Sarah K Mock’s exploration of the US farming system starts with the country’s fascination with the “small family farm”; plucky producers, growing wholesome food and looking after the land. Her book takes us beyond the primary-colours of the childhood book we hold in our mind to a reality of farming that is very different.
The careful research challenges the idea provided by The Food Movement, that consumers can support small family farms and encourage the transition to a more environmentally friendly production model through buying direct.
Despite our mental models, Ms. Mock points out that farmers are, taken as a group, a very wealthy group of business owners: “Farmers and ranchers have two separate businesses… The one most often focused on is a farm production business… But the second business is all about real estate”. The P&L of their operating businesses involve razor-thin margins and are supported by huge state subsidies. Some of these are conspicuous (price support, crop insurance) some less so (“meekly enforced regulations”, training, loans).
She encourages us to ask ourselves – would we support this in any other sector?
This tax-payer backed support is given despite the fact that the average farmer is a millionaire, balance sheet rich because of their land ownership. She encourages us to ask ourselves, would we support this in any other sector?
Within this subsidy regime, large-scale production of commodity crops pays well, one of the reasons that much of American agriculture is locked into the soy/corn rotation along with practices that damage the soil and ecosystem. “Soil formation… the water cycle, nutrient cycles, biodiversity – those things are not priced into the farm economy”.
Ms. Mock also highlights that the need to keep costs low often leads to sharp or even abusive labour practices – reliance on low-paid, volunteer, and/or vulnerable immigrant labour to do grueling work, often with few rights. She draws on her own first-hand experience of this even in the organic “farmers market” operations we think of as being the epitome of Good Food production.
The implication of these tiny operating margins and high land costs is that entering farming, or transitioning to a diversified or eco-friendly model, requires another source of wealth such as a second income or pre-existing assets. “If farmland is both a high-value investment vehicle, a lucrative tax shelter, and a desirable hobby, what chance do young agrarians have when they plan to use the land primarily for its least lucrative purpose – actually growing crops?”.
The author’s conclusion is to throw down the gauntlet to the entire foundations of the mainstream US farming model. It is a challenge that would probably stand in many – most – parts of the world.
To ensure fair working practices and resilient farming systems; to produce food that’s good for us and the environment; to diversify farming & the recipients of the financial benefits it could produce; to include more women and people of colour – for all of these reasons Sarah Mock lays out a case for a much more collective, collaborative and cooperative model of agriculture.
Sarah Mock lays out a case for a much more collective, collaborative and cooperative model of agriculture.
This book is a great read, a truly thought-provoking look at the underlying operating system of agriculture. The author asks deeply uncomfortable questions, and the insights do not make for warm and fuzzy reflections about our sector.
Reading this book from the other side of the Atlantic, it’s clear the specifics might be different from country to country, or farm to farm, but the overall picture is strikingly similar. The inevitable #NotAll arguments (many farms do great work for the environment, treat workers admirably, etc) should not allow us to look away from the difficult picture as a whole. Holding the mirror up to our farming industry is important. We have to ask ourselves whether we can do better.