"There seems to be three ways for a nation to acquire wealth: the first is by war...this is robbery; the second by commerce, which is generally cheating; the third by agriculture, the only honest way." Benjamin Franklin
The twenty-first century's uncertainty about the future abounds with predicaments like climate change, depletion of our water resources, and the end of cheap energy. And farmers are being called upon to assume a new role as innovators and stewards of the land because they know how to produce food.
"Farmers were the true founders of the United States," said Lisa Hamilton, author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, "because they went out into the wild and built the first structures and communities that eventually became our cities and the nation." In 1800, 90 percent of Americans were farmers.
She spoke recently at the 21st Annual Conference of the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) held in La Crosse, Wisc.
By 1900 after the frontier closed and the nation moved from an agricultural to an industrial economy, the percentage of farmers dropped to almost 40 percent. That's also when farmers began to shift in their role from "citizens" to "producers."
And they have been rebelling ever since over land and crop prices and agricultural policies, said Hamilton.
"They weren't looking to change the system; they only wanted their fair share of the wealth."
Meanwhile, other inducements moved them off the farm.
They were perceived to be "hayseeds" and helpless victims of droughts, floods and crop failures.
War in Europe exposed many young men to a more expanded view of the world, including the city's lures of wine, women and song as expressed in the World War I hit, "How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Paree?"
Economic opportunity and excitement in the city led to the gradual abandonment of farming as a career choice. Even during the Great Depression, income was three and four times higher off the farm than on it (http://www.agclassroom.org/gan/classroom/lesson2/large009.gif). In 2007, the USDA reported that farm income per capita was $28,781 compared to urban income of $40,570. Today, a mere 2 percent of Americans are farmers.
After World War II, the United States began a program of prosperity and productivity for all. Farmers who grew crops and stewarded the land were cajoled into resembling industrial workers from the city who produced piecework in a complex system overseen by major corporations, said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs.
Livestock are cared for by "employees" of big corporations rather than by farmers who once took responsibility for their businesses as well as the small communities where they lived. These were things that gave meaning to their lives. As a result, small farming towns have fallen into social decay with a disappearing middle class.
Then, the USDA's "cheap food policy" of the 1970s resulted in giving major food corporations almost total control of the food system.
"What have we wrought over these past 70 years?" asked Hassebrook.
"People yearn for greater authenticity and a genuine search for meaning and significance in life," said Hassebrook. "They don't just want to accumulate things. They are searching for community and meaningful relationships with people and with the land. They are yearning for more access to nature."
The Center for Rural Affairs (CRA), located in Lyons, Neb., a town of 980, represents a set of values that reflect the best in rural people, he said: fairness, widespread ownership, personal and social responsibility and stewardship of the land where it is preserved for the next generation.
"When you look beyond selfish interests, the true interests reflect these values and are tied to community and the common good," said Hassebrook.
But there is change in the making. Organic farming and the local food movement are capturing the imaginations of people in small, rural towns. And while it's difficult to tell where the future lies, Hassebrook urged conference participants to recognize that people need to take responsibility for their own destiny and future.
"We can't wait for government or corporate America to save us."
Hassebrook identified five keys that tap farmers' full potential to create a better future.
1. Protect authenticity.
The recent clarification of organic standards on dairy products is a vital start that means something to family farmers who want to treat their animals well and consumers who want to believe that their food is safe.
2. Be entrepreneurial and re-build ownership and a legacy in the family farm rather than subject it to corporate ownership and control.
"There is a great untapped opportunity in grass-fed dairy. Go after that market," he encouraged. "This is a strategy for linking farmers with consumers."
Cooperatives are a great way to do this. Spain has developed a cooperative system where they train entrepreneurs and created a bank to finance start-up businesses.
"Emulate that!" he said.
3. Be mindful of the importance of contributing to the community.
Farms have always had a symbiotic relationship with cities and the organic food movement can rebuild this relationship as people grow more concerned about where their food comes from and who the farmer is that grows it.
In truth, these are quality of life issues, said Hassebrook. Baby Boomers are retiring and choosing places where they want to live instead of where their jobs take them. Likewise, people in their 30s are attracted to rural America as a good place to raise their children.
"If they could make a living in small farms and businesses, they would come to our rural towns," he said.
4. Protect access to good germ plasma.
Organic farmers can collaborate with conventional farmers on the issues of genetic drift and improving seed varieties. Allowing big corporations like Monsanto to have almost total control of seeds is antithetical to good stewardship.
"It pains me greatly that Monsanto received exclusive license through the University of Nebraska," said Hessebrook who has urged policymakers to prohibit this practice, especially when public funds go to private companies outside our own states.
5. Reverse the government's bias toward big corporations at the expense of small and medium-sized family farms.
This practice drives these farms out of business and also drives up land prices. Conservation of these lands is also an important and essential aspect of stewardship.
These issues are about money, which is one source of power in Washington. The other power source is people, said Hassebrook.
"When people give up, money fills the void. When people hold the politicians accountable, they trump the power of money," he said. "When we send people to Washington to represent us, we need to remind them who sent them there."
"We can create a new wave of change in America," said Hassebrook. "Organic farming is a big part of this change, but it won't be automatic. We have to work for it."
"Let our inspiration be the pioneers who first settled America. Those who succeeded were courageous. They made sacrifices to achieve their dreams. They were builders and entrepreneurs. They cared about their communities, which were comprised of a diversity of people with different languages and customs. They were farmers, carpenters, teachers, politicians and planners. They were visionaries who worked hard to achieve progress. They remained optimistic and were open to new ideas. Our challenge is to go forth and do good."