What would it be like to be a farm region without farmers?
A friend of mine recently directed me to a Tedx YouTube video of this dynamic young farmer, Lindsey Lusher Shute, who happens to be the Executive Director of the National Young Farmers Coalition. In her talk, Building a Future with Farmers, Lindsey compared the revenue from her 25 acre vegetable farm with a corn operation which used to occupy the farm before she and her husband bought the land. Today, her vegetable farm generates over $425,000 and provides full or part-time work to nine residents, who also help stimulate the local economy by spending their money on local goods and services.
Lindsey said that if her farm were still a corn farm, it would earn about $25,000 and would generate about $750 in labor costs. Her message is that farms that sell farm products back to their local communities give back a whole lot more.
We need both commodity farms and non-commodity farms. After all, most of us consume corn, soybean, and wheat products. Without commodity crops in the last decade, most fields in Southern Maryland would have been empty. However, a farming region with only commodity crops cannot support as many farmers.
I liken it to our family farm during my youth. We grew many more acres of corn, wheat, and rye than tobacco. Tobacco required much more labor, but it was the money crop. Without it, my uncle and father could not have farmed full-time.
The push for farmers to “get big or get out” did not originate with family farms. It was a movement that started with major agricultural businesses and was supported by federal policies in the early 1970s. In an interview with Curt Arens in 2007, former USDA Secretary Bob Bergland noted that, “For as long as I can remember, farm legislation highlighted as a stated goal, to save the family farms. We found out commodity programs had just the opposite effect. The fewer larger farms received most of the income and the much larger number of family-sized and smaller farmers had little or none.” Nearly all Maryland farms are family-sized farms.
Federal farm policy continues to adversely impact family farms today. Maryland agriculture needs commodity farmers. It also needs table-crop farmers (produce, beverage, and meat producers) who sell locally and tap into the $26 Billion food budget of the residents in our metropolitan region. Let’s hope that the buy-local food movement can help to revitalize the farm economy and build a Future with Farmers. And lets hope that the new farm bill supports both commodity and table crop producers.