Nearly every benefit of sustainable farming derives from the fact that is that it is low-input. By definition, sustainability means making the farm as self-sufficient as possible, cycling nutrients on farm instead of using of toxic, fossil-fuel rich chemicals, and utilizing healthy ecosystem services rather than machinery to handle as many water, shelter, and waste-recycling needs as possible. Methods like mob grazing, raising poultry in small batches on pasture, and growing “beyond organic” vegetables can be done with little infrastructure, few purchased supplies, and minimal road miles between farm and market, and because they often direct-market their produce to local customers, small sustainable farms don’t need the processing and marketing facilities that industrial producers use. The trouble is that each one of those trappings of industry that sustainable ag tries to shed, from permanent fencing to massive centralized processing facilities and everything in between, represents an enterprise where someone is making money. Who makes money off of commercial fertilizer? The people who pull the natural gas from the ground, the people who transport it, the people who manufacture the fertilizer, the people who handle the resulting waste, the people who lab-test the product, the truckers who haul it, the people who market it, the dealers that sell it, and the government entities that regulate the industry. Who makes money off of cow manure? The farmer.
I wonder if what sustainable farmers are trying to do might be the most brazen affront global capitalism has ever seen: an attempt to simplify and shorten the flow of money, from the bottom. Global capitalism as we know it is a vastly complicated business-banking-government complex that channels money to as many players as possible, and it seems to only get bigger and more complicated over time. The people sitting at the top of the complex benefit from having as many operations and layers of management below them as possible (it can only inflate their salaries) and when it comes to industry money, everybody wants a slice of the pie. Consider the now mercifully-shelved National Animal Identification System (NAIS), a USDA scheme to require microchip-tagging of farm animals. The idea was to better track the provenance of diseased animals among the huge numbers of commodity livestock processed in industrial slaughtering facilities, and make recalls more precise. One overarching solution to that problem, along with many others, would be to decentralize the system in favor of many small abattoirs serving markets closer to home, where farmers are often directly involved in quality control, and the source of meat is never a mystery. But, that solution would create many low-level jobs for local industry that has no sway in the political system, and put a lot of big producers out of business. Instead, the USDA proposed NAIS, which in addition to keeping the mega-slaughterhouses in business while placating the public’s fears, would have created an opportunity for the RFID chip producers to make a buck, along with the people who would design and operate the computer system to handle the mountain of data created by microchipping millions of livestock all over the nation. Fortunately, enough people realized what a bane this would have been for small farmers (who might have had to pay to chip their every animal) and kicked and screamed until the USDA dropped it, but the whole farce is unfortunately indicative of how the American economic system tends to operate. The ever-growing corporate complex, while making lots of people money (and a lot of money for a few people), has yet to ensure the success of the “little guy,” or give adequate consideration to long-term environmental and public health, and it probably never will. So what do you do when you’re faced with a huge need for change, and the best solution is a simple one, but the existing system accepts only complicated answers? How do you promote an idea that provides only local profit in a system controlled by global profit? How do you beat money?
It’s easy to be discouraged by the record so far. Money beat Sir Albert Howard, originator of modern biology-based composting. His work An Agricultural Testament, published in 1943, could have sparked a much greener “Green Revolution,” but there was too much money already flowing in the American war machine, that lamentably lent itself all too well to conversion to chemical fertilizer and herbicide production. Money beat the small-scale family farm, as the number of American farms dropped from a peak of 6.5 million in 1935 to 2.1 million in 2012, while the average size of farms grew steadily. (“Money” in this scenario means specifically a program of government subsidies and regulation that enforced the “get big, or get out” dictum espoused by the USDA in the 60s and 70s.) Agribusiness says you either accept GMO crops along with their economic, political, and environmental implications, or the burgeoning ranks of poor will starve to death. Money would rather not discuss grassroots, self-determining options for feeding the third world, such as permaculture, which advocates for smart practices of nutrient cycling (like composting) and intensive, locally-adapted polyculture (many species grown together in mutually beneficial ways), so that people can produce large amounts of calories on a tiny land area while retaining soil fertility, with no external energy inputs. I think it’s too early to call a winner on that front, but GMOs are already big business, whereas permaculture practices emphasize local self-sufficiency and therefore offer up little cash to the global business complex. History does not instill confidence in the latter.
If so many objectives of the sustainable agriculture movement stand in direct opposition to corporate profit, it begs the question, what chance do we have? What’s the stone in our sling to bring down Goliath? First, we should understand who it is we’re facing. When our Goliath draws itself up to its full height, it shows itself to be not just agribusiness, but the corporate manipulation of democracy. If you follow the money trail from any questionable policy, you will likely come to a government official with ties to the industry in question. Just consider how the North Carolina environmental agency served its “customer,” Duke Energy, in the months leading up to the recent coal ash spill into the Dan River. When the deciding factor in winning an election is nearly always the amount of money the candidate spends, and the biggest financiers of political campaigns are corporate entities, not individual people (and there is a difference), the resulting government can’t rightly be called a democracy. But, the effort to separate corporate profit from government is a long, uphill battle in and of itself, not a first blow for agrarian sustainability advocates. No, the stone in our sling is joy. Allow me to explain.
I’m frequently reminded, by friends, family, and my own doubts, how unlikely it is that I’ll “win.” In our zeal to convert everyone in the world to our way of thinking, we in the sustainable agriculture movement shouldn’t forget that we’ve already won – we’re doing something we love, and there is plenty to love in the way of life we have chosen. Vegetables grown in fertile, living soil without chemicals are delicious. Grass-fed beef is delicious. Bacon from pigs finished on acorns in the woods – it’s the culinary holy grail. Gardens, pastures, and woodlots are beautiful places. Of course, farming will always be hard work, but surely the guy moving animals from pasture to pasture has a better gig than the guy in a gas mask managing a reeking confinement operation. Surely seeing your customers’ faces at the local co-op grocery store and farmers’ market is more gratifying than sending off your whole season’s commodity crop in a tractor trailer. And surely seeing all your neighbors come out for the Saturday morning farmers’ market is more gratifying than picking out your groceries from the fluorescent-lit supermarket case. The things that are good for sustainability are also things that make people happy. The only task sustainable foodadvocates can be sure of is to hold on to doing what we love, and keep sharing with others why we love it. Our battle tactic should be to keep catching our breath at every sunrise, keep going to farm-fresh potlucks and inviting the neighbors, and keep grinning when little kids steal sungold tomatoes like they’re candy from the farmers’ market stand. The best thing, perhaps the only thing, that can give us the upper hand is that people like to be happy, and what we’re advocating is joy.