Redefining “farmer”

Seedlings are growing in my tiny greenhouse. Seed packets are waiting for the soil in my garden to get warm. Fields are seeded or ready to be seeded. Grass is growing and the cows call loudly for the chance to eat green grass every time a gate opens or someone walks a fence line in preparation. Spring is an exciting time of the year in farm country. Every sunny day seems full of possibility for good things.

In spite of the acres and acres of crops grown across our state, we still have people who are hungry and people who live in “food deserts” or places where access to a grocery store or other source of fresh food is limited. Studies predict that in less than a half century, our ability to grow food will be insufficient to feed the world’s people.

When I look out my window at our fields and at our neighbors’ fields, I would not want to have to get by for a year on what I see grown there. The commodity crops grown by the thousands of acres around us are all dependent on processing somewhere else to make the transition from agricultural commodity to food. We ship our production somewhere far away and then buy food that travels thousands of miles back to us. I think I was in my thirties before I realized button mushrooms were supposed to be white. The ones in the local grocery store were always sort of brown. Lettuce in the produce aisle is usually at or beyond it’s “sell by” date. How can it be any different if it is grown in California and shipped across the country to a distribution center, loaded on another truck and hauled to another smaller center and then taken to the local store?

Congress is in the middle of debating the next food and farm bill. How federal dollars are spent largely determines what kind of food is available and to whom it is available. On one hand the USDA publishes a food guide to help us know what a healthy diet looks like and on the other hand defines hunger as insufficient calories. Making sure someone has enough calories to stay alive is a short-term, emergency solution to hunger. If someone is on the verge of starvation, then insuring enough calories to keep them alive is an appropriate response. Considering only caloric intake in treating malnutrition in the long run doesn’t work. Providing an abundance of cheap food, high in calories, manufactured fats, salts and refined sugars has created our new epidemic. Nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight and almost half are beyond overweight and are considered obese. Clearly our nation’s food policy needs to focus not only on access to food, but making sure everyone has access to nutritious, fresh foods.

If we are going to feed the world not only adequate calories, but food that has essential vitamins and minerals, we need to consider many options. We need to redefine who is a farmer and how we support food production and what policies are put in place to encourage production. How can we promote the production of fruits and vegetables in cities? Urban farming is growing in popularity in places where few food buying options exist. Empty lots have been turned into community gardens. Farmers markets supplied with produce grown in the middle of the city are springing up around the country. Many community garden projects involve at risk youth and classes on nutrition and food preparation. These growers need to be considered “farmers” and not some sort of hobby growers that don’t really count. Policies which encourage small scale food production are not new. During both World Wars I and II, Victory Gardens provided a surprising percentage of the fruits and vegetables consumed in this country. These backyard farming operations were promoted and encouraged by policies adopted at the federal level.

Research into small scale, intensive farming techniques needs to be encouraged and funded. Scale appropriate technology, methods and equipment will need to be developed. Ways to harvest, store and distribute food close to the production site will be needed. These policies and practices can be used around the world, in rural communities as well as in cities.

No, small scale, local production may not feed everyone in the world. It is obvious, however, that the way we currently grow and distribute food does not feed everyone and many things will need to change when there are many more mouths to feed. It will take more than producing more bushels to the acres. It will take policy and attitude changes. Most of all it will take many kinds of agriculture and many farmers, even those who grow only on a few acres.

If we are serious about making sure everyone has good food to eat, we cannot all programs from our budget except for those that benefit production of a few commodity crops. We cannot ignore the potential of really small farms in unconventional places. Let Congress know that these programs are important to feeding the world, even in farm country.