for farmland.  Farming is a low-skilled, “primary” industry that has no place in an advanced, “high-tech” economy.  Rural ways of life will give way to urban ways of life as farms become residential ranchettes.  Virtual communities of people interconnected by the Internet will replace real communities of people who meet face-to-face in church or at the grocery store.  Communities of interest will replace communities of place.   Agriculture will no longer be a significant factor in the rural economy.  Most people in the community will be employed elsewhere -- perhaps by companies thousands of miles away.  Blank claims the only forms of truly sustainable agriculture will be those compatible with urban life – mainly golf courses, nurseries, and turf farms.

Blank’s fundamental arguments are based on the premise that economic considerations ultimately will prevail over all others.  He assumes that industrial agribusiness will replace family farms because they are “more economically efficient” and American agribusiness eventually will be displaced by even “more efficient” agribusiness elsewhere in the global market.  Residential ranchettes will replace rural farmsteads because people with high-tech jobs can pay more for land to look at than farm families can afford to pay to work it.

Blank might well be right.  If we allow short-run economic thinking to continue to dominate every aspect of our lives, then Blank’s forecasts for the future of American agriculture appear quite rational and reasonable.  The current crisis might well foretell the end of the North America farm.  However, the end of farming in North America is neither inevitable, nor is it desirable.  There are sound, logical, ecological and social reasons to keep farm families on the land and for every nation to maintain the integrity of its agricultural sector for purposes of national security.  We need not sacrifice our overall long run quality of life for the sake of short run economic efficiency.  But, we may well be forced to rethink the role and scope of agriculture within the global economy as well as within the broader human society.  We may have to develop a new American farm to prevent the end of the American farm.

Crisis and Opportunity

Crisis is most frequently considered something negative, something to be avoided, such as pain, distress, or disorder.  However, crisis can be defined more generally to be either positive or negative.  A crisis is a decisive moment, a critical time or state of affairs whose outcome will make a decisive difference for either better or worse.  In fact, the Chinese have a word for crisis that is used to mean both threat and opportunity.  The current crisis in agriculture most certainly is a time of pain, distress, and disorder for farmers and rural communities.  However, it is also a time of opportunity – a critical time and state of affairs that will make a decisive difference, either for better or for worse.  It’s up to us – to farmers and others – to confront the threat, to seize this opportunity, and to create the kind of agriculture and human society that we want rather than accept whatever others might impose upon us.

If we are to seize the opportunities in agriculture today, we must be willing to confront the crisis.  The current crisis in agriculture is not a consequence of the weather, of world trade problems, or of unwise government policies.  These things only magnified the symptoms of problems that are rooted in causes far more fundamental.  Crisis is a chronic symptom of the type of agriculture we have been promoting on this continent for at least the past fifty years – symptoms of an industrial agriculture.  Reoccurring financial crises are the consequence of our encouraging farmers to industrialize – to become more specialized, standardized and larger in scale so we can make agriculture more efficient.  We rationalize the industrialization of agriculture as a means of providing lower cost food for consumers.  We rationalize the displacement of family farmers in the process as a means of “freeing people from the drudgery of farming” so they can find better jobs in town.

The promise of profits is the bait that keeps farmers on the industrial technology treadmill.  Farmers adopt new cost-cutting and production enhancing technologies to increase profits, but the resulting increases in production cause prices to fall, eliminating profits of the early adopters and driving the laggards out of business.  This technology treadmill has been driving farmers off the land for decades.  Those remaining on the treadmill after each crisis must run faster and faster just to survive.  Soon, they don’t have time for their families, let alone their communities.  They can’t afford to care too much about their neighbor, for they know soon, that in order to survive, they will have to have their neighbor’s land.  Inefficiency and reluctance to change are not the causes of failures among American farmers.  Farm failure is an inherent part of the system.  Some must fail in order for others to succeed, and after each crisis there is room for fewer and fewer survivors.

Chronic crisis in American agriculture also has meant chronic crisis in America’s rural communities as farms have become more specialized, larger, and fewer.  The fundamental purpose of most rural communities was to support those engaged in agriculture or some other natural resource based enterprise, such as mining or timber.  But, it takes people, not just production, to support a community.  Larger farms tend to bypass rural communities in buying the production inputs and marketing their products.  In addition, a rural community is far more than a rural economy.  It takes people to fill the church pews and school desks, to serve on town councils, to justify investments in health care and other social services, to do the things that make a community.  As farms have grown larger and fewer, they have lost their people – their human and social resources – and many rural communities have withered and died. 

The current crisis is different in at least one respect, it signals the final stage of industrialization.  The final stage of industrialization is consolidation of decision making under corporate control.  The giant multinational corporations are now seizing control of all aspects of American agriculture, moving beyond specialization and standardization, beyond consolidation into larger farms, and are now consolidating agricultural decision making in a handful of corporate boardrooms.  This final stage of industrialization is turning once peaceful farms into odious factories, with all of the noxious odors, environmental degradation, and inhuman working conditions that characterized heavy industry of earlier times.  This final stage of industrialization is turning remote rural communities into the dumping grounds for the rest of society – whether as prisons, landfills, toxic waste dumps, or giant hog factories.  This final stage of industrialization could well spell the end of the American farm, and with it, the end of the American rural community.

The corporatization of agriculture in the US came first to the poultry industry.  A handful of larger corporations now control poultry production from genetics to the supermarket, and there are virtually no independent producers left.  Hog production is rapidly following in the footsteps of poultry, with corporate ownership and contract production becoming the norm rather than the exception.  Dairy will likely be the next sector to industrialize, as the current trend toward large-scale production will quite likely be followed by corporate control.  Biotechnology will bring corporate control of grain production, as producers will have to grow crops with approved genetics in order to have a market, and biotech corporations will hold the genetic patents.  A grain farmer who doesn’t sign a corporate contract simply won’t have a market.

It’s not a matter of economies of scale any more, but a matter of market control.  Market control means profits.  Poultry producers have proven that if a few corporations can gain control of a sufficiently large share of an industry, they can stabilize supplies on the backs of their contract producers, and can maintain corporate profits indefinitely.  Corporate producers are not concerned about profits during the consolidation phase.  The lower the price, the faster independent producers will be forced out of business and the faster the large corporations can gain market share.  As corporations gain market share, they can deny market access to lower-cost, independent producers, and ultimately gain complete control of the market, even if they are less efficient than independent producers.  When they get control of the markets, they can quickly recoup any losses incurred during the period of consolidation.

As American agriculture comes under corporate control, it will respond even more quickly to global markets – there will be no sentimental attachment of corporate producers to any particular farm, geographic region, or nation.  If costs of land and labor are less somewhere other than in North America, as they almost certainly will be, then that’s where our food will be produced.  Capital and management can be shifted easily from North America to other countries around the globe – as we have seen in the production of other industrial goods.  North American’s farmlands will be sold to the highest bidder, which is likely to be land speculators, and most rural communities will continue to wither and die as they await some future revival as bedrooms communities for affluent urbanites.

The food and fiber industry most certainly has a future, people will always need food, clothing, and shelter, and someone will provide them.  But there will be no future for farming in North American, or for rural communities, unless we challenge the conventional wisdom that food should be produced wherever on the globe it can be produced at the lowest cost and that “free markets” should be the final arbitrators of all value.  In fact, there will be no future for farming anywhere – not true farming -- not unless we have the courage to challenge and disprove the conventional wisdom that farmers must get bigger, give in to corporate control, or get out.  But there are better alternatives for farmers and for society, if we can find the courage to challenge the basic forces driving the corporatization of agriculture and of North American society.

Crisis Brings Opportunity for Change

The crisis in agriculture brings with it opportunities for decisive, positive change.  The opportunities arise from the failures of corporate industrialization.  Economists will argue that cost reducing technologies, and the pursuit of profits, ensures that consumers get the highest quality food at the lowest cost, even it some farmers are forced out of business in the process.  However, we no longer have a competitive, capitalistic economic system to ensure that new technologies actually benefit consumers or that lower production costs translate in to lower food costs in the supermarket.  Economists are defending corporate agriculture using hopelessly outdated theories developed more than 200 years ago in completely different times.

Contemporary economics is based on the observations of a British economist, Adam Smith, in his landmark book, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.  From Smith’s observations, economists developed the fundamental assumptions, which underlie all “free market” economic thinking even today.  These assumptions must hold in order for Smith’s “invisible hand” of competition to transform individual greed into the greater good for society in general.

Markets must be economically competitive – meaning the numbers of buyers and sellers so large that no single buyer or seller can have any noticeable effect on the overall market.  In such markets, no one has the power to exploit anyone else.  It must be easy for new sellers to enter markets that are profitable and easy for sellers to get out of unprofitable markets, so that producers are able to respond to consumers’ wants and needs.  Consumers must have clear and accurate information concerning whether the things they buy will actually meet their wants and needs.  And finally, the consumer must be sovereign – their tastes and preferences must reflect their basic values, untainted by persuasive influences of others.

None of these assumptions hold in today’s society.  Today agricultural markets are dominated by the large agribusiness corporations, certainly at every level other than the farm level, and increasingly even at the farm level.  In addition, it is not easy to get into or out of any aspect of agriculture, and it is becoming increasingly harder even to get into or out of farming.  Consumers don’t get accurate, unbiased information concerning the products they buy, but instead get disinformation by design, disguised as advertising.  Finally, consumers are no longer sovereigns.  The food industry spends billions of dollars designed specifically to bend and shape consumers tastes and preferences to accommodate mass production and mass distribution, which enable corporate control of agriculture.  There is no logical reason to believe that the corporate agriculture of today is evolving to meet the needs or wants of consumers.

Instead, corporate agriculture today is designed specifically to generate profits and growth for corporate investors.  We no longer have a competitive, capitalistic agricultural economy.  Capitalism requires that individuals make individual decisions in a competitive market environment.  As corporations extend their control horizontally “within” the same functional levels, such as marketing, storage, transportation, processing, or retailing, they increase their ability to protect profits from competitors.  As corporations also extend their control vertically, “across” functional levels, including additional different stages of production and marketing, they gain control over decisions concerning how much of what is produced, when it is produced, how it is produced and for whom.  They make those decisions to maximize their profits and growth, not to meet the needs of society. In essence, as agriculture moves from competitive capitalism to corporatism, it changes from a market economy to “central planned” economy.  Central planning didn’t work for the Communists, and it won’t work for the corporations.  The problem wasn’t that the Communists weren’t smart enough or that their computers weren’t large enough.  Central planning is a fundamentally wrong-headed approach to managing an economy – for corporations as well as governments.  The corporate system of food production will prove to be fundamentally incapable of meeting the needs of the people.  Its emergence as the dominant system, therefore, represents a prime opportunity for an alternative to corporate central planning, to create an agriculture that will truly meet the needs of the people of an enlightened society.

As society becomes more enlightened, we are beginning to realize that we are destroying our natural environment in the process of trying to produce cheap food.  We are mining the soil through erosion and depletion of its natural product in the process of maximizing production and minimizing dollar and cent costs of production.  We are polluting our streams and groundwater with residues from the pesticides and commercial fertilizers necessary for large-scale, specialized industrial crop production and with wastes from giant confinement animal feeding factories.  We are destroying the genetic diversity, both below and above the soil that is necessary to support nature’s means of capturing and transforming solar energy into energy for human bodies.

As society becomes more enlightened, we are beginning to realize that we are destroying the social fabric of society in the process of trying to make agriculture more efficient.  We are destroying opportunities for people to lead productive, successful lives.  We are turning thinking, innovative, creative farmers into tractor drivers and hog house janitors.  There is dignity in all types of work, but all people should have opportunities to express their full human potential.  Consolidation of decision making concentrates the opportunities among the privileged few while leaving the many without hope for a rewarding future.  Industrial specialization also tends to separate people within families, within communities, and within nations.  We are just beginning to realize that industrialization destroys the human relationships needed to support a civilized society. 

The outdated economics that supports agricultural industrialization is fundamentally incapable of dealing effectively with either the environmental or social challenges of today.  In economics, the environment and society are external or outside of the decision making process – something that may impact or be impacted by decisions but not part of the process.  In reality, the economy, environment, and society all are parts of the same inseparable whole.  Society needs a more enlightened system of decision-making – one capable of integrating economic, ecological, and social decisions.  We need a “new” approach to farming in North America.

The New American Farm

A new American agriculture is emerging under the conceptual umbrella of sustainable agriculture.  Sustainable agriculture is a response to a growing awareness that an agriculture that degrades the natural environment and weakens the social fabric of society cannot meet the needs of people over time, no matter how productive and profitable it may appear to be in the short run.  Farm profitability cannot be sustained unless farms are also ecologically and socially sustainable.  The focus of agriculture sustainability is on the long run – on intergenerational equity.  A sustainable agriculture must be capable of meeting the needs of the present while leaving equal or better opportunities for the future.  In order to fulfill this purpose, it must be ecologically sound and socially responsible as well as economically viable.  Systems of farming that are lacking in any one of these dimensions quite simply are not sustainable.

Farming sustainably is no simple task.  But, thousands of farmers are finding ways to create a desirable quality of life for themselves and to support their local communities while being good stewards of the land and the natural environment.  These farmers, like people in general, are pursuing their self-interest.  Pursuit of self-interests is an inherent aspect of being human.  But, people, by nature, do not pursue only their narrow, individual or personal self-interest.  It’s also within the inherent nature of people to care about other people and to care of the earth.  People are perfectly capable of rising above selfishness and greed to pursue a higher concept of self-interest – a self-interest that values relationships with other people and stewardship of the earth as important dimensions of one’s self-interests.

This higher self-interest includes our narrow self-interest (personal, individual concerns), but it also includes interests that we share with others (relationship, community, and social concerns) and interests that are purely altruistic (ethics and moral concerns).  All three contribute to our well being or quality of life.  Each contributes to a higher sense of quality of life – explicitly recognizing that each of us individually is but a part of the whole of society, which in turn must conform to some higher order or code of natural law.

Sustainable agriculture requires that farmers find balance and harmony among the economic, social, and ecological dimensions of their farming operations -- among self-interests, shared-interests, and altruistic interests.  By pursuing their enlightened self-interests, these new American farmers are helping to build a more sustainable agriculture and in addition are discovering the principles needed for a more sustainable human society.

These sustainable farmers may carry the label of organic, low-input, alternative, biodynamic, holistic, permaculture, or no label at all, but they are all pursuing common economic, ecological and social goals.  These farmers, not the experts or the scientists, are the ones on the new frontier -- the explorers, the colonists, the revolutionaries, and the builders of a “New World.”  Life is difficult on the frontier because no one really knows how to do what these folks are trying to do – they are creating the future.  They are getting little help from the government, their universities, or the agricultural establishment.  They are doing it pretty much on their own.  They will continue to confront hardships, frustrations, and there will be some failures along the road.  But, more and more of these new American farmers are finding ways to succeed.

There are no blueprints for the New American Farm.  But a few fundamental principles are beginning to emerge.  In general, the new farming opportunities arise directly from exploiting the weaknesses resulting from misuses of industrialization -- specialization, standardization, and centralized decision making.  The new American farm relies instead on the advantages of diversity, individuality, and decentralized networks of interdependent decision-makers.

New American farmers focus on working with nature rather than against it.  The natural resource base that ultimately must sustain productivity is inherently diverse.  Industrial systems have had to bend nature -- to augment, supplement, alter, and force it  -- to create an illusion of conformity out of diversity in order to meet the demands of large-scale, industrial production.  The ecological problems arising from industrialization are symptoms of natural resources being used in ways that are inherently degrading to their productivity.  Thus, industrialization has created tremendous opportunities for farmers who learn to utilize the inherently productive capacity of a diverse natural resource base, rather than wasting time and money trying to force nature to conform.

            These new American farmers utilize practices such as management intensive grazing, integrated crop and livestock farming, diverse crop rotations, cover crops, and inter-cropping.  They manage their land and labor resources to harvest solar energy, to utilize the productivity of nature, and thus, are able to reduce their reliance on external purchases inputs.  They are able to reduce costs and increase profits while protecting the natural environment and supporting their local communities.

New American farmers focus on value rather than costs.  They realize that each of us values things differently, as consumers, because we have different needs and different tastes and preferences.  Industrial methods are efficient only if large numbers of us are willing to settle for the same basic goods and services – so they can be mass produced.  So, industrialization has to treat us as if we’re all pretty much the same.  Customers have to be persuaded, coerced, and bribed to buy the same basic things rather than the things they really want.  We pay more for packaging and advertising of food than we pay to the farmers who produce the food.  The industrial system creates tremendous untapped opportunities for farmers who can tailor their products to conform to unique needs and preferences of individual customers, rather than try to bend the preferences of customers to conform to their products.

New American farmers market in the niches. They market direct to customers through farmers markets, roadside stands, CSAs, home delivery, or by customer pick-up at the farm.  They use everything from the Internet to word-of-mouth to advertise their services.  They market to people who care where their food comes from and how it is produced – locally grown, organic, humanely raised, hormone and antibiotic free, etc.   They are often able to avoid some or all of the processing, transportation, packaging, and marketing costs that make up 80 percent of the total cost of mass marketed foods.  They increase value, reduce costs, and increase profits while protecting the environment and helping to build stronger local communities.

New American farmers focus on what they can do best.  They realize that we are all different -- as producers as well as consumers.  We have widely diverse skills, abilities, and aptitudes. Industrialization has had to “bend people” – train, bribe, and coerce people – to make them behave as coordinated parts of one big machine rather than as fundamentally different human beings.  Many social problems of today are symptoms of people being used by industrial systems in ways that are inherently degrading to our uniquely human productive capacities.   Thus, industrialization has left tremendous untapped economic opportunities for farmers and others who can use their unique capacities to be productive rather than attempt to conform to systems of production that just don’t fit.

New American farmers may produce grass-finished beef, pastured pork, free range or pastured poultry, heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, dairy or milk goats, edible flowers, decorative gourds, or dozens of other products that many label as agricultural “alternatives.”  They find markets for the things they want to grow and are able to grow well rather than produce for markets where they can’t compete.  Or they may produce fairly common commodities by means that are uniquely suited to their talents.  Their products are better, their costs are less, and their life is better because they are doing the things that they do best.

These new American farmers focus on creating value through building unique relationships  -- among consumers, among producers, and within nature.  In general, they link people with purpose and place.  By linking their unique productive capacities with unique sets of natural resources to serve the needs and wants of unique groups of customers they create unique systems of meeting human needs that cannot be industrialized.  The farmers and their customers are not just sellers and buyers, they know and care about each other, as people – they have relationships with each other.  The farmer’s land is not just a resource to be exploited for economic gain, they care about and want to take care of the land – they have a relationship with the land.  The more unique the combinations of person, purpose, and place, the more valuable will be their relationships, and the more sustainable will be the value.  The sameness of industrialization creates opportunities for unique farmers who can create unique relationships with their resources and their customers.

Critics argue that these new farm opportunities are limited.  On the contrary, there is no limit to the diversity among people nor diversity within nature.  There are as many niche markets as there are people.  The question is one of how many different markets it is logical to serve not how many different niche markets exist.  Likewise, there are as many differences in production capabilities as there are producers and as many different niches in nature as there are fields or places to produce.

Some question whether a sufficient number of people who are both willing and able to learn can be found to farm in these new ways.  Admittedly, the new American farm will require a lot more knowledge, understanding, and thinking than does farming by industrial methods.  However, any future occupation offering an opportunity for a decent living will require people to use their minds.  The days when someone could earn a good living by the sweat of their brow are in the past.  There will be plenty of innovative, creative, hard working people to operate the new American farms, once the real possibility for a more desirable quality of life in farming – economically, socially, and ethically – becomes widely know.

Others question whether people can afford to pay farmers the full costs of meeting their food and fiber needs without exploiting either the natural or human resource base for agriculture.  However, today’s consumer, on average, spends only a dime of each dollar for food -- from which the farmer gets only one penny.  Thus, most consumers can afford to pay farmers to produce the food they really want and need rather than settle for something less, particularly if that something less degrades the social and ecological systems from which consumers also derive much of their quality of life.

Some question whether a sustainable agriculture is physically capable of meeting the needs of a growing global population – that only “high-yield, high-input” systems are necessary to keep pace with population growth.  First, “high-yield” systems rely heavily on non-renewable inputs such as commercial fertilizers and pesticides.  Biotechnology isn’t going to reduce this reliance, but instead may even increase it in the quest for maximum yields.  There may be sufficient supplies of non-renewable inputs for another 50 or maybe 100 years.  But, what will people do then?  We will have twice or three times as many people on earth by then, and the resources will be gone.

Many “low-input” farmers today are already achieving yields equal to or greater than conventional “high-input” systems of farming.  The knowledge and expertise required to achieve high yields with low inputs are not nearly as widespread as is commercial agricultural technologies.  However, many others are capable of acquiring this ability, if they realized it was possible, and had an incentive, to do so.  In addition, sustainable agriculture today is in its infancy – sustainable farmers are but the early explorers on a new frontier.  As they accumulate increased understanding and know-how, their productivity abilities will undoubtedly increase as well.  If we had invested a fraction of the research and development efforts on regenerative farming methods that we have invested in industrial methods, our ability to produce sustainably might easily surpass our ability to produce conventionally.

Over time, with more farmers with better understanding of sustainable farming, productivity will rise and cost of production will fall for sustainable systems.  Over time, with rising costs of non-renewable inputs and further degradation of the natural environment, productivity will continue to fall and costs of production will rise for industrial systems.  Over time, sustainable systems will be far more productive and far less costly than will industrial systems of farming.

Those who think that we can’t meet the legitimate food and fiber needs of humanity with a sustainable agriculture are the “new Malthusians.”  Some 200-plus years ago an economist by the name of Thomas Malthus claimed that humanity was destined to starve to death because population increases geometrically and technology only increases arithmetically.  Malthus was wrong, because he failed to appreciate the potential productivity of the human mind.  Those who think we can feed the world without destroying the natural environment and without degrading human society, like Malthus, are failing to appreciate the potential role of human creativity and ingenuity in developing more sustainable systems of farming.  The perceived limits to sustainable farming arise from the assumptions of contemporary economics, which are hopelessly out of date, and an industrial mindset, which is rapidly losing its relevance to reality.

Seizing the Opportunity

It’s only reasonable for farmers to be skeptical as to whether or not farming in general can actually be reshaped by the principles of the new American farm.  After all, farming is but a small part of the economy, the economy is but one aspect of human society, and industrialization has been engrained in human society over a couple of hundred years.  Change may not come quickly and it may not come easily, but change will come.  American agriculture of 50 years from now will be fundamentally different from the agriculture of today – the question is not if but how.  The question is not if someone will change it, but who will change.  The challenge is to change it in ways that will better serve the long-term needs of people – consumers, farmers, rural residents, and society in general – rather than the short run economic needs of corporations.  The challenge is to develop an agriculture that is ecologically sound and socially responsible so it can be economically viable as well.

To meet this challenge, we will have to have the courage to challenge the conventional wisdom that whatever is dictated by short-run, economic self interest is inevitable, and is inevitably good for society.  It is not.  We, as individuals, need not overcome this perceptual obstacle for society in general in order to change our own lives, including our work, but we do need to overcome this perceptual obstacle in our own minds.  We need to call upon our common sense to inform us that money isn’t everything – our relationships with other people matter, as does stewardship of the natural environment.  Our lives will be better when we live with harmony and balance among the personal, interpersonal, and spiritual dimensions of our lives.  We must be willing to rethink what we want out of life.

To meet the challenge of developing a new American agriculture, we must also rethink the concept of the agricultural economy and the role of agricultural policy.  Eventually, government subsidies must be limited to paying for those aspects of agriculture that provide purely public benefits – not subsidizing profits for those who producer solely for private gain.  To achieve this, we must recognize that agriculture is multifunctional – that it produces public, as well as private, goods and services.  For example, a nation’s agriculture can provide national food security – can ensure that no nation can be starved into submission by another nation.  Agriculture can ensure national food equity so that no one goes hungry regardless of ability to buy food.  Agriculture can be designed to protect the natural environment – to protect the soil, air, and water that are absolute necessities for life on earth.  All of these are legitimate public goods and services – things that have great value to society, but will not be provided by the private economy.

Those farmers who are willing to produce such goods and services can legitimately be rewarded through government programs that provide farmers with the equivalent of “minimum wages, unemployment insurance, and employment security” in the non-farm sector.  Such government programs would reward farmers – individuals, not corporate businesses – for their contribution of the public good.  The provision of public goods and services would be a legitimate foundation for the development of a more socially responsible, ecologically sound, and economically viable agriculture.  However, individual farmers need not wait for changes in government programs to provide additional incentives.  Farmers can change the ways they farm today, motivated solely by the desire to improve their overall quality of life, and rewarded in kind when they achieve it.  For them, later changes in government programs will but validate the wisdom of changes they have already made. We, the people, currently control everything that needs to be changed in order to build a more sustainable, higher quality of life, as individuals as well as for society as a whole.  The economy is a creation of people – it is not some sacred, unchangeable set of natural laws.  People created the current economic system and people can change it.  The corporation does not exist by some right or some decree from God.  People created corporations and they exist at the discretion of people.  Each corporation has a charter, which once obligated it to operate for the good of the public.  We the people can revoke those charters, even if we have to amend the constitution to do it.  We can control or abolish corporatism and we can shape our economy to meet the needs of people.

We, the people, have the power to change our government.  In North America, we are the government – whether we are willing to admit it or not.  We elect the people who represent us in government at national or federal, at state or provincial, or at community or local levels.  Through our representatives, we can hire and fire the bureaucrats, can reshape government agencies, and can change government policies.  Others now control such things only because we let them.  The corporations influence our elections and ensure that representatives serve their interests, instead of ours, only because we let them.  Our governments programs fail to serve the needs of people, only because we let them.  We have the power to change the things that need to be changed – regardless of whether we choose to use it.

More importantly, we have the power to change our own lives.  As individuals, we may not be able to bring about the changes we would like to see in government or in the broader economy or society.  But, we can change our own lives.  For most of us at least, our individual lives could be made far better than they are today if we would simply “step off of the treadmill, get out of the rat race,” and start living a life of harmony and balance.  Our common sense tells us that “more cheap stuff” will not make us happy.

We need stronger, more harmonious relationships with other people – within our families, our communities, and our nations.  We live in a society where mental depression has become an epidemic.  The fundamental cause of mental depression is failed relationships.  Certainly some are depressed due to physical disabilities, but most are depressed because they lack positive human relationships.  Most of us are not starving, we have adequate clothing and shelter, we have adequate transportation, healthcare, and we do not want for the basic physical needs.  We could quite likely improve our quality of life by spending a bit more time and effort on building positive relationships with other people.

We also have the power to reclaim the ethical and moral dimensions of our lives.  The vast majority of people admit that they believe in some higher power or some higher order of things to which we humans must conform  -- most of us admit to being spiritual.  Yet, we have been shamed and coerced into compartmentalizing our lives so that our ethical and moral values don’t interfere unduly with our work or with our civic involvement.  But deep down we know that we are whole people – we can’t separate our ethical values from our relationships with other people or from what we do for a living.  Most of us have felt that we had to compromise at least some of our ethical or moral principles in order to earn a decent living or have an impact in the political area.  In fact, if most of us had not compromised our values, we wouldn’t have the problems with our economic and political systems that we have today.  We have rationalized that the economic of social benefit outweighed the moral costs.  But we have suffered, perhaps unknowingly, as a consequence of our rationalization.

We didn’t have to compromise our principles, we simply choose to do so.  Deep down inside we know that our lives would be better if we quit compromising and began living and working according to our principles and values.  We need to begin living lives of harmony and balance.  We have the power to enhance our quality of life, and we can begin using that power today.

For farmers, finding harmony and balance may mean changing the ways they farm in very fundamental ways.  One of the most common stories among the new American farmers is that they were once conventional farmers, on the technology treadmill, farming more and more land, with bigger and bigger equipment, going farther and farther in debt.  Many were the “winners” in the continuing struggle for survival, but found their quality of life sinking lower with each round that they “won.”  They didn’t have the time or energy to keep positive relationships with their spouse or their kids, and they didn’t have the time or economic freedom to take care of their land.  They had to put all of their time, energy, and money into growing the farm.

But, one day these farmers woke up, they realized that what they were doing didn’t make any sense.  They more they produced and the more money they earned, the more miserable they became.  And then, as many have said, they decided to cut back, “to go back to farming the old home place differently,” rather than trying to farm the whole country side.  They put their imagination and creativity into finding ways to farm that would enhance their overall quality of life – socially, spiritually, and economically – instead of focusing all of their attention on production and profits.  As a consequence of pursuing a higher quality of life through harmony and balance, they have developed more sustainable systems of farming.  The world around them may have remained the same, but their own little piece of the world has changed.  We all have the power to make the same kinds of changes in our lives.

In addition to changing our personal world, we can at least influence a small part of the world around us.  A farmer can make a difference in the land on his or her farm and perhaps on the land downstream and the people downwind.  We can all have an influence on the other people in our families and others with whom we work or on those who live in our communities.  As we change our own lives in positive ways, we begin to influence those in that “little piece of the world” in which we are influential as well.  One by one, as we change ourselves and then change our little pieces of the world, we will find that the world is beginning to change.

We find that we are more effective when we go into the public arena to advocate larger social and political change when we are coming from a position of security.  Our security within ourselves and within our circle of relationships makes us far stronger than when we come from a position of desperation.  We can begin to advocate changes that are good for the whole of society over the long run, which enhances our overall quality of life, rather than being forced to support policies which simply put money in our pockets at the expense of someone else.  As we raise our standards in the public arena, we just might find that others feel compelled to raise their standards as well.  If we are secure in our own ethics and values, we are more likely to find the courage to step boldly into the arena.

One by one, as we find the courage to demand something better, we will change the world for the better.  Susan B. Anthony, the champion of voting rights for women in the US once said, “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to maintain their reputation and social standing, never can bring about reform.  Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”  It takes courage to bring about change.  But Margaret Mead, an award winning cultural anthropologist, once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”  As each of us finds the courage to change our selves and to influence our little piece of the world, we can change the world.  Indeed, this is the only thing that ever can.


Blank, Steven. 1999. The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio, Quorum Books, Westport, CN. 218p.

  Smith, Adam. 1776. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,  Fifth Edition, Edinburg: Adam and Charles Black, London, MCDDDLXI

John Ikerd can be reached at jeikerd@aol.com

Other story today on CropChoice:
Monsanto suing another Canadian farmer, http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=377