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Ask a farmer

Carmen Black's picture
Farmers on farm

Farmers vs. environmentalists. It’s a common narrative that rears its head again and again in news, opinion and analysis, most recently in this piece by Dan Charles for National Public Radio (NPR). The title reads, "Farmers Fight Environmental Regulations." The imposed conflict is right there in the title.

As a small farmer from Iowa, I’m standing up alongside my fellow food-growers, livestock-raisers and land-tenders to challenge this narrative and say, no, not all farmers.

Who pollutes & who profits?

Farmers are stewards of the land. We are committed to the health and well-being of the soil and water because we depend on it for our livelihoods. So a “farmers vs. the environment” or “farmers vs. regulation” frame doesn’t pass this simple logic test.

What we really struggle with is remaining financially soluble in a system where food prices are kept artificially low — and those who profit the most in the food system are the agrichemical companies selling seeds and pesticides, and promoting the industrial growing practices that make using one impossible without the other.

Although this system has allowed some farmers to grow their businesses and stay on the farm, it’s driven up the use of chemicals, and has also contributed to the drastic decline in family farms since the farm crisis of the 1980s. Farm and ranch families now comprise just two percent of the U.S. population, and the average age of farmers is 58.3 years.

This particular article from NPR discusses water pollution, and the havoc that farmers are wreaking on streams and rivers across the country with fertilizer and manure runoff. I think most farmers would agree that erosion and runoff are major problems, and definitely don’t want to see the inputs they pay so much money for, or their fertile topsoil, washing away.

However, even with the best intentions it can be costly and time consuming to adopt new farming practices, especially if they require new or different equipment. And current policies provide little support for farmers to make these shifts.

Solutions that (could) work

Farming is a high risk business. Instead of being demonized for doing things that farmers feel they must in order to keep farming — such as farming lower quality land or removing their waterways to increase their acreage and yield — farmers need to be encouraged and incentivized to change these practices.

From the NPR article, it seems that there are two options for decreasing pollution in agriculture: strict regulation or cooperative, voluntary programs where the farmer is left shouldering the cost of experimental techniques. This is a false choice. There are several great examples of programs that utilize cost-sharing or incentives for adopting practices that are proven to be effective for implementing cover cropping and other conservation practices.  

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) through the Farm Service Agency is one such program, through which farmers sign 10-15 year contracts to take highly erodible or otherwise vulnerable land out of production and employ conservation practices. The program helps farmers reduce soil erosion, improve water and air quality and increase wildlife habitat and populations.

Success stories are numerous across the country. Since its inception in 1985, CRP has helped prevent more than eight billion tons of soil from eroding, and protected more than 170,000 stream miles with riparian and grass buffers.

More voices & perspectives, please

So often in this false dichotomy of “farmers vs. environmentalists,” journalists will cherry-pick spokespeople that fit the story of conflict. They’ll hear from one representative from each “side” without looking at or speaking with other groups that may have different, more nuanced perspectives.

Many farm organizations across the country are working to improve farmers’ conservation practices. The Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), for example, is a farmer membership group with a mission to “strengthen farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information sharing.”

One of PFI farmers' priority areas right now is how to affordably and effectively utilize cover crops on our farms. They’ve launched a “don’t farm naked — use cover crops” campaign, and include practical learning opportunities about cover crops in all of their educational forums. As a PFI farmer cooperator, I’m running an on-farm research trial this year about the impact of grazing cover crops on my fall broccoli yields.

Similarly, Iowa Farmers’ Union (IFU) is a group of farmers that lobbies not against regulation, but for more sensible policies that helps farmers. At IFU’s lobby day this year, the topics we focused on were: restoring water quality, promoting family livestock farms, growing local food systems and protecting farms from pesticide drift.

Talk to farmers about farming policy!

One of the most important tactics for dismantling this harmful “farmers vs. environmentalists” narrative is conversation.

As stated above, farmers aren’t all in one camp and environmentalists aren’t all in the other. Here I am, a living, breathing farmer and environmentalist, and I’m a voice for farmers in my work here with PAN.

In states like Iowa, where farming is a major industry — your family, friends, neighbors are farmers — the least strategic side to take if you want a win for conservation is on the opposite side of farmers. Again, we are stewards of the land. We want to protect it.

We just need some support in doing so, and the first step is to engage in this ongoing dialogue.

Carmen Black
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Karin's picture
Karin /
<p>Carmen, please stop exploiting animals and stick to crop farming. All animals value theirs lives, just like we do and we&nbsp;as a species have no right to use others for profit.</p> <p>People are beginning to realize the evils of animal farming. Millions of people cannot and will not support industries that exploit other sentient beings. <em>​ </em>​I fully support helping farmers to return to clean, pesticide free, organic farming but will never support animal farming. It is the rape, exploitation and killing of others and supports violence towards animals.</p>
emmicue's picture
emmicue /
<p>I believe that certain professions are "callings": doctor/nurse, teacher, artist/musician, religious leader/minister/priest, and farmer. Each calling requires a combination of certain talents with certain physical attributes, and mandates a strong desire for the pursuit of the calling. All three must be present. The focus is living that life, doing the things that are part of it, being immersed in doing it well. A calling certainly requires you somehow to make a living at it, and fate may bring you wild acclaim and riches, or leave you just getting along, but that's not your primary concern. You just want to BE that person, walk that road.</p> <p>If this isn't how you feel about farming, you are not a farmer. And if, as is too often the case, you inherited the farm but not the vocation, and just want to make some money with what you already own, you are an agribusiness person. They are some of the most dangerous humans on the planet. They see agriculture as a factory-like process, and incorporate whatever means they can find to increase profits from that process. Monsanto, Bayer, and all the rest depend on these people to be what they call "pioneers in agricultural development:" the first to adopt artificial fertilizer, the first to use poorly-tested insecticides, the first to tear out hedgerows and windbreaks, the first to use herbicides as a matter of course, the first to hire planes and helicopters to drench crops with pesticides, the first to adopt GMO seeds. They are the owners of CAFs. They operate giant automated dairy farms. They use antibiotics on every animal, every day, to prevent the infection that those miserable conditions would invariably produce. They think of soil as the stuff that plants can anchor their roots in that holds water, synonymous with "dirt." They are the ones who fight tooth and nail to be allowed to pollute waterways because they have so much waste they can't prevent runoff. Even with the current immigration imbroglio, they demand to be able to get cheap foreign labor -- frequently illegal -- to work in the fields and be exposed to the poisons sprayed there without any interest in those workers' futures. What they do to make money -- cut corners, deliberately risk the health of workers and consumers, break the law if they think they can get away with it, and hitch their wagons to chemical companies -- is not farming.</p> <p>Real farmers love the land. They see the soil as a living thing, to be nurtured, conserved, and enriched. They see animals as fellow creatures, not things to be manipulated. Every year, they are awed by the miracle of growth: its wonders never grow stale. They feel part of the cycle of birth, growth, flowering, death and renewal that is enacted at a hundred different speeds all around them. They make a living, sometimes a good living, in the process, but the money is not what their lives are about. It's the calling.</p> <p>It's time for genuine farmers to stand up and say what they value, and use their personal and political wills to reclaim their calling from the business "professionals" who claim to be farmers but are not, by any stretch of the imagination. Until that happens, agribusiness will go on bring called "farming," and "farmers vs. environmentalists" will be an accurate portrayal of a vital conflict.</p>
Brad Wilson's picture
Brad Wilson /
<p>During the 1990s Loni Kemp suggested 4 levels of action, increasingly strict: voluntary, incentives, removal of barriers, and regulations. &nbsp;The idea was to go stronger as needed. &nbsp;To this I would add another major category, market mangement (of farm prices and supplies), as in the original farm bill. This fixed the economic problem where farm prices and supplies don't self correct in deregulated 'free' markets. &nbsp;These programs, ie. price floors, were reduced (1953-1995) and eliminated (1996-2018), however. &nbsp;A major impact was the subsidization of CAFOs with below cost corn and soybeans, (almost every year, 1981-2006, and again in recent years, and projected ahead 10 years). &nbsp;In this way, most farmers lost livestock with 4 CAFO corps owning 2/3 of US hogs and etc. &nbsp;Without livestock, farmers lost the main economic foundation for livestock crops like alfalfa, clover and grass, plus small feedgrain nurse crops. &nbsp;This took away sustainable crop rotations, thus contributing greatly to environmental damage. &nbsp;There are 2 proposals to fix this, NFU's Market Driven Inventory System, and the Food from Family Farms Act of the National Family Farm Coalition. &nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>
Carmen Black's picture
Carmen Black
Carmen Black is a beginning vegetable and sheep farmer from Solon, Iowa, and joined PAN as a contract organizer in the fall of 2016. She started organizing around food and farming issues as a college student, and continued working with college students throughout the Midwest and South as an organizer for the Real Food Challenge. She is now farming in her hometown, and organizing with fellow farmers and Iowans with PAN.