Encouraging new growth in family farming

The decline of small, family farms and rural communities isn’t just a problem for small-town residents or “American Gothic” enthusiasts. It carries with it consequences for all Minnesotans that we should address.

By Shawn Peterson

That’s why the Minnesota Catholic Conference has lent its support to HF 608/SF 1414, a bill that would make it easier for the beginning farmer or rancher to enter into this important work. This legislation would create tax incentives for the older, established farmer to rent or sell their land to the new or beginning farmer.

This bill, along with HF 1461/SF 1317, which would create grants to be used to increase urban-agriculture production capacity and fresh food access, are practical and sound steps that each Minnesotan can support to restore a vocational vision to agriculture, whether it is our particular calling or not.

Changing landscape

Rural America and agriculture have changed considerably since my great-grandfather, Paul Dehn, a staunch German Catholic, first put his plow in the rural North Dakota soil in the early 1900s. In his day, farms were small and families were big. The millions of family farms that dotted the countryside supported thriving rural communities across the nation. Small Town, USA, was growing, and Main Street was lined with businesses, schools and churches.

But agriculture has changed in America. Farms have become bigger, while families are smaller. In the pursuit of higher yields and with fewer children choosing to embrace the farming vocation, farms have consolidated into huge enterprises. As a result, rural communities have become stagnant, the network of business and social relationships once centered around family farming now waning.

In 1920, there were nearly 6.5 million farms nationwide, with the average size no more than 200 acres. But by the early 2000s, the numbers had flipped. The total number of farms had dropped to under 2 million, but the average farm size had ballooned to well over 400 acres. In fact, only 10 percent of farms account for 70 percent of all food produced in America today.

Big problems with Big Ag

This shift towards more large-scale, industrial agricultural operations has brought with it serious consequences. For one, the concentration of food production in the hands of a few (and increasingly in the form of fewer and fewer genetic strains) undermines food security, which would be better served by more suppliers and by biodiversity in our seeds, crops and even livestock.

For another, industrial agriculture’s reliance upon heavy machinery and chemical usage to produce maximum yields is taking a toll on creation. Topsoil is being depleted at record rates. And agricultural abuse has environmental implications beyond just our ability to grow food: The Environmental Protection Agency reports that chemical usage in agriculture is responsible for 70 percent of water surface pollution in America.

The change in the face of agriculture has coincided with an exodus from rural America. According to U.S. Census data, 60 percent of the nation’s population lived in rural areas in 1900, compared to less than one-fifth of Americans today. Fewer farmers working the land means fewer people living in our rural areas, fewer families attending small community parishes, fewer children attending our rural Catholic schools and fewer people opening businesses to serve their rural neighbors.

Agriculture as vocation

The problems facing agriculture in America are complicated, but one part of the solution could be restoring a vocational vision to agriculture, the type of vision that upholds farming as not merely a way to make a living, but as a comprehensive and fuller way of life.

The Catholic Church has long championed this vocational approach to agriculture, recognizing the farmer’s unique call to steward God’s creation, but also to nurture social and even spiritual growth in his or her house and community as well. Pope Benedict XVI has called family farming a “guardian of values and a natural agent of solidarity between generations.”

Restoring a vocational approach to agriculture necessitates restoring more farmers to the land. Currently, the median age for ranchers and farmers is 56 years, and there are not enough younger people waiting in the wings to take on the load when the current generation retires.

Much of this is due to the prohibitive cost for the new or beginning farmer. But if we are to attract more young farmers and their families back to the countryside to build community, practice sustainable agriculture and share in the work of the Creator, we will need public policies that support them in their vocation.  Tax credits to support new farmers and to encourage others in urban areas to get back to the land are a step in the right direction.

Shawn Peterson is associate director for public policy at the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

The Visitor is the official newpaper for the Diocese of Saint Cloud.

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