How Rural Can Reclaim Sustainable Ag

The principles of sustainable agriculture were born in rural communities. How can those places now profit from the expanding interest in healthy locally-grown food?

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Growing up in a small town in North Carolina, I found it hard to imagine anyone without a vegetable garden in the backyard. The old joke was if you left your car unlocked in the summer months, when you returned you’d likely find a bag of okra waiting. Or yellow squash. Or cucumbers. Or anything else growing in abundance that folks didn’t want wasted.

My grandfather tended a lush vegetable garden in Randolph County, including a couple of rows of muscadine grapes that he brewed into homemade wine — sweet and tart, and shared liberally with his friends, many of whom probably smiled politely and sent it down the drain before his pickup was out the driveway.

He also tended to a large compost pile. It’s where the remains of the day’s watermelons would be deposited, along with the rind of sweet cantaloupes he bought at the Saturday farmer’s market (a motley group of pickup trucks on a bare piece of land at the end of town) as well as anything else from grandma’s kitchen that might make good fertilizer for next season’s garden.

In hindsight, I realize my grandfather was practicing sustainable agriculture, though if he were alive today, he would probably find that concept peculiar. I doubt my grandfather gave much thought to how he could earn a living from what he was doing or how raising his own food was a healthy alternative to the fare at the local diner. It’s also probably safe to say he never gave much consideration to how what he was doing was tied to land access or social justice issues for minority farmers.

As part of MDC’s work with the Rural People, Rural Policy initiative, a colleague and I recently attended a conference on sustainable agriculture at the Airlie Center in Warrenton, Virginia. At this gathering, focused on the role of institutions in local food systems, we were struck by the wide-ranging viewpoints and interests within the sustainable agriculture movement, and the diversity of its practitioners and advocates.

One session-moderator even asked if there were a definition for “sustainable agriculture” that we all could agree upon. The short answer is no. The term and the movement involve environmentalism, agrarianism, food security, economic development, healthy living, racial reconciliation, and, yes, even social justice, all bound together (and I am probably forgetting a few more key elements).

The popularity of sustainable agriculture is increasingly apparent in larger metro areas. More and more farmer’s markets are sprouting up in large cities. Suburbs have drop-off points for local community-supported-agriculture organizations (CSAs), and restaurants increasingly advertise that they buy local produce and meats. In the Research Triangle region of North Carolina, zoning restrictions have been relaxed to allow backyard chicken coops for folks who want fresh-laid eggs.Community gardens are becoming social gathering spots for urban neighbors both to cross social, economic, and racial divides and to direct how the food they eat ends up on their tables.

But what does the movement mean for rural people and places? It’s apparent the danger of the sustainable agriculture movement is that it slips into a form of connoisseurship, a foodie hobby that only middle-class families can afford, and loses sight of its role as an accessible and equitable entry point into an age-old profession for minority and beginning farmers.

Sustainable agriculture has the potential to create jobs in rural communities, to increase access to healthy food choices for low- to moderate-income families, to serve as a catalyst for community development, to be a starting point in the sensitive discussion of environmentalism in rural communities, to operate as advocacy for migrant farm workers, and to give people from diverse backgrounds the chance to learn a valuable and respected trade.

Josh Cogan/Airlie Foundation

Pablo Elliott (foreground), former director of the Local Food Project at Airlie in Warrenton, Virginia, and Brynn Slate, then the garden
coordinator, worked in the hoop house. Airlie recently hosted a
wide-ranging conference on the role of institutions in sustainable
agriculture.

However, for many in rural communities, there are impediments to creating a sustainable agriculture movement. These include:

Access to land – At a time when at least one tenth of the labor force is looking for work, the cost of land has made it difficult for new and beginning farmers to purchase farmland; for those with no capital and little experience, land leases are often not an option either.

Education and training— Land-grant universities offer farm training at reasonable tuition rates. However, most of these institutions are primarily focused on training in the conventional farm methods used by large-scale farm operations, methods often at odds as with key principles of sustainable agriculture. Apprenticeship programs and opportunities exist through individual farms but often are not as structured or readily available as university programs.

Markets—Rural producers have the challenge of finding buyers. Likewise, they must face the fact that many rural residents can’t afford produce raised using sustainable-farming methods. Transportation costs are highly variable; many rural farmers in North Carolina have access to major metros just an hour or so away, while for a farmer in rural North Dakota, there may not be a viable market within hundreds of miles.

It’s easy to think of the sustainable agriculture movement as a return to a bygone era of simplicity and determined self-sufficiency, but it means much more for many rural communities that are struggling with prolonged economic declines and sharp increases in rates of obesity and chronic illnesses. Local gardens like the one my grandfather tended have been replaced by fast foods. The economic and physical rewards of growing one’s own meals are too often outweighed by the quick and inexpensive option of a restaurant’s dollar menu and the goods in chain supermarkets, prepackaged and often precooked food that’s sometimes been shipped far across the country or even from another continent.

Jacob Cowgill/Prairie Heritage Farm
Jacob and Courtney Cowgill’s Prairie Heritage Farm in Conrad, Montana, raised and delivered 90 turkeys to customers this Thanksgiving.

For the sustainable agriculture movement to reach its economic potential in rural communities, decision-makers and policy leaders need to find ways to promote locally grown produce and to make it available at markets that are accessible for rural growers. The sustainable agriculture conference we attended focused on the role of institutions in the local food system. Rural school systems can start Farm-to-School programs to get fresh, locally grown produce on school menus, giving local producers a consistent market for their product and feeding children daily with healthy foods that might otherwise be missing from their diets. Other institutions that could purchase local produce include hospitals, community colleges, prisons, and military installations.

Leaders can work to promote agri-tourism to draw suburbanites and city dwellers to rural farms to pick their own blueberries, strawberries, and watermelons, cut their own Christmas trees, and then go for  a hay ride or get lost in a corn maze. Rural community colleges can offer certificate and degree programs in sustainable agriculture, including courses in business and marketing. Funding or tax incentives can be adopted to attract minority or beginning farmers to rural communities, helping them get established by purchasing land or finding affordable options for leasing.

The Airlie Center conference affirmed that there’s increased interest in farming among young Millennials and mid-career Gen-Xers. One older presenter noted, “I got into farming when farming wasn’t cool,” but farming has become “cool” again. And that kind of attraction supplies a good opportunity to draw and keep younger residents at a time when many rural places are experiencing an outmigration of their youth.

Todd Brantley is associate communications director for MDC, a nonprofit research firm in Durham, N.C., which plays a role in managing the Rural People, Rural Policy initiative.

 

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