Reality check: We need large farms

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America needs 100 million new farmers, says upstate New York small farmer Sharon Astyk. And every American should start growing their own food, she recently told a Voice of America reporter.

Astyk’s voice is part of the growing clamor calling for an end to the current U.S. agricultural system, specifically large farms. She is the co-author, with Aaron Newton, of a new book, A Nation of Farmers, that champions small-scale farming as an answer to current environmental and economic problems.

“Small-scale agriculture is the norm in most of the world,” she said in the July 21 broadcast report. Her book argues that we need to make “self-provisioning, once the most ordinary of human activities, central to our lives.”

I hear and read this Michael Pollan-esque philosophy with increasing frequency these days. And I don’t disagree that people could benefit from knowing more about where their food comes from, or from more small farms, or urban garden plots, or rooftop gardens, or community supported agriculture ventures.

But it’s unrealistic to believe that 10-acre plots will feed this nation, or that 100 million people even can grow their own food. Or have the time to do so. Or want to.

Nine years ago, Farm and Dairy reader Dave Cover sent me a letter that made me think, and that has been the foundation for many of my public presentations. Dave wrote, “…this wonderful productivity of American agriculture is the very basis of our standard of living. No longer do we have to scratch an existence out of the ground, and, because of the freedom from want, we can all concentrate on becoming whatever we wish.”

Many folks don’t want to farm. Farming is hard work. It’s dirty, dangerous, sometimes bloody, sometimes gory. Typically, you work where you live, so you can’t escape to the office. It’s not 9-5, it’s not Monday through Friday. It’s tough, it’s frustrating, and it rains when you have hay down and doesn’t rain when you have seeds in the ground.

Most folks are better suited to work in teaching or nursing or music or physics or accounting or whatever matches their own skills. That’s their passion. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs revolutionized our world because they didn’t have to scratch an existence out of the ground.

It’s presumptuous to proclaim everyone should grow their own food because it ain’t gonna happen.

We need farms that produce commodity products. We need farms that can use economies of scale to invest in modern equipment and technology. We need farms large enough to support a multi-generation family.

There is a common ground, however, between the nouveau farming proponents and the conventional agricultural community. Both agree that agricultural work is underappreciated, and needs to be valued by more Americans.

Farming doesn’t need to be just small or large, just organic or conventional, just black or white. There’s room at the table for all.

But unless we face the agricultural realities, there might not be any food on that table.

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

One Comment

  1. Jared says:

    I agree with you. Yes, people can benefit from small farms, but we also shouldn’t get rid of large farms. We need small, medium and large-sized farms to feed ourselves and the world. I have read some small farm books from Back 40 Books and don’t have any problem with these farms. The one thing I like about Farm Science Review is they have the Small Farm Center. Other farm shows don’t have one, unfortunately.

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