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
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and diversity of species have now been replaced by reliance on inputs.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
“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
“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
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
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.”