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This is a guest blog from long-time PFI member John Gilbert who farms near Iowa Falls.
The reaction to the recent piece in the New York Times warning “Don’t let your children grow up to be farmers” brings to mind similar conditions which led to the formation of Practical Farmers of Iowa. There are few things that can be as frustrating as farming (too much rain, not enough rain, markets that won’t provide a fair return), particularly when you don’t know where to turn. Frustrations are aggravated by feelings that we’re not doing a good enough job, or that our problems are from lack of fairness. Those frustrations come through in the NYT as Bren Smith laments and grasps for solutions. In the 80’s farm crisis neither crops nor livestock paid the bills reliably, particularly because so many of us were suffering from a debt hangover from the 70’s. (A cautionary note to crop producers: conditions can and do change literally over night, to the surprise of nearly everyone.)
Prices for crops and livestock were actually not that bad at the time, but interest rates were so high it made making debt and interest payments the real bug-a-boo. Those conditions are nothing like the Long Island local food producer is encountering, but the results and frustrations are not that different. What did Practical Farmers do for those of us trying to find our ways out of the farm crisis? It provided a group of people who weren’t settling for complaining or looking for scapegoats. It provided a place to answer questions most of agriculture considered heresy. It provided the sense that we weren’t alone, but were empowered to help ourselves. It showed us how to control costs without hamstringing performance — increasing our margins. It provided opportunities for new technologies and opportunities to be vetted for everyones benefits. And eventually it provided the framework for members to create or tap markets with better prices, particularly local foods. (How long have all-Iowa meals been a staple of PFI meetings?)
It did that while being a leading advocate for soil conservation and protecting Iowa’s water. It became the model for similar groups in other states (copied but never duplicated), and it helped lead other parts of Iowa agriculture toward sustainability. (The unfortunate reality is Iowa agriculture suffered a schism, largely from the hostile takeover of hog production by industrial feeders and short sighted federal policies.)
One other area Practical Farmers has been a leader is advocating for beginning farmers. This is the area where the Times op-ed reaction should be focused. While PFI’s Savings Incentive Plan has been popular, the issue of farm business structure is often given little attention. The author’s problems, while not unique, largely are structural in the sense that the first years of any business are always the most shaky because there is little equity, there are not insignificant start up costs, and because it’s hard not to make mistakes while on a steep learning curve.
The point here is not to help Mr. Smith, but to focus on steps to help Iowans avoid similar struggles. The family is the most enduring business model, but most beginners — including Bren — are trying to go it alone. The most obvious lesson for Iowans (particularly members) who want to see beginners succeed is to lend a hand. That could mean incorporating a beginner in your operation (even unrelated), or just making opportunities available using some of your resources, or getting to know the beginners in your neighborhood to offer a hand. There need to be discussions and workshops and webinars and field days built around innovative ways to help beginners. Practical Farmers will most likely lead the way.
Transitions in farming are a big focus of our organization, as well they should be, but it’s critical that we all understand the important roles we all need to play to insure farming is a good option for Iowa children.