I cry at (good) movies and I think wistfully about the good ole days when quaint, picturesque, farms of all sizes dotted Maryland’s countryside. Each winter, I read stories of successful homesteaders and pledge to produce most of my own food. However, I know that some farmers went out of business in the “good ole days” and I know that I will be buying most of my food this year– locally sourced, if possible. Both the romanticist and the realist in me knows that a gardener and a farmer needs a backup plan. Whether it is food on the table or farm viability, diversity is key.
When Maryland emerged as a successful colony, tobacco was its savior. It was in demand in Europe and it had a long shelf life so that it could endure the long, damp trek across the Atlantic. It was so popular, that every square inch of earth was used for tobacco production, even inside some of the forts. So much tobacco was grown in Maryland and Virginia that there was a worldwide glut a number of times. Other times, wars and international politics put a stop to export trade. Families suffered and farms failed.
By the middle of the 19th century, Maryland agriculture diversified as farmers began to supply most of the food for a growing industrial region with towns and cities. Not only was agriculture more diversified, each farm had a number of farm products to trade or sell. Even in the middle of the twentieth century, when I was growing up, farm diversity provided a measure of insurance in the event that the main farm product failed or the market disappeared. I recall asking my father how badly the family suffered during the Great Depression. He replied that, other than not being able to buy a few staples as often at local stores, they felt little impact.
Agricultural research and innovation in the 20th century produced bumper grain crops. Fewer farmers were needed to produce the same amount of grain. Over-production led to market crashes, jeopardizing farms across the nation. In 1949, congress approved the Agricultural Act, which established a policy of high, fixed-price supports and acreage allotments as a way to regulate production. In 1954, the Act was modified to introduce flexible price supports to commodity programs and then, in 1965, it was revised to provide new income support payments in combination with reduced price supports and continued supply controls.
Price supports and government assisted crop insurance have enabled farmers to rely on one crop as a farm’s source of income. Farmers have moved away from the model of diversity as a key to sustainability. However, government assisted “competitive advantage” may not survive, particularly as trade agreements may render government benefit programs for farmers illegal. Diversity will be a key to sustainability.