Sustainable Farming’s Most Critical Conversation

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What is the most critical discussion that needs to take place to ensure a sustainable food and farming system long into the future? Is it one on policy, farming techniques, green technology, consumer preferences or soil fertility? No. It’s the conversation that takes place between Nettie and Gerald in LSP’s most recent Ear to the Ground podcast.

Nettie and Gerald’s talk is at the core of  Look Who’s Knockin’, a one-act play recently developed by LSP and set to premiere in southeast Minnesota Feb. 17. The play features the elderly couple and their struggle with figuring out what to do with their farm when it is no longer possible for them to work the land. They face a dilemma: do they sell the land the largest farm operation in the county, or give a young entrepreneurial couple an opportunity to launch their own enterprise?

The former choice provides almost instant financial security, since the large operator can pay top dollar, cash-up-front. Such a dangling carrot is extremely attractive to someone who has worked from dawn til dusk for five decades and doesn’t have a company pension to draw on upon retirement.

The latter choice is more risky. It may mean renting (at a lower price than the big boys can pay) to the couple for a time until they are in a position to buy (also at a lower price) the farm. It also means putting trust in the young couple’s ability to make a living utilizing methods that Gerald and Nettie aren’t familiar with, such as grass-based livestock production and direct marketing.

But the “help the young farmers out” choice also comes with a tremendous potential upside. It could help the retiring couple continue the legacy of an award-winning conservation farm, a legacy they inherited themselves 50 years ago. The decision of which way to go weighs most heavily on the cantankerous Gerald, who has experienced fainting spells lately. His concern is that his life partner, Nettie, will have to deal with things on her own sooner rather than later.

A version of this conversation—at turns funny, angry and heartbreaking—is taking place all across Farm Country. We have an entire generation of farmers who launched their careers on the land during the past half-century, and are faced with deciding what to do with a business that has also become a way of life for them.

This play is not only aimed at those folks who are having that conversation, but perhaps even more importantly, those who are not. It’s not a fun topic to pick up, but it’s a necessary one if our rural communities are to have a sustainable future. Sometimes a good ice breaker can be seeing someone else, even if it’s two actors, having the same conversation you need to be having.

How these conversations—current as well as future ones—conclude will play a key element in whether diverse, sustainable farming gets a permanent foothold in Minnesota and across the country. Whether it involves organic vegetable production, grass-based livestock or diverse field cropping techniques, sustainable agriculture is management intensive. And management intensive systems require more eyes to the acre—more farmers, in other words. Without those farmers, all the innovative production and marketing methods in the world won’t make a difference.

I recently concluded a year-long discussion with my four siblings over the future of our family farm. When I attended a rehearsal of Look Who’s Knockin’ last week, it sent shivers down my spine to hear the actors mouthing the same words that had been thrown around in the DeVore family when the subject of “the farm” came up. It turns out that our conversation went more smoothly than most since our late parents had done a tremendous amount of planning over the years, in the process making their desires pertaining to the future of the land quite clear. They had executed “the talk,” the one Nettie and Gerald struggle with in the play.

Look Who’s Knockin’ will ring true for a lot of retiring and beginning farmers for a reason: as the play’s author—LSP organizer Doug Nopar—makes clear in Ear to the Ground No. 94, it’s based on dozens of conversations LSP staff have had with farmers and other community members in recent years. All good dramatic performances are a reflection of the reality in our own daily lives, and Knockin’ is no exception.

One reality LSP has run up against is that many of the new entrepreneurs that pass through our Farm Beginnings course find themselves stymied by a lack of access to land. This barrier is the result of many factors, including land values inflated by the ethanol market and federal commodity crop programs.

But perhaps one of the most daunting barriers beginning farmers face is the attitude of their elders  Rural areas are permeated with a malaise that there are no opportunities for young people in production agriculture, unless they want to work for a mega-operation as a barn janitor or tractor jockey. Many farmers who got started after World War II feel they were the last of a breed—entrepreneurial farmers who could make a go of it on the land with the help of some sweat equity, innovative management and profitable markets.

One can’t blame them, what with the mega-trends in agriculture: bigger and fewer farms, shuttered Main Streets, monopolized markets. But as we’ve seen through Farm Beginnings and the community based food movement, opportunities are emerging in agriculture for beginning entrepreneurs. Among other things, demand for food produced using organics and other sustainable methods is creating that opportunity. We also have an entire generation of farmers who decades ago were pioneers in sustainable agriculture, and who now have knowledge and experience to pass on to the next generation.

I recently spent time in Wisconsin’s Jackson County, where a loose confederation of community members—everyone from established farmers to a lender and a veterinarian—have taken it upon themselves to help the next generation of farmers get started. The positive attitude present in that region was absolutely energizing.

As one young dairy farmer from the area shared with me while he was doing the evening milking: “The previous generation has to be positive about agriculture to really make it possible for the next farmers.”

Look Who’s Knockin’ addresses the “there are no opportunities in agriculture” issue as well. Gerald, worn down by his poor health and worried about his family’s financial security, is mostly unimpressed by the two young farmers who have shown an interest in taking over their farm. He’s also worried about peer pressure—what will happen when the other retired farmers at the coffee shop find out he got less than top dollar for his farm?

Nettie sees a little of her and Gerald in the young couple, and is excited about how their new production and marketing ideas could provide the basis for continuing their farm’s legacy.

“Now we have a chance to help someone else—young people that were just like we were in so many ways,” she says. “Wouldn’t that be something to be truly proud of?”

The conversation continues…

One Response to “Sustainable Farming’s Most Critical Conversation”

  1. Tim Gieseke

    It sounds like a very timely and necessary play for discussion. A lot of people are going through this and it is applicable to all farms under 300 acres whether they meet the traditional definition of sustainability or not. If we want more farmers, in general, on the land we need to have this discussion more often. Perhaps the only solution is the winding down of subsidies that provides cheap fuel and cheap money which equates to expensive land.