Commentary

Ben Hewitt: A groundswell for agricultural change

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ben Hewitt, who lives in Stannard, where he and his family operate a diversified hill farm. He is an organizer with Rural Vermont

When I was a young boy, I traveled every summer to the Iowa farm where my mother was raised. There, my grandparents grew hundreds of acres of corn and soy. It was not the biggest farm in Iowa, not by a long shot, but it was plenty big enough. I remember standing at the edge of a cornfield, gazing toward the horizon, trying to discern where the field ended. And failing. I remember riding in the combine with my grandfather at harvest time, listening to the crop report on the radio, watching row after row after row of corn fall beneath the cutter bar. My grandfather didn’t talk much. Neither did I.

This was in the late ’70s and early ’80s, in this nation’s halcyon days of commodity cropping. Those who truly understood how damaging this style farming was to the land, the soil, the consumers and even the farmers themselves were relatively few and far between, while the rest of us were in the thrall of rapidly increasing yields, economies of scale and the lure of new technology.

Forty years later, we no longer have any excuse for failing to acknowledge the destructiveness of contemporary commodity agriculture and the fragility it has engendered across the spectrums of economy, ecology and human health, to name but a few. In Vermont, this is most visible in the perennially stressed commodity dairy industry, in which farmers are currently paid less than the cost of production, and over the years have been coerced to rely upon practices and products that negatively impact animal health, while playing a significant role in the degradation of our waterways and environment. This is emphatically not the fault of the farmers; as my grandparents were, so are today’s farmers caught in a tangled web of policy and economic incentives that are not of their making, yet which drive many of their decisions.

The need to reform our state’s agricultural policies and practices extends far beyond the dairy industry. Although Vermont’s local food movement has made tremendous progress, the ability for all farmers to achieve access to land and maintain a reasonable livelihood, while supporting the health of their communities and the land, is severely and unjustly compromised. The economic incentives still point in the wrong direction — consolidation, concentration, commoditization, exploitation of cheap labor and exporting of products and wealth. These incentives, coupled with policies that too often disadvantage community-scale food production, ensure that Vermont’s local food offerings remain unaffordable to a wide swath of our population. And as goes viable, accessible community-scale production, so goes the vibrant, diversified farms that once defined and nurtured Vermont’s rural landscape, fed our communities, and invigorated our economies.

At its core, regenerative agriculture recognizes that small-scale, community-based food production can form the basis of Vermont’s food supply, and be accessible to all.

 

Regenerative agriculture is a term meant to describe agricultural and food-production practices that return more to the land, community and farmer than they extract. Often the term is associated with improved grazing and cropping methods that grow and protect rather than deplete topsoil, in the process sequestering carbon, increasing water retention capacity (critical in the context of massive flooding events like hurricanes Irene and Sandy), and creating wildlife habitat.

But it’s about more than animal and crop management practices; it’s also about ensuring equity: a just livelihood for our farmers and farm workers, vibrant rural communities, and policies that no longer incentivize the degradation of the land and the consolidation of wealth and political power. Certainly, it’s about meeting already identified state goals regarding water quality, improving the health of Vermonters, and making our state more affordable and attractive to future generations. At its core, regenerative agriculture recognizes that small-scale, community-based food production can form the basis of Vermont’s food supply, and be accessible to all.

A lofty goal? Perhaps, but surely one that is within our reach, and one that we must attain. The system that creates such a bind for Vermont’s dairy farmers while ensuring enormous profits for the consolidated dairy industry is the same system that incentivizes the production of disease-causing food products while generating massive profits for the pharmaceutical industry whose drugs treat these diseases. It’s the same system that rewards the extraction of health and wealth from our bodies, from the land, and from the most marginalized among us. It is a direct consequence of an economy that values consolidation, efficiency and production over human and ecosystem health. If all this sounds dispiriting, let us not forget: This is a system that humans built and continue to build. And if we built it, surely we can take it apart. Surely we are clever enough to build something better in its place.

Rural Vermont is in the midst of a statewide tour to engage communities in discussions about land use, livelihood and food. We call this tour “Groundswell.” We want to present our vision for what a regenerative approach to agriculture and all land use can be in Vermont, but most importantly, we want to hear from you: What are your hopes and dreams? What opportunities do you see in your community, and what are the barriers to those opportunities becoming a reality? How can our organization help lower or even remove those barriers? What should the future of Vermont’s foodscape look like? And so on.

At our first Groundswell event in Tunbridge, over 70 community members turned out to voice their needs, their concerns, and their ideas, and to discuss how to transform our agricultural economy into one that prioritizes the health of our communities and the land upon which we all depend. There are, of course, no simple answers; extractive and exploitative economics are deeply entrenched in our culture and society, and transformative change is unlikely to come from the corridors of power, be they in Montpelier, or Washington. The task is ours; the responsibility is ours

If you believe that Vermont and its people will benefit from a resurgence of community-scale, regenerative agriculture; if you can help identify needs that are not being met by the status quo; if you have ideas for how Rural Vermont can help meet those needs; or if you just want to spend a lively evening in good company, please join us for one of our remaining Groundswell events – a complete schedule is available on Rural Vermont’s website. www.ruralvermont.org.

If you read us, please support us.

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  • Peter Allan Burmeister

    There is really a simple solution to the conundrums that Ben beautifully outlines in his impassioned posting. Vermonters (and indeed everyone else) need to boycott supermarkets and box stores. Virtually every community in Vermont has a farmers’ market. Meat, dairy products and a wide variety of vegetables are available at these venues year round. (Yes, there are markets during the winter months, in case you didn’t know.) Wholesome, delicious poison-free local food, grown with loving care in soil that is being consciously regenerated, can be found there. But too many among us find it more convenient to opt for “one-stop shopping” and to purchase whatever is on sale this week. The more people shop at the supermarkets the stronger they become. A true “groundswell” would involve a Civil Rights Era style movement to block the entrances of supermarket parking lots, bringing to public attention the vile practices of corporate farming that go into making the products on display in those stores. Talk is good. Action is far more effective. “It isn’t nice to block the doorway, it isn’t nice to go to jail. There are nicer ways to do it, But the nice ways always fail.” (Malvina Reynolds, 1960’s.)

  • Randall Szott

    Thank you Ben for continuing to resist the destructive homogeneity of conventional “food” production. As you know agriculture is part of a tapestry of inter-related struggles. The larger historical and cultural headwinds favor, as you say, “consolidation, concentration, [and] commoditization” in nearly every aspect of our lives. Act 46 is doing the same thing with education in Vermont. In addition to “small-scale, community-based food production,” we need small scale community based institutions and solutions for most of the issues we face.

    Fortunately, when it comes to food, Vermont seems to understand much of your argument. Although, as you describe, we have a long way to go. Unfortunately, some Vermonters don’t seem to see the interconnections between systems – slow food requires slow democracy (Susan Clark might say) requires slow education requires slow communities.

    As you know, truly regenerative agriculture can’t be achieved without a regenerative culture. It is the cornerstone of the struggle here in Vermont given our history, but I hope your Groundswell sweeps up more in its wake.

  • Peter Allan Burmeister

    There is really a simple solution to the conundrums that Ben beautifully outlines in his impassioned posting. Vermonters (and indeed everyone else) need to boycott supermarkets and box stores. Virtually every community in Vermont has a farmers’ market. Meat, dairy products and a wide variety of vegetables are available at these venues year round. (Yes, there are markets during the winter months, in case you didn’t know.) Wholesome, delicious poison-free local food, grown with loving care in soil that is being consciously regenerated, can be found there. But too many among us find it more convenient to opt for “one-stop shopping” and to purchase whatever is on sale this week. The more people shop at the supermarkets the stronger they become. A true “groundswell” would involve a Civil Rights Era style movement to block the entrances of supermarket parking lots, bringing to public attention the vile practices of corporate farming that go into making the products on display in those stores. Talk is good. Action is far more effective. “It isn’t nice to block the doorway, it isn’t nice to go to jail. There are nicer ways to do it, But the nice ways always fail.” (Malvina Reynolds, 1960’s.)

  • Dave Bellini

    Farmers Market: Wonderful, healthy, locally grown, etc. the problem however, is affordability. If you have two kids do you buy corn at $1.29 an ear or do you pay $5.00 per dozen? Kraft sliced cheese or $28.00 per pound locally made cheese? For most people there is no choice. It’s the dollar store, Walmart, Big Lots and the supermarket. I am a member of a food Coop and I make a “livable wage.” I don’t earn enough to buy all my food from a Coop or Farmers Market. When I bring this subject up I sometimes hear: “Well, people in Europe pay more for food.” Guess I should move to Spain or Italy??

    • Peter Allan Burmeister

      Perhaps you need to consider a serious re-ordering of your priorities. Food is about a lot more than merely filling bellies. It is also about supporting local communities and saving what is left of a dying planet. And what about the long-term health considerations? Will the rest of us ending up paying, through taxation and increased insurance premiums, for your childrens’ medical care after a couple of decades of eating Kraft non-cheese? Please think about this a bit more deeply.

  • Patty Smith

    I wonder what would happen if the State “prescribed” healthy local organic food for all Vermonters covered under Medicaid or Medicare. Certainly, contracts for this food would kick our local agriculture into high gear. And, in all likelihood, the State would see better health outcomes with lower healthcare costs. Why not spend money on good food to treat diabetes, heart disease, and the like, thus reducing the need for medications and surgeries. We are what we eat, so to get and stay healthy, we need to eat healthy food.

    • Peter Allan Burmeister

      This is a brilliant proposal, one that deserves serious consideration. Who in our Legislature is ready to stand up and make this a reality? I’m not holding my breath. We need more direct action, far less conversation.

  • “… it’s also about ensuring equity: … policies that no longer incentivize the … consolidation of wealth and political power.”

    It seems to me that this article blurs the line between regenerative agriculture and regenerative economics. Yes, they are inextricably connected, but to require that our agriculture system resolve the massive destructiveness inherent in our economy (or wait until that economy is transformed) is somewhat disheartening for many of us who are trying to make step-by-step changes to how we work with the land. The average annual sales for farmers near me is about $6,000 according to U.S. census data, how is a group of people earning so little going to change our economy?

    In the region of the Connecticut River Watershed where I live a large group of us have been working to develop systems, techniques and businesses that promote regenerative agriculture, permaculture and agroforestry. You can see a presentation on our work here: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1A6s1PgVYnSRl0kSAZn_f6Y1EJsflNk8Bd89CNlvZTvs/edit#slide=id.p8