The USDA Loves Subsidies: Do Small Farms Deserve Help Too?

Gene Logsdon, my unspoken mentor (so unspoken that he, in fact, doesn’t know), recently posted an articlepointing to small farming as one answer to the jobs crisis in the US.  If the government would get out of the way of small farms, Logsdon says, we’d all be in a much better spot.
As of now, America’s farms leave room for few employees, and even fewer career seekers.  There is one farmer for every 155 of us, and current farm technology allows for a farmer to grow 5,000 acres of corn with one employee.  On top of that, the farmer will be subsidized heavily by the USDA for doing so.  But the way Logsdon figures it, if one 5,000 acre farm were divided into smaller farms of 300 acres, each run by a family farmer with three employees, these farms could be employing close to 100 people.  And they would be polluting less and supplying their communities with better food.  Multiply that out to the total amount of corn grown in the country this year–90 million acres–and you’re talking about a million new jobs:All government really has to do is provide a level playing field where small intensive farming can compete fairly with large, heavily-subsidized, industrial farming and then stand back. A revolution will take place in new job creation and it will be in the right direction: more good food and a more stable society at a lesser overall cost.
Logsdon’s post begged the question, what would a level playing field for large commodity farms and small farms look like?  Given current rates of subsidy, the farmer growing 5,000 acres of corn has the potential to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government.  Could the USDA eliminate these subsidies and then stand back and let small farms and large farms compete in a fair market?  Given that corn and soy are the foundation of our food system, good or bad, would removing subsidies result in more loss than gain?

Regardless of subsidies, the Organic Farming Research Foundation thinks the government owes small farms more than that.  It recently released this new report for steps the federal government can take to actively support small organic farms, which include an organic farm transition program (though they fail to mention new farmer education).

So what should the government’s role in recreating the food system be?  Should it just get out of the way, or try to fix the problems it has helped create?  To me, it seems that America has deliberately been destroying its farming industry for the last half century.  And if we are serious about reconsidering how American farming does business, it will take significant effort to piece it back together.

Young Farmer Profile #2: Lorig Hawkins at Tecolote

The land east of Austin is a monochrome pallete in the off-yellows of dying plants.  Nowhere was it more stark than when I rounded the curve of pasture that separates Tecolote Farm from Highway 969.  Tecolote is east of downtown Austin, not too far from the fires ravaging Bastrop.  It was obvious; I felt that if I just scuffed my shoes on the grass it might throw off a spark.  At my apartment in the city, we got an hour of rain on Saturday.  As I approached Tecolote’s conjoined fields I called out to Lorig Hawkins, who was pushing a wheel hoe down a bed of newly-seeded beets, asking if they saw any of it.  Not a drop.

Lorig, 27, is the new farm manager at Tecolote Farm, the oldest running CSA farm in Austin.  David Pitre and Katie Kraemer have been farming there since 1994–currently about 10 acres.  Lorig came on as a seasonal employee in March of 2011 with a lot of enthusiasm, but little more than a few months of farm volunteer experience.  By April, David was ready to make her his manager.  Despite being green, Lorig is convinced she was built for farming.  And given the rate at which she’s excelling, it looks like she’s right.

Since graduating from the University of Texas with a double major in RTF and kenesiology, Lorig knew she needed to be working outdoors.  She bounced through a few random jobs–washing windows, working in a coffee shop, dog sitting–until she landed at The Expedition School, where she was charged with guiding hikes through rural Costa Rica a few times a year.  In the spring of 2010, Lorig took a permaculture class in Austin with Dick Pierce, a notable figure in Austin.  During one class they visited several farms in and around Austin, and there Lorig thought she had found her calling.  In proper millenial generation style, she decided to go back to school for agriculture.

Her first season of farm work was everything she wanted.  She sold top-quality vegetables at the downtown farmers market, she learned methods for CSA management, she felt connected to a community with food at the center, and she had work.  Lots of hard, hard work.  “Just doing the work is so rewarding for me.  I really like to push myself and get tired.  Like really, truly, slobbering and falling over kind of tired.”

Aside from physical fatigue, Lorig’s biggest priority in farming is community. She loves the CSA model and the farmers market because it provides a space for interaction around food.  She tells me that she looks forward to being “real” about situations that arise on farms, “like, we don’t have kale this week because of the freeze, or we don’t have beets because of the heat.”  It’s this honesty and personal connection that Lorig admires in her new employers. “Farms have a way of building a community,” she insists,  “I notice how much care Tecolote takes of its members, how much thought goes into their shares, and how honest and passionate they are about their work, and I want to emulate that someday on my own land.” 

Since graduating from the University of Texas with a double major in RTF and kenesiology, Lorig knew she needed to be working outdoors.  She bounced through a few random jobs–washing windows, working in a coffee shop, dog sitting–until she landed at The Expedition School, where she was charged with guiding hikes through rural Costa Rica a few times a year.  In the spring of 2010, Lorig took a permaculture class in Austin with Dick Pierce, a notable figure in Austin.  During one class they visited several farms in and around Austin, and there Lorig thought she had found her calling.  In proper millenial generation style, she decided to go back to school for agriculture.

Lorig doesn’t stop working as she relates her history to me, even though the temperature is approaching triple digits and she is struggling to cut through clay soil with a dull hoe with a wheel attached to it.  “The more I read about it the more I realized that apprenticing on a farm was probably the better way to go.  School is based in research, so I could be researching how this cover crop is better than that one, or how effective CSAs are as a business model, but then you’re not actually farming.”

So while she submitted her applications to graduate schools, she began volunteering at farms and taking some plant biology courses at The University of Texas. It didn’t take her long to realize that she was learning more outside of the classroom than in, and so she began looking for work on a farm in town. That was when she found Tecolote.

Her first season of farm work was everything she wanted.  She sold top-quality vegetables at the downtown farmers market, she learned methods for CSA management, she felt connected to a community with food at the center, and she had work.  Lots of hard, hard work.  “Just doing the work is so rewarding for me.  I really like to push myself and get tired.  Like really, truly, slobbering and falling over kind of tired.”

Aside from physical fatigue, Lorig’s biggest priority in farming is community. She loves the CSA model and the farmers market because it provides a space for interaction around food.  She tells me that she looks forward to being “real” about situations that arise on farms, “like, we don’t have kale this week because of the freeze, or we don’t have beets because of the heat.”  It’s this honesty and personal connection that Lorig admires in her new employers. “Farms have a way of building a community,” she insists,  “I notice how much care Tecolote takes of its members, how much thought goes into their shares, and how honest and passionate they are about their work, and I want to emulate that someday on my own land.” 

Finally pausing to take a drink of water and say hello to her dog, Theo, Lorig quickly picks up a stirrup hoe and begins weeding again.  Having just landed her first fulltime farming job, purchasing her own farm is still a distant dream.  Lorig tells me she’s comfortable staying with Tecalote for as long as she can.  As for where or when she might begin looking for land, she has a hard time saying.  “Farm loans are intimidating, because what if you can’t make it work?  Let’s say you got a loan and started farming this year, during the worst drought in a century!” She shrugs, smiling, “It’s like you’re either all in, or you have nothing.  There’s no one to catch you in that middle part.”  In spite of the inherent risks, though, Lorig is convinced that determination, hard work, and positive thinking will see her through.  “Okay,” she starts, “so I’m not a normal 20-something with a steady job.  And I don’t have a lot of stamina for other pursuits.  And if I ever lose a farming job, I’m not going to be super employable in the normal workforce.  But this is the life I’ve chosen, I love it, and I’m going to find a way to see it through.”

That’s not to say that Lorig would mind seeing the path made a little easier.  At the moment, her biggest challenge is the wide gap she sees between those growing food and those purchasing and consuming it.  Most people don’t know about farms, she says as she turns on water for some thirsty seedlings.  At the same time, farmers are usually too busy and tired to do a lot of education.  One frustration in particular for Lorig is the lack of proper agricultural land available for farmers, especially beginning farmers.  “There’s so much energy put into community gardens and urban green space,” she says, “which are great.  But that’s not food production, not enough to feed a city.  For food production, you need a lot of land.  Right now new farmers have to look for land far outside city limits, but close to the city is the best place for these things to start.  That’s where you really can breed a farming community.  I’d like to see Austin putting some thought into that.”

She pauses for a moment, then continues, as if summing up her feelings, “Farming is often seen as a fad for young people.  Like we’re just riding out a bad economy until we can get a real job.  But this is what I really want to do.  The systems involved in farming, the organization, the constant thinking ahead, how I work physically … there is nothing better for me than farming.” 

Lorig’s excitement as she said this was a lush contrast to the scorched and miserable pasture in which she was standing.  Fully aware of the obstacles in her future and facing a desolating Texas drought in her first year of farming, Lorig stays positively exuberant about her future.  As I walk beside her and talk, she rarely lifts her head as she responds.  She just keeps working.  Even with her physical capacity and intellectual aptitude for agriculture, it’s this determination that may prove to be Lorig’s biggest asset in her new career.

Austin Bakes for Bastrop

Wildfires have burned an area the size of Connecticut around central Texas, nearly 4 million acres.  30,000 acres have been burned in Bastrop alone, just southeast of Austin.  Thousands of people have been affected, and many have lost their homes.  Food bloggers in Austin are getting together to raise funds for the Austin Community Foundation’s Central Texas Wildfire Fund in order to provide some relief to the victims of this disaster.  They’re doing what they do best: making and sharing food.

The event will feature baked goods from local bloggers, with proceeds going to the Wildfire Fund.  It will take place next Saturday, October 1st at these locations.  If you can’t be there in person, consider making a donation online.

Ongoing information at Austin Bakes for Bastrop.  The Austin food blogging community is a great group of people, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.