There is a widely-circulated public story, or narrative, that growing enough food for the world’s future population will require doubling production by relying on technologies such as nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides tied to traits in genetically modified crops. The narrative is that family farmers, consumers and governments must rely on corporate-controlled technology from multi-national agricultural input suppliers and food companies to process calories into products for people to eat. Although it is mostly based on myth, it powerfully shapes what is possible.
Even though the world is awash in food calories produced from corn and soybean monocultures and confined livestock systems, it does not mean hungry people have access to them. And the treadmill of reliance on corporate-controlled, expensive inputs, along with the concentration of ownership of farmland into fewer hands, drives family farmers off the land.
However, a growing number of people are recognizing that they want something different for themselves, their children and the earth. Family farmers who are members of the Land Stewardship Project talk about how much they value rural communities and caring for the land and water with good stewardship. They need to be able to make a decent living and they want a say in the public policies that affect their lives. Along with rural and urban members, they recognize that ushering in a new generation of land stewards is the key to their communities’ long-term success.
Part of what this new generation of farmers is seeking is an opportunity to be part of a community—human and natural. Aldo Leopold wrote in the Sand County Almanac that land is a community of soils, waters, plants and animals to which we humans belong and must use with love and respect. Farming can help such a community thrive by relying on diverse cropping systems and livestock production techniques that utilize continuous living cover to restore soil structure, organic matter content and water holding capacity, while being productive.
These systems help make farming landscapes much more resilient to the intense rainfalls and droughts that have become more common as our climate changes. Such systems are also less capital-intensive, making it feasible for more young people to start farming and family farmers to reduce costs. Important multiple benefits include improving farmer incomes, reducing poverty, community cooperation and increased food availability.
Community partnership is essential to an initiative in western Minnesota where cattle ranchers are cooperating with recreational landowners, government agencies and conservation organizations to restore degraded grasslands utilizing cutting edge conservation grazing. They are moving combined herds across this landscape in ways that meet conservation goals and increase the economic viability of cattle ranchers who have lost land to the plow as a result of high commodity prices. This example of “community conservation” relies on relationship building and the idea that sustainable farming can produce multiple public “goods.”
But to bring about real, sustainable change, we also need to utilize community-based approaches to transition the next generation of stewardship farmers onto the land. LSP’s Farm Beginnings course has graduated 650 people over the past 18 years. But training new farmers like Caleb and Lauren Langworthy isn’t enough. We have to help them overcome major barriers such as lack of secure and affordable access to farmland, a problem made more difficult by Federal programs that are shaped by the dominant narrative.
It’s time to shift this narrative to a story about food and farming systems based on sustainable, community-based approaches that keep the land and people together, provide healthful food to eat now and the chance for future generations to do so. A narrative about community and justice can help us organize for much needed transformational changes like rewarding diverse systems through new markets and advancing policies that put people before corporate profits. With these changes we can support family farmers and better care for the earth.
George Boody is LSP’s Executive Director. He can be reached via e-mail or at 612-722-6377.