Massachusetts Organic Farmer Julie Rawson said she’s never had much hope for any president, including the current one, to be an advocate for what is right for the soil, the environment, the people and, especially, people in the rest of the world. “They have generally shown themselves to be in the thrall of either the military, the financial institutions or the big corporations generally,” she said.
California Almond Grower Tom Rogers did not vote for President Donald Trump, but he is moving forward with a sense of hope. “I think it will be a little easier with Trump,” said Rogers. “The sense I get is he’s going to try and ease up some of the regulation and regulatory process. I’m not saying we need to be without any regulation, but over-regulation doesn’t help anyone.”
Rawson and Dave Chapman, an organic tomato grower in northern Vermont who sells his produce to stores throughout the Northeast, expressed concern about changing regulations in the National Organic Program (NOP). “In the Farm Bill, they’re proposing increasing funding for the NOP, which sounds wonderful, but it’s my personal opinion that they’re planning for the NOP to not be organic anymore,” said Chapman. “I believe we’re seeing them alter the standards, in terms of hydroponics being certified, in terms of animal welfare; this is sort of a hostile takeover and it’s been very successful.”
In July, Theo Crisantes of Wholesum Harvest (which operates in Arizona and Mexico) and board member of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (CSO) testified to the Senate Agriculture Committee, “The NOSB has drafted and considered proposals to eliminate containerized and hydroponic growing methods from organic certification … These growing methods, which have been certified by U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) since the inception of the organic program, are crucial to meeting the rising consumer demand for organic produce.” USDA has certified hydroponic and other container-grown produce as organic. However, containerized growing methods cannot legally be considered organic, because they are soil-less and thus fail to deliver any regenerative effects on the soil – a requirement of the NOP.
Like Chapman, Rawson anticipated a dismantling of the NOP and expressed concern about how that might affect her business. She also worried that USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) might be cut back. “They do very good work and have been leaders in carbon sequestration, use of cover crops, support of high tunnels, conservation efforts, etc.,” said Rawson. “If these programs get gutted there will be an impact on how farmers deal with the environment. There is a fair amount of money given out to farmers who are doing the ‘right thing’ that might go away. However, we should have hope too that so much good work is coming from state governments – and they can have great power.”
“Our agricultural policy, USDA, is so in bed with Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, and all those huge corporations that stand to benefit,” said Ridge Shinn, the CEO of a grass-fed beef company.
“The big challenge in the USDA is all the subsidies to the corn industry, which prop up the conventional meat industry. We would not feed corn to cattle except that it is ridiculously cheap because of the government subsidies for growing it. Of course, the corn growers use Monsanto’s Roundup (glyphosate) so Monsanto doesn’t want that to change. Customers can refuse to buy beef that is corn-fed, and they’re beginning to do that. Even with Trump in the White House, I do feel that customers can make a difference in agriculture by voting with their dollar,” said Shinn.
“Alternative facts” and other challenges
Since President Trump took office, his administration barred USDA scientists from discussing their points of view regarding climate change.
“We need to be talking about this; it’s the major issue of our century,” Chapman said. “The fact that the nominal leader of our country would be saying the government must not talk about it is, for me, a terrifying thing actually. I have been told there are a lot of farmers who don’t believe in climate change. I am certainly not one of them, and in my experience, the organic community does not take that position.”
Rogers’ perspective on climate change is more aligned with that of the American Farm Bureau, which essentially states that agriculture is not responsible for any increase in greenhouse gasses. “I don’t like the gag order. That solves nothing,” Rogers said. “But are we talking climate change, or are we talking religion? To me, there is very little difference with some people. They have decided the solution is X, and I have a lot of difficulty with that. I do not see how man is going to change something as dynamic as the world … My goal is to do a better job tomorrow than I did today.”
Shinn added, “It’s absolutely misguided not to listen to our scientists on climate change.” He noted that USDA NRCS has demonstrated that carefully managed rotational grazing can improve soil structure and fertility, which results in better grass and forage and protects against drought. Shinn said, “NRCS also knows that managed grazing combats climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil – but apparently under Trump, they’re no longer able to talk about that.”
Although the federal government no longer allows USDA scientists to discuss climate change or to use the terms “climate change” or “global warming,” USDA has not yet removed news archives from the web. In January, USDA’s Ag Research Service (ARS) announced the release of “Land-Potential Knowledge System” (LandPKS), a suite of smartphone apps that identifies and delivers information about specific soils. Jeff Herrick, a soil scientist with USDA in Las Cruces, New Mexico, was part of an international team that developed, tested and released the apps as part of a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development. LandPKS combines cloud computing, digital soil-mapping data, and GPS to provide information about the sustainable potential of land under current and future climate.
“Herrick and his collaborators developed LandPKS because of the unique challenges that today’s producers and land managers face in feeding a world population of 7 billion people while also protecting soil, water and other natural resources,” the news release stated.
Two paths diverged in a wood
Given the aforementioned challenge, acknowledged by USDA-ARS before the ban took effect, where is U.S. agriculture likely to go in the next 20 years? Rogers sees more indoor growing and a loss of certain crops that cannot adapt to mechanization. Rawson and Chapman see two divergent paths – bigger and worse for the environment, and smaller and more sustainable.
In the first path, vertical integration of ag enterprises continues. At press time, five multinational corporations dominated the market for seeds and fertilizer. Chapman cited Driscoll’s as a perfect example of a produce company that is expanding, controlling the growers who want to grow for them, and making exclusive deals with stores. The chain stores are also getting bigger. In 2016, Dutch company Ahold, owner of Giant and Stop & Shop grocery chains, purchased Delhaize, owner of Hannaford and Food Lion grocery chains. “One company now owns all those stores,” Chapman said. “That’s an example of where things are going in what I would call the Big Store World.”
In August, USDA’s Farm Service Agency announced a new partnership between USDA and SCORE, the nation’s largest volunteer network of expert business mentors. According to USDA, the intention is to provide resources for beginning ranchers, veterans, women, socially disadvantaged Americans and others, “providing new tools to help them both grow and thrive in agri-business.”
“Shepherding one generation to the next is our responsibility. We want to help new farmers, veterans, and people transitioning from other industries to agriculture,” said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. “They need land, equipment and access to capital, but they also need advice and guidance. That’s what SCORE is all about.”
In the second path, farmers markets, community-supported agriculture, and farmstands continue to grow in popularity as people turn to local farmers they know, enabling those farmers to make a living. “It seems to me that both of those [scenarios] are going to develop and they’re going to be almost two parallel economies,” said Chapman. “I think that it’s going to be harder and harder for any sort of a small farm to sell their food in a supermarket in 10 or 20 years, but I think there will be more and more opportunities for small farms to sell more directly to people who are looking for an alternative to what they’re getting in the supermarkets.”
Chapman said it’s possible for stores to provide leadership. In the second path, independent grocers and food co-ops will continue to champion sustainable (i.e., non-industrial) farms. Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets, the nation’s second biggest food co-op, not only supports organic and local farmers but also communicates with consumers about issues that affect the food supply via their monthly online newsletter. PCC Sound Consumer informs readers about environmental issues, labeling regulations and health concerns.
ARE YOU CONCERNED ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE AND ITS POSSIBLE EFFECTS ON YOUR OPERATION?
Ridge Shinn: “Yeah, but I also feel like we can change climate change with our operation via carbon sequestration.”
Julie Rawson: “Yes, of course, but in the larger view — its effects on all life and all agriculture. Generally, we are slightly more protected in the Northeast with our buffering trees and varied landscape.”
Tom Rogers: “The problem I have is people saying ‘The science is settled; climate change is real.’ Science is never settled. If science is settled; it’s dogma. (Beware) anytime anyone says, ‘This is it; we’ve found it.’ Look what’s happened with the climate change, people. It’s been proven time and again that they’ve taken shortcuts, taken faulty data, they’ve fudged numbers.”
Dave Chapman: “I’m concerned about climate change and its possible effects on my life and my children’s lives.”
Strengthening that sustainability path is Family Farm Action, which launched in Kansas City, Missouri, on August 11. Chaired by Lillian Salerno, former USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development under President Obama, the nonprofit organization intends to fill the progressive void in rural communities and to give voice to communities devastated by corporate consolidation. “The concentration in the market and the economic power that a few multinational corporations have over family farmers and rural America must come to an end, or the end will come to rural America as we know it,” Salerno said in a statement released by Family Farm Action.
“I am excited to see a new organization join our fight for America’s family farmers,” National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson was quoted as saying in the same press release. “We can only overcome the influence industrial agriculture has over the U.S. agriculture policies if those of us with like minds join together with one voice.”
“Industrial agricultural practices were established long before Trump,” said Shinn. “But this administration is not about to acknowledge that the system’s not working – it’s not producing healthy food; in fact our denatured food is making people sick. Likewise, this administration is allowing industry to pollute drinking water. We will have to rely on consumers and local state and government to ensure that people have access to healthy food and clean water.”
HAVE YOUR PRIMARY CONCERNS ABOUT MAINTAINING A THRIVING OPERATION SHIFTED SINCE TRUMP TOOK OFFICE?
Julie Rawson: “It has always been difficult for an American farmer to ‘make a living.’ I don’t think that that has changed under Trump.”
Tom Rogers: “No. They really haven’t. How do I improve my operation? How do I become a better steward of everything that is entrusted to me?”
Dave Chapman: “I guess my biggest concern about a thriving operation is: I’m getting older and I’m not sure what happens next. The biggest challenge for any small farmer is how to connect with people who want to eat their food. There are many more people who want to eat what I grow than I can possibly supply, but getting the food to them so they can recognize it, and pay for it, and make it that I can stay in business is a much greater challenge.”
Will the President’s actions lead agriculture toward a bright future or a dark one? Will his actions truly have the power to lead agriculture in any direction at all? Each of the farmers who shared their thoughts for this piece is cautiously optimistic. “Farmers are pretty resilient,” Rogers said. “We don’t sit around and worry about who’s in charge of what. We look at what we have to deal with and move forward.”
“I am even hopeful about conventional farmers who are working hard to consider alternatives like no-till, use of cover crops and more sustainable practices,” said Rawson.
“A lot of good government programs are still functioning,” said Shinn. “Despite all the saber-rattling at the top, there are still people doing what they need to be doing. There are people working in those agencies that have their eyes wide open and are trying to do good things.”
“My feeling is regenerative agricultural practices are our only hope,” Shinn added. “I’m very optimistic that better agriculture practices can restore soil and water – can put it all back together again. But it’s a major change. It’s about parking the tractors, getting the fossil fuel and the pesticides out of the agricultural system. If we do that, we can heal the planet very rapidly, much more rapidly than we destroyed it.”