Blinding Flashes of the Obvious: Three Insights about the Future of Farming

By Hal Hamilton

Joseph Racape is a retired farmer and former advisor to the French Minister for the Environment. As Joseph showed some friends and me around his village and surrounding fields, I was struck by how much history shapes what Joseph sees, from as far back as the 13th century. Joseph’s next-door neighbor, in a grand house, is a descendant of a wealthy landowner to whom all the surrounding farmers had to tithe a portion of their harvests. We walked to a large field that used to be divided into plots that became too small for tractors, and so in 1960 the French government created enabling laws for the consolidation of fields and invested in widening the lanes between fields beyond the span of horse-drawn carts. 

I don’t know whether all the changes in the French countryside have proven to be good or bad. What’s clear is that over the centuries people have made decisions to change how things around them are organized. The history of the United States is so short that we tend to assume that it moves along straight lines of “progress.” Visiting Joseph reminded me how much my own mind is inhabited by unexamined notions of inevitability.

The possibility of rearranging the enabling conditions of farming was my first, recent, blinding flash of the obvious.

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I came home and noticed in my inbox 2023 crop revenue projections for Illinois farmers, and I was stunned by the numbers. To illustrate what I noticed, I’ll describe a sample farmer. Frank Willis farms 6,000 acres of some of the best land in the world. University economists project his 2023 gross revenues from corn and soybeans at $6.6 million. You would think that Frank is rich. But he’s not. Why? Frank has two financial challenges: 1) almost all of the land that he farms is owned by someone else, and 2) he has huge expenses for fertilizer, pesticides, seeds, fuel, machinery, and other inputs.

Frank leases cropland from landowners and pays them 28 percent of what he gets for his corn: $340 out of projected $1,200 in revenues from each acre. Furthermore, for every acre of corn, Frank spends $850 on inputs, primarily fertilizer, seeds, pesticides, and operating machinery.

Frank’s actual income per acre, to pay for his management and labor, and for taking all the risks, is $8 for corn and $43 for beans. If he owned all his land, he would make a decent return, but only 14 percent of Central Illinois crop land is farmed by its owner.

What does this mean for those of us who support farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture?

We should start with compassion. It’s hard for farmers to think long-term when they’re squeezed in a short-term vise, with yield-per-acre as the dominant metric of success.

The vise that squeezes farmers has developed over decades, successfully designed to deliver vast quantities of farm commodities, not just for food and livestock feed but also for fuel. As with the French countryside, however, we could presumably develop a different design, with different markets and policies and farming patterns, if we chose and rewarded different metrics of success.

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My third insight was visual and not from farming at all but rather from marine researcher Pierre Mollo. At a Plankton Observatory on the rocky northwestern coast of France, I sat in a research lab where just-collected samples of water from the ocean were put on microscope slides and projected onto a screen. These water samples were full of life, invisible to the eye without magnification, but teaming with a colorful universe of organisms bumping against one another, eating one another, and reproducing.

Such abundance of microbial life also exists in fertile soil, where tiny organisms interact with the minerals needed for plant growth. Many innovative farmers learn that the soil microbiome can be enhanced and external inputs decreased, and we’re also learning that the healthiest, carbon rich soils are best at sustaining production through droughts.

When we agreed to visit the Plankton Observatory, I had no idea that I would be thinking about farming. It was the visual experience of plankton that reminded me, in a third blinding flash of the obvious, that future metrics of success for farming will have to include the health of many little critters we can’t see. 

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In summary, these are my three (obvious) insights:

  1. The way we organize the markets, policies, and culture that influence farming is not inevitable but rather subject to choice.
  2. The way we do this now serves primarily one goal, productivity, but makes less likely that we achieve other goals, including good lives for farmers.
  3. One of our goals for farming, now poorly achieved, will be healthy life we cannot see with our eyes, but which is nevertheless crucial for healthy soil, resilience to shocks, and the rich biodiversity of life.

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