Supporting Family Farms

I live in what is called the Driftless Region of Wisconsin, a strange geographic anomaly that was bypassed by the glaciers that once covered the rest of North America. It is a rough land of ridges and valleys, rolling hills and thick forests. It is not an area conducive to large-scale industrial farming and this is why a number of Amish families moved here in the 70s, to find small farms which were not about to be bought out by corporations or which had already been ruined.

This area also attracted many "back to the land" people, some of whom became organic farmers. Small family farms, some conventional, some organic dotted the picture postcard perfect landscape of white farmhouses, red barns and happy cows grazing along ridges and river bottoms. This area soon became home to the largest concentration of organic farms outside California. It is home to Organic Valley, a major job provider in this otherwise impoverished area, the poorest county in Wisconsin.

Farming is hard work – physically, mentally, emotionally. A friend told me the other day of her hunt through the county looking for cabbages. Part of her crop had been wiped out by the recent floods. She makes her living by making sauerkraut (it’s wonderful!) and she had bought a neighbor’s cabbages and made a batch – but his variety was one she wasn’t familiar with and her stock failed. This is her sole source of income.

Even when things go well – when cows don’t get mastitis, when sheep stay they’re put, when frosts stay away, when there’s not too much snow (or too little) – farming is back-breaking, grinding work. It is also challenging, thrilling, satisfying and awe-inspiring. But it is hard and no one gets rich on a small family farm.

So when I look at the series of hits I see on this small but vitally important farming community, I get worried. And this summer into fall has seen one hit after another.

First is NAIS, the National Animal Identification Scheme, brainchild of the US Dept. of Agriculture and seemingly designed to close down small farms. Not only is it a potential trial run for the identity-tracking of people, but it is created to put the most amount of bureaucratic paperwork on owners of small flocks and herds.

Then came the possibility of our county’s first factory-sized pig farm. The community sprang to action, asking for more information and more time but the machinations of vested interests and fear pushed the possibility of such an environmental and ethical horror to find a home here.

Next were the floods: when one lives in an area of ridges and valleys, one can be sure that the rivers run along the valleys and that that is where the best farmland is to be found. There are many dams in this area – but we also know that thoughtless damming of rivers can cause more problems than they solve, not least the spectacle of farmers and homesteaders living next to stressed dams wondering whether it is safe to remain. This area got hit pretty badly by the floods and many of our local family farms were hit the worst.

The latest hit has been the declaration by our local coal-fired gas plant in Genoa, right on the Mississippi, that it needs a new site to bury its coal ash and – hello! – you five families need to leave your farms as this is the site we’ve picked. One can only guess at the shock and horror experienced by these farmers, some of whom have lived on their farms for generations, to be told that their land has been chosen for a landfill. And what about nearby farms, some of which are organic farms with sensitive certification issues. We all know how many lies have been told about clean drinking water and soil.

Do these sound like NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) issues to you? Sure – the coal ash needs to be stored somewhere and factory farms … nope, sorry, not going there. I eat only organic meat and see no need to torture animals for food. Not a NIMBY issue – the things just shouldn’t exist at all.

However I do use electricity – my home is not off the grid. And until we as individuals and as a society find creative ways to generate enough clean energy for all, we will need to deal with the mess our power utilities produce. But does that give them the right to throw people off their property and to ruin the landscape for everyone? I refuse to believeĀ  that there aren’t better solutions, right now and not in the clean energy future.

So I write this to let you know about what is happening here and to say to each and every one of you – it is happening everywhere. We all want organic food for our families and it has to come from somewhere. These farms are delicate – a few hits and they disappear. Farms have gone under here.

The flooding is a local thing – but weather disasters happen everywhere and are possibly more severe now in many parts of the globe due to deforestation, overcrowding, soil erosion and other factors. It can threaten organic farms. And if, on top of that, farmers are expected to comply with bureaucratic excesses which benefit no one but big corporations and they also have to deal with whatever other environmental or economic horrors life throws at them, it will become too much. Farms close. And a beautiful piece of land which people cared for could be lost.

I write this to urge all of you who care about the earth and about the quality of life of not just our families but generations to come to find ways to support local family farms. Join CSAs. Urge your co-op to favor locally-produced food, even if it’s not quite ‘organic’. Keep an eye on zoning laws and state and federal (or national for those of you in other parts of the world) regulations that make life harder for organic and small family farms.

This is our food, our air, our soil, our water – do what you can to support local family farms!

Posted on October 11, 2007 in Children and Society

  • Tony says:

    Donna – Amen!!
    We live in Monticello, MN and are a member of Organic Valley CSA. We were heart broken when we heard of the damage the floods did to their crops. Although it is difficult to see our weekly shares dwindle instead of increase right at the time of prime harvest, we must share the pain for all of the reasons you state above. Yes, our food costs are already higher than most, and are now going higher because we will need to purchase food we had not anticipated; but this is a small price to pay when weighed against the larger impact should of our local farmers be forced to shut down completely.
    Thanks again for your insightful post.
    Homeschooling Dad

  • donna simmons says:

    Thanks, Tony. I got lots of feedback sent directly tome about this blog. If anyone wishes to share any innovative or particularly successful strategies they know of to support local farms, please don’t hesitate to share here!

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