The Problem and the Opportunity
The present assumptions in agriculture are failing everywhere in the countryside, certainly but in cities as well. Rural Kentucky is in sharp decline and the rest of rural America with it. Only 16% of us live in rural places now, with less than 1% of those farming. In cities like Louisville, Kentucky, that are surrounded by fertile, well-watered farmland, there are food deserts where the rates of obesity and diabetes are skyrocketing. The same health problems exist in the countryside, where a once-thriving farm economy has been replaced by drug abuse and ill-conceived programs. In the more affluent areas there is, according to a demand study done in 2012, five times the demand for local food than there is supply.
The need to reconnect urban and rural places is possibly the most important work of our time- especially considering our need to deal with climate change and our lack of public conversation about land use in this country. Our current food system is largely based on energy-intensive inputs. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and long supply lines are responsible for at least 30% of GHG emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments. A shocking 60% of total nitrous oxide emissions, a GHG around 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is attributed to the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.
We must have a better agriculture and we can have a better agriculture if we decide to value the people who understand land use. We accept Wes Jackson’s idea of a correct “eyes to acres ratio.” Farmers must not live in a constant economic emergency. For that would be the change that changes agriculture. We know from centuries-old practices of traditional farming and the knowledge of indigenous and small-scale farmers that we can rapidly restore soil carbon content using biological methods. To do this we must ask and answer the question, what will it take for farmers to be able to afford to farm well? Cheap food policies, out-of-control production, and the false belief that there are “Too many farmers” have driven farmers off farms for decades. As a Kentucky farmer put it recently, “It is hard to make the right decisions when you are wondering who the next person will be who lives in your house.”
“At every point in our food economy, present conditions
remaining, we must expect to come to a time when demand
(for quantity or quality) going up will meet the culture coming down.”
– Wendell Berry, from the essay “Nature as Measure”
A respite from agriculture’s free fall from good husbandry and economic viability came during the years, 1941 to 2004, that the Burley Tobacco Program (or the Producer’s Program, as it came to be known) brought democracy and parity to small, diversified farmers in what was called the Burley Belt – eight states in the mid-south. The basic premise of parity pricing is the belief that the selling price of a product or produce should go up or down with the costs of the inputs used in its production. John Berry, Sr., a principal author of The Burley Tobacco program, said this about parity in a speech to congress in 1948: “The parity concept is the happiest and most fortunate thought that has visited the minds of statesmen of this country in generations. It accords with our way of life, and it gives real and tangible meaning to the philosophy of “equal opportunity.” It is a consistent American way of striving for, and approaching, parity of income without the use of direct subsidy payments by the government. It must be preserved and effectuated to the end that farmers may continue to enjoy the high standard of living and opportunity which they have had only a taste of.”
Entrepreneurial farming (farmers’ markets and CSA’s) have been a good beginning to increase farm gate revenue. They have increased access to farmers and farm products for urban people. But as the numbers of markets and CSA’s have grown in recent years, the number of farmers continue to fall, and we lose 3,000 acres of farmland a day.
To have land-conserving rural communities surrounding our cities, making our whole country safer and healthier, we must think about the economic lives of farmers. At this point we have only two options for them: they can be small and entrepreneurial or large and industrial. There is almost nothing in the middle. The Berry Center wants to put something in the middle. We see The Producer’s Program as a model program that will encourage the kind of farming that takes nature as its measure, consults the genius of place, and accepts no permanent harm to the ecosphere.
The Berry Center is committed to the formation of cooperatives that will protect farmers in the marketplace and ultimately build land-conserving communities. This program, starting in the agricultural counties of north-central Kentucky is a model for work that needs to be done all over our nation. We believe that if mechanisms are put into place to move local food, if farm production is kept in line with demand, and farm prices fair, the rural economy can heal itself.
If food is a cultural product, and we believe that it is, then we have chosen culturally correct kinds of farming to begin our program: locally produced beef and non-GMO and organic grain.
The Local Beef Initiative
Kentucky has more beef cattle than any state east of the Mississippi River. Cattle farming is the best farming left in our state. Our rolling landscape lends itself to the perennial agriculture of pastures and forage crops. However, we don’t finish beef here, but instead send our cattle to distant feedlots at weaning weight. Our local processing facility in Henry County is unable to find cattle to fill an order from a local distributor for one beef a week. There is no mechanism in place to encourage farmers, processors, or distributors to move local beef into local markets.
The Organic Grain Initiative
There is no incentive for farmers to get out of the toxic, erosive corn and soybean farming that has taken over our highly vulnerable landscape. Meanwhile, over 90% of the organic grain used as feed in this country is imported, most, coming from Eastern Europe and China. While this is a huge opportunity for local farmers, there is no organized effort to encourage farmers to change to organic production. To move from conventional production to organic production farmers must be guided and supported economically during the transition. The Berry Center’s present day iteration of the Producer’s Program will be the mechanism to move farmers toward more sustainable and more profitable farming.
The Berry Center is seeking funds to support the establishment of a present day iteration of the Producer’s Program and Co-op. It will take into consideration parity, and from the start it will protect farmers from overproduction by carefully matching supply and demand. The co-op will encourage a kind of farming that fits the farm.
We are seeking funding to specifically support:
- The development of a comprehensive business plan and organizational structure for the Producer’s Program and Co-op. The executive director and managing director of The Berry Center commit 50% of their time to the establishment and management of the Producer’s Program and Co-op until such time as the program is stable. At such time the overseeing of the Producer’s Program will be given over to the managing director. Staff will contract with consultants to provide specific expertise in the development of the business plan and organizational structure.
- Hiring a project manager for the Local Beef and Organic Grain Initiatives. The Project manager will have a thorough knowledge of farming and farmers and will be able to give on-farm advice to farmers changing from conventional to more sustainable and more profitable methods, or, know where to get needed information. They will deal directly with all levels of the supply-chain (farmers, processors, distributors/buyers, and consumers) to reach project goals.
- The establishment of the Producer’s Program Working Group to provide strategic guidance and support to the project manager. The membership of the working group will be members of the community, deeply invested in restoring a sustainable agrarian culture to Kentucky. They will represent the farm community, local government, the local independent bank, and regional meat and grain buyers and distributors. The working group will call upon individuals with specific expertise (i.e.: in legal, accounting, socially-responsible investing, marketing, etc.) as needed.
- The establishment and management of long-term contracts between farmers and distributors/buyers. Long-term contracts will provide farmers with a pathway toward a more ecologically and economically viable means of agricultural production. Contracts will encourage a farmer’s transition from conventional to organic grain production and/or grass-finished beef production. They will take farmers out of a boom and bust economy by providing a floor and a ceiling price, and they will offer farmers a premium even during the time of transition.
- Field days that connect farmers with markets and markets with farmers. Project managers and the working group will work with farmers directly and help with the planning and implementation of these field days. These events will also teach and encourage best practices in organic production specific to the north-central part of Kentucky.
We see the Producer’s Program and Co-op as a model that will address the fundamental challenges in producing local food, managing supply and demand, accessing local markets, and increasing the consumption of local products. Projects like the Local Beef Initiative and Organic Grain Initiative are pivotal to the development of a thriving local food economy that increases direct farm impact, supports locally owned local food enterprises, and ensure that dollars turn more times in the local economy. We believe that in order to operate on a large scale, we must first figure out the complexities of local food marketing initiatives, beginning here.
About The Berry Center
The Berry Center was started in 2011 to continue the agricultural work of John Berry, Sr. and his sons Wendell Berry and John Berry, Jr. John Berry, Sr. was a staunch advocate for small farmers and land conserving economies. His sons took up his work and have continued it. The Berry Center has now taken it up, and is focused on issues confronting small farming families in Kentucky and around the country. We are asking and trying to answer two of the most essential questions of our time; “What will it take for farmers to be able to afford to farm well?” and “How do we become a culture that will support good land use?” These questions are nowhere in the public discourse and yet the answers will go a long way in solving the most serious issues we now face. Our focus may shift because of need, but it will not move from what we believe to be the central issue of our time: the need for a healthy and sustainable agriculture in this country.
The Berry Center is seeking $275,000 to support the development of a comprehensive business plan and organizational structure for the Producer’s Program and Co-op. Make a contribution to support this work online or by mail.
The Berry Center
111 S. Main Street
P.O. Box 582
New Castle, KY 40050
The Berry Center
111 S. Main Street
P.O. Box 582
New Castle, KY 40050