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.

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