TALKING SHOP: Biodynamic Farming Conference, Nov. 14 to 16, Ames IA

Fred Kirschenmann addresses the disappearing middle
How do we sustain an economic future for critical mid-sized farms? The director of the Leopold Center told a biodynamic conference crowd that we must to reward farmers adequately … and farmers must be more creative in building relationships with customers.

By Darcy Maulsby

Editor's NOTE:

The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association held their 2003 conference November 14 to 16 in Ames, Iowa and focused on “Place-Based Agriculture: The Economics, Ecology and Community Ethics Behind Self-Sufficient Farms.”

The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association was formed in the United States in 1938 and continues to offer conferences, workshops, seminars and research for farmers and gardeners.

Biodynamics is a method of agriculture that seeks to actively work with the health-giving forces of nature. It developed from a series of lectures given by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924.

Biodynamics is the oldest non-chemical agricultural movement, predating the organic agriculture movement by nearly 20 years.

Visit www.biodynamics.com for more on the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association and on biodynamic farming in general.

More articles from the Biodynamic Farming Conference


Part 1
Angelic Organics manages the economics of a 1,000-member CSA. The owners of the Illinois-based CSA share their mission statement, organizational chart and business plans.

Part 3
Highlights one of the conference workshops: Tips for managing weeds on a diversified farm.

 

 

December 17, 2003: Industrialization. Specialization. Concentration. These trends have been reshaping U.S. agriculture since the 1960s, but they haven’t boosted farmers’ profitability. Those who dare to buck this broken “megafarm” model are increasingly finding themselves out in the cold.

“What’s at risk today is the mid-sized farm,” warns Fred Kirschenmann, director of the Iowa-based Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (www.leopold.iastate.edu). “We’ve got a decade—maybe two decades at most—if we want to stop the erosion of this disappearing middle.”

These farms hold a significant place in our society, he says.
“In Iowa, 80 percent of the land fits in the mid-sized farm category,” Kirschenmann told the crowd gathered for the 2003 National Biodynamic Conference (www.biodynamics.com) in Ames, Iowa. “People who own these farms know their land and treat it like a member of the family. You can’t buy that kind of stewardship. If the mid-sized farms disappear, we’ll lose all that social capital.”

Applying the wrong solutions

As these farms struggle to survive, they often get trapped in the downside of industrialized agriculture, where an intended solution becomes part of the problem, Kirschenmann explained during his keynote address.

In the 1920s, he said, half of Iowa’s farms produced 10 commodities. “Today, 92 percent of Iowa’s cultivated land is in corn and soybeans. Farming systems that were once supported by complexity and diversity of species have now been replaced by reliance on inputs. Input suppliers like the current system, but it’s not good for farmers.

“In Iowa, 60 percent of farm families have a least one person working off the farm to pay expenses, because the farm isn’t making enough money.”

This failing farm model is a prime example of the phenomenon Peter Senge described in his management book The Fifth Discipline, said Kirschenmann, quoting “The long-term, most insidious consequences of applying non-systemic solutions is the increased need for more and more of the solution.” This situation, he said, highlights the need for “therapeutic intervention” as described by Joe Lewis, Ph.D., in his essay for the National Academy of Sciences entitled “A Total Systems Approach to Sustainable Pest Management” (www.pnas.org/cgi/reprint/94/23/12243.pdf). “With the therapeutic approach, you don’t ask how to get rid of a pest,” Kirschenmann explained. “Instead, you figure out what has gone wrong with the system that allows the pest to emerge.”

Rewarding farmers adequately

“There’s this belief that there’s a great black hole out there that wants to buy the agricultural products we produce,” Kirschenmann said. “But USDA just announced that the United States is on the verge of becoming a net importer of ag products. Trade is not the solution to the problem.”

Producing more crops and livestock won’t provide a sustainable solution, either, he said. “Studies in Iowa have shown that the most efficiencies are gained on farms that market 800 to 1,000 pigs annually,” Kirschenmann said. “Soybean farms reach their peak efficiency at 600 acres, and corn farms start losing peak efficiencies after 600 acres.”

The key is to find ways to reward farmers adequately for their role in bringing food to the market, Kirschenmann said. “We need to enable farmers to produce products of unique and superior value rather than low-cost commodities.”

As Harvard economist Michael Porter points out in his book Competitive Advantage of Nations, there are two types of competitive advantage, said Kirschenmann. You are either a low-cost producer, or you offer differentiation based on product quality, special features, or after-the-sale service.

“Rick Schneiders, president and CEO of SYSCO, one of the nation’s largest food distributors, says his company’s marketing strategy is based on ‘memory, romance and trust,’” Kirschenmann said. “Memory is when a customer eats a product and says, ‘Wow, I want that again.’ Romance is the story behind the food’s production. Trust creates an opportunity to form a relationship between the consumer and the producer.”
Can a big company like SYSCO achieve all this? “We don’t know yet,” Kirschenmann said. “But SYSCO has told us the new market is about memory, romance and trust. Since the market’s there, we need to connect farmers with this market.”

Finding creative solutions

A growing number of farmers are discovering new ways to tap this market. Here are some that Kirschenmann highlighted in his address:

At Heartland Bison Ranch located near Mandan, N.D., visitors can “Lease a Piece of the Legend” and adopt a buffalo, which entitles the recipient to receive regular updates on his or her buffalo cow and her calf. This sets the stage for the purchase of Buffalo Nickel Bison meat products, which are certified hormone- and antibiotic-free, raised only on grass and hay.

At Organic Valley (www.organicvalley.com), visitors can view photographs and read about the farm animals and the 500 farmer-members in 17 states who care for the livestock. Kids can take a virtual farm tour through the Farm Friends Kids Club. In many ways, the site seeks to foster connections between farm families and their urban neighbors. Visitors can also locate nearby stores that sell Organic Valley products.

The GROWN Locally Cooperative (www.grownlocally.com) is a coalition of northeast Iowa food growers and local food service professionals working together to provide fresh, locally-grown food for their customers. The co-op’s philosophy is to establish and expand relationships between local food growers and food service providers so that each can strengthen local agricultural economies.

Along with these examples, more farmers are developing production strategies that evolve from an ecological, rather than a technological, system, Kirschenmann said.

A leading example is the integrated duck/rice system developed by Takao Furuno, a farmer in southern Japan. In Furuno’s area, standard rice production is now a monoculture that depends on heavy inputs of fertilizers and pesticides.

“Up until 1987, Furuno was an industrial rice farmer,” Kirschenmann said. “But then he started asking himself if there was a way to get off this treadmill. He remembered how farmers in Japan used to keep ducks and fish in their rice paddies, so he put a gaggle of young ducklings into his newly planted paddies.”

The rice farmer found that the ducks eat azolla, which is normally considered a paddy weed, Kirschenmann said. “Furuno then introduced loaches, a fish that is delicious to eat. The fish and the ducks eat the azolla, keeping it under control. The droppings from the ducks and fish provide nutrients for the rice.” Furuno also discovered that 200 ducks per hectare can take care of his insect problems, Kirschenmann said, and that the friendly fowl even eat golden snails that attack the roots of the rice plants.

“Now Furuno’s rice yields exceed those of industrial rice systems by 20 to 50 percent. He rotates his integrated rice/duck crop with a crop of vegetables and wheat and grows figs on the periphery of the paddies. He harvests duck eggs that he markets with the rice, fish and duck meat, vegetables, wheat and figs. His 6-acre farm is among the most productive in the world.”

Providing benefits to farmers and society

As farmers and other leaders in agriculture explore how to develop ecological equivalents in the United States, Kirschenmann said, new production and marketing systems are needed to help U.S. farmers transition away from the government subsidy system.

“We need to provide incentives for farmers to produce public goods like clean air and water and quality soil. The public is ready to support this. We also need to remove unnecessary regulatory requirements that put micro-enterprises at a competitive disadvantage.”

Kirschenmann concluded with a quote from Wendell Berry: “If agriculture is to remain productive, it must preserve the land. The land must be used well. The people must know it well, must be highly motivated to use it well, must know how to use it well, must have time to use it well, and must be able to afford to use it well.”

“The question is, what kind of farmer can do this?” Kirschenmann asked rhetorically. “I don’t think farmers who follow the industrial model can. That’s why we must sustain an economic future for America’s mid-sized farms.”