Hospice in the time of COVID

By Elizabeth Reaves

In the context of COVID, I am finding the tension between current reality and systems transformation to be paralyzing and I came to the concept of hospice. If we let go, what will be there to hold everyone while we bounce forward, or build back better? If resilience is the ability to withstand shock and bounce back, what is it we want to bounce back to, and what do we want to bounce forward from?

Take the pork industry. Many people rejoice at the collapse of industrial pork production. Our heads are filled with images of immigrants shoulder to shoulder, working long shifts, doing a dangerous job slaughtering thousands of animals a day coupled with a view of giant manure slurries and liquid lagoons, hogs crowded together in pens or cramped into gestation crates. But, that view is not exactly how it is. The NY Times article on the Smithfield plant in South Dakota tells a different story of immigrant workers very loyal to their fairly well paid jobs, supporting families back in their home countries, putting children through college, and becoming first time home owners. Pork producers are stringently regulated around their use and management of manure, some better than others. Morbidity and antibiotic use are improving in the husbandry of growing pigs, and many farmers use hogs and hog barns as a tool to bring back multiple generations to the farm, creating an asset they can get a loan against to rent or buy more farmland for daughters and sons wanting to return to the farm.  If the pork industry were to change to something that we might imagine as more sustainable, where hogs are part of an integrated livestock system, with cover crops and diverse rotations, manure being cycled back into the system as fertilizer (this is already happening through our small grains work with PFI), what happens to the pork producers and the slaughterhouse workers as that transition takes place?

My fear, at least on the farming side, is that this leads to more bankruptcy, fewer of the next generation seeing an opportunity in farming, or losing the farming assets they hoped to inherit, and more farm consolidation and an even less resilient food system.  If we use the concept of hospice, we need a caring system that can support such a transition.

The same with all the “head-scratching” around corn. Farmers are on track to plant as much as 97 million acres – about 4 million more than USDA predicted because of the collapse of corn markets (livestock feed and ethanol) and sinking corn prices.

“There’s a bit of head-scratching going on out there,” said Nathan Fields, vice president for production and sustainability at the National Corn Growers Association, a trade group told GreenWire. “Everybody was surprised by the 97 million acres.”

Regenerative agriculture hero Gab Brown’s recent blog post is titled: “So, do you really want to plant corn?” Scrolling down through the comments under Gabe’s blog, Loren Swanson writes, “What options do we have? No other markets here in North Central, Kansas.”

Farmers do things for good reasons. They don’t have markets for alternative crops and crop insurance doesn’t reward changing production practices. When markets and policy do not align on incentives or align on the wrong incentives, we continue on down the same road. In places like the corn-belt, infrastructure for anything other than corn and soybean is a middle scale problem. Niche markets exist for artisan grains, early adopter farmers who are already diversified with livestock have ways to feed crops other than what they might not have a market for, and for big companies who buy a lot of oats or other small grains shifting demand from elsewhere pulls a market for a rotation crop from a place where it is also needed.  Sustainable Food Lab has been tackling this market challenge with the feed and food industry, but the collapse of the ethanol and livestock markets makes our job even more challenging in the short term as corn is now cheaper than ever and substitution with an oat or other small grain becomes even less cost competitive than before.

Donella Meadows instructs us to dance with the uncertainty of change (Donella Meadows, Dancing with systems). To use the hospice metaphor again we need to sit at the bedside of farming to ask for forgiveness and start a reconciliation process around the damage we do to each other, for good reasons that don’t always add up to good.  We can keep feeding this loved one, our farming system, with a short-term stimulus that extends it’s life just a little bit longer, or we can hold it’s hand for a caring transition, giving farmers a living wage and tapping their problem solver brains to begin the climb to ‘build back, not better, but healthier.’

If there is one thing we shouldn’t let go of and invest more in, it is the people who are building networks of farmers across our farming systems. This year the Food Lab created a Cover Crop Leadership Lab for specialists who work with farmers to adopt cover crops and other soil health related practices. This group of 20 individuals from across the US Midwest (OH, PA, IN, IA, IL, MN, SD, ND, KS, NE) is rich with creativity. They are not just creating spaces for farmers to learn from one another, but they are creating spaces where farmers are invited to be problem solvers. One of our participants described what normally happens: “We fail farmers when we just tell them things.”

This group is designing programs and events to reach middle adopters that include often-forgotten decision makers like spouses and women landowners. They are cleverly tying soil health to everyday decision making that farmers have to deal with, such as programs on crop insurance, manure management, and on-farm safety training. They are using faith communities, lenders, and farm equipment dealers to attract and deliver the same message in different ways. They want to find markets for crop diversification, leverage supply chain programs, and bring more stability to the commodity systems so that farmers can invest in the long-term.

In sustainability work, investment in services or input packages can be an easier sell than investment in people and networks. It takes a lot of faith in farmers and the people who support them. Like everything else, supporting farmer advisors to support farmers is not a silver bullet, but among all our projects with corporate and NGO leaders, this one gives me the most hope because it banks on the wisdom of people in the fields.

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