Hubs of Hope

NOTE: Brian DeVore has a degree in agricultural journalism and wildlife biology from Iowa State University. He grew up on a crop and livestock farm in Cass County in southwestern Iowa and, while serving in the Peace Corps, managed a dairy cooperative in Lesotho. He was a contributor to the 2002 book, The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems, and for the past 25 years has worked as an editor at the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota.

The following excerpt from Brian’s recent recent book, Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic, is taken from chapter 10 “Hubs of Hope.”

The danger of telling the stories of innovative farmers such as those highlighted in this book is that they can be seen as too much of an anomaly to be replicated. When Gabe Brown says, “There are people all over doing this. They just don’t have the mouth I have,” what he’s trying to convey is that his only outstanding attribute is his willingness to go public with his hits and misses. Indeed, for every Gabe Brown who’s on the speaking circuit, hosting international visitors or starring in online videos, there are dozens of ecological agrarians who are more quietly blending the wild and the tame.

But there’s not enough of those kinds of farmers. The bulk of U.S. agriculture is as far removed from natural processes as a factory making circuit boards. And we’re paying the price in terms of dirtier water, sickened soil, out-of-control greenhouse gas emissions, decimated wildlife populations, and shuttered Main Streets. I will admit to a bias here: I believe there need to be more farmers on the land, not fewer. After spending so much time on agricultural operations of all kinds, I’m more convinced of that belief than ever. Wildly successful farming requires more eyes (and ears) observing, reacting, adjusting—and that monitoring needs to take place over a lengthy period of time. The short-term decision-making that characterizes industrial agriculture just doesn’t leave much room for natural processes. What works one year may not work again for several years down the road—if ever.

One huge advantage wildly successful farmers have over their more conventional brethren is a willingness to share information. That may sound strange, given rural America’s reputation for working as a collective; for example, consider the farmers’ co-op movement that revolutionized the grain trade. As I’ve written about in chapter 6, it was the willingness of innovators and early adopters to share their experiences with their neighbors that led to the rapid spread of hybrid seed corn.

But in the early 1990s, when I was working for a mainstream farm magazine that had as its readership some of the largest farmers in the country, I began running into a troubling trend. Some of these farmers were unwilling to be interviewed for stories about a particular innovative production or marketing technique they were using. “What’s in it for me?” was a version of the response I would get over the telephone. They expressed concern that sharing their “trade secrets” would put them at a competitive disadvantage with their neighbors—who they now saw as rivals—for land, market share, and profits. For someone who grew up in an era when farmers still got together to shell corn or bale hay communally, this was a real eye opener.

An increasing number of farmers were raising an increasingly undifferentiated product: corn and soybeans for the international grain trade, for example. When one was in a position to take advantage of a market opportunity that paid a little bit more—high-oil soybeans or extra-lean hogs, for example—the last thing they wanted was other farmers horning in on their financial success. And who could blame them? The agricultural economic crash of the 1980s put a large number of farmers off the land in a very short time. The path to profits became paved with raising more bushels on more acres (or more pounds of meat and milk per square foot of barn space). To survive, you had to be a hard-nosed business owner willing to expand constantly, often at your neighbor’s expense. The trouble is, that get-big-or-get-out attitude didn’t do those tough-talking farmers any good either. There was always someone bigger and more powerful to take market share. And that competitor wasn’t necessarily in the next township or county—the Cargills of the world don’t care if they buy their soybeans in Iowa or Brazil, as long as the commodity is as cheap as possible. Thus, farming has become what University of Missouri economist John Ikerd calls “a race to the bottom”—a race fueled by exploitation of land and people.

On the bright side, I’ve witnessed in the past decade or so somewhat of a return of the farmers-helping-farmers culture. Actually, I suspect it never completely left, but just got overshadowed by the economic storms raging over rural America. Every week I run across examples of farmers sharing information and ideas openly. Partly it’s because when someone is doing something truly innovative—utilizing cover crops to cut fertilizer use and suppress weeds or using mob grazing to double a pasture’s ability to produce livestock, for example—they’re excited about it. It’s human nature to share such breakthroughs and get feedback on how to make them even better. I’m seeing even “conventional” farmers more willing to share with their neighbors these days. That’s particularly true when it comes to the current revolution in building soil health. As the corn and soybean farmers in Indiana are learning, injecting just a bit of the “wild” into their otherwise domesticated row crop fields can produce tremendously positive results. That’s exciting, and fun to share.

The internet and social media have made the trading of this information simpler than ever, creating communities across thousands of miles. Log into any e-mail listserv where people share innovative ideas about farming closer to nature, and you’re likely to feel pretty positive about the future of agriculture.

It’s not just the thrill of discovery that motivates farmers to swap ideas. Many agrarians I’ve interviewed in recent years are also adherents to the philosophy of writer/farmer Wendell Berry, who would rather have a neighbor than have his neighbor’s land. Dan Jenniges sees a direct connection between more grass on the land and more beginning farmers in his community. Marge and Jack Warthesen host beginning farmer trainings and have mentored newbies. Having the most wildly successful farm in the county means little if the rest of the community is basically abandoned. As writer Michael Pollan puts it when describing the “remade” state of Iowa: “The only thing missing from the man-made landscape is . . . man.”

Perhaps the most positive trend I’ve witnessed in recent years is how beginners with little background in farming (or rural living) have been welcomed into agricultural communities by lifelong residents. Southwestern Wisconsin farmer Peter Allen expresses genuine surprise at how much he and his family are supported by their neighbors, even though he’s a refugee from the big city of Madison, Wisconsin, and that up until the time he stepped onto those hilly acres in the Kickapoo Valley, he had spent the majority of his adult life as an academic. “I think they’re just happy to see some young person out trying to farm, because none of their kids are doing it,” he told me. He’s right: the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture shows the age of the average farmer is fifty-eight years old, up from fifty-one in 1982. Of principal farm operators, only 6 percent are under thirty-five.

Allen’s warm reception isn’t unusual. I’ve spent a lot of time in rural communities and talked to older farmers who are extremely happy to see young, energetic people participating in a kind of reverse brain drain. Sure, they may have some weird ideas about “organics” and “sustainability,” but they also share with those older farmers a love of the land. Even better, no matter what kind of farming these greenhorns are undertaking, they require information on local soils, climate, and sources of inputs—details they can’t glean from a textbook or YouTube. It’s a basic instinct to be needed, and the generational knowledge these veteran farmers have is needed now, more than ever.