The New York Times has just published a story in its Sunday Magazine that managed, in a thousand words or so, both to tell something good about Midwestern kids and to display what's wrong with most writing about American farming.
The story featured Alexandra Reau, a 14-year-old girl in Petersburg, Mich., who has developed a nice business growing all manner of vegetables and herbs in her family's yard and selling them directly to people in the neighborhood. Alexandra is part of the CSA (community-supported agriculture) movement that aims to get fresh produce to customers who pay a flat fee for regularly-delivered boxes of fruits and vegetables. Alexandra sounds like a bright, sweet and ambitious girl, making money for college while learning about plants and how they grow.
Andrea, say the Times, is a "quiet honor student with demurely made-up eyes." And then it asks, gratuitously, "Who says the face of American farming is a 57-year-old man with a John Deere cap?"
Well, everybody who knows anything about American farming, that's who. It should be possible to write about a nice kid growing tomatoes and zucchini in her backyard without succumbing to the urban bias to demonize the people who grow most of America's food. But the Times, as usual, succumbed.
Writing on farming these days seems to descend from the twin peaks of Times Square and Berkeley, home of the locavore guru, Alice Waters, and her best-selling acolyte, Michael Pollan. Which is to say that the national conversation on food goes on over the heads of most Americans who grow it and most Americans who eat it.
Let me be clear. I have no beef with local farming, small farming, niche farming, sustainable farming -- even organic farming, so long as no one claims that organic food actually tastes better. I love farmers' markets and faithfully prowl two or three of them in Chicago every week. I ate in Chez Panisse, Waters' Berkeley restaurant, and had a swell meal. I've read Pollan's books and admire them for the writing, if not the logic. Especially, I salute serious young small farmers like Alexandra Reau and hope she thrives.
But to mistake any of this for the real future of farming, here or anywhere else, is to simply get the story wrong. Which, unfortunately, is what the Times does.
Farming is big business, and that's good. This fact offends many people, especially city-dwellers who've never been on a real farm, but it's true. Farms have been getting bigger and the number of farmers smaller for a century, as technology makes it possible for single farmers to farm ever bigger spreads. Basically, farms have been doubling in size every generation, and there's no reason to think this will stop soon.
The number of American farms has fallen by a third, from 3 million to 2 million, since 1970: the Midwest itself has only half as many now as it did then. Two million farms sounds like a lot, but 1.8 million of them bring in less than $100,000 per year in total sales, with an average income of only $20,000.
Some of these small farms, most of them near cities, cater to farmers' markets or sell "niche" products like ostrich meat or artisinal cheeses to restaurants and urban stores. But most are hobby farms, owned by part-time farmers who earn their real incomes in town. Alexandra's father is a carpenter and her mother a farm extension worker for Michigan State: nobody says she is supporting her family.
The number of these small farms is growing, propelled by the popularity of farmers' markets and projects like the CSA movement. This is great. If we upscale city-dwellers want super-fresh produce and are willing to pay the higher prices it costs, then these little farms will proliferate.
But those who romance them, like the Times writers, should recognize two facts of life:
(1) These are small, relatively inefficient farms, and the food they produce costs more. This means their market is limited to the affluent. Most people will keep on getting their food from Jewel, Meijers, Hi-Vee or (gasp!) Wal-Mart, which sells produce that is perfectly adequate and a lot cheaper.
(2) Most food will be produced by big farms, especially the so-called mega-farms, 2,000 acres or more. This is because agriculture, like every other business, is part of the global economy. Small local providers, in farming and other businesses, will find small local markets. But the real world -- in farming, autos, computer chips -- belongs to big producers.
If farms under 200 acres are growing in number, so-called "commercial" farms, with a couple of thousand acres and average annual sales of $700,000 also are increasing. There are only about 140,000 of them, about 7 percent of the total, but they produce fully 68 percent of all U.S. farm output, according to USDA statistics.
In the middle are the traditional family farms, the mom-and-pop operations that most Americans think of when they picture rural life. These are the farms of a few hundred acres split between corn and soybeans, with some cattle, pigs and chickens on the side. These farms make $100,000 to $250,000 per year -- too big to be hobby farms, too small to compete in the global market. Their number is shrinking by the year.
It must be stressed that almost all the 140,000 mega-farms also are family farms, in that they are owned and often operated by families, not corporations. These are rich families with heavily capitalized operations that depend on contracts with the big corporations, like Cargill or ADM, for both inputs (seed, fertilizer, calves, pesticides) and output (sales).
So why is this good?
Is this big ag inherently evil, as Waters and Pollan and their kind would tell us? Just the opposite. These big farmers are in charge of feeding the world. Globalization has added some 3 billion hungry mouths to the markets that these farmers serve. It is a huge task and only big farms, linked to big agribusiness, can do it.
Not very romantic, granted. Critics like Pollan find it offensive. But those who want to break up these farms, who want to get rid of genetically-modified foods and pesticides, who want a world without agribusiness, who think that small farmers like Alexandra can fill the gap, are making a very cogent argument for mass starvation.
In a world of increasing incomes, when more and more people want to eat meat, and when these incomes happen to be rising in places (like China and India) without the land or other resources to totally feed themselves, it's these big farm operations that will do the job. It is a noble job, as important as any job on the planet. For any tenured professor in Berkeley or feature writer in Manhattan to disparage these farmers is simply disgraceful.
With all regard for Alexandra, she is not the future of American farming -- perhaps only a small part of it, but no more. That 57-year-old guy in the John Deere cap is more representative: as the Des Moines Register has reported, many farmers are in their 50s or 60s and will soon be retiring: perhaps some have children who will take over the farm. More likely, it will be sold to another big farmer next door, once again doubling the size of average farms.
Actually, I'd bet the real future farmer of America is Clay Mitchell, a Harvard grad in his mid-30s who farms his family's 2,400 acres in eastern Iowa virtually on automatic pilot. Mitchell works with Deere and other manufacturers to hitch GPS and real-time-kinetmatic guidance technology to his tractors, harvesters and other machinery. Computer-guided tractors can drive themselves. Sensors build into machinery communicate moisture, acidity and yield measurements minute by minute, row by row, acre by acre.
This high-tech farming produces two major results. One is increased yields, up to 20 or 30 percent more per acre, a vital statistic in a hungry world. The other is minimized damage to the soil: Mitchell calculates that the precision of his instrumentation enables him to cut nitrogen use by 30 percent, herbicides by 20 percent.
This illustrates that these big farms -- factory farms, if you will -- are both cause and cure of the major ills of modern agriculture. All these farms rely on chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers and other potential pollutants to raise yields and standardize quality. These materials damage the land, pollute rivers, are poisoning runoff areas like the Gulf of Mexico. More pollution comes from big cattle and hog farms, with their manure spills. Big farming, which is necessary to feed the world, is not sustainable unless this problems is solved.
As Clay Mitchell is showing, modern technology can minimize this damage. More evidence comes from big cattle operations like Fair Oaks, in northern Indiana, where the manure from its 30,000 cows produces ethane that powers the whole farm. Across the Midwest, researchers in land grant colleges are working with industry to develop fertilizers and herbicides that increase yields while reducing pollution.
It's possible to wish Alexandra well while recognizing the limits of farmers like her. If niche farmers and organic farming could feed the world, our problem would be solved. But they can't. What I really wish for Alexandra that her small business pays for her to go to college and join the ranks of other Midwesterners, the true descendants of Norman Borlaug, who are working to create a better and better-fed world.