From Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America by Beth Hoffman. Copyright © 2021 by Beth Hoffman. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Bet the Farm coverBet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America

By Beth Hoffman

Excerpt from Chapter 16, Pages 230 – 234

But what about changing the food system? How do we move away from a historically based, commodity-focused system that barely covers the cost of growing food to one that is more supportive of diverse small- and medium-scale farms? How do we ensure tasty and nourishing food, vibrant rural communities, and a range of farmer backgrounds?

I wish I could tie up this book with a bow, saying how cooperatives will fix everything, or that if farmers take better care of the land or their own mental and financial health it will all work out. But a whole messed-up system cannot be fixed with a single idea or even multiple ideas. The way food travels to our table—most often through a long, convoluted chain that yields the farmer little—has evolved over hundreds of years and will not be untangled without attention to the whole web of issues it has created.

Yet as I outlined in the previous chapters, there is much that we can do as individuals, as farms, as groups of farms, and as a nation to improve the system, all of which start with changing the stories we tell about farming. We need to move away from the romantic tales of farming to understand that while farmers feed people and take care of land, they also need to be able to take care of themselves and their families. Instead of idealizing the self-reliant, self-sacrificing farmer, toughing it out in the field alone and beating her competitors, farmers have to know that we can work together—perhaps even to limit our own output—for the benefit of the land and each other. We are not islands surrounded by hostile waters but are an interrelated ecology, a network woven out of our collective history. And that history should not be cast as an idealized “time before” when farmers grew healthy food, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and lived a simple, happy life—it is a far more complicated tale of colonization, discrimination, and commodification. We can move ahead only by creating a new future, not by replicating a nonexistent past.

Policy should support coordination among and within farms, the maximizing of nutrients and micronutrients above yield, and the ability of new farmers to get in and stay in the game. But farmers too need to take a deep look at who is representing them and what those groups are actively promoting. The American Farm Bureau Federation, for one, is supported by many farmers but is fully committed to the “bigger is better” myth—yet at what cost to its members? All farms—regardless of size—should question whether the current system, upheld by many farmer groups, actually benefits them in the long term and how better organizing could bring them more power.

And customers? Instead of journeying to the countryside to ogle a quaint farm, assuming its owner is living the perfect, simple life, see your local farmer for what she is: a hardworking businessperson connected to a web of people, plants, and animals. Ask about the community-supported agriculture box—is the farmer buying from other farms at a loss? —and if there is too much food in it, lend the farmer your support in scaling it back. Offer to trade your business skills—marketing, accounting, event planning—with your favorite farm to help create a community. Rather than asking why prices are so high, consider whether they cover the cost of production; encourage farmers to discuss the challenges of the farm, not just the successes.

Farming truly takes a village—especially if farmers are growing perishable items such as vegetables or flowers, or if they are farmers historically not supported by the system.

Farms simply cannot function alone in the landscape and be successful. And the output can’t just go one way—out from the farm to the consumers. The village has to see the farm as part of its community, ensuring the land is well cared for and its farmers are mentally, socially, and culturally supported.

These solutions need to grow up from the grass roots— not come from top-down policies—from the farmers and want-to-be farmers, the nonprofits and the academics, the customers and the processors (and even the government employees) who are passionate about food. We have power in our numbers, and although the issues are complicated, we can each work on one small part—building more housing or making credit available, working to improve infrastructure, or making the land more accessible. Then we must continue sharing with each other our challenges and successes, iterate our plans, and keep on going.

To the credit of everyone out there already working hard on these issues, it’s important to recognize that so much progress has already been made—we are not starting from scratch. We know a lot about what works and what does not work, as we can see with beginning farmer programs, for example. It is essential to keep analyzing our actions, tailoring them to farmers and communities—not to government programs—and working together. And we must recognize that change happens in farm time, in the long years it takes to grow a tree or pay off the mortgage on the land, all while weathering terrific storms and lulls in the market. Slow and steady progress will win this race on many fronts, but only if we are ready for the long haul.