The USDA announced on August 30th, 2012 that $18 million worth of aid would be distributed to new farmers and ranchers, particularly those who were “socially disadvantaged.” The program (titled the "Beginner Farmer and Rancher Development Program") is a new wave of aid enacted through the 2008 farm bill designed to entice a young workforce to enter the farming occupation, specifically to establish themselves within the developing sustainable niche.
The program sets aside money for college and university programs, nonprofits, and organizations that promote off-grid living, and collective farming operations. The USDA claims the program, “will help beginning farmers and ranchers overcome the unique challenges they face and gain knowledge and skills that will help them become profitable and sustainable,” without considering the grand irony of the federal government being involved in “sustaining” agriculture.
The Meaning of “Sustainable”
“Sustainable” has a specific meaning in my agriculture worldview. It does not merely serve as a placeholder on the “progressive foodie” cereal box, and it is not just the philosophy to live by for the good of humanity. Honest advertising and moral concerns for the planet play a part in the “sustainability” label, but as a market garden manager, sustainability for me is separated into two connected categories: economic security and biological diversity.
A farmer must budget for what his farm can sustain and what it will need, considering future projected income through crop and animal yields. How then could the farmer use government funds and still be sustainable if his farm must profit from grants? Even if the grant is just a startup investment, a marketplace unable to sustain the start-up businesses that provide for the most basic human need is a poor marketplace to be a part of, and one I certainly would avoid.
At the least, the farmer is not appropriately preparing for what the market will dictate. The aid offered through this specific grant, and other grants which the USDA pushes on young farmers, will never strengthen the market for the farmer, but will only induce a system of dependency on government aid. It will eventually cause the loss of independent farms and farmers that the very programs are trying to prevent.
Is the USDA Really Supporting Farmers?
Despite my previous denunciation of government funding for sustainable farming, I think most sustainable farmers would expect a farm bill to contain direct grants (as in previous bills) for individual farmers, yet the majority of the funding (after the university programs) is given to organizations that support sustainable gardening or collective programs.
One organization in Illinois, The Black Oaks Center for Sustainable, Renewable Living, is more of a working community than a farm, and is more focused on teaching survival skills in a “post-carbon” world, creating renewable energy, and on collectively farming for the common good, than on producing food to economically sustain a family.
I believe such a program would have positive effects on individuals and families weaning themselves from a consumer-heavy mindset, but at best, this grant provision show the ignorance the USDA has when it supports sustainable farming, in the context of the business of farming.
USDA Really Supports the Industrial System
The USDA has traditionally manipulated the market for farm products, turning many crops into commodities in order to enable low cost food products to the consumers, and at the same time offering aid to the farmers taking the risk so they can hedge against crop failures. Without the need to plan for the risk of losses, farmers have developed an agricultural landscape that supports monoculture, quickly harvestable and often environmentally misplaced crops.
Sustainable farming has no place in such a system, and if anything has come of this system, it has neither helped the farmer nor the consumer. The system has made the farmer dependent on debt and industrial technology, and the consumer has experienced a reduction in real food and poor nutritional quality.
It is no wonder that over the last decade we have seen a rise in the demand for organic and sustainable food products. The companies who support agribusiness are still making their profits, and one would think the USDA would support them entirely, so why would the USDA suddenly decide to help the small, limited market? I believe the answer lies with the consumer.
The USDA is no doubt noticing the impact that such labels as the organic label (a $32 Billion industry in the US) and the sustainable label have had on consumers and producers alike. These labels have been processed through bureaucratic jargon to come to mean nothing from the governmental regulatory standpoint. Organic foods can contain many different chemical agents, either applied in the field or in a processing plant.
At the same time, this is the same agency who has shut down small farming operations across the United States because they marketed products that consumers sought, even though the products were considered unsafe for consumption or production by the USDA (I am speaking of raw milk, hemp, raw honey, etc), while greenlighting the use of GMO seeds and hormone enhanced cattle, neither of which are sustainable.
Now, the USDA seemingly wants to find a way to extend an olive branch to the new generation of young entrepreneurs who want to positively affect the food supply, yet I think it has more to do with the influence that young farmers will have on their land.
Supporting Family Farms?
The USDA will attempt to redeem themselves by pointing out that they have stood for family farmers, although to what degree? 98% of US farms are family owned. An encouraging sign, but of those farms, only a few are true polyculture farms, growing for biological and economic sustainability. Their agricultural production is dependent upon the industrial systems used to sustain vast monocropped land.
This industrial system has created many casualties. There are 330 "family" farmers are leaving their land every week because they aren't able to make ends meet. This statistic would be less sad if there were a new generation of farmers to fill the void left, but not many exist.
The mean age of farmers in this country now stands at 65. So, the USDA is doing their bit to provide the educational needs of the new generation of farmers, bringing them into the "21st Century" of farming. Yet, this kind of thinking produced the problem in the first place! The grants have an educational focus on how to "engineer" the farm, instead of how to let the farm produce on it's own. I am not denigrating college in anyway, or stating that it doesn't have a place in helping upcoming farmers understand the science involved in creating a truly sustainable farm, but within a system supported by agribusiness, there is no a silver lining.
What Will Really Support the 21st Century Farmer?
"The young farmer only needs a little more education" is the cry, and the USDA can be seen promoting and supplying the “socially disadvantaged” young farmer with the tools for the 21st Century. But the 21st Century has shown solutions that are not in support of the young sustainable farmer. Although such programs exist that promote organic or sustainable agriculture, they do not give a farmer any edge over the internet-savvy individual who can mine the knowledge base of the internet, and who can invest more money into land or sustainably developing his farm. Being socially disadvantaged (are they meaning to say, "dumb hick?") does not necessarily mean technologically inept.
That is what the 21st Century has really offered the new farmer, the possibilities of infinite knowledge sharing and the verification of results. Results is what the classroom farmer will still be offering, the "slightly smudged" organic tomato which has all the outward certifications of organic, but the internal poverty of mismanagement and licensed cheating. But to the true sustainable 21st Century farmer, land becomes the resource to be sought, not costly knowledge, and most importantly, the freedom to farm as one pleases, and as the consumer market dictates.
The USDA can certainly try to sell their wares to the young generation of farmers, but I believe these strong, hard-working growers are seeing through the deceptive hypocrisy. Government cannot solve the ills that have been built up over several generations of conventional farming, supported by the USDA, and government is not the answer to the decline of American farming.
This aid is not the support young farmers should desire, nor is it the redemption the USDA craves. The solution is the farmer and his field, free from the tyranny of government regulation and unadulterated by government handouts.