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.