The theme of today’s show is “Small Scale Agriculture-How healthy is it?” And we’re going to feature an interview with Scott Marlow of RAFI, where we’ll be discussing this issue. I wanted to cover this topic early enough in the year so that people have time to think about some of the issues we’re going to be discussing, especially our farmers and ranchers and to begin thinking about some of the issues we’re going to be bringing discussing and how it applies to your farm viability and your farming operations, as well as your familial relationships and your health.
While there has been a lot of feel good stories about small-scale agriculture and the growing interest of young people about farming as a career, there has also stories about 80 hour work weeks resulting in extremely low wages. In this episode, we attempt to get at what is the true reality for small scale agriculture.
One of the things I’ve seen over close to 20 years that I’ve been involved in this is that we in small scale agriculture don’t do a good job of baselining our existence. We don’t collect enough technical data, financial data especially. I’ve been working with an organization that has really been trying to get some funding to baseline what successful farms look like over the long haul, a three to five year period. What are they doing that allows them to sustain themselves and how are they doing it? How much are they spending? Where are they selling? How much are they selling? How are they handling their labor costs? What federal policies are helping or , more importantly, impeding these farmers?
We try to get at some of these issues in this episode.
Rural Advancement Foundation International Website
Correction (Scott Marlow has worked on the last 5 farm bills, not the last 8)
Article-Small Family Farms Aren’t the Answer (Correction: Author is from Virginia not Kentucky)
Article-Big Farms are Getting Bigger and Most Small Farms Aren’t Really Farms at All
Small Scale Agriculture: How Healthy is It?
Brennan Washington: [00:00:30] Welcome, welcome, welcome. Hope everybody’s doing well today, and that your new year is getting off to a good start. The theme of today’s show is small scale agriculture. How healthy is it? And we’re going to feature an interview with Scott Marlow of RAFI, where we’ll be discussing this issue. And I wanted to do this, cover this topic early enough and the year so that people have time to think about some of the issues we’re going to be discussing, especially farmers and ranchers and producers out there to start thinking about some of the issues. we’re going to be bringing it up as it applies to your farm viability, as it applies to your farming operations, as well as your familial relationships and your and your health.
Brennan Washington: [00:01:14] I was going to start to show off by talking about a couple articles I had found on the rise of farm bankruptcies. And I changed my mind because of a couple of things happened. The first thing that happened was Gwendolyn was posting some eggs on Facebook and in a group Facebook page for a farmers market that she attends. She put the eggs up, put the price which is $6 and started taking orders. And someone made a post of about $6 an egg. Someone lost their mind or someone’s crazy or something along those lines. And Gwendolyn had showed me to post. You know, no, we don’t really care when people complain about our prices. We know what we need to make in order to keep our farm viable, to make sure our operations pay for themselves. And, you know, we just rather see those people walk away rather than put our farm in jeopardy or work ourselves to death for nothing. But anyway, for some reason, this woman’s comment just really got to me. I don’t know because I’ve been reading a lot of stuff on farm on farm bankruptcies and farmer stresses in order to prepare for the show. I just don’t know what it is.
Brennan Washington: [00:02:29] And I have been really, really good about disciplining myself. About getting into Facebook.
[00:02:35] Facebook brawls and, you know, but that ticked me off, you know, farmers and teachers are the two groups of people in this country where people basically expect you to work for nothing. And that just bugged me.
Brennan Washington: [00:02:47] So I replied to the woman and nicely at first explain to her what feed cost what what it costs to maintain the chickens were to keep keep those chickens healthy, how much labor we had to put into it.
Brennan Washington: [00:03:01] And we can’t afford to sell eggs at 99 cent a dozen. And then I further pointed out to her that those 99 cent eggs you see at, Dollar General or CVS or the Super local supermarket. They have a dark side to them to which we’re going to get into one day. But there’s some there’s some downsides to those 99 cent eggs. And this, of course, that society pays for those 99 cent eggs that people don’t realize. And then she said something back and I said some back and I got kind of ugly and nasty. So I apologized to the market manager told her to . you know..that lady just got on my nerves. Delete the post. And I apologized and she did. And she said she told going on to tell me, don’t feed the trolls.
Brennan Washington: [00:03:43] But that’s what the theme of the show is going to be about. It’s going to be today is. How healthy are these small farms? Are we really being realistic about the state of small-scale agriculture in this country, or are we just painting a rosy picture behind which the wall is rotting? And we’re gonna be talking about that a lot today.
Brennan Washington: [00:04:07] The other thing that happened was I came across a couple of articles that I’m going to be sharing with you. One is from a farmer in Kentucky named Chris Nouman and he published it on a Web site called The Media. I’ve never heard of them, but the name of the article, Small Family Farms Aren’t the answer. The romance of neo liberal peasant farming blinds us to our collective power.
Brennan Washington: [00:04:32] So overall, this guy’s making a making.
Brennan Washington: [00:04:36] the argument that days of these standalone, independent, small scale farmer are done and that these farms need to be organized themselves into cooperatives in order to be successful. And he makes some interesting points in the article, which I’ll go ahead and read to you. He talks about the benefits and how before the rise of our current food system that everything was a collective, the old agrarian societies, everything was a collective. So he says, we in a cohort trade the benefits of agrarian collectivism, living wages, retirement, same workload, profitability, survivability and a capacity to make a game changing impact for rugged independence, complete autonomy and decision making and the ability to grow what, where, how we want set our prices as we please. So wherever we choose and work ourselves into the ground and what we’d done, the most modern American think possible bartered away a quality quality of life for the freedom to be miserable.
Brennan Washington: [00:05:42] He goes on to say, this guy’s pretty tough on the farmers markets, not to the point of saying just being tough to be tough. But he says go to a big farmer’s market this weekend and have a look around. Each of those independent producers will tell you interesting stories, 80+ hour work weeks getting by without health insurance. Paying employees next to nothing and or relying on volunteers supplementing with outside jobs, enduring broken marriages. Worn out bodies. Social isolation. Strained financial finances. Emotional burnout. Is this true? Absolutely. I can just tell you from my personal experience, when we we ran a CSA here, I think at our peak it was about 70, 70 members, which is pretty good for a little two acre farm. At the same time, we were doing four farmer’s markets a week. We did a CSA. We spent a lot of time on the farm and we went through a lot of stressful situations.
Brennan Washington: [00:06:49] One day I had an argument. I don’t even remember what the argument was about. Gwen and I were working down a hill and I had an argument with her and she finally said, Hey, look, I quit. You know, she picked up a little basket of tools and walked up the hill, sent her resumé out the next day and got a job.
Brennan Washington: [00:07:04] And but that is so true. And I and we don’t talk about this stuff enough.
Brennan Washington: [00:07:10] You know, when I was managing Georgia Organics Farm Mentoring Program, one of the biggest things people would ask me about was about not not about their seeds, not about their fertilizers, not about what vegetables to grow. It was how to manage their work on the farm with their with with the expectations of their spouse spouses. And it got so that, you know, I asked Georgia Organics, this is a top you guys really need to cover at your conference. And I think we did a panel one day.
Brennan Washington: [00:07:43] I’d like to see more of it being done. But but absolutely, that’s true. He goes he goes on to say that the way that we’re doing things now is not a long term viable solution.
Brennan Washington: [00:07:58] He he says it’s categorically unsustainable and extractive agricultural interests are counting on it. In particular, farmers being so preoccupied with non-farming tasks that we don’t have the head space to consider alternatives or act strategically. Ecological, extractive agriculture, drawing the kind of margins that attack attracts private investment and capital while restorative agriculture does not. Our competition is relying on the inefficiency of our self investment, such as farmer’s markets, which is driven by farmers internalizing the mythic virtue of rugged independence which keeps us isolated and denies us the efficiency, effectiveness and power of acting collectively to countermand the efficiency, effectiveness and power of private capital.
Brennan Washington: [00:08:48] And now we know this. It’s time to do things differently. And he’s right. He is absolutely right. A lot of farmers have.
Brennan Washington: [00:08:57] You know, off farm jobs. You know, we have an intern here and now an apprentice here now who for a variety of reasons during her first year with us, she she just had to spend more time at her job in order to meet some of her living expenses and stuff like that. So we do need to take all we do need to do things differently.
Brennan Washington: [00:09:18] And I think one of the issues here is that we’re not asking the right questions. We’re not digging down into the data to see what’s actually going on in the ground. So that brings me to the next article. I I’ve. I came up with this week. It was by it’s by a woman called Maggie Kearse, whose works where I believe FiveThirtyEight, which is many of you may know, is the really big polling firm. You’ll see them all over the TV are seeing them right now, all over the TV as we get closer to the election. But here are articles and tired, entitled Big Farms are getting bigger and most small farms aren’t really farms at all.
Brennan Washington: [00:09:58] So this is sort of a wonky article and it starts up with saying if Kansas had an official state billboard, it might be a squat square sign featuring a cornucopia of a paper grocery bag and the words one Kansas farmer feeds one hundred twenty eight people plus you. First erected in 1978. These signs make a simple and direct point. Every farmer who works the land produces the meals of many, non- farmers. Which is why a lot of people were worried when in 1986, the government predicted that the number of farms in the U.S. was set to fall by half. Now wasn’t really back it I was still in 1986. So I really wasn’t following the stuff back then. But that prediction was made by the Office of Technology Assessment and in a 1986 report on the changing state of agricultural technologies.
Brennan Washington: [00:10:45] There were 2.2 million farms in 1982, the OTA wrote they were likely to be 1.2 million by the year 2000. The idea wasn’t so much that food production would fall. Those 128 people plus you will still be fed, but that WHO they were fed by was changing. Farms were industrializing, consolidating, and a mid-sized farm of the old Macdonald Farmer in the Dell sort would be the losers. So as you’ll see in my conversation with Scott, that has been happening and it’s been continuing at a rapid pace, this change of change in the agricultural landscape where we basically have very large farms on one side and very small farms on the other and increasingly vanishing number of farm that’s right in the middle. So some of the things the interesting thing is that they looked at was just what is a farm. And we have this conversation all the time…those of us who work in a space, what exactly is a farm? And they go right to the agricultural census, which defines farms as any place from which a thousand dollars or more agricultural products were produced and sold or normally would have been sold during a reference year. And they go on to say that if adjusted for inflation data, that that thousand dollar a year threshold will probably be $5000 today. But I’ve read this definition quite a few times and never really paid that much attention to the phrase or “normally would have been sold”.
Brennan Washington: [00:12:19] So what they go on to put out is that you can actually have a farm that doesn’t produce anything but still, gift’s counted as a farm. And because it would have normally produced something, I don’t know how they make that distinction or how they make that leap in logic, but apparently it’s there. So what’s that mean for us? A lot of agricultural programs are based on the number for agriculture funding from places like USDA, for example, are apportioned based on how many farms you have in your state or in your county. And the point that they make out is that everybody knows that the definition of farms needs to be changed in somebody’s state or really needs to be taking a hard look at. And we need to change some definitions of some things. But politics plays a role in it. The article says the definition and any push to change it is up to Congress. For the farmers and their political supporters, there are probably benefits to a perception that there are a lot of small farms scattered across the country. The farm bill might be a bit harder to garner enough votes to be passed since this would be far fewer of small farms to be counted. And a perception that large farms don’t need government support. There’s a potential legislative downside to changing the definition and a potential bureaucratic upside to leaving it alone.
Brennan Washington: [00:13:45] So. What I take from this is that big ag reaps the benefits of the public perception of small agriculture, but small ag which does do smaller ag does not. We don’t get near the amount of funding from USDA that I think we should, and it’s just troubling that this perception of small.
Brennan Washington: [00:14:11] Family farms has been co-opted by big industrial agriculture. I’ll even further say that you rarely see depictions of black farmers or farmers of color anywhere. You know, it is very hard to see actually in any articles at a time reading. I think the copy that I have is black and white, but I think the the author, the first article may be African-American. I’m gonna go check on I’m also going trying to have him on the show, but.
Brennan Washington: [00:14:39] You know, to to to see that how the game is rigged against small scale agriculture is very troubling, especially when the perception of what we do is being used to support people who typically don’t believe in what we do. So that’s what today’s show is going to be about.
Brennan Washington: [00:15:03] I think it’s something….one of the things I’ve seen over close to 20 years that I’ve been involved in this is that we in small scale agriculture don’t do a good job of base lining our existence. We don’t collect enough technical data. We don’t, financial data especially. I’ve been working with an organization that has really been trying to get some funding to baseline what successful farms look like over the long haul, you know, three to five year period. You know, what are they doing that allows them to sustain themselves and how are they doing? What are they doing? How much are they spending? Where they sell it? How much are they selling? How are they handling their labor cost? And it’s been tough to get funding for that. But we need to do it. We need we need to do it. And I’m going to close this segment by asking a couple of questions leading into the interview with Scott. So the first one I’m going to ask is, does putting a farmers market in a distressed community automatically guarantee or or. Does putting a farmer’s market in a community makes that community healthier? Does it is urban agriculture a truly sustainable and financially viable long term form of agriculture? I don’t know the answer to both those questions because nobody’s really, really bothered to do that much research on it. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about, the importance of data, how a lot of this data is used against us and how it helps form in some of the policies in this country that make it very, very difficult for small scale AG. Stay tuned for my interview with Scott.
Brennan Washington: [00:16:58] So welcome to the Sustainable AG Rider podcast. And my guest today is Scott Marlow with RAFI and Scott and I have crossed paths many times. Scott, first of all, tell people what RAFI is.
[00:17:12] Rafi’s the Rural Advancement Foundation International USA. We’re a nonprofit based in Pittsboro, North Carolina. They work all the way from the very local working with individual farmers on financial issues, technical assistance on new farm enterprises. We run a farm crisis hotline. People who are about to lose their farms come to us, but then work all the way up to the national and international policy levels. So do a lot of work. I’m the senior policy specialist here at RAFIE. This is our our whole office is here in Pittsboro. We got about 14 people here. And my work is heavily focused on financial infrastructure, access to credit risk management structure, risk manager programs, disaster programs, and really taking the experience from individual farmers that we work with, both on new enterprise development and on financial crisis issues and taking what lessons we can out of that experience into the policy realm and into education. So we do I do a lot of education for both farmers and farm advisors around access to credit disaster. We work on lot of disaster programs and disasters, but then also into into the policy realm of farm bill and regulations and all those kinds of things.
Brennan Washington: [00:18:30] Yeah, I mean, you got a lot of talk to talk about on this interview. Yes. This is this is a very interesting time for small family farms. And in preparing for this interview today, you know, I get a news feed that talks about what’s happening and ag and stuff. And as you well know, a lot of the news around agriculture is about farm bankruptcies. And so I’ve been getting a lot of these and I pulled down an article that was a NPR interview, I guess, with executive vice president of the American Farm Bureau. And they would just talk. First of all, one of the interesting things I found that I just found this out recently from personal experience, I didn’t not know there was such a thing as a Chapter 12 bankruptcy, which is specifically for farmers and fishermen, how they are increasing across the country. But it’s very interesting.
Brennan Washington: [00:19:34] in reading this article is that they specifically talked about the Midwest. But I read another article that talked about how these and I think they specifically concentrated on Chapter Bankruptcies. And in terms of the percentages of bankruptcies, the Midwest was the Lowest. I mean, the South was at 70 percent. And we’re going to try and look up this.
Brennan Washington: [00:20:04] The south was high. The southwest and the west was higher than the Midwest. And it was just interesting how they gauging this crisis solely. It just seems to me solely on one particular geographic region. Now I Know, the Midwest has a lot of large farms.
Brennan Washington: [00:20:24] They have a large base commodity farmers. But that just seem troubling to me.
Scott Marlow: [00:20:31] Yeah, I agree with you. There are a lot there’s a lot of history around that. One of the things that I would say is we tend to talk about some of these things about periods of farm crisis. We talk about the you know, you have the term of the 80s farm crisis and people have used the term farm crisis now. What I would what I would say is using that language is problematic because.
Scott Marlow: [00:21:00] The process of consolidation of farms and moving to larger and larger and going after economies of scale and specialization and industrialization. That process has been going on for a very, very long time. That line has been moving for a very long time. And the moments that we talk about in terms of crisis are moments where that line and locations where that line just moved faster. Right. So so it’s not like after the 80s, farm crisis was over. No more mid-scale farms were going out of business. That’s not the case at all. It just wasn’t at the kind of critical mass that was garnering attention. And so we’re we’re in another point. And a lot of these a lot of this consolidation took place and was happening across administrations, across it’s a core piece of federal policy that that economies of scale and industrialization is good. And so there are a huge percentage of our federal policies that facilitate that transition and facilitate basically running mid-scale family farms out of business in favor of much larger scale farms. Part of what you have in the Midwest is, I mean, there are a lot of reasons and I know there are we can speculate I’m speculating on why that focus on the Midwest.
Scott Marlow: [00:22:15] Part of it is the Midwest. The these these issues play out differently in different geographic areas and in different forms of agriculture. So, for instance, at times when commodities like grain prices, corn and soy prices might be low, that’s actually a good time for livestock farmers who feed grain and corn because their costs are down. Right. So different parts of you know, we can talk about agriculture. We sometimes we talk about agriculture as though it’s monolithic. Like it’s all one thing. It’s really not. It’s very different different commodities, different scales, different geographic regions. There’s more clarity in the Midwest because it is the Midwest is much more dominated by large scale grain crops, corn, soy, the 80’s farm crisis was a very clear window of transition in the Midwest of consolidation, where some of those things weren’t quite as clear and some of the other geographic regions, there were more complicating factors. There is a history of a lot of issues around discrimination and targeting, playing out more specifically in other parts of the country. So there’s been a pattern of focus on the Midwest because agriculture is a big part of that economy and it’s a clear you can get a clearer picture because there’s more it’s a more uniform, more certain, you know, range of agriculture.
Scott Marlow: [00:23:38] I agree with you, though. We’ve you know, we we’ve never had a time on our crisis line when the phone was not ringing. We’ve never had a time in my time doing this. And for about ten years, I was the person, the point person on the hotline that I was a person who answered the phone. We’ve never had a time where we weren’t taking in cases and sometimes more, sometimes less. It is challenging that of very large amount of the conversation around both farm transitions and a lot of other things is really dominated by the focus on Midwestern corn and soy. Somewhat cattle and hogs. Large scale and that agriculture and that that Midwest tends to drive the train on a lot of things. But I completely agree with you. There are a lot of different places where this has played out over time and there are a lot of different other. There are a lot of different parts of agriculture that have gone through their own restructuring and their own crises for want of a better term. Separately from corn and soy.
Brennan Washington: [00:24:40] Yeah. Yeah. And you know, I just think about Hurricane Michael, where Don Cooper, who does a lot of work around helping folks get some of these federal grants that are out there. But he got some statistics from the Georgia Department of Agriculture and the numbers just blew your mind. You know, in southwest Georgia, there’s a lot of timber production. There’s a lot of pecan production. Yeah. And the numbers just blew your mind. I think they lost 700 million or eight hundred million dollars in timber. They lost probably an equivalent amount in pecan production. They lost poultry houses. And nobody ever talks about that. You know, you don’t you haven’t heard of. Actually, the big controversy, Don, Don has a podcast and he said it wanted a big controversyies down there. Was that when the national media came down to cover the hurricane. It was all about the slant of the stories was all about. This is the chickens coming home to roost for conservative voters, you know? Yeah. You don’t believe in climate change. So basically, you getting what you voted for and what Don? You know, there’s a lot of black farmers down, you know, Shirley Sherrod is down there. And sure enough. Sure. And and it’s just amazing how we don’t have these conversations about all the parts of the country. And that leads me to something else I want to talk to you about. So you always give a talk. You’re gonna be at Southern SAWG. And I had the pleasure on of interviewing Carol Williams in new executive director of Southern SAWG. And you’re gonna be there talking about why farms fail. And one of the reasons I wanted to have you on early as we head into 2020. Because I think small family farms more than ever are under the gun. And, you know, I just want you to talk a little bit about what that talk is and what you think about how we’re training farmers now and what’s going on with small family farms.
Scott Marlow: [00:26:54] So so let me a couple of things in that that I want to make sure we cover. One is that as we talk about farm crisis and talk about what like individual farm crisis and what farmers go through in this process, one of the main messages that we always put out is. You’re not alone. And the first thing that we have to look at. You know, we had the secretary of agriculture say, you know, this is America where, you know, the big get bigger and the small go out, right. Or something like that, you know, which is remnant of the old Earl Butz Fence to fence row Row, get bigger, get out. So the first thing you have to say is we tend to look at farm and and part of the rural character for people who are farmers. Is that independence? My own bootstraps, my own hard work. You know, the importance of the individual. Right. The determinant of my fate that independence is playing out in a scenario where we have a policy and an economic system that is saying we want fewer, larger.
Scott Marlow: [00:28:06] And there are thousands of ways that that driver is happening. And when we have huge investment in the development of technology, that requires covering more and more acres in order to make it pay out when we have huge public investment in technology to allow larger and larger scale. You know, I constantly hear people bemoaning bemoaning the concept of beginning farmers, beginning farmers can’t get in all those terrible things. Well, you know, when your whole system is predicated on fewer, larger farms, what do you expect to going to happen? You know, on a much higher barrier to entry, a much higher level of, you know, the one of the companies was signing up growers to put in poultry houses. The entry level investment was $1.5 million by the producer, 1.5 million dollars. And I remember a farmer said to me a while ago, we said, you know, when I was a kid, when you turn 16, your parents gave you 10 hogs, you grew them out, you sold them and you bought 20. You grew them out. You sold them bought 30. You drew them out and sold them. And pretty soon you were farming and you didn’t have any debt. Now, to get in your a million and a half bucks in debt to get in the door. And there’s no pay if you sell it.
Scott Marlow: [00:29:22] You know, if you if you grow those 30 hogs, there are very few places to sell them. And so the first thing when we talk about the failure in those things is we have to recognize that folks that these issues are playing out. You know, we can talk about these issues in terms of cash flow and access to markets and and making sure, you know, tracking your net, you know, your net income and those going to the internal issues around having a farm be a going concern. We talked about it at that level. But, you know, we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about it in terms of farmers are increasingly playing against a stacked deck. They’re playing a deck that is stacked against them. There are increasing number of there’s a. And the things that we see in our work with individual farmers who are in crisis and this is not mine, it came from another it came from a different publication in terms of what puts farmers under five Ds, the five Ds disasters, divorces, deaths, disease or disability and disagreements. Right. Those are things that put farms out, right. Does it natural disasters. And a lot of what those things are about is farms are hanging in there and they’re not making a lot of money to make it a little bit of money.
Scott Marlow: [00:30:42] They’re hanging in there. And when something happens, that is a there is very little if we bring in here the concept of resilience, there’s very little financial resilience. There are few reserves. There’s very little financial resilience. And in in in in a concentrated market, that’s really true. People are struggling to those margins are very, very narrow. And so when you have a does it natural disaster. Now we can let’s talk about natural disasters for a second. We’ve had a couple of those. We’ve had some big ones. You were talking a few. Actually, we’ve had a few. Right. And we’re gonna have more. And I don’t think that there’s a. I looked at it in the southern region. I think that there were I looked at the maps. I think that there were there’s a small part of western Tennessee, which is I think the only part of the entire southern region that has not been declared a disaster in the last four or five years. I like there was a tiny little section of counties that had not had a disaster declaration, but the whole rest of the region has been declared death, disaster in the last couple of that’s amazing in our core production of risk management and disaster program is crop insurance.
Scott Marlow: [00:31:53] Insurance is predicated on actuarial tables. The greater the amount of data, the more you can define the risk and quantify the risk, the more cost effective that can become. And this has huge implications for sustainable agriculture, because what that means is that the crops that have. A lot of data. Large scale commodities. You know, we can t we can say how much we can say the price and yield of corn in any county in the country for the last 80 years. USDA can’t say how much produce went through farmer’s markets last year. Yeah, right. We just don’t. We’re not ever, ever going to have the data, which means that the risk management programs for those large scale commodities are going to be easier to develop the programs.
Scott Marlow: [00:32:40] They are going to be more cost effective. They’re going to be more readily available. It’s economies of scale so that the the folks who are selling them are going to be able to sell them more easily with a greater return. When you move into and and the unit of analysis for crop insurance is a single crop in a single year. What that means is that let’s bring in sustainable agriculture practices, anything that manages risk across crops or across years. So across crops, that means crop diversification. That means spreading things out across years.
Scott Marlow: [00:33:10] That means the use of cover crops, conservation, which may increase risk in a single year, but it’s going to reduce risk over time. They don’t get recognized in crop insurance. They’re not incentivized. And they may be disincentivized, actually are disincentivized. So what that means is the we have and develop disaster programs the way we have cracked the structure of crop insurance, select over time and rewards over time. The farmers who will be most dependent on federal programs and on taxpayer dollars over time, it selects for them. So basically what we are doing is over time increasing dependence on the government and dependence on government payments by having a very large scale industrialized system that fails very poorly, has little resilience. And and this has huge implications for who gets to farm, how they get the farm, what they get the farm and access to credit and the access to credit really tied to crop insurance.
Brennan Washington: [00:34:19] Yeah, this same NPR article talked about how in response to the current tariff situation have the bailout payments were really helping farmers. But when those terrorists were first announced, Scott, I had two thoughts.
Brennan Washington: [00:34:35] One was that there’s gonna be a bailout program and two, that they were never going to make it down to small farmers and they were especially not going to make it down to black farmers.
Brennan Washington: [00:34:51] You know, you could see the writing on the wall, and that’s seems to be a way it is how it’s playing out. But I had a chance to spend some time with the agency head of NASS National Agriculture Statistics Organization, and it was during we had a chance to go up there.
Brennan Washington: [00:35:10] I was with Southern’s AG Leadership Program. We had a chance to go there and just tour the facility, see how they gather, see how they do the lockdowns to do. When they announced their crop report and stuff like that.
[00:35:26] And it was during then and I found out that they had during the AG census, they actually were trying to capture some numbers on local food production and and that type of stuff. And I first of all I didn’t know that. And B. So I went took a look at the questions and you know, it it was amazing to me that they approached it from all the wrong directions.
Brennan Washington: [00:35:55] You know, they were asking folks to ask farmers about income and crop production. You know how it is getting financial information out of farmers, it’s like pulling teeth some time. And I was like, well, you know what? Like you said that the deck is stacked because you’re not even starting out from a good information collection point. Where you’re asking the right questions and it was just very frustrating. So I’m I’m going to complain to NASS about how they’re collecting that information. Put you and I’ve had this discussion over how sustainable agriculture and about how we need to do a better job of justifying our existence and and collecting the data that really shows what’s important to us.
Scott Marlow: [00:36:44] And that’s been a tough slog. You know, I like to know that your opinions about that.. I want to hit two things, which are two issues that you’ve raised. One was this issue of the tariff payments. It’s the the market facilitation program payments. Those payments are coming out and to what are called traunches.
[00:37:01] It’s coming out in two tranches. The first one was based on production numbers. So a per acre per hundred weight per animal. You know, you get an extra amount that way. The second is based on acreage, you get a certain amount for acres to you to understanding what those the it’s called market facilitation program. The first issue that you raised was that’s not getting down to small-scale farmers and that’s not getting out to black farmers. I want to talk a little bit about why. One of the things that is true and it’s just true is the history of discrimination, the systemic and direct discrimination throughout U.S.D.A.. That is extremely well-documented. I mean, there are multiple, multiple, multiple internal USDA studies that show differential impacts and differential. It’s both in how programs were designed and how they were implemented. Right. So it’s systemic in multiple ways. So what that means is and those and and those differentials were heavily in issues of access to credit and access to large scale commodity programs. And that’s that’s just that just is it’s not you know, we can’t that’s not debatable. It’s just true. So what that means is that the folks who had been would have would be subject of that discrimination would not have had access to the risk management in terms of commodities programs and also the credit programs to be able to grow and build into a larger scale operation that is able to be economically viable producing the commodities that these payments are associated with.
Scott Marlow: [00:38:37] Right. The fact that what you’re saying what you’re saying about like this is not going to get to this set of farmers is very directl the result of that long term discrimination and that long term concentration and it is predicated on, like I said, these two the two payments that are part of the market facilitation program. One is based on production. So obviously the more you produce, the more money you get out of it. So if you’re a small scale producer, you don’t you’re producing less. The other is based on acreage. So the more acreage you have, the greater your your payment is the acreage payments range from 15 dollars to one hundred and fifty dollars an acre. Right. So if you’re a 10 acre farmer and you’re and it’s based on county, it’s just your county has a number. You know, your county is forty five dollars per acre, whatever. Well if you’re a ten acre or twenty acre farmer obviously. Forty five dollars per acre.
Scott Marlow: [00:39:30] It ain’t that much money. Right. If you’re a thousand acre farmer, it’s a lot more money. Right. But we have to look at that structure in the context of that history. And so the other issue that you’re raising is this issue of issue of of information collection. And what are we. What are we measuring? What are we looking at? What is really what you’re getting at is what is agriculture. And I had I was meeting with the policy person from one of the agricultural banks. And I was talking about these dynamics around scale and dynamics around diversification and other things. And he looked at me.
Scott Marlow: [00:40:08] He said, cows and plows. And I said, excuse me. He said, cows and plows. So what do you mean? He said, that’s what agriculture is. Its cows and plows, its cattle and Large-Scale Commodities. That’s agriculture. That’s what drives the train. The rest of it is irrelevant. It’s a rounding error. It’s not significant. And that’s a that’s a long term sort of framing.
Scott Marlow: [00:40:35] Right of a focus in those ways. One of the things that we work on are working on quite a bit is this issue around information collection and how who owns data. We’re at a really important moment in terms of data collection, which is there is an astronaut. So in the early days of sustainable agriculture work and you sort of remember this, there was very little research on it. There was very little testing on it. There’s very little data collection. And to be honest, in ways we could I mean, we a lot of it was based on people’s individual experience and what they saw play out on their farms. So, so early advocacy around sustainable agriculture was around proof of concept, which means that it was individual stories. I remember early Southern SAWG publications were stories like you hear stories about these farms and how they were able to do these things. Right. So it was very story based. It was very anecdotally based. It was, you know, and it was very individual experience. I have had this experience which is different from the analysis of the rest of agriculture.
Scott Marlow: [00:41:33] As we got into it and as as sustainable agriculture grew, one of the challenges is, you know, there’s a much more of a call and Southerns and SARE in general and Southern SARE was one of the major proponents for more systems based research, but that systems based research was limited by a combination of access to data sets and access to computing analysis capacity. Like how big a multivariate analysis could you? Did you have the computing power to do so? There is a window of time where we had the concepts of the research, but not necessarily the datasets in the computing power to do it. What we have now is a fascinating situation where we’re starting to actually have that. The question is who owns it and who controls it? Because for most of agricultural history, USDA data sets have been pretty definitive and some companies have their own data and have their own research on all those kind of things. But USDA data was pretty definitive and right now USDA is getting a lot left in the dust because you have astronomical amounts of information on that large scale acreage in those large scale farms. There is so much data coming off in the form of the g._p._s precision agriculture, you know, the g._p._s data that’s coming off of the equipment that’s being uploaded into private company cloud, right. Is owned and controlled by industry, not public, not the university. So increasingly in terms of that analysis, USDA and university datasets are irrelevant or not irrelevant. They’re just way behind and way smaller and. And so there is a huge issue right now playing out around who owns the information coming off of someone’s tractor, just like there’s an issue around. You know, I carry around a cell phone. We all do. Who owns the data that’s coming off of my cell phone? Right now, the same thing is true for tractors and combines the concept that that a company has access to real time yield numbers coming off of a critical mass. A statistically significant portion of acreage in the Midwest. In terms of grain markets is an incredibly significant issue.
Scott Marlow: [00:43:52] So I know that your question was around small scale and family farms and what in terms of sustainability, there’s some really core critical issues around sustainability there playing out in in the commodity scale agriculture world around who gets to decide who owns the information, who gets who isn’t, who gets to ask the questions. You know, from working with SARE and SARE’s been such an incredibly important partner on a lot of these research pieces. Who gets to ask the question goes a long way to determining what the answer is.
Scott Marlow: [00:44:26] What research gets done? Who gets to decide? Right.
Brennan Washington: [00:44:31] And, you know, this is data that not too long ago was owned by a farmer. Was either. Right. Notebook. Right. Or an Excel spreadsheet. But, you know, I always tell people, I remember when you used to leave work, you left work when you got off work. You got off work. And it just seems like technology is increasingly being intrusive. Yeah. And the question is, as as that technology digs into our farming operations, into our lives, how much of that do we own? You know, at what point do we say, this is my information and I’m not going to share it?
Brennan Washington: [00:45:10] So one of the things I want to talk to you about, Scott, is you know in sustainable AG. We see like going back to your point about stories, we see these amazing stories about small farmers and just, you know, how people have taken over vacant city lots and doing all this work around urban ag. Sure. And I don’t want to say I’ve become jaded, but I think I’ve become a being, you know, as a as a small farmer myself, as a person who’s been advocating for urban ag quite some time. I won’t say I’ve become jaded, but I think I’ve reached a point where, you know, I need to read the tea leaves and I don’t think small farmers is doing as well as the stories would have us believe. You know, no one ever asks farmers. You know, you see these stories now about how farmers how these small farmers are not making any money, and they’re making ten thousand dollars a year or grossing ten of twelve thousand dollars a year. And they still need to take on off farm jobs and to live up to the promise of, you know, becoming a viable and sustainable supplier of food. You know, we don’t have to ask some tough questions. And I just want to get your opinion about that.
Scott Marlow: [00:46:39] Well, I think you’re absolutely right. And I’ve had and and I and I want to come at that from a couple of different directions. One is. So you mentioned before I do this talk call why farms fail. What that came out of was an experience of being at a sustainable ag conference and sitting in. And at the time, I was the point person on our crisis hotline and sitting in on a beginning farmer workshop and sitting in the back of the room going, wow, if they listened to this advice, if they do this, they’re going to be in my office in four years.
Scott Marlow: [00:47:13] I’m like, I give them four years before we’re talking in restructuring unless they come in with really significant family money. And and and one of patterns that we see is a lot of folks who get into this smaller scale, you know, agriculture is getting part of the challenges that agriculture is getting very, very big and very, very small. So this is where we’re losing the mid-scale work, where we have a rise in number of farmers is in the very large two thousand and above. And the very small 10 and below. Right. For those 10 and below. You know, the. And I’ve had the experience of being at a sustainable ag conference and watching a farmer receive Farmer of the Year awards and being held up as an example and teaching and beginning farmer programs and knowing that literally the next day they were going to be in my office because they were broke. No one’s talking about that. And I’ve had that frustration. I’ve also seen folks, you know, some of them, too. I’ve also seen folks who made their entire living off of two and a half acres for 30 or 40 years. There are some folks who can do it. It’s very, very hard to do. And there are a lot who are not. I completely agree with you that we have to have some really hard conversations. The other thing that we had and I but I want to come back to something which is, you know, in the bigger picture of agriculture, if we look at, you know, the corn soy and cotton acreage, well, let’s let me put it in vegetable acreage.
Scott Marlow: [00:48:46] Vegetables produced for human consumption in the United States is about 4 million acres total. It’s a lot of land, 4 million acres. Corn and cotton combined are 160 million acres. Wow. Right. So in terms of land management and those types of things, vegetables are a rounding error. We often say, well, we should get people to stop growing corn and soy and start growing fruits and vegetables. If we did that, if we moved even one or two percent of corn and soy acreage into fruits and vegetables, you double production and crash the market. Right. I mean, that’s not a viable thing. But where one of the things that we that I have come to believe over time and I’ve had the same experience that you’ve had in terms of looking at small scale and urban ag and trying to understand both its viability and its importance. If we look at it in terms of a large scale economic importance or land management importance, it’s very, very, very small. But we look at the role of farmers market production, we look at the role of urban ag.
Scott Marlow: [00:49:49] When we look at the role of them in terms of connecting people to where their food comes from, building an understanding of sustainability, building an understanding of what food is, where it comes from, and providing a gateway into a deeper conversation about. Structure of agriculture, structure of of where our food comes from. All those types of issues. It’s critically important. I mean, I’ve come to the point of believing really strongly that that kind of direct connection of people with where their food comes from is a critical piece of the sustainability puzzle. It is about power. It is about people’s ability to control their food supply very, very directly. It’s about understanding and consciousness. Wait a minute. That’s what a tomato tastes like? Why do these tomatoes not taste like that? Right. That’s what an apple tastes like. What about this? Right. You can point to a whole lot of ways that that small scale direct market ag has shifted the conversation in the broader agricultural community. And so part of the challenge is and I was talking to a friend once when I was about doing why Farms Fail that that talk. And it’s been interesting because it’s a it’s a it’s a popular talk. I do it different places. But I was talking to a friend who who does a lot of work around beginning farmers, a lot of work around farmer training and all that other stuff. And he said, you know, so what? And I said, yeah, I’m doing this. Why farms fail talk. And they said, oh, you don’t want to do that. You don’t want to discourage people. We need beginning farmers. And that comment struck me so strongly. It was like we need them to be beginning farmers. It wasn’t.
Scott Marlow: [00:51:35] They need you know, there are important markets. It wasn’t what they need. It wasn’t their viability. It was we want to encourage them to do this thing. So part of what I’m in that story is and part of what I am hearing you say is, yeah, a lot of that storytelling and a lot of that other stuff has been about promoting a form of agriculture that we feel good about and that I feel good about, too, I think is important. But you’re right, we have to make some really have some really hard conversations about what makes that viable or not. Yeah. The part of the challenge that we can’t escape, though, is larger scale production. Fruit and vegetable production, livestock production. People go to the farmer’s market and go, wait a minute. Your chicken is $6 a pound. I can the grocery store and get it for 99 cents. And what they don’t recognize is that 99 cent chicken is 99 cents because there’s a huge amount of thousands of ways that that cost is subsidized by federal programs. Yeah. Yeah. And they’re subsidized by all kinds of things.
Brennan Washington: [00:52:37] Yeah. You know, in my conversation, my interview with Carol Williams, you know, I told her we could do a whole show about the darkside of cheap food. Oh, man. Yeah. You know, it’s. Yeah, yeah. Look, nobody in this country wants people to not be able to afford. Well, there may be some people don’t want people to afford food, but we have to look at that. Ninety nine cents a pound chicken. Right. Really? Look at all costs. You know, not all not only the subsidies, but the the labor issues, the making somebody stand on the chicken line for hours in and process X amount of chickens per hour at an ungodly rate. You know, we could do a whole show about that. I’m look of somebody who can speak about that.
Brennan Washington: [00:53:26] But here’s here’s where I think what you’re saying is really important, which is people get stuff around sustainability there. There’s there’s much more consciousness of it. There’s much awareness of it. While farmers markets and small scale direct markets are incredibly important. Urban urban farms are extremely important for a lot of reasons around awareness and understanding and control and entrepreneurship in all kinds of things. We will not farmers market our way out of this.
Scott Marlow: [00:53:58] Right. When we look at the larger scale impacts, you take the three legs of the stool economic, environmental, social and environmental impacts. Justice impacts, economic impacts, impacts on communities, impacts on individuals. We will. Farmers markets are a critical piece of the puzzle. But to me, the critical piece is that that small scale ag is a gateway to a deeper conversation about structure of AG because we don’t get at these structural issues. We don’t then then then that form of agriculture and sustainable agriculture remains a niche that is relegated to direct markets and high value markets. And, you know, we can talk about it sort of how all that plays out and some of those dynamics. But, you know, one of things that I hear is people are like a pox on all their houses. I’m just gonna go buy straight from the farmer. And that’s my thing. Like, you know, that’s great. And that’s important. But we will not farmers market our way out of this.
Brennan Washington: [00:54:58] And you know, someone who’s been involved in promoting urban ag, you know, I remember sitting in a meeting with some NIFA folks and the topic of urban ag came up and I said, well, we don’t support urban that we can’t do urban AG because it’s not in the regs and we debated about this. And not only. So we went and looked at the regs that these folks were citing. And not only was urban agriculture not mentioned in regs, agriculture wasn’t mentioned in this race telling us.
Brennan Washington: [00:55:35] And now we’re now we’re at a point now where USDA has set up this is going to set up this agency with four urban AG. And I was telling somebody pretty high up person the other day I was talking to a couple of weeks ago. And and he was proud of the fact that they had this urban ag initiative, which I’m happy about.
Brennan Washington: [00:55:58] But they put it on the NRCS us. And I said, you know, at the National Outreach Conference when I was sitting on the opening panel and a guy next to me, I think he was second or third man NRCS. I said, man, I remember when you guys practically threw me out the room.
Brennan Washington: [00:56:13] Right. Thought of talking about urban ag. But as someone who’s been involved in urban at my my extreme disappointment with urban ag is that I never thought urban ag was going to feed the world. Scott and it won’t. It won’t. You know, it all comes down to land use policies and a price of that land. And you know, that’s the big obstacle for urban AG. If I could stick a condo, I took a condo development where I’m going to make millions of dollars. You know, I’m not going to do urban ag there. But. I saw urban ag as the gateway to connect with some of these small and mid-sized farms and the rural areas because they had the window into markets. Also, for example, in Atlanta here, you know, you have a lot of diverse people moving in and you have people from the Caribbean, you have people from Africa, you got folks moving from up north down here with disposable income and they are looking for the foods of their homelands. And it just disappoints me, Scott, that that connections still we still have this divide there. You know, because I know farmers in south Georgia who got a couple hundred acres, you know. You know, I know what farm is going, five, six, eight years of college going to stuff like that.
Brennan Washington: [00:57:39] And, you know, if you get behind them and tell that story, people buy the crops. But that just doesn’t seem to be happening.
Scott Marlow: [00:57:46] So it’s very disappointing to me. And part of the part of the challenge is you’re talking about that part of the challenge of the story and and marketing and connections based on story has been incredibly important. And it always will be and all those types of other things. Part of the challenge is we are where we are because. Our federal policy and our choices framed out the agriculture that we wanted to create back in the 30s. And there was an underlying frame which was to facilitate the efficiencies of an industrial system superimposed on a natural system by being able to out to externalize cost and risk. I mean, that’s you’re facilitating efficiencies. Part of the challenge that we have is, you know, and you know so well, one of the concepts of sustainability have two parts. One is the three legged stool. But the other part is a systems approach. And one of the challenges that I have working in federal policy, working in credit issues and all the other things, is we often take what is essentially an input based approach. We don’t have enough beginning farmers. Let’s create something that creates beginning farmers, not the systems approach that says, wait a minute, why are there fewer? Why are beginning farmers having such a hard time getting it? Why is it? And I was just I was just working on this this morning. Two farms next to each other. One that it’s two thousand acres of corn and soy. The other of which is an integrated livestock row, crops, vegetables, rotational grazing, but selling. Enjoy a video markets and selling a diversity of crops. If we look at those from the outside in terms of risk, it’s really clear which one of those is riskier and which one is not the one that’s far more diversified.
Scott Marlow: [00:59:39] That’s a far less that’s addressing risk within the production system. Corn and soy. You’ve got 100 percent of your income in the field during the time when you’re most likely to either get droughts in the latter part of the summer or hurricanes in September, in August, September, October. Right. You got 100 percent of your income in the field if you’re corn, soy, cotton operation. Right. If I’m a diversified fruit and vegetable, like some of the vegetable growers I talked to, they’re like, yeah, by the time I get to hurricane season, I’ve already I’ve already sold 70. I’ve already got 75 percent of my income in the bank because I’ve been selling since March. Right. The risk differences are really clear. But if those two farmers, large scale commodity farmer vs. the highly integrated farm walk into the bank and try to get a loan, guess which one’s going to get a loan faster than the farmers get on the other, you know, the commodity farm is going to get to get a loan. The other one. If they get a loan, it’s gonna be heavily collateralized on their real estate. It’s going to be a really different. It’s gonna be a very different loan situation. That has a huge amount to do with why we are where we are right now. That fact is a function of federal policy, that fact that that one can get a loan and investment and the other can not or can’t get it on the same terms is a function of federal policy.
Scott Marlow: [01:01:03] It’s a function of the system we’ve created and it drives all of the issues that we’re talking about. And this is one of the points that I it in terms of activists and people working on this. People I constantly go to things and people say the system is broken. And my response is, no, it’s not. System is not broken. System is doing exactly what it was designed to do. All of the things that we interact with, the loss of smaller, mid-scale farms, the loss of black farmland and upline, and the farmland owned by farmers of color. The specialization of Farms The Concentration of ownership of farmland, the transition of the. And we haven’t touched on the transition of ownership of farmland from the farmer to a private investment firms. Right. The increased switch of farmland to invest into an investment vehicle rather than being owned by the farmer. That’s huge. It’s a giant issue. All of those things, you know, the separation of people from where their food comes from, the you know, all of these things in in the parlance of computers. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature. It’s the point. It’s not right. Facilitating the efficiency of specialized and concentrated systems is the point of the exercise. As long as we don’t address that underlying frame, only we don’t address that. All of our work on sustainable agriculture is gonna be swimming upstream. Yeah. Yeah. Fighting against it. We’re gonna be fighting the system. Yeah. Be doing on an input basis, which is a violation of our are the very concepts of sustainability that we work with. Does that make sense?
Brennan Washington: [01:02:45] Yes, it does. Yes. And to that point, Scott, you know, people at this point may be depressed, isn’t it? But, you know, do you think there’s hope? You think there’s hope for the work that you and I do, that we can at least increase support the farmers who farm, sustain a?
Brennan Washington: [01:03:08] Lee or we just Sisyphus, Sisyphus \pushing a rock uphill only to have it roll down the hill at the end of the day, so.
Scott Marlow: [01:03:17] Well, this is I was I was doing I was out doing field work with some farms, with a young person who was an intern with us. And this is a long time ago. And we were we’re talking about these issues in time, all this stuff. And at the end of the day, it looked at me and they said, when do we win? Hmm. And and the first answer to that was what came into my head was we don’t want the issues that we’re dealing with our dynamics. These are these are balances of power. And those dynamics move back and forth. They are themselves dynamic. They are they’re not set. They’re not fixed. So there will always be forces towards concentration. There will always be people pushing back towards community based, grass roots based. There will always be these dynamics. And and so we have to look at it in terms of not a dialectic. You know, it’s us versus them and one of us wins. But in terms of finding the balance, you know, economies of scale are real. But so is but so is resilience, finding this balance between efficiency and resilience. It’s going to be a constant dynamic that we’re gonna fight and have to push on forever. And we always have and we always will.
Brennan Washington: [01:04:36] You know, I still think there’s hope.
Brennan Washington: [01:04:38] I was talking and I absolutely last night and I said one of the things I want to concentrate my work on going in 2020 is whenever you hear the term new and beginning farmers, you never hear age mentions in it. You know that you know, only outskirts of age with no one beginning less than 10 years. Generally what you hear, but we really need to start concentrating on people say thirty five and under to really start. Grooming these folks in an and more sustainable ways in agriculture and supporting them, putting some backing for them, because I’ve been in when I got involved with new and beginning farmers, I was forty five years old. And that’s not old. But, you know, I’ve seen new and beginning farm programs where the farmers coming into the programs and getting training with 50 and 60. And I don’t have anything against that. But we really need to get a younger cadre of folks in this who especially if they’re passionate about it, you know.
Brennan Washington: [01:05:45] And so I think there’s hope there’s a lot of younger folks now who at their core beliefs involve sustainability. They they they believe in climate change. And, you know, is that USDA USDA is not going to do that. But I think it’s up to organizations like yours, like RAFI and us to really get to identify those folks and really support them. So before I leave you, I would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the work that you’re doing around farmer stressors and. Yeah, farmer mental health. So I know you’re doing a bunch of stuff around that. But I want to talk. And I I if someone who’s been involved in this work, Scott, I sort of knew it’s an issue.
Brennan Washington: [01:06:32] But there was a couple of things that really dropped to an anvil on my head. Well, my head was one was after Hurricane Michael, I was sitting down having my breakfast and watching TV and they was talking about the coverage of Hurricane Michael. And it just dawned on me. Holy shit. You know, we had a hurricane up in I don’t, I remember her name, but up in North Carolina and I was talking with folks at North Carolina AT&T about it. And then we had the storms in Texas and Louisiana, and that’s when the southeast is getting killed. And I was looking at for the perspective. Well, no farmer likes to talk about their feelings, you know. You know, I have talked about this. If you give a seminar farm, a suicide room room’s going to be empty. But I said, you know, no farmer likes to talk about it. And in the black community, mental health issues are not really discussed. You know, we’re starting to have a full awareness, but it’s not discussed or swept under the rug. And I was like, man, I wonder how many farmers out there suffer. And then my mom passed away back in February. And between November and December, I was driving up to, you know, just to be with my sister and stuff while she was going, which she was going through. And so I stay on my break trip to two legs to stay with my brother in law in Suffolk on Eastern Shore and, you know, 13 up into up in Jersey. And I passed a suicide hotline billboard. Now you see those a lot on highways. But what struck me, it was specifically aimed at farmers. They had a picture of a farmer sitting at a table and just call and then coming back, I saw same thing. And I said, well, there’s this issue and you’ve been working through your work for me.
Brennan Washington: [01:08:26] You’ve been working on this issue for many, many years. I just want to end this segment, just talking about one. Just what you saw in the past and B, what’s going on right now? Is it any different or do you think it’s worse or you know, there’s a lot of reasons to be concerned right now.
Scott Marlow: [01:08:46] There are. And this is where I would start, which is if you think about the things, the identity that we think of when we think of farmers, independent, self-directed, stand on their own two feet, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, work hard, care about the land, all those things, the things that make farmers the respected, the the people that are very highly respected in lots of ways. When you combine that and that expectation, I’m going to stand on my own two feet in my own hard work on all the kinds of things. And you combine that with an economic system that says it didn’t matter how hard you work. You’re not gonna be successful. You’re right. Because of economies of scale, because of concentration, you know, corporate concentration, concentration markets, all those other things.
Scott Marlow: [01:09:28] Increasingly, farmers are under threat of things completely out of their control. And natural disasters is part of it. The whole issue of climate change and all the natural disasters. But you throw in their markets, you have you know, instead of 10 different poultry integrators, you have two. Which means that they’ve got you over a barrel. The high level of debt that you’re carrying, you’re carrying much higher levels of debt than you used to have to for all this technology means that you’re carrying. You know, I’ve always known farmers who were investing a million dollars operating capital to take home thirty thousand. That’s crazy. But all of those things mean that farmers will go away. All those things about caring for the land, standing on your own two feet. Who you are, their investment as a farmer means that they’re going to go much further sticking with it than somebody who doesn’t have that kind of personal investment.
Scott Marlow: [01:10:18] And the industry knows that. And they’re able to drive people and and profit from it. So the point is, when you’ve kept this when you get this combination of the expectation of individual responsibility and autonomy and hard work and that being rewarded and that being your role, when you combine that with an economic system that says it doesn’t matter how hard you work, we’re going to take that away from you when you put those two things together. That’s going to create a great deal of frustration and stress and all kinds of other things. And that stress is going to go one of two directions. It’s going to go either going to go in, which is depression, suicide, substance abuse, or it’s gonna to go out, which is domestic violence and other acts of of acting out, other acts of violence. It’s going to one direction to the other.
Brennan Washington: [01:11:05] I didn’t even think about that. You know, you always think about the inward stuff, but you never think about people taking that those frustrations and turning it outwards. You know, that’s that’s an interesting perspective.
Scott Marlow: [01:11:19] The rise of radicalization came straight out of the rise of the militia movements came straight out of the 80s farm crisis. It’s a it’s a huge point of radicalization. Again. This is part of the design. You have a system. If you have a system that is designed to concentrate, to have a go after economies of scale and specialization, what that means is that people are going to lose. Right. No one’s out making more farmland. Right. So if so, if we’re predicated around increasing the scale of farms, somebody is going out and they’re going out all the time. And part of it is what we see and what we deal with is the human cost of the industrialization process. This is not just like and it bothers me when people talk about it in terms of a biomedical model. You need to get medication. You need to get counseling. No, this stress and and depression and stress and all the things is a logical response to an illogical system. Right. This is not an illogical response. It is based on very real dynamics and very real powerlessness. It’s not just feelings of powerlessness. It is powerlessness. Right. Things are out of your control. One of the things. And so in terms of this. And you’re absolutely right that what you brought up at the very beginning that focus on the Midwest, large scale white farmers in the Midwest, an astronomical percentage of the materials on mental health are focused on white male, large scale farmers in the Midwest, an astronomical percent, because even some of the southern universities pick up the research that comes from the Midwest.
Scott Marlow: [01:13:03] And there was really good work done in the Midwest in the 80s farm crisis around these mental health impacts. What we have really not done the work to look at how these issues play out differently in communities of color, in smaller scale communities, in different areas of the country and in different places, and to recognize that this is playing out. There are moments where the numbers get over. There are moments when there’s more of a critical mass. But that’s the speed and the numbers, not the absence or presence. We’ve we’ve never had a time. I I I’m not an expert on mental health stuff. I only know it because we deal with it. You know, when I was the person who was answering phone calls, I had to have suicide prevention training and are a series of our staff. People have to go through that suicide prevention training because we’ve dealt with it and we’ve had those calls. We’re going to have more of them. And I think we’re going to have more of them soon. And so those of us who work in agriculture have to be way more aggressive of meeting people who are going through this transition seat. And I’ll finish with this, because I think it’s really important.
Scott Marlow: [01:14:12] There is a mental model in farming that huge amounts of resources have been put behind, which allows farmers who are above the line of viability to distance themselves, who are below from those who are below the line of a viable bomb still farming. I’m different from those who went out and they went out because they’re bad managers. They went out because they’re lazy. They went up because of this or that or that or that or that. Even though we know that it’s really it’s been heavily driven by concentration. And a lot of these, you know, policy and market and other issues have really driven a lot of that loss.
Brennan Washington: [01:14:44] But but there’s this cognitive thing that is like this there that I’m not them who said don’t say that, because when those farmers who were above the law, when they start to have issues, you know, they’ve already ingrained this mentality into their head that the farmers below the line, they did something wrong. They will like it’s something wrong with them. Yeah, they’re not worthy. And they start to have problems right now. It’s like, oh, wait a minute, you know. Oh, all right.
Brennan Washington: [01:15:17] You know, they they they they probably. Get even more depressed because they’re not supposed to be like those folks who are below the line, exactly right.
Scott Marlow: [01:15:25] And so what happens is when they fall below the line, the problem is that they have nowhere to land because they’ve already distanced themselves from the people who share their experience. And they’re now they’re no longer a part of the people that they identify with. So they’re on their own. And there’s and there’s an unfortunate. Well, not. I’m going to say it’s more than unfortunate. There’s a really nasty dynamic to that, which is that which is around issues of discrimination and other things. Which is what when you went through it. That was right and good. You deserve to lose your farm. I don’t deserve to lose mine when I go through it. It’s an injustice. When you went through it, that was fine.
Scott Marlow: [01:16:02] It wasn’t a big deal to me. One of the core questions. One of the core issues in dealing with these issues over the next few years and I’m not talking a long time from now, I’m talking about a couple of months from now is when farmers go through that experience. Who is present? To help them see their connection to the people who went through it before and not their distance from the people who went through it before. Who is there to help them make sense of the world and why they’ve gone through this and how to focus their energy in a positive rather than a negative way.
Scott Marlow: [01:16:38] And in that question, I think is going to be key, can be key and lots and lots of ways, because if we don’t address it, I can say that there are lots of messages that are that take that down a really bad path. And that bad path can either be internal or can be external. And so being able to find these connections of those with those who went before it, and that’s across lines of scale. That’s across lines of race, across lines of gender, it’s a little cross lines of a whole series of things being able to find that connection and find a place of going, oh, I get it. I’m not in it alone. The biggest message that we put out that we have to consistently put out. For farmers who are going through that crisis is you are not alone. You are not the only one. You are connected to other people who’ve been through it, too. Your experience is connected to a lot of other folks. It’s a part of a bigger dynamic and you are not alone. And that connecting people is a really critical piece of this puzzle. OK. OK.
Brennan Washington: [01:17:43] Well, Scott, I want to thank you for spending some time with us today. Oh, happy to. Looking forward to catching up with you at Southern SAWG. Absolutely. Does RAFI have any events coming up that you want to announce or publicized?
Scott Marlow: [01:17:59] We’re a little ways off from doing our come to the table conference.
Scott Marlow: [01:18:02] We do a conference every other year. It’s not this spring, but the following spring is gonna be our come to the table conference, which is a food faith and farms conference, bringing those groups together to address more systemic issues and really look at drivers of both farm issues, but also food security and food access, things like that. So that’ll be in North Carolina and in a year. We continue to have our work on or continue to have our work our our farm crisis hotline. We’re taking calls. We also are doing a series of things. At some point we should talk about the whole. We should do one of these and talk about the whole question of disasters and climate change. Yes. In disaster recovery, because we’re doing some pretty extensive work in eastern North Carolina around disaster recovery, but really community. What does community based disaster recovery look like? So we’re part of some groups. We’re doing some work in eastern North Carolina on those issues. Are you working a lot of this stuff, AT&T at all? A little bit. They’re part of some of that.
Brennan Washington: [01:18:59] We’ve had some conversations with Dr. Eley and there’s a whole 1890. And once again, these are the bright spots you see.
Scott Marlow: [01:19:07] But the 1890 land grants have formed a consortium that’s working on its issues and looking to develop cultural, culturally appropriate practices to address in this disaster recovery work. But that’s something that really needs to be done.
Brennan Washington: [01:19:25] And I commend you for doing it. Whatever we can do to help you spread the word, you just let us know. Thanks very much. Thanks for giving us a sense of view. And I’m looking forward to seeing a little rock.
Scott Marlow: [01:19:37] Absolutely. You, too. Thank you so much. I enjoyed it. Thank you.
Scott Marlow: [01:19:41] Yep. Thank you for listening to the Sustainable AG rider. podcast. Please visit our website at Sustainable AG Writer dot com where you can subscribe to the show on i-Tunes Stitcher, Google Play and Spotify. If you found value in this show, we’d appreciate a rating on i-Tunes. Please tell your friends and colleagues about the show and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Once again, thank you for listening to the Sustainable AG rider. podcast. Sustainable AG News and Views.
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