You call this sustainable?

Sustainable is the new organic. It’s the buzzword-du-jour. It’s soft marketing. let’s just talk about small farms and sustainable agriculture, ok? We can get to sustainable bio-dynamic gin and tonics another day. Not that I’m the least bit cynical about marketing techniques.

If I search the word ‘sustainable’, Google will give me 207,000,000 responses in .36 seconds.  And I have a really slow internet connection here in Umbria.

Sustainable is the new organic. It’s the buzzword-du-jour.  It’s soft marketing. Tack the word sustainable onto just about anything and the politically correct consumer goes weak-kneed with delight as they think their purchases are contributing to a food solution.

For now, let’s just talk about small farms and sustainable agriculture, ok? We can get to sustainable bio-dynamic gin and tonics another day. Not that I'm the least bit cynical about marketing techniques.

A recent spate of blog posts and articles are all talking about the future of small farming. From the wonderful Rachel Laudan, who ponders “Who is Going to Farm?”, to a thoughtful editorial in the New York Times, “Don’t Let Your Children Grow up to be Farmers”, there is soul searching going on.

The crux of the problem is money. I know, you’re surprised.

According to a USDA brief published in 2006, income not earned on a farm “provided 85-95 per-cent of household income over 1999-2003, up from around 50 percent in 1960.”  What?? 85-95% of household income doesn’t come from farm labor? Well, that pretty much sucks if you are thinking about earning a living supplying restaurants with high end neo-natal carrots.

Bren Smith, who wrote the NY Times editorial, isn’t just telling anecdotes. The government backs up his story. A small farmer can’t earn a living just working a farm. No matter how romantic it sounds, you need another source (or two or three) of income.

Enter “Slow Money”.  This alliance is connecting investors with farmers.  According to their website, “Through Slow Money national gatherings, regional events and local activities, more than $35 million has been invested in over 300 small food enterprises around the United States since mid-2010.”

The site also explains its international outreach: a solar dairy farm in Switzerland and chapters sprouting up in France, Japan, Canada and Australia.

Let me get this straight.

Having money to get the farm up and running is better than no money, right? Nice tractors are way better than a hand held hoe.

So, a hedge fund manager, or a board director who most likely does not support raising the minimum wage of migrant farm workers can now donate some of their profits to small farmers.  Am I detecting a  whiff of smug wafting from this approach?

According to another NY Times article: “The future is local,” said Narendra Varma, 43, a former manager at Microsoft who invested $2 million of his own money last year in a 58-acre project of small plots and new-farmer training near Portland, Ore.

 That’s a lot of seed money for a start up farmer, even for a cooperative farm concept that Mr. Varma is developing.

What about subsidies?

Farm subsidies are an economic tool used worldwide as a way to keep food prices more stable. A year of bad weather, or blight can wipe out an entire year’s worth of work, and in theory, subsidies attempt to stabilize that.

Let’s follow the subsidy money. According to that 2006 USDA report, 32% of all US farms receive subsidies. Over 50% of that amount goes to large farms; small farms receive the lowest share of assistance (12%).  As your production level increases, so does your subsidy amount, so payment amounts go primarily to the high income-high wealth farmers.  I know, I surprised you again.

Are any of these approaches sustainable?

If ‘sustainable’ still means a system that can perpetuate itself, I’m not so sure.

The farmer's market and a CSA are not going to keep a small farmer’s lights on and the computer running.

If you need a money-bags investor to make your farm more resilient to annual income fluctuations, that means the priorities shift to paying back the investor.

Boutique Tomato
As an average consumer, I want to eat fresh, local and affordable vegetables. A boutique priced tomato isn’t going to make it into my daily diet.  What about the people who use food stamps, even if the farmer’s market will double the value of their food stamps?  (A subsidized farmer subsidizes a lower income family. Yeah, that sounds sustainable.)

These are tough issues and deserve to be talked about.

Yo! Are you guys at MAD listening? Its time to have a non-romantic, nuanced, public conversation about these issues.

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