Small Family Farms Are Not The Answer

As most of you are aware (hopefully not too painfully), I sent out a survey recently to get a better sense of who you are, what you're interested in, and how to make this a more engaging newsletter. (A HUGE thank you to everyone who took the time to fill it out; I'm really grateful.)

Anyway, one of the things that I learned from the survey is that the majority of you shop fairly regularly at farmers markets, which is so wonderful to hear. Even without knowing that, I probably still would have written today's newsletter in some form, but now I think it might be particularly interesting and worthwhile. I wanted to call attention to an article by Chris Newman that we ran in Heated. Chris runs a small family farm in Virginia, so, naturally, his story is titled "Small Family Farms Aren't The Answer." Chris writes about the economics of participating in farmers markets, and how the cultural value that those markets hold can obscure the struggle of small farmers not just to compete, but to live sustainable lives. Here's how he puts it:

The cultural power of farmers markets is a symptom of what’s fundamentally wrong with sustainable/regenerative agriculture: veneration of the small family farm. It’s the sacred cow of American cultural identity dating back at least to Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a nation of yeoman farmers.

America’s oldest farmers — Indigenous people — generally regarded the soil as a commons and worked it cooperatively. Many Indigenous nations, along with a number of religious and ethnic communities, continue the practice to this day. But the notion of the private farm, be it a pair of greenhouses or tens of thousands of acres, is what came to dominate American farming, and it’s taken particular hold among the farm-to-table cohort.

We in that cohort trade the benefits of agrarian collectivism — living wages, retirement, a sane workload, profitability, survivability, and the capacity to make a game-changing impact in the marketplace… for rugged independence: complete autonomy in decision-making, the ability to grow what/where/how we want, set our prices as we please, sell wherever we choose, and work ourselves into the ground.

In short, we’ve done the most modern-American thing possible: bartered away our quality of life for the freedom to be miserable.

I'll never forget that last line. What Chris envisions as the necessary alternative is returning that independence and individualism for another crack at the agricultural collective and all that it promises. "Imagine," he writes, "all the producers at that [farmers] market combining their acreage, expertise, supply chains, and financial resources into a co-op committed to producing food regeneratively, responsibly, and ethically. The results would be astonishing."

He goes on to list the benefits, and they're not insignificant. The piece is eye-opening if you haven't thought about these things before, and the best part is that it's not just empty theorizing. Chris is planning on evolving his business into a farming collective, one that prioritizes "providing opportunities of ownership for people traditionally denied such roles in agriculture: people of color, LGBT folks, and women, in particular." His Kickstarter campaign is here, for anyone who's interested.

If you participate in any way in your local food system (and I now know that so many of you do), I highly recommend reading Chris's piece. I guarantee you that the next time you're shopping at the farmers market, you'll be thinking about what he has to say.

—Mark


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Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma's potato salad, or your mom's meatloaf, or your uncle Drew's three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don't hesitate to reach out anytime.