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A small farm revolution?

A small farm revolution?

For the title of this blog, I borrowed a chapter title from John Ikerd’s book Small Farms are Real Farms. In that book, he strongly defends the role that small farms play in their communities and the signs he sees of their renaissance.

Lindsey Lusher Shute

In the last few years, new voices have risen along with his, for the advancement of small farms. Lindsey Lusher Shute, President of the National Young Farmers Coalition, and previously featured in my blog, is one of those voices. I was fortunate to be present when she spoke at the Future Harvest CASA Conference last month and she also stopped by the Maryland FarmLINK booth to chat.

During her keynote, Lindsay told about her passion for small farms and the challenges that she and her husband faced when starting one. She said that her farming adventure began on a one-acre portion of a dairy farm in the Hudson Valley region. Owners had told their children to do something else besides farming and now the owners were nearing retirement.

However, they welcomed two energetic young people to their farm. Eventually the owners

Owners and crew at Hearty Roots
Owners and crew at Hearty Roots Community Farm (from website)

began to see a future in farming after witnessing their successes and their will to succeed. Later, that farm was preserved by the children. But when the family decided to sell the farm, the Shutes realized that the price of the land was way out of reach and they had to look for other land to lease. Eventually, they were able to purchase a smaller parcel, now Hearty Roots Community Farm,  where they have a large Community Supported Agriculture CSA operation.

By the time that they had purchased the farm, they had come to realize that small farms had few advocates and no one was helping the next generation of farmers. They hosted a group of young farmers to discuss the challenges that beginning farmers face and, around the kitchen table, they decided to form a national group, the National Young Farmers Coalition, to represent their interests. The Coalition’s mission — “We envision a country where young people who are willing to work, get trained and take a little risk can support themselves and their families in farming.” It has grown to 50,000 members.

At the conference, Lindsay also spoke about a NYT article “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up To be Farmers” that caused me such angst that it prompted a blog response.  Lindsey had the same reaction, and drew similar conclusions. The author’s impression may be correct that many hardworking, small-scale farmers are struggling to make a living, but she would never advise her children not to farm. There is more to life than a good salary, though it sure helps!

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 6.07.03 AMNearly all farms in Maryland are categorized as small farms. Small farms are real farms and John Ikerd’s book is inspiring. His vision and message are consistent with that of Wendell Berry and our country’s founding fathers. Small farms are the cornerstone of a strong society. They are good for the environment, good for communities, good for local economies. Ikerd also acknowledges that under the current system, many small farms are not profitable, but he says not to dismiss them. In the end, he says that “sustainable small farms are better alternatives than getting bigger, giving in, or getting out. . . It’s time for a small farm revolution in America.”

We all need to work a little harder for their success.



One-Acre and Ayers-Elliott at the Small Farm Conference!

One-Acre and Ayers-Elliott at the Small Farm Conference!

Why do we need small farms?

Richard A. Henson Center at UMES
Richard A. Henson Center at UMES

The world-wide trend in agriculture has been to specialize and scale-up. Bigger operations can be more efficient and reduce the cost of agriculture products. So why have a whole conference about small-scale agriculture? Should we even be promoting small farms?

During the Opening Remarks, speakers made it clear that small farms have their place in U.S. agriculture. University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) was established as an 1890s college. As mentioned in a previous blog, the 1890s land-grant colleges were established to provide education in several careers deemed critical to the country’s future and agriculture was one of them. Then, the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 helped bring land-grant agriculture programs to those who could not come to the classroom.

In 2011, the National Young Farmers Coalition released a report Building a Future with

2011 NYFC Survey
2011 NYFC Survey

Farmers: Challenges Faced by Young, American Farmers and a National Strategy to Help Them Succeed. The authors conducted a national survey of young and beginning farmers and the results of the survey helped to form the basis of the Coalition’s recommendations for addressing the challenges that they face. It is significant that 78% of all beginning farmers surveyed did not grow up on a farm.

It is impossible to cover all of the Conference sessions in this blog so I will just focus on a few.

Small is profitable. The 43,560 Challenge from the Virginia State University is all about how to earn a dollar per square foot on one-acre of land. Not all farms are high earners and some farms have both on-farm and off-farm incomes to pay the bills. The University project reported on its efforts to show the income potential of small farms.

cindyblogSmall builds community. Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott was the keynote speaker. With the financial acumen of a New York City investment banker (which she was) and the heart of a community builder, she has created Foot Print Farms in her hometown of Jackson Mississippi. The farm comprises not only her goat herd and vegetable fields. She is also making land available for others to begin farming.  Her main message is about farming, but it is also about building and transforming communities, which drew her an invitation on the Katie Couric show and also a nice feature story on the USDA blog.

One suggestion that she had for beginning farmers in the audience was to make use of the vast array of USDA programs.

Small farms are incubators for beginning farmers. They are especially important for those who did not grow up on a farm and cannot buy or lease large tracts of farmland. Small farms are places to experiment, to learn how to grow, to learn about labor issues, to learn how to use equipment, to learn how to market, to learn how to be good neighbors and to reach out to communities.

Big farms, like the ones you see so often on the Eastern Shore, are important engines of our ag economy, but small farms have their place too. For beginning farmers, the Small Farm Conference was a great place to learn where and how to begin.



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