The family farmer is making a comeback with a starring role in the new American dream.
In recent years, the number of individual farms in the United States has increased for the first time since World War II, according to the 2007 Agricultural Census, the most recent data compiled by the USDA. A new wave of beginning family farmers have headed back to the fields, driven by a desire to connect with the land, frustration with the industrialized food system, and high unemployment rates.
The majority of new farms are very small, earning less than $10,000 per year. They tend to be run by younger farmers, two thirds of whom rely on off-farm work to supplement farm income, the census revealed. As with any new business venture, it can take several years to begin to turn a profit.
“The year is heavy with produce. And men are proud, for of their knowledge they can make the year heavy. They have transformed the world with their knowledge.” - John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath
Like all of us, writer and grower David Mas Masumoto is a product of his culture and his regional circumstances not to mention the owner of the famous Masumoto Family Farm peach orchards in the arid Central Valley of California. His love of the land punctuates his narrative as he shares his wisdom of organic farming, family ties and the story that is sustainable agriculture.
The Masumoto family has farmed peaches, on an 80-acre patch of land south of Fresno, since 1948. After finishing college, Mas Masumoto returned to his family farm and a few years later bought 40 acres of land from his father. In the mid-1980s he made the decision to farm organically.
William ‘Bill’ VanScoy takes a few moments away from his family and his greenhouses full of freshly transplanted seedlings to explain how his traditional hog farming operation became one of the largest hydroponic fruit and vegetable farms in Ohio.
“With the reducing acres of usable land in the USA, hydroponics (currently) is one of the more promising ways to keep pace with the growing food demands of a growing world population,” states VanScoy. And keeping up with demand is how it all started for this green thumbed Ohio family.
The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) Organic Farmer of the Year award has been a long time in the making for Johnson Farms of Madison, South Dakota. Charlie Johnson and his brother Allan, along with their cousin Aaron and a handful of farm laborers, manage 2,800 acres of South Dakota farmland growing the ingredients for organic animal feed. On his way to pick up the award, Charlie Johnson shared a few insights into organic farming from the ‘long haul’ perspective.
It was Charlie and Allan’s father who started the farm in Madison. “My dad was a different kind of character,” explains Johnson. “He was kinda half hippie half profit.” Bernard Johnson had toyed around with the idea of chemical free farming for decades. He converted to a 100 percent organic production in 1976, years before the organic movement really began the paradigm shift from fringe obscurity to national awareness.
Seventy-five years ago, Albert and Frances Lundberg moved from the John Steinbeckian Dust Bowl of Nebraska to California to try their hand at farming land that had not yet been destroyed by pretty much the same challenges farmers face today – drought and poor soil management.
Albert had seen the results of shortsighted farm husbandry and passed along his philosophy of sustainable agriculture to his four sons, Eldon, Wendell, Harlan and Homer, who established Lundberg Family Farms, and pioneered organic rice growing in America.
Third-generation farmer, Jessica Lundberg, summed up the enterprise’s ongoing commitment to sustainability as more than an abstract liberal value. It’s a pragmatic imperative.
“When my grandparents left dried-up Nebraska and came to Northern California, they had new-found appreciation for being stewards of the land,” Lundberg said. “Soil is a living organism and must be treated well.”
The principles of organic farming permeate every aspect of Duncan Family Farms from the seeds they plant in the ground to those they sow in the local community.
“We believe that the primary responsibility of Duncan Family Farms is to produce clean, healthy, life-giving food,” says founder and self-proclaimed “dirt nerd” Arnott Duncan. “We are also committed to making a strong contribution to an improved environment and to giving back to our community.”
Arnott and his wife Kathleen started the farm over two decades ago, and that vision has remained the cornerstone of their operation since the very beginning.
News Release – MEMPHIS, Jan. 15, 2013 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced a new microloan program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) designed to help small and family operations, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers secure loans under $35,000. The new microloan program is aimed at bolstering the progress of producers through their start-up years by providing needed resources and helping to increase equity so that farmers may eventually graduate to commercial credit and expand their operations. The microloan program will also provide a less burdensome, more simplified application process in comparison to traditional farm loans.
News Release – CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Farm Aid announced that 67 family farm and rural service organizations received $532,300 from its grant program during 2012. These organizations work to strengthen family farm agriculture nationwide.
“These grants empower grassroots organizations to put new farmers on the land and amplify the voices of family farmers,” said Farm Aid President Willie Nelson. “Farm Aid funds create opportunities for all of us who seek good, healthful food, and stronger economies and communities across America.”
Embrace of Sustainable Ag Tech & Practices Enables 3rd Gen Farm in Orange County, CA to Survive UrbanizationDecember 12, 2012 | Melonie Magruder
When Matt and A.G. Kawamura’s grandparents first came to California from Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, they worked as seasonal fruit pickers and, eventually, sharecroppers in an Orange County that was mostly about orange trees and maybe a couple of other crops.
Within a few years, however, the founders of what became Orange County Produce had created a fertilizer and farm supply company. After World War II, during which they were relocated to an internment camp in Arizona, the Kawamuras launched a company that grew and shipped fresh produce like lettuce, cabbage and cantaloupes.
For Glenn and Karen Cook of Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, MA, sustainability is more than just a catch phrase. On their 145-acre farm the family’s composting practices have significantly increased soil organic matter. By employing solar panels and wind turbines, Cider Hill Farm also provides itself with 95% of the electricity that it needs to operate.
I recently spoke with Glenn Cook to learn more about how his family farm evolved, the challenges that it faces, and his future goals for the farm.
When Marty and Kris Travis first founded Stewards of the Land, a cooperative of local family farmers in Illinois, they were fledgling farmers themselves.
“This was before any local food thing hit in this part of the state,” Marty Travis said. “Still, we felt like we wanted to do something to provide great, healthy food to the local community.”
At the time, Travis and his wife lived on Spence Farm, his family farmstead, with their son, Will. Though the 160-acre farm had been in his family for 175 years, his parents never worked the land. Tenant farmers managed the land throughout his childhood.
Scanning the beautiful array of certified organic crops that thrive at McGrath Family Farms in Camarillo, you know you’re in the presence of something truly special.
Phil McGrath is a fourth-generation Southern California farmer whose great-grandfather, an Irish sheep farmer, first acquired this land back in 1868. Phil grew up around the farm as a child and ultimately knew that a commitment to a lasting McGrath farming legacy was what he wanted to dedicate his life to. But, his infectious passion and appreciation for the land and the process he calls “organic farming in paradise” speak of much more than familial duty and responsibility.
Larry Thorne is a third-generation Southern California farmer. His father first cultivated sweet corn, tomatoes and melons in fields that ranged from Topanga Canyon to the county line, back when a new tractor cost you maybe $1500. Thorne himself has farmed his small acreage for his own family’s consumption for the past 30 years.
But after a pressure-cooker real estate career, Thorne decided to chuck the corporate life and plunge full-time back to his roots. A couple of years ago, he started commercially farming 15 or so acres in plots around Malibu after he realized, he said, that he wasn’t really happy.