By Mary Berry

Thinking about economics is part of everything we are doing at The Berry Center. That is clear, I hope, in our work to improve our local agricultural economy and with our work to use the Burley Tobacco Program as a model for agricultural policy that protects farmers producing anything from timber to tomatoes in the marketplace. Maybe it is less clear in our work with the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program at St. Catharine.

The program started with Wes Jackson’s idea of an education for homecoming. Wes says that the dominant major at colleges and universities for the last fifty years has been upward mobility and now it needs to be homecoming. To make the cultural changes necessary to become home comers we must question all of the economic assumptions that we have taken for granted for a long time.

I heard a respected leader in the local food movement give a talk recently saying that young people getting into farming should expect, at some point, to be able to drive their BMW to market to sell their products. This seems to me to be bad advice and based on the ruinous economic assumptions that got us in the mess we are in. We all must have better goals than a fancy car.  His advice made me think of better advice given at our conference a little more than a year ago by my husband Steve Smith. There is so much good sense for young people here and for the rest of us, too.

What Young Farmers Need to Know

Given April 6, 2013 at St. Catharine College by Steve Smith

My farm is in Trimble County, where I ran a CSA-Community Supported Agriculture-for 15 years, 1990 to 2005. Before that my background was tobacco, beef cattle, and conventional produce. 

When I bought my grandparents farm in 1986 and was faced with how to pay for it by farming it, I began doing a lot of reading about alternative farming and marketing, but the information I needed was not to be found in the main stream farm literature. Vegetable farming was the idea that interested me most but I had been growing vegetables for years and found the conventional markets to be completely unreliable.
In the winter of 1989 I began finding articles about sustainable agriculture and organic farming. They were different. They talked about soil health, fertility, low inputs, net earnings, integrating crops with livestock, crop diversity, quality of life. They didn’t require me to buy anything. They had nothing to sell. They were mostly written by farmers.
In the spring of 1990 I started a CSA, which turned out to be the solution I was hoping for. Not only did it generate a good income, $10,000 an acre with a 60% net, but just as important it changed me, my relationship with the farm, and I began to understand that farming is a relationship between land and people.

Here are a few observations I would like to share with farmers:

  1. We have substituted fossil fuels for knowledge and now farmers are cut off from the information we need most-how to build and maintain healthy soil.
  2. Most of the information given to farmers these days is sales talk. We must stop looking for store-bought solutions and use what is free and at hand: animal manure, compost, cover crops, crop rotations, genetic diversity, seed saving, natural systems and cycles, husbandry, thrift, frugality, local economics, local communities.
  3. We must rethink the way we market our crops, adding value to them when and where we can, Forming relationships with your buyers is the simplest, easiest way to do this. By allowing your customers to get to know you through CSA’s, farmers’ markets, direct marketing, and so forth, your add value to your farm products and strengthen the local economy.
  4. If you can clear $6000 or more per acre, how many acres do your really need? Not that many. By using small scale technology, low cost and no cost techniques, there is no need to borrow a lot of money and lots of reasons not to; the most important being- if you go too deep into debt neither you nor your land will have the last say.
  5. It is not simple, the details of the farming operation need to be written down on paper, just a working set of plans that include budgets, crop rotations, seed varieties, planting dates, harvest schedules, buyers, markets and so forth, the market. The market plan will require the most work. Remember to do your marketing before you do your planting.
  6. Farmers need to know that we have very few friends in high paces. The global economy does not have our best interest at heart. Agribusiness corporations do not have our best interest at heart. We must, therefore, look to those who do: our friends and neighbors, our local communities and local economies.

What Steve doesn’t say in his piece is that he was raised on a good farm by good farmers. That he had teachers all around him. That he was born into a farming community. He and I have talked a lot about this. Our parents saw the end of solar powered agriculture that is farming with horses. Steve and I saw the end of community agriculture. We had the benefit of The Tobacco Program that gave us some economic stability while we figured out new markets and opportunities available to us.

Steve gives a little bit of history about his purchase of a farm. He doesn’t say that he paid it off at 13% interest by practicing the good economics he speaks of in his piece. This is the kind of good sense we are trying to teach at St. Catharine. At the Berry Center and with our friends all over the world we are working on a culture that will support this kind of wisdom.