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The Future of Farming and Climate Change

In all the noise and politicization around climate change, I wonder whether we are spending our “climate dollars” efficiently. Government programs are notorious for being wasteful and attracting people that are just chasing the money. Most of the ardent supporters of these programs are wanting significant changes and grassroots movements pressing for those changes. The government programs seldom generate real changes in attitudes, simply procedural changes that are deemed to have a good ROI by the applicants.

One of the problems with our current situation is that the “quantity of influence” held by people is quite uneven. The average person has a rather small carbon footprint, so anything they do to reduce that will have rather small effects on the global situation. Some people invest huge amounts of money on climate-friendly infrastructure or vehicles. The end result is a significant reduction in their footprint, but of a small starting footprint, so the net climate effect per dollar is very small, really mostly symbolic. But a small number of people wield a much greater influence than the average. Executives of certain large corporations come to mind, but I want to discuss farmers, who also have climate change influence far greater than their neighbors.

I suspect that anyone that has not lived or worked on a farm has a completely wrong idea of what happens there. We see a documentary on TV about a large factory farm and assume the farm we drive by in our local area operates the same way. They don’t. If you were to talk to the farmers who own the small farms around town you would find them motivated by a generational pride because they grow food for the world, and a desire to provide for their family. Sadly, many family farms have fallen on hard times. This trend has been happening for decades and seems to be accelerating. Many farms have been sold off for housing development or rented to large farming operators while the land owners go work an off-farm job to meet their financial needs. The rental fees for their land generally cover the taxes and insurance, but not enough extra to provide an income. These farmers control their land only in the most basic sense of ownership, the choices about what gets planted and what chemicals are used on their land are ceded to the large farming operators that rented the land. Since the renters have no stake in the long term health of the soil and environment, their goal is to maximize their profits, often at the expense of the environment, especially biodiversity, which their land use practices specifically select against, as monocultures are most profitable in the short term.

Most farmers care deeply about the health of their land and soil. They understand that a healthy environment makes a healthy family, and take pleasure in “country living” that nourishes the body and the soul.

Farming is built on the principle that you make do with what you have and share what you can. A farmer can figure out the best and/or cheapest way to accomplish a goal, whether it is fixing some equipment or building housing for livestock. Given that, it is hardly surprising that farmers look at government programs with a great deal of skepticism. They know there is no truly “free lunch”, that all government money comes with strings attached, and start with the assumption that they will be worse off in the end if they join the program.

Is there a better way? For many years, the idea of Community Supported Agriculture has been suggested as the way forward. One version of this has become so popular that it is the only thing people think of when the hear the term “CSA”. But what about the farmers that are not in a position to grow direct to consumer food products? Is there a way for the community to support them? Is there a reason for people to support these farms?

Obviously, I think there is good reason for community support of small farms and farming families. The farms that remain in our communities are tremendous resources that can capture carbon, clear air pollution, stop erosion and the silting of waterways, and many other good things. They provide habitats for all sorts of wildlife, from native plants and pollinators to game animals. For generations the communities have benefited from the farms and left it to the government and free market to keep the farms afloat. If you look a the current state of affairs, you must conclude that that approach has failed, or at least stopped working in recent years. The renters of farmland actively try to remove biodiversity from the land in order to increase profits (which are often marginal to be fair). Even if the farmer wanted to restore the land to the way it was in the past, how can they afford to pay the expenses when no income is being produced?

Enter, the community. If community members who see benefits from a farm would step up to provide support, this situation could be turned around, to the immense benefit of the farmer, the farm family, the local community, and even the wider world. I am not claiming this will be easy, it could even prove to be unworkable in the end, but if we don’t try, nothing changes.

So, where to start is the major question now. I have lots of ideas to lay out here, but lack of resources (time and energy, mostly) is delaying an actual start. I need help. But why would others want to help? Here are some ideas that motivate me, or that I could imagine would motivate certain other people. I want this to be apolitical and non-partisan, so I am including ideas from all parts of the political-idealogical spectrum. To do otherwise would seem to exclude half of the potential participants. Good community land use shoud not be the exclusive domain of any idealogy, there is room here to meet in the middle.

Reasons to want community supported land use improvements
  • Concern about the changing global climate
  • Improved game habitat for hunting
  • Distaste for modern agribusiness and support of small food producing enterprises
  • Desire for a healthier local environment for our families
    • Reduced pesticide pollution – eliminate use of Roundup and other chemicals that could harm our environment, introduce organic practices
    • Reduced air pollution – lower burning of fuels, better absorption of pollutants by trees and perennial forage crops
    • Reduced water pollution and conservation – riparian buffers to manage runoff and integrity of streams
    • Reduced noise pollution – less running of large equipment, more year round vegetation to buffer noises
    • Natural lands for a place to enjoy nature in a variety of ways – hiking, bird watching, biology lessons
  • Preservation of historical practices and spaces
  • Development of educational and research areas for agricultural technologies
    • Silvipasture or agroforestry
    • Regenerative and sustainable food production
    • Pastured (grass fed) meat production with mob and successional grazing
    • Food forests, biodynamic and biodiverse permaculture
  • Sites to help preserve native plants and insects
    • Monarch butterflies get the big press, but keeping them happy preserves many others
    • Honeybee foraging
  • Social and economic justice – Sites for locals to create garden spaces and grow their own food (community gardening)
The Vision

I would like to see a local farm of about 100 acres converted from mostly conventional cropped land (corn and soybeans) into a perennial forage rangeland, with alley cropping of productive forage trees. Portions will be cut for hay, to control taller plants in the alleyways and provide some return to the farmer. Other sections could be fenced for rotational grazing. According to the interests of the community, specific areas would be designated for other specialized uses. For example, a local bee keeper might want a well secured area to keep hives of honeybees and a nearby field planted to a variety of nectar rich species. The field could be multi-use (open to visitors and contain non-bee specific plantings) but the hive area set aside for that one member.

The overall use of the land would demand certain practices, chemical-free and sustainable come immediately to mind, but different areas might have different target uses. The overall goal is to use the land in whatever ways provides the most benefits for our community and the landowner, intending this to become a permanent change to the way this land is used.

The Plan

First year:

  • Obtain contributions to takeover the land lease for the entire farm (multi-year commitment from donors)
  • Have the cropland prepared and seeded to perennial forage (mix of grasses and legumes)

As resources permit (could be first year):

  • Layout alley planting areas – leave in forage until ready to plant
  • Begin planting alleys according to plans
  • Fence and plant riparian buffer areas for stream
  • Setup specialized use areas as community members present the needs with plans for managing those are areas

Future years:

  • Erect temporary fencing for rotational grazing
  • Hay to be harvested in unimproved areas

Interested so far? Want to help? These are some skills and resources that would be very helpful:

  • Project management – this is a big idea with a lot of unknowns
  • Fund raising – are their grants that could be obtained? how much control would we have to give up to get those? what about grass-roots funding from the community?
  • Land survey and design
  • Ideas for additional uses
  • Ideas for additional sources of funding
  • Organizing communications – how to get contributors and keep them informed of opportunities as the project progresses
  • Financial contributions, both ongoing (for taxes and insurance) and one-off (plantings, fencing or other land development)
  • Volunteer time – planting, weeding, fence installation and maintenance