Making Farming Truly Sustainable

By Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman
niman mar11 farm1 by vicki moore.jpg

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/making-farming-truly-sustainable/1395/