How Rural Can Reclaim Sustainable Ag

[imgbelt img=mdcPabloandBrynn530.jpg]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?


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.

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.