Food or ethanol? Why farmers shouldn’t give in to monocrops
Photo by Sarah Gilbert.
This past weekend I made a trek out to central Wisconsin to speak at the state’s annual grazing conference, which typically draws farmers from all over the Midwest. This was the second time I’d been invited to join these folks, and I remembered it fondly from back in 2009, when the conference center was packed, the trade show was hopping with farmers talking about livestock genetics, raw milk, grazing plans, and fencing systems, and the sessions were filled with optimistic faces, eager to bring sustainable changes to their land and good food to their communities.
Thus, I was surprised when I arrived at the conference center and saw that the number of attendees seemed to have dropped by almost half.
“Where is everyone?”
I asked the question repeatedly among the folks I met.
The answer was consistent: “Corn is over $7 a bushel.”
Did that mean that all those farmers, eager to make sustainable changes on their farms in 2009, had abandoned ship and opted to grow corn to feed the export market, America’s junk food habit, feedlots, and the ethanol craze?
Hard to say. That may have been the case for some of them. But when I called home to check in and tell my family what I was observing, Dad grabbed the latest issue of The Stockman Grass Farmer, the trade journal for grass-based farming, and read aloud to me that farmland prices were at an all-time high.
I did some poking around, and learned that in Iowa the average 2012 price of renting cropland was $235 per acre, and in some parts of Wisconsin the 2012 prices were as high as $300 per acre. The average price to buy farmland in Illinois last year was $6,800 per acre; in Wisconsin, it was well over $4,000 per acre.
A modest-sized farm could sell for more than a million dollars for the land alone, before even figuring in the value of any buildings on the property. A farm comparable in size to Sap Bush Hollow could rent for nearly $50,000 per year. That’s more than our annual net farm income raising out, processing, and direct marketing 1,000 chickens, 100 turkeys, 25-50 pigs, 100-150 lambs, and 10-12 head of cattle, plus all the value-added products we produce. And that’s spread out over four adults who share the labor.
The drought this past year has been extreme all over the country, and grass-based farmers everywhere have been in need of extra farmland to cut hay to carry their livestock through the winter months. At those rental prices, I seriously doubt a lot of the Midwest graziers could justify the expenditure.
“They’re plowing up everything,” one guy who worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service told me, “fields that you wouldn’t dream of taking a plow to are getting turned under.”
And when every piece of land is seeded to monoculture crops, drought conditions get more severe. Water splashing onto the ground of monoculture crops might provide refreshment for a day, but it quickly evaporates into the air or is lost to run-off, carrying the pesticides and chemicals used on the corn along with it, in addition to valuable topsoil. By contrast, well-managed pastures rich in organic matter and deep roots draw water into the soil, where it can re-enter the water table as it nourishes the fields.
In a time when most of us are still doing rain dances and hoping for a wetter 2013 growing season, the fact that it takes over 1,000 gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol doesn’t sit well. For that matter, back east, farmers are cursing the blending of ethanol with petroleum, as it gunks up fuel tanks, reduces our mileage, and shortens the life span of our machinery.
It’s a good time to be in farming if you like to grow corn. It’s a tough time to be in farming if you see yourself as a steward of the land.
As I sit here and ponder what these Midwestern farmers are going through, it is easy to temporarily forget the pressures in my own state, where many farmers are being presented with contracts to lease their land to the hydro-fracking industry. Everywhere in the nation, it feels as though farmers are being pushed up against a wall and told they must make a choice: will you grow food or fuel?
And here I am, attending these grazing and organic farming conferences, joining the chorus of voices asking farmers to choose food. I ask them to choose it for the sake of their land, for the health of their soils, for the benefit of their local communities. I am asking them to forgo a higher income in an economy based on extraction, and instead to allow their spirits and their land resources to be the foundation upon which a life-serving economy can be built.
And to do it, I repeatedly explain, is really simple:
You need to figure out how to live on less. You need to not just raise out your livestock, but you must contract with butchers and processors and state agencies so you can legally sell value-added products. And then you need to forget everything you learned about farming for the last 60 years, where your responsibility for the food stopped at your farm gate.
You need to get yourself up before dawn, find some clothes that don’t stink like pig shit, and haul this stuff to a farmers market; or you need to run around and pick up your kids’ toys, scrub your toilet, and dust your furniture and open your home and allow the market to come to you; or you need to open a shop and find a way to staff it; or you need to get on the phone and start calling stores and restaurants to sell your product. You need to squelch your inner introvert and smile, make small talk and be friendly at all times.
You need to tell people how to cook. You need to learn how to do an artful display. You need to learn to hold your head up and pretend you don’t hear when someone tch-tches your prices. You need to figure out how to give your kids a good education when you’ll never be able to afford college. If you’re taking over a family farm, you need to convince your parents or in-laws that you can do things differently and still succeed. You should probably separate your farm from your household, so it can’t be taken away if medical expenses force you into bankruptcy.
You can be in the black, but the process is slow. It takes years to build good markets. Then you must figure out how to sustain them. And all the while, you need to tell yourself over and over and over again that what you do is valuable, because it is so damn easy to forget, especially when the price of corn is over $7 a bushel.
“Oh, Bob,” I called home, on the brink of tears, “I feel like I’m just selling hope.”
He’s quiet for a moment, and then asks me “Do you believe in the product?”
At that point, Saoirse interrupts on the line, “Mommy! Mommy! I’m dressed up like a butterfly! We cut wings out of cardboard, and I’ve got two peacock feathers for antennae!” Her excitement breaks through my sorrow, and I find myself smiling.
“Well?” Bob prompts me for an answer to his question.
My final event for the day is a book signing. I go to the table, sit down, and pick up my knitting, an effort to still my nerves and calm my thoughts. The farmers begin to cue up, and one by one, books are passed in front of me. One farmer kneels down in front of me to capture my full attention.
“I liked your keynote this morning,” he says. I thank him. “I liked what you said. But there were pictures that I wanted to ask you about.”
“Yes?” I expect a question about our grazing rotations, or about our meat processing facility.
“In your house, you have a very big kitchen table.”
“And another one in your parent’s house.”
“And there were many pictures around that table. There were so many people sitting around them. More than just your family. Who were those people?”
I thought back over the images. “Well, friends, people who have come to work with us for the day, neighbors, extended family.”
“And you always have big tables set up?”
“Well, sure, we need them.”
“And you share meals with that many people?”
“Of course. Not every day, but most days during the growing season.”
“That’s what I want.”
He didn’t want $300 an acre for rent. He didn’t want $5,000 an acre to sell. He wanted a big kitchen table with good food, and people with whom he could enjoy it.
I looked around at the gathering crowd as the final session of the day ended. People stood holding drinks, talking and laughing as they made their way toward the dining room. Suddenly, their numbers seemed huge. With the price of corn over $7 per bushel, this many people still cared about the land. This many people still not pushed out. This many people still willing to do what it takes to have not a million-dollar land sale, not a lucrative land lease, but a place at a big kitchen table, with others to sit beside them.
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.