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Column: A lesson in the challenges of sustainable farming

  • Bill Nichols. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 2/28/2020 10:20:15 PM
Modified: 3/4/2020 10:27:15 AM

In December I wrote a column for the Valley News on sustainable agriculture and climate change that proved there is sometimes a little daylight between what I know and what I think I know. I said if our federal policies supported sustainable farming and the economic needs of the communities around them, we could address climate change and tamp down some of the rage that led many farmers to back Donald Trump.

Before long, I heard from a Vermont farmer who showed me that the challenges of sustainable farming are no simpler than those of politics.

“As the owner of a certified organic orchard for 30 years, I am well aware of the benefits of sustainable agriculture,” wrote the farmer, who asked to remain anonymous. These benefits, he noted, include personal health. However, this farmer is also a part-owner of some farmland in the Midwest. “I have been made painfully aware of the economic realities,” he wrote, of medium-scale farming of corn and soybeans. Farmland out there is expensive, he said — $7,500 an acre in his case. Property taxes are steep and equipment costs a fortune.

He was skeptical about farming without machines. A farmer in the Midwest “is not going to get out of the tractor to put his hands in the soil or pull weeds,” he insisted. “I’m fully in support of hand weeding. Can’t say that I enjoy it, having hacked many a corn plant out of bean fields as a youngster, but it would be preferable to what’s happening now. Today’s Midwestern corn/beans farmer can’t afford to hand weed. He’s growing the same crops on a thousand acres as every other farmer around, competing on price and price alone. It’s a race to the bottom. He’s locked into a lowest common denominator economic model, the only one he knows, and he doesn’t have another model to switch to.”

In the Midwest, he said, even “mechanical weeding” is not an option. Too expensive. Farmers turn to chemicals — including the herbicide Roundup, which causes environmental damage and has prompted lawsuits from tens of thousands of plaintiffs seeking millions, if not billions, in damages. As a result, he said, the water tables on most medium-scale Midwestern farms are “drenched with agricultural chemicals.” He added: “You’d be a fool to drink the water; everyone knows it but most deny it.”

So how, he asked, does a farmer switch to sustainable agriculture? “Organic agriculture taking over the Midwest will require many more farmers with a completely different mindset,” he said. “Where will those farmers come from? What are their prospects for economic survival? Who are the consumers willing to pay more for ‘organic’?”

He delivered a dose of reality. But I’m still hopeful.

When I wrote back, I mentioned Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer whose writing has earned a wide audience. Berry has raised some of the same questions as the Vermont farmer: Who will work the land in the future? How will farmers make a living without killing the land they need to sustain them?

And I recalled my friend David Kline, an Amish organic farmer and writer in Ohio. When we recently visited David and his wife, Elsie, he seemed as close to despair as I’ve seen him when we talked about our political predicament and the circumstances facing small dairy farms like his. But, I told the Vermont farmer, for at least 20 years I’ve known young people willing to work and study and make sacrifices of various kinds to start small but thriving Community Supported Agriculture projects. ( lists more than 4,000 CSA farms.)

And if federal policies began to support sustainable agriculture practices, I can imagine medium-scale corn and soybean farmers finding ways to diversify and move to more labor-intensive practices. They could bring wholesome produce to local markets and provide good jobs to young people seeking to learn how to farm sustainably.

Still, I agreed with the Vermont farmer when he said the “entire culture and financial model will have to be changed completely in the Midwest for sustainable ag to work.”

In our next exchange, the Vermont farmer said he was encouraged to hear about young people working to make a living with CSA agriculture: “Exactly what’s needed to begin to change the farming culture of the Midwest. We’ll cross our fingers and hope they make it.” He pointed me to The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming by Jean-Martin Fortier “for the most publicized example of hand farming.”

It felt as though we were finding common ground.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at

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