Feeding the World & A Nation of Farmers

[Remarks given at the Young Farmer Winter Supper, 19 February 2015]

Waltham Fields Community Farm

I grew up at the tail end of a time that saw huge changes in the way our food is produced — when “Agriculture” changed to “AgiBuisness”.

My grandfather had a small farm — not uncommon then — and every summer we would drive from Hoboken to the farm in Kansas. I would bounce around the hayfields in his pickup, swim in the pond with my cousins after haying. Grandpa would take me to the meat locker in town — he raised cattle — to get steaks from a steer I had known the summer before.

This is the farm Cargill wants us to think of when we walk into a store — a small, diversified operation, with your grandfather coming in from the fields to greet your grandmother at a dinner table spread with the bounty of the garden and farmyard.

But this it is not the farm in back of the meat counter these days. Lift up the veil on industrial agriculture, and you find a vast system of extraction, sucking down oil, strip mining soil, hollowing out farm communities, and turning out processed food that is as tasteless as it is unhealthy.

When challenged — whether over the use of growth hormones, synthetic fertilizers, GMO crops or pesticides, the answer is “We are feeding the world.”

We are told that industrial agribusiness is the only way to feed a population of seven billion and growing. We must tolerate its flaws, they say, because it is the most efficient way to farm.

Intervale Community Farm

But this efficiency is a sleight of hand. It simply measures food produced per labor hour. It does not measure how well we are using the land, how well we are preserving the strength of our communities.

If you measure efficiency in a different way — production per acre, you find that the way to grow more — and healthier food — is to put more hands on the land.

Small- and mid-sized diversified organic farming operations can produce more high quality food per acre than industrial methods. And can do so without destructive social and environmental effects. These methods, grounded in the principles of permaculture and agroecology, seek to build a healthy ecosystem in partnership with nature — and have the community share in the resulting bounty.

But, the proponents of industrial ag say, this — the garden, the thousand acre farm, the CSA feeding several hundred families — this is small stuff. We have to feed the world, remember?

Feeding everyone is a challenge, of course — but the response to this challenge does not lie where they would have us think. The key to our response lies in an ecological principle that we take to heart at Etsy — that of “many small things.”

We do not need to figure out how to scale up community-sized agricultural enterprises, but rather how to replicate them. We do not need to eliminate labor hours — which are really people — to try to increase efficiency, but rather to figure out how to get more people on the land.

We do not need to feed the world — we need to feed our communities.

A healthy and resilient community is one that can feed itself. And farmers are the essential first link in the chain that leads from field to table.

To feed seven billion, then, we need to build communities with farmers at the core.

The challenge of feeding us all will not be met by discovering a miraculous new technology, nor by having community agriculture “get big”, nor by trying to mitigate the ill effects of industrial agribusiness practices — but rather by growing a nation of farmers.

This is the challenge that the National Young Farmers Coalition has taken on, engaging and building a strong community of new farmers, addressing issues of access, financing, and training so they can get on and stay on the land. We at Etsy wholeheartedly support them, and invite you join us in this effort.