A Sustainable Future?
by Beth Waterhouse

The story of Midwest farm life is reflected in the evolution of its farmhouses, many built in the 1800’s, some surviving into the twenty-first century. Who can say whether the social and economic factors that brought these homes to the vast prairies will ever again welcome a single home on 160 acres? Certainly the current structure of agriculture puts significant pressure on that smallness, yet a continuing movement for "sustainable agriculture" seeks to restore a place for it.

Farming Then and Now

In the 1800s each farmer grew enough food each year to feed three to five people. By 1995, each farmer was feeding 128 people per year. In the 1800s, 90 percent of the population lived on farms; today it is around one percent. Over the same period, farm size has increased, and though the average farm in 1995 was just 469 acres, 20 percent of all farms were over 500 acres.1 And the trend has continued to accelerate.

One by one, farmers have retired or given up farming. Outside investors or neighbors have bought out those vacated farms. Homesteads now sit abandoned. Farmers of the larger tracts are faced with tearing down these old houses and plowing across their yards. Occasionally the homestead’s windbreak is left, testament to the family that once lived on this acreage and now remains as a ridge of shade inside an expanse of corn or soybeans.

Aldo Leopold, writing in the 1920s - 1940s, was perhaps one of the first voices calling for a different approach to agriculture. In his essay, The Land Ethic, he writes,

"Quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."2

Leopold noted in another essay, that modern agriculture was were tearing up soil, increasing the yield of the soil, and once again changing the face of the prairie, faster than ecosystems could keep up.

In 1970s, organic farming was in its infancy. The Rodale Institute had been publishing a magazine called Organic Gardening, but they were now beginning to look beyond the garden. Organic management systems originally helped cut costs of modern soil "inputs," yet early leaders were also in touch with the environment in a deeper way.

They believed in themselves, their labor, and the value of their product. Meanwhile consumers were beginning to seek out organic foods for some of the same reasons that farmers sought out organic farming practices.3

Defying Definition — Sustainable Agriculture

Where does the term "sustainable agriculture come from, and what does it mean? In 1972, one of the first uses of the word sustainable in an environmental context appeared in the British Journal, Ecologist. In a special issue called A Blueprint for Survival, it stated, "the principal defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable…We can be certain… that sooner or later it will end…"

Dana Jackson, co-founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, was part of an early group of leaders seeking to define alternatives in energy and farm practices. Jackson remembers people speaking of permanent agriculture (farming that did not destroy the soil, water, or people) and regenerative agriculture (farming that helped restore the land).

In the Upper Midwest, new farm and land management organizations began forming in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in part as a response to the farm crisis of 1982, and in part because of the environmental ethic that was rising. Opinions differed greatly about the key elements of "sustainability."

Some believed it meant saving the soil from chemical pollution or erosion. Others thought it meant keeping the farmer on the land through higher prices and parity. One definition held that sustainable agriculture is farming that does not erode its own base of soil, water, farmers, or children willing to farm.

Most agree, however, that sustainable agriculture encompasses–

  • bio-diversity in the soil
  • farmers dispersed on the land with the option of smaller farms
  • meat and produce grown with personal care and attention
  • fair markets for crops and animals
  • local surface or groundwater quality
  • watersheds that are not contaminated by farm runoff

Because of these differing points of view, the phrase sustainable agriculture has defied formal definition and still does. Whatever definition current leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement adopt, it is clear that they do not mean "sustaining" agriculture in its current bigger-is-better form.

New Pressures on Farming:

The 160-acre farmstead may not be completely a thing of the past, but most pressures in the countryside seek to destroy it. Contract farming is growing rapidly as farmers, hoping for a degree of economic security, increasingly agree to contracts with meatpackers to produce beef, pork, and chicken. Agribusiness buys from the farmer wholesale and sells back to the farmer at retail. Markets enlarge and globalize. Farm business mergers create huge concentrations of control over specific markets. In all this, there continues an illusion of agricultural efficiency that may now be reaching its limits (though the limits of the earth under us are still seldom incorporated in the pricing of food in America).

And there are other pressures. Many European nations and Japan are declaring that genetically modified organisms will not be sold in their markets. Although it is complex and expensive, farmers are beginning to imagine a dual-track of marketing that will allow them to identify the genetically modified crops. Some say that genetic modification is simply the laboratory doing faster what nature has always done. But some American eaters, along with the Europeans and Japanese, are wondering whether they want to continue to be part of the experiment.

We may never see real rejuvenation of the rural countryside, the re-building of homes on 160 or 300 acre parcels, and more common farming of vegetables or meat intended for local residents to eat. For now, farming is still a major activity on the expanse of Midwest prairie that held the houses and fostered the lifestyles explored in Death of the Dream. Although vast areas now seem quite literally empty, those farmers that stay in the countryside must show great creativity.

Creative options now include "community supported agriculture" where urban eaters buy shares of a farmer’s take, usually of vegetables, and "congregationally supported agriculture" where church members provide markets for freshly raised meats, homemade cheeses, or homegrown eggs.

Slowly, eater by eater, we may take back the system of farming in the Midwest, claiming the soil as nature’s gift and re-claiming our connection to our own food supply. It will not be easy. The percentage of Americans now farming has dropped about as low as it can go. The forces that vacated the countryside continue today, yet rays of hope shine across the kitchen tables of many who are thinking seriously about food quality and the way we eat. For quality food, we need farmers on the land.

1 Economic Research Service, USDA, Washington, DC
2 Aldo Leopold, essay, The Land Ethic
3 Conversation with Carmen Fernholz, organic farmer, Madison, Minnesota

Death of the Dream