A View of the Future While Standing in the Mud

By Elizabeth Reaves

Just a few weeks ago the Food Lab and some of our corporate partners were standing around in the muddied farmyard of a large Washington State dairy, with a chilly Pacific Northwest mist clinging to the hillsides and sitting low over the cows lined up for milking.

For the Food Lab team, it was our second learning journey visiting dairy farms on both sides of the boarder, a unique opportunity to contrast different systems for managing a major commodity like milk.  More importantly, it was an opportunity to see through the eyes of the farmers in each system in order to explore the relationship between economic viability and farmers’ ability to invest in sustainability.

The two brothers, whose farmyard we were standing in, were joined by their children and wives. The children, scooped up cats, shooed the dog, and ran around the barn and feed bins with the familiarity of home. Our group from a large company asked if the farmers had any questions for them. The brothers looked at the group, while their children leaned in close, “Please, trust us” they said. “We’ve been losing $100,000 a month for the past year. When you ask us for more information about how we farm, we don’t see any value, or get any financial return for meeting your goals, and then you don’t help tell our story to consumers about what we are doing to make our communities better places to live, manage our manure, take care of our cows… it is so discouraging. We know we have more to do, but we haven’t been able to buy a new tractor in the last five years, and our barns need upgrading to keep our cows healthy. We do want to handle our manure better, but first we need to meet our basic needs.”

The US system is the opposite of the Canadian system, where farmers know exactly how much to produce and what the price is for that milk. Standing in farmyards on each side of the border and asking farmers the same questions is a strikingly different experience. Canadian farmers say that they have confidence in the future and their ability to invest. Price stability makes all the difference. They can upgrade equipment and invest in efficiency, sustainability, and animal care.

In the past month, I have been part of many conversations about how to improve the sustainability of farming systems. Some of those conversations are about creating better lending products for farmers and others about carbon market pilots. NGOs talk about what practices we think companies should promote, and I can’t help lying awake at night with the sense that we are still failing farmers because we aren’t asking ourselves, “What is the underlying problem we are trying to solve?”

Across commodity systems, not just in dairy, understanding what it takes to support sustainable farming is a challenge, especially in systems where there is constant pressure from cycles of overproduction and low prices. Price volatility always leads to overproduction, and consequent low prices drive a relentless focus on ever more productivity. Farmers keep explaining that they can’t afford the risk of new ways to build soil or protect water, even though, of course, they care deeply about soil and water, and the well-being of their local communities. They’re almost forced to chase short-term goals, with larger aspirations held off to the indefinite future. A defensive determination settles in among many of those who survive.

US farm debt crept up to $416 billion in 2019, the highest it’s been since the 1980s farm crisis. Despite trade assistance payments, many farmers haven’t been able to withstand the financial pressures; farmers are filing for bankruptcy or leaving the business entirely by the thousands. Mental health and suicide rates among farmers have never been higher. Not only do we have a farming system that leads to too much nitrate running into our waterways and too much greenhouse gas going up into the atmosphere, but also we have a farming system that leads to farmers taking their own lives.

Who are the farmers who will feel able to take enough risk to sign up for a carbon market or take on more debt at a lower interest rate to invest in soil health? I imagine it will be farmers who have enough confidence in the future to invest in their farms, who don’t have to choose between patching holes in their barns or paying their electric bill. In today’s terms those farmers are either highly innovative by nature, have very niche secure markets, or of a commercial scale that makes them a good lending choice. That leaves out a whole middle.

Despite the tremendous challenges faced by US farmers, I continue to remain optimistic. More and more companies are investing in effective, farmer facing programs. Those programs include co-investment with farmers alongside technical assistance. And the best programs support farmer-led knowledge networks so that farmers can learn from each other about what works. Couple that model with some price stability and the wins will start to pile up. One such example of a farmer facing program can be found in our Small Grains in the Corn Belt project, a collaborative project with Practical Farmers of Iowa, corn-soybean farmers and food companies to improve soil health and small grain markets in the Midwest.

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