Making Farming Truly Sustainable

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Photo by VickiMoore/FlickrCC


When the two of us talk about transforming agriculture into a more environmentally sustainable and humane, less industrialized system, we are often confronted with questions about how realistic and feasible that is.

In particular, many people express doubts about whether there are enough people willing to work the farms we envision. We reply that we believe that if consumers continue to show greater willingness to seek out and buy food from traditional (non-industrialized) farms, and if the government redirects some of its resources away from agribusiness and toward traditional farms, the prospect becomes much more doable.

The intellectual challenge implicit in traditional farming makes it a much more appealing profession.

We also believe that the industrialization of farming is one of the main reasons that fewer of America's best and brightest have been attracted to the field in recent decades. The intellectual challenge and the direct connection to nature implicit in traditional farming make it a much more appealing profession.

Traditional farming is also more doable than industrial agriculture for new farmers because it requires little start-up capital. The new Census of Agriculture, recently released by the Agriculture Department, bears this out. It shows that the total number of U.S. farms actually increased by four percent from 2002 to 2007.

The fastest growth in farming has been in small, diversified, and organic farms that are not heavily capitalized. Many of these new farmers are women (whose ranks have risen by 30 percent since the last census) and non-white farmers.

All of this is good news for the farming's future. However, the census also reinforces the argument that government policy must urgently address the disappearing middle--those medium-sized farms with full-time, professional farmers--whose numbers continue to dwindle.

These people collectively hold the nation's knowledge of how to farm without chemicals, drugs, or expensive machinery. Government subsidies for agriculture should be geared toward making farming a viable full-time profession. Until it does, we will not have a truly sustainable food system.

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Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are ranchers in Northern California. Nicolette is also an attorney and writer, and Bill is the founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. More

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are owners and operators of BN RANCH, a seaside ranch in Bolinas, California, where they raise their son Miles, grass-fed cattle, heritage turkeys, and goats. They were featured in an August 2009 cover story in TIME about the crisis in America's food system.

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.

Bill is a cattle rancher and founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. He was a member of Pew's National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released recommendations for reform of the nation's livestock industry in April 2008. Niman has been named "Food Artisan of the Year" by Bon Appetit and has been called the "Master of Meat" by Wine Spectator, the "Guru of Happy Cows" by the Los Angeles Times, "a pioneer of the good meat movement" by the New York Times, "the Steve Jobs of Meat" by Men's Journal, and a "Pork Pioneer" by Food & Wine. The Southern Foodways Alliance named him its Scholar in Residence for 2009, stating that he was "this country's most provocative and persistent champion of sustainably and humanely raised livestock." Vanity Fair magazine has featured him in its "Green Issue," and Plenty magazine selected him as among the nation's five leading "green entrepreneurs." He has been honored with the Glynwood Harvest Good Neighbor Award. Bill co-authored The Niman Ranch Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which was selected as one of the year's best cookbooks by the New York Times, Newsweek, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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