A Fireside Chat

We sat around the dinner table, next to the wood burning stove, in the farmhouse at Two Sparrows Farm (Lowell, Michigan). This was last month, in the month of March, and it was still very much winter here. My wife and I were with Dan and Whitney, friends of ours and the founders of Two Sparrows. As the wind buffeted the old house, our conversation turned at one point on the very real challenges faced by those looking to start a sustainable farm in 21st Century America.

Our hosts grabbed my attention by observing that, traditionally, Americans spent 25% of their income on food; we now spend 10%. On the surface, this seems like a very good thing. But the cause of the lower food costs is, presumably, the direct result of factory farming: Model-T industrial structures applied to produce and livestock (economies of scale and the like). There is a tradeoff for lower prices. For one, there’s a compromise in flavor (the produce and meats produced in such a way, frankly, lack taste). For another, one could argue (and I do) that it lacks nutritional value. Then there are the ethical questions that arise when we treat animate objects (vegetation and animals) as if they were inanimate objects.

The real obstacle to starting a small, family farm–our hosts helped us realize–is the great difficulty of affording farmland. Unless one inherits farmland, one must buy it. Easier said than done. The new farmers, looking to purchase land, must  compete not only against large agribusinesses who’d like to acquire more farmland but large agribusinesses backed by federal subsidies. Such entities can pay as much as three times as much as the individual family.

I believe that we are seeing things beginning to shift, gradually, in the direction of sourcing our foods from small, sustainable farms. It starts, appropriately enough, at the grass roots level: by making small–but incremental–changes to the way we buy and eat. We take steps in the right direction by spending our hard-earned dollars on the more nutrient-dense and often more flavorful food provided at our local farmers’ markets.

1 reply
  1. Jeff Duba
    Jeff Duba says:

    This post said the percentage of the American income traditionally spent on food was 25% (then) versus 10% (now). I received some new data that in 1970 that percentage was 17% and in 2012 that percentage was 11%. A couple thoughts: (1) factory farming was already being utilized by 1970, so the figure of 25% may not be too far off from a historical perspective. A counterpoint: (2) if household incomes have been rising in America, that would be a major factor in a lowering percentage of a household’s income being spent on food. Then again, other data says that higher percentages of food have been bought and sold outside of the home, which should mean that food as a percentage of the American income should have been rising.

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