After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

Don’t Confuse Agri-Business With Family Farms

(Posted by Fred Tutman.)

I am deeply upset about what appears to be an unavoidable collision course brewing between Chesapeake Bay advocates and a relatively small segment of the agricultural community that has a big footprint in Maryland and in the Chesapeake Bay. It is a confrontation that is causing huge rifts between champions for water quality and advocates for the future of “true” agriculture in the state. It is a fight that is fast making enemies of those who really should be allies.

I was raised on a Maryland farm. And living off land is deeply embedded in my psyche. Some of my formative memories of growing up include planting and harvesting tobacco and other crops, or playing hide and seek in the rows of wheat and corn, heaving dust cloud grenades at my playmates fighting mock battles on sandy dry soil. My early years often found me riding down country lanes on the buckboard of a farm cart with the warm sun on face. I remember the briny smell from a string of fresh-caught yellow perch riding next to me.

On the way to and from the hot fields in August we would stop by natural springs and drink sweet water from the ground using a weathered soda bottle that hung from a string on the side of that same wagon. Water sweet and cold straight from the ground! I can still taste it in my imagination.

I can strip and overhaul the carburetor of a Farmall tractor, prime a water pump to irrigate the fields and perform a thousand other tasks that have no parallel in any other line of work. Just the other day I was leafing through a family album of grainy photos that portray the rich heritage of my African-American family completely tied to the sense of place and the routine tasks of self sufficiency and close stewardship with nature on an American farm.. Through droughts, hurricanes, frigid winters and other hazards, we hung on and our partnership with the land was our center.

So for years it has been with a flush of white-hot anger that I hear Chesapeake Bay policy wonks and planners with absolutely no context for what it means to work with their hands to bring a crop to market talk with great authority about how farms are ruining the Bay and opine that farmlands should be in the hands of the public or of preservationists (for safekeeping).

Crazy talk. I draw the line between family farms where the stewards of land are committed to the values and ideals of farming instead of being cogs in the vast machine of industrial agriculture. They are not the same interests. Not by a longshot. Besides, regulating genuine farming interests while giving a free pass to the urbanization interests in our watersheds is absurd. Urban runoff is an even bigger problem in my watershed but of course everybody needs to do their share and not everyone has exactly same share of the problem.

Where I work on 110 miles of the Patuxent River we do not have manure farms like they have on the Delmarva Peninsula, but I can tell you that we are losing farmland at historic rates. Blacktop is the last crop these formerly lush lands will ever see. Sure, we save the odd farmstead here and there, but we are quickly fragmenting the landscape that used to nurture independent family-run farms. I know firsthand how difficult it is to thrive in a farm lifestyle without the comforting web of artisans, the embrace of a surrounding sustaining community and without the countless specialized crafts that are needed in order to maintain a really viable local farming economy. Morally I feel we need to be fighting to save farms instead of fighting farmers. But not everybody driving that one-ton pick-up truck these days is really a farmer anymore.

Strong independent farms are as integral to my environmental values as…clean water. To allow agri-business or corporate-oriented farm associations to draw artificial battle lines between farmers and water-quality advocates implies that whoever wins in court will leave a deeper rift that will be hard to heal. But our true adversary is the toxic business model or contract-farming practices that are equally toxic to the Chesapeake Bay.

Frankly, I can see no correlation at all between the agribusiness, factory farm model that has begun to replace and dominate farming all over America. Those are not really “farms” at all in my book. Industrial farms are using the few remaining true family farms as a shield to break down the fabric of the farming heritage that made our country so productive and so prosperous. Some of us have confused genuine farming interests with the deeply corrupted, cold-blooded business enterprises that are strangling one of America’s greatest assets: its farms!

These conglomerates make billions while the hardworking family enterprise can barely make a go of it through honest hard work, even with multiple part-time jobs. It They make a mockery of the basic values of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. These monopolistic interests have beguiled many–by clouding the worthwhile dialogue about where our food comes from and how our land links to the nearby waters, and how healthy regional economies work. Instead they talk of subsidies, global economies, compliance secrecy all while steadily building a legacy of Bay waters filled with animal waste and social bile.

As a Riverkeeper I have concluded that there is really no way to barter, or have any sort of reasonable dialogue with parties who do not act in good faith. No sense trying to educate or reason with those unmotivated by either knowledge or reason. Those who do not seek to solve problems—but rather to deflect blame. Who do not propose practical economic solutions, only seeking to pass the buck to others.

And while our adversaries in this bitter fight claim they want less government and not more, they have demonstrated through years of abuse of both the land and the water that vigorous government regulation is the only way they will ever accept responsibility for what happens to the waste products created by their profit making apparatus. I suspect such players will never comply with the environmental laws unless a judge orders it. So be it. Long live the original stewards of land, America’s true farmers. Let’s restore the true vision of farming through any means necessary and the clean waters will naturally follow.

8 Responses to Don’t Confuse Agri-Business With Family Farms

  1. Once again we hear the statement that farmers are the true stewards of the land. I suggest that folks take a drive out through the countryside this weekend and see what these small farmers are doing to our streams. Every farmers is an agri-business and a “factory farm”. Factories produce a product and that is what a farmer does; produce milk, meat, vegetables, grain. The urban element will have to address the nutrients and sediment from their property. Waste-water treatment plants will discharge cleaner water. We all need to do our part. If your small farm is in base-line compliance by having soil loss at less that “T”, address your animal concentration areas (barnyards, feedlots, sacrifice lots, etc.), have and have implemented a conservation plan and a nutrient/manure management plan, buffered all streams then you have done your share.

  2. Tom if you see this…it’s exactly as I was saying in our recent communication. An extensive article is written which documents the damage brought to our Bay by the callous disregard of the agri-business industry, namely Big Chicken, on the eastern shore. Then comes the hailstorm of responses from the farmers themselves who take offense, even though most of what I hear and read from the “environmentalists” on this subject always include the qualifier language that the individual farmers are not the culprits in this debauchery of the Bay.

    And so it goes over and again as interested parties lob information and comments back and forth and nothing positive happens; just more hard feelings and further retrenchment.

    The question becomes, how do we change the paradigm? How/when do we get these parties together in a concerted, team effort to put the pressure where it belongs, directly on the Perdue’s and the Tyson’s, to take care of the mess they leave behind as they reap their enormous profits and “heap” (pun intended) environmental degradation.

    • Mr. Wilson, I agree with you 110%. What are we actually going to do to protect our streams and ground water? I have offered my Inventory – Assessment & Planning Tool to well over 40 people representing a couple of dozen organizations. This Tool inventories 22 environmental concerns and recommends conservation practices to address any shortcomings. It makes an estimate of cost to install these conservation practices. But it appears that NO ONE really wants a program that could show sub-watershed by sub-watershed where the good, the bad and the ugly are located. I have worked in the professional conservation service business for over 45 years; I think that now is the time finally address non-point runoff pollution.

  3. What is the definition of “family farm” here. Farming is a business, regardless of the size, and the majority of farms are family farms.

    Most farms are interested in conservation and caring for the land. The larger farms are regulated in these matters.

  4. Your attempt to polarize the farm communtity between “factory farms” and “family farms” is repugnant, as is your implication that profit is a nefarious motive. 98% of farms are operated by families.

    Families that contract with Tyson or Perdue do so willingly without compunction. Contracting is one way to remove market risk from their operation.

    Today’s modern, large scale farming operations (contract or otherwise)are necessary to feed a growing world, and in fact, have a smaller environmental footprint per unit of production than the bucolic 1950’s model you seem to espouse.

    If you think large scale efficient agriculture that affords us cheap food is a problem, you should first address the almost 1 billion people that go to bed hungry every night, and the fact that the U.N. says we need to increase food production 70% by 2050.

  5. Let’s be clear, Robin, non point source pollution from farm fields is subject to no regulation at all under the Clean Water Act.

    When a pipe – or an entire city sewer system – spews toxic chemicals or sewage into a water body, that’s a specific “point source,” and the law empowers regulators to move in and punish violators. That is, as long as the pollution doesn’t come from a farm field. That’s called “non-point source pollution” – and under federal law, it’s unregulated.

  6. I usually find that one sad dimension to the rampant environmental justice problems in our society is that there is often a real disparity in what information people can get or have access to. Sometimes it has more to do with where people get their news and information but often it is an access problem. Folks can get very different information depending on who they are, or where they live, but also the quality and authenticity of the information available to them differs as well! This is far apart from just differing perspectives—(essential to good debates and better democracy) but sometimes controversy boils down to us having very different facts.

    This is very obvious in the present debate about what a factory farm is, and whether a farm is really just a farm regardless of being a community based + family owned and operated venture versus a sub-contracted enterprise that is part of a corporate conglomerate.

    According to the EPA the raising of livestock is increasingly dominated by “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs). Instead of the classic pastoral image of a farm with a herd of animals, and operational practices that nurture farm fields, these CAFOs are factory like buildings where animals are bred for “rapid growth” and high output of meat, milk or eggs. It is not unusual for the animals to be densely packed together, caged, tethered or chained. Most CAFOs bring in their feed from elsewhere instead of growing it on site and they also rely on a variety of antibiotics in their stock to protect against disease and to maximize productivity and profit. These are literally “feeding operations” and not “farms” in any real sense of what a comparable locally owned venture looks like. My own belief is that a wholesome farm venture with a locally responsive business model tends to raise livestock on pastures, conducts its commerce primarily with other local interests and uses the manure by-product to benevolently fertilize their own fields. Such ventures are often involved in row or tree crops too.

    The assertion that contract farms are actually locally owned evades the more acute reality that factory farms are generally corporate controlled and that small farms cannot compete with them. These two business models are incompatible because factory farms put small locally run ones out of business. Some “farmers” contract willingly because they must do so or face foreclosure and follow the market trends controlled by big business. Both of the commercial models described here might after a fashion be thought of as “farms” but they have very different environmental and sustainable footprints. I refer both to environmental sustainability and business sustainability collectively. It has been said authoritatively that a CAFO on 100 acres generates the same amount of sewage as a city of 100,000 residents. A significant difference is that a city would have a waste treatment plant, a CAFO typically sprays its waste on the fields or buries it, or pumps it into lagoons which offers several handy vectors for contaminating the surrounding ecology. The added assertion that such mega-practices are needed and justified in order to feed a hungry world is absurd. They are needed to feed corporate profits and greed. There are lots of geo-political and social reasons why we have unfed masses on this planet. It is surely not because we lack enough factory farms to feed everybody…

  7. Well, Fred, since you’ve waded into the CAFO manure, such as it is, let’s remember that CAFO development (for cattle operators) is a major tool used by NRCS to get cattle out of streams, wetlands, stream buffers, and erodible soils. If (IF) the CAFO waste is treated by an up-to-date system (common for cattle, uncommon for poultry), there should be very little pollution, and a net gain in water quality from animal exclusion from sensitive soils and surface water.

    I understand that I used the word “should.” And of course, this doesn’t address any of the animal health & welfare aspect of CAFOs. But in theory, the CAFO operator CAN improve his watershed.