Q&A: F is for “Team” – A journalist with agricultural training on the future of sustainable food production

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Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an electronic newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finder offers a question-and-answer session with a rural thinker, creator or actor. Do you like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and get more conversations like this in your inbox every week.


Sarah Mock, the author of Farm (and other F words), describes his first job out of college as a quest for adventure. Instead of looking for traditional rental accommodation, she decided to swap her job for a room and board in a program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). According to her testimony, the small organic vegetable producer she worked for scraped off the $ 300 he made each week at the local farmer’s market by feeding his volunteer workers bolognese sandwiches and lodging them in a motorhome. junky.

Like many non-drifting undergraduates at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I unwittingly followed in Mock’s footsteps. A few weeks locked in with my Zoom classes sent me out into the world in search of something that I embarrassingly called “tangible.” Unlike Mock, my accommodation was exactly what I signed up for (nothing more tangible than a charley horse pumping an air mattress on foot) and my farmer hosts were kind and knowledgeable. I fell asleep to the sound of the stream, ate ripe strawberries in April, and for the first time experienced the special pleasure of wielding a nail gun.

But that’s not to say that I don’t agree with Mock’s broader conclusion, that farms that depend entirely on volunteer or informal labor are unsustainable and, in many cases, immoral. While small vegetarian farms with tiny profits trying to reduce overhead costs are arguably less obnoxious than larger, more profitable farms that rely on the exploitation of undocumented workers, they exist on the same spectrum of market failures. .

As Mock argues in his book, “Independent family farms have proven overwhelmingly incapable of meeting the challenges of the past, let alone those of a warmer, drier and much less certain future.”

Read about his favorite alternative, the “Big Team Farm, below.


What is your agricultural background? How did you come to care about it?

I grew up on a small family farm in Wyoming. I spent my childhood working in the garden, hauling water to the barn when the pipes were frozen in winter, and milking dairy goats in the dark before school. I have also been active in youth agricultural programs like 4H and FFA, which allowed me to gain hands-on experience in production as well as getting to know the wide world of issues in agriculture, farming and farming. water scarcity in the West to the area eminent to urban agriculture. . It was also while doing 4 hours that I began to be wary of the economic model that underlies small family farming. When developing a business plan for my dairy goat business as a teenager, I found it virtually impossible to make the numbers work, even without paying for my own work or rent. owned by my parents. As a child, I rejected my inability to square the circle believing that I just didn’t know the secret. family farms, as they are now, are not able to be profitable. And recognizing this paradox is what put me on the path to writing this book.

Sarah Mock “in the field”, covering many aspects of agribusiness and industry. (Photo submitted)

Throughout the book you assert that farming is a real estate business. What do you mean by that and what is its implication for the ideal of “good farm” of which you speak?

It is undeniable that while most “small family farms” in the United States do not generate farm income from year to year (in fact, according to the IRS, the vast majority lose significant amounts), most of farmland owners are not at risk of losing it year after year. There are several reasons why this is true, but most boil down to the idea that folx just want to own farmland and may justify losing money, because in addition to these losses creating tax deductions, the property itself gains value over time. Farmland is an investment class (hence why billionaires like Bill Gates talk about it) and farmland owners make money just by owning it, let alone disposable income from rent if the owner is not the operator.

The biggest implication of this reality is that the narrative that farmers are a perpetually and almost universally impoverished class with “nothing but dirt in their name” is a big miscalculation. “Nothing but dirt” is a rather dismissive way of describing an investment class that has outperformed the S&P 500 for most of the past 50 years. In the United States, about two million farmland owners own about $ 3 trillion in farmland, making the average American farmer a millionaire.

You write about the uniquely American tale of farmers as victims. How would you say farmers actually have more power than we think?

As I explained above, farmers to do have access to wealth. There is certainly an idea in agriculture to be ‘land rich, money poor’, which means that all farm assets are tied to the land, leaving the farming family close to impoverishment in terms. money in the bank. But the point is, capital intensity is not unique to agriculture. Many industries in the U.S. economy require large amounts of capital to operate, and many may only operate during certain parts of the year or have to contend with the effects of weather conditions during their operating season. Being able to manage a company’s cash flow is part of the business leadership role that is expected from other industries.

On the bright side, farmers who want to leverage their assets to access the tools, workers, or other resources they need don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Innovations in harnessing assets and using equity to secure resources is something startups in other industries have been perfecting for decades, to the point that simple and easy digital solutions are available to farmers. What is needed to benefit from it is usually a mental change. If a farmer’s goal is to build a successful farming business that earns money, creates high-quality products, and doesn’t abuse their workers, leveraging farmland equity is a good tool. . But if the goal is to hold private farm assets at all costs to accumulate more private wealth, the “land rich, cash poor” complaint is likely to persist.

In the last chapter of the book, you write about the concept of “big team farms”. What does this term mean and how does it take root in the histories and practices of Blacks, Indigenous people, and Asian Americans?

Large team farms are the reverse of small family farms. These are agricultural businesses that seek to produce good food, provide good jobs, and do both without harming the environment. They do this by bringing together teams of workers and owners, rather than obsessing over family farming, and aiming to manage large areas rather than small farms. They avoid independence in favor of collaboration.

North America’s longest agricultural tradition is in the realm of large team farms – that is, many Native American cultures practiced and continue to practice farming commons systems. Historically, these systems were use-based, meaning that an individual or family could have use of any amount of farmland they could reasonably care for, and when their ability to do so. use effectively diminished or the family moved, control of the land would return to the community to be reassigned to another individual or family. Monica M. White, in her flagship book Freedom Farmers, explored the history of similar collaborative efforts among black communities in North America, from the time enslaved peoples were forcibly brought to America to today. Valerie J. Matsumoto presented a similar account in Farming the Home Place of American-Asian farming traditions in California in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, as Asian-American farm laborers fought for the land. and dignity against extraordinary racism and erasure on the West Coast.

America is a land of great team farming. In the context of this story, small family farming is much more like an aberration, a brief and relatively unsuccessful experience.


This interview first appeared in Path seekers, a weekly electronic newsletter of the Daily Yonder. Every Monday, Path Finders offers a question-and-answer session with a rural thinker, creator or actor. Join the mailing list today to get these insightful conversations straight to your inbox.


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