Will the Real Family Farmer Please Stand up?

June 30, 2011

By Michelle Knapik
Environment Program Director

The beauty of the Sustainable Ag and Food System Funders Conference is its recipe for learning and relationship building. There were panel sessions that offered a rich mix of historical perspectives, policy issues, and movement building information, but nearly half of the conference was experiential and field-based. As a grantmaker in the space of local foods, farmland preservation, farming viability, and urban farms, I boarded the bus for the Healthy Landscapes, Healthy Communities tour. I expected to learn about new farming models, policy barriers, entrepreneurial opportunities, etc., but I didn’t expect to be moved by what the tour was truly about – the many faces of family farming.

I know, I know. Most small and medium-sized farms are family farms, but sometimes the urbanized east coast mind likes category names that are a bit more sterile and based on demographic or logistical breakdowns – small (up to $100,000 gross revenue), medium (between $100,000 and $250,000) , etc. And maybe I have a slight uneasiness about the term “family” based on the way it has so often been coopted to imply a constricted, exclusionary image that leaves little room for diverse perspective and voices. But something happened in the 6 hours during which we met three seemingly different family farmers near the conference site in Minneapolis. Their stories disarmed me, and by the end of the day, I found that I was profoundly moved by the term, concept and importance of family farming.

The first stop took us to the Bisek Brothers Farm. John and Albert’s mid-sized 60 cow dairy farm stands out from the industrial scale dairy farms that now occupy most of the landscape in this region. The brothers supply most of the labor necessary to farm their 400 acres of corn, alfalfa, soy, barley, and wheat—most of which is linked to the on-farm dairy operations, with some excess crops sold at market. The Bisek brothers come from a long lineage of farmers, but John and Albert are likely the last of their family that will farm these 400 acres.

Conservationists and local food system champions alike touted the brothers’ farming practices. They were named conservation farmers of the year in the 90s, and they continue to be conscious about resource use and impacts. They have filter strips on the farms to catch sediment and phosphorous, and they utilize a crop rotation that improves soil quality. In addition, they have implemented practices and systems that enable them to utilize all the manure produced by their cows, and they participate in ag conservation programs like WHIP and CSP .

Are they at the vanguard of going organic or becoming a biodynamic farm? No, but they do they represent an environmentally conscious slice of the farming community. Adam Warthesen of the Land Stewardship Project was one of our tour guides. He assists farmers with training, resources and advocacy support, and he knows which farmers engage in sustainable practices. He calls the Bisek brothers “system buffers” as they are one of the few remaining stewards of the land in this agriculture space. Clearly, we need stronger regional markets to support mid-sized family farm operations. John and Albert would add that we also need to account for the real cost of food, which is not expressed by the mismarked, falsely cheap, industrial ag price tag.

Shifting gears, we next visited Open Hands Farm and were greeted by Erin and Ben Doherty. This young couple, with new baby in tote, farms 10.5 acres. They now own 5 of the acres, with four more slated for purchase, and 1.5 acres that they lease. On this land, they grow 50 crops that include 270 varieties of produce. They are proud to offer so many food choices to their 125 community supported agriculture (CSA) members . It also makes for happy wholesale buyers that include local food coops and Bon Apetit Caterers of St. Olaf College, whose staff prepared a farm fresh lunch for us onsite at Open Hands Farm.

Erin and Ben are new farmers. In fact, their families can’t point to anyone who worked on the land for many generations. They received their training at the Food Bank Farm in Western Massachusetts. They were mentored on everything from sustainable ag practices to system and operations, and from marketing to business modeling. Even so, financial institutions do not know how to service opportunities for new farmers like Erin and Ben. They gained access to the land through hard work and an empathetic land owner who was able to work out a “rent to own” land transaction.

With access to the land came an unimpeachable stewardship ethic. Erin and Ben have not applied one drop of pesticide on their 10.5 acres of farmland. They credit strategies like having something in bloom at all times that will attract pollinators like bees and insects, which also prey on unwanted pests. They also note that the healthy soil promotes fast and robust growth, which means that even if some pests like beetles appear, they do less damage by harvest time. One thing they yearn for, though, is more research on organic ways to handle pests, including research related to climate change and fungal diseases. Other desired supports include food hub aggregation and more incubator farms. Maybe when John and Albert are ready to retire, Erin and Ben will be ready for mid-sized farming acreage.

The third leg of our family farm tour took us to the Rural Enterprise Center in Northfield Minnesota. The Center supplies a mix of R&D, business incubator space, market barriers and market development exploration, and “agripreneur” mentoring for emerging family farmers. Through a process of discovery, training, and placement, the Center is moving Latino immigrants from land laborers to land owners. Thanks to the innovative mind of Regi Haslett-Marroquin and funding from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, the Center is building capacity and advancing its strategic plan. The Center also has family farmer allies like Todd Prink (Prink Farm) who are building bridges in the community through innovative partnerships that include renting land as Center graduates move toward land ownership.

What emerged from the tour was a sense that the traditional, multigenerational family farmer, new family farmer, and immigrant /entrepreneurial family farmer are part of the fabric of the future of family farming. So the real family farmer is a composite image of them all standing together to advance the re-localization of our food system. How have you experienced this expansive and interconnected view of family farmers?

Many thanks to the McKnight Foundation for helping to create this tour and for being such amazing hosts during the SAFSF Conference in Minneapolis.

Images: Michelle Knapik