RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Profits and Sustainable Farming

In September, I came home from the FarmAid meeting, this year in Chicago, feeling that my sustainable agriculture bucket list had been completed. It seemed like everything I’ve worked for in the area of getting local food to local people is being accomplished. Sustainable agriculture, you might remember, is usually defined as agriculture where the inputs like fertilizer and seed come from the local community, production is used by the local community and the farm is profitable.

In Chicago, on tours arranged by the FarmAid folks, I had visited three urban farms. And, on the tours, I had discovered that folks are growing vegetables on vacant lots and distributing them to their neighbors. Perhaps most important, there’s a renewed focus on training the next generation of farmers.

Utopia! Food security for all!

My husband was delighted to hear the news. Now, he thought, we can begin living like so-called “normal” bucket listers and do stuff like writing down all the bird species we see. Or visit the capitals of every state. Or collect salt shakers and old-fashioned telephones. Just like other folks.

Then, I processed what I had seen in Chicago. One farm was on a couple of vacant lots in a nondescript neighborhood. Offices in an old house, storage in tractor trailers. To make their land fertile, they were composting scraps from restaurants. They raised food for the neighborhood and for WIC moms. Security was challenging, but they had gotten around the problem of veggie thefts with high fences and clever signage. The place had become popular with after-school groups, scout troops and the like and their art projects were scattered about. They were incorporated as a not-for-profit.

The second farm, maintained by the Chicago Botanic Garden, was built on the former site of high-rise public housing. The Garden had created large raised beds, each about 3 feet high, each farmed by a different person. To get a spot, a new farmer had to create a business plan and take some training. The young entrepreneurs were raising flowers for florists in one, and veggies for the farmers’ market in another. One fellow explained that he had learned to farm after being incarcerated and stuck with it because he found that a lot of good-looking women shop at the farmers’ market. Fair enough!

Another urban farm, created by Milwaukee-based Growing Power, was housed in an old factory or warehouse and parking lot. To clean the place up, they had used abandoned tires and other trash to build raised beds. Inside the building, Growing Power had pools of perch, and pumped the fishy water through hydroponic beds of lettuce and other veggies. To fertilize the outside gardens, Growing Power let bins of earthworms create worm castings. They were manufacturing their own nutrition for their plants, the same system that Growing Power perfected in Milwaukee.

All of it was great, exciting stuff ... but have we solved the problems of sustainability and food security?

We have not. First of all, consider the third leg of the sustainability puzzle: profitability. Without profit, farms can’t pay their bills, taxes, wages and so forth. But all three of the places I had visited are not-for-profits, dependent on the kindness of foundations and donors. As they become successful, there will be more of them competing for donations. It is a fragile solution for food production and, worse, it creates a false economy (or non-economy). How will for-profits compete with groups that receive free labor, free land, donated materials?

Under the current food system, large corporations are well-subsidized by the taxpayer and therefore are able to keep food prices low. When folks are unable to access food, they often receive a wee bit of government aid. Still, there is a lot of food insecurity in our nation. Almost the day of my return from FarmAid, a new study on the state of hunger in the US was published. The least secure population was in Arkansas. Ironically, the same day, the press reported that the governor of that dismal state was visiting Cuba with a group of 50 that included CEOs of major Arkansas companies. According to the Arkansas Press, the delegation included “representatives from agricultural and education sectors, including some from Arkansas-based companies, including Tyson and Riceland Foods.”

This was the first delegation of its kind to Cuba, a nation with a population that is about 5% undernourished, compared to Arkansas’s nearly 50% population of “food-insecure.” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said, “We have an opportunity to be first in agricultural sales. My encouragement is that Arkansas is well-positioned geographically, logistically as well as with the top quality products for this marketplace in poultry, pork and rice.”

Does this make sense to you? Should we feed ourselves first? Clearly, there is plenty of work to be done and my bucket list has as many challenges as ever.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2015

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