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It’s A Family Affair

Former Big Ag booster now says small is beautiful and profitable

February 3, 2005 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Dean Conners

John Ikerd used to tell struggling farmers to “get big or get out.” Then he noticed that many who followed his advice lost their farms, while those who didn’t actually prospered -- oh yeah!.

Some of Michigan’s biggest factory farms are family-owned operations. This fact causes great consternation across the state, from corner cafés to the Legislature in Lansing, as people who care about agriculture debate how and why the public should save family farms and their land.

Because such debates often boil down to “family farms versus factory farms,” a large number of family-owned factory farms are caught in the middle. So are people who know and love those families and want to help them, but dislike the air and water pollution or the growth hormone and antibiotic injections that come with their businesses. They also know that these family owners of large industrial farms have simply followed the advice of agricultural advisors who started telling them in the1970s to get with mass-production techniques —  “get big or get out.”

John Ikerd, who spoke at last weekend’s Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference in Gaylord, used to be one of those “get big or get out” experts. No more. Mr. Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics from the University of Missouri, preached a remarkably different gospel last Saturday as he explained what he believes a family farm actually is, and how staying true to the heart of a family farm’s nature is the key to prosperity and healthy food.

Mr. Ikerd’s message is pertinent to the many farms in Michigan who are now struggling to survive. Twenty percent of Michigan’s farms “got out” since 1974; the ones that “got big” now face the tremendous regulatory challenges that come with mega amounts of manure pollution and the daunting financial challenges that come from increasingly low-paying global markets.

Mr. Ikerd asserts that a factory farm, no matter who owns it, cannot really be a family farm. That’s because the lives and work of true family farmers are based on caring relationships with each other, their animals, the land, and the community. But industrial agriculture, he said, makes neighbors into competitors, animals into numbers, living soil into chemical-coated dirt, and communities into unwilling recipients of air and water pollution. To save the family farm, the public and farm policymakers must look squarely at this conflict between farm volume and family values and face the truth. It is not an easy thing to do, he warned.

“We have to be willing to accept the answer when we ask the question,” Mr. Ikerd said of the denial that permeates arguments over the actions of family-owned farms. “Many don’t ask the question because they don’t want to deal with the answer.”

Time for Tough Love
A quiet firebrand of a man, Mr. Ikerd preached a tough love for the family farm that matched the hard but hopeful road that brought 610 men, women, elders, and young farmers to the annual small farm event. The conference, in its sixth year, has become the premier place for a growing number of entrepreneurial farms in Michigan to exchange experiences and ideas about farming beyond the industrial system.

Mr. Ikerd comes by his convictions through his own personal and professional transformation over 35 years as a university-based farm advisor. He told the gathering that he spent the first 20 years of his career preaching the industrial farming way — separating a farm’s accounting books from a farm family’s life — as the path to success: “I said, ‘Farming is a business. Get used to it.’”

During that time, he said, farmers asked him about happiness. They saw that industrial agriculture’s mass production required thinking of cows not as mothers but as milk machines, and of neighbors not as friends but as potential lawsuits over industrial-strength manure odors. In fact, this kind of conflict in agriculture among people, nature, and community has led to a common refrain today among farmers: “Farming’s not fun anymore.”

Mr. Ikerd said that, in the 1970s and early 1980s, he routinely replied: “Happiness. That’s a personal matter. Take it up with your preacher. Take it up with your wife. That’s not economics.”

But the national farm crisis of the 1980s forced Mr. Ikerd to face a grim reality when he sat across the table from people who were neither successful nor happy after following his advice to borrow heavily and expand greatly. What got to him was not so much the statistics — the historic rash of bank foreclosures of farms. It was the heartsickness he witnessed among the families asking for help, and the tragic wave of farmer suicides that swept the country.

“I couldn’t understand why they were so committed to the farm,” he admitted. “I didn’t understand that they were family farmers. That they were connected to the land and had lost a part of themselves.”

Shiny Pickups vs. Triple Bottom Lines
He began to understand the power of a farm’s connection to creation, however, when he noticed that those farmers who hadn’t followed his advice — hadn’t chased volume at the expense of values — were still in business. These farms rarely had air-conditioned tractors or shiny new pickups. But they enjoyed financial and personal health because they respected the “triple bottom line” of what is now known as “sustainable agriculture,” which balances economic gain with ecological benefits and social concerns.

Mr. Ikerd now brings this good news to family farms and rural communities across the country at back-to-back speaking engagements every winter. Like a robin that heralds the return of spring by pulling worms out of the still-cold ground, he holds up the promise of success and happiness for those who put their faith in relationships rather than in Roundup Ready® soybeans. He has plenty of big healthy worms, in the form of successful farm examples, to prove it.

“I wouldn’t be up here selling this if I didn’t know people who are out there doing it every day,” he said.

His brother’s story about the Ikerd family’s southwest Missouri dairy farm is nearest to his heart. While dozens of dairies in that region went out of business after following the experts’ expansion advice, his brother followed a different path. He slowly converted the farm to a lower-cost grazing system for feeding and raising cows. The switch gave him the financial space to help put his children through college, take vacations, and continue living and working his beloved Ozarks hills.

Better Advice, Better Life
Based on such success stories, Mr. Ikerd offered three key steps farms must take, and that government policies must support, to turn family fortunes around:

  1. Work with nature, not against her, to cut costs and increase value. For example, dairies that have switched, like Mr. Ikerd’s brother’s farm, from high-cost rations to more natural, grass-based dairying experience a sharp decline in costs as the herd’s health improves and the farm needs less expensive equipment. The cows give a little less milk, but the farms earn a lot more profit.
  1. Produce things that people really value and cannot find in the supermarket, and then ask them to pay for it. The superstore customer — happy with factory-farmed chicken dressed up in packaging that makes it seem different from another factory farm brand next to it — is not the family farm’s customer. “Seek out instead the people who don’t like the choices they have and give them what they want,” Mr. Ikerd said. He added that this is a good time for farms to find new buyers — from gourmet chefs to parents concerned about their children’s health. Many market indicators show consumers are increasingly dissatisfied with and distrustful of foods from industrial farms.
  1. Count the priceless rewards of life on a farm as achievements. Open spaces, raising children in nature, and leaving doors unlocked all come as part of the family farm. “They’re worth a lot, and the only way most people can afford all that is to be farmers,” he said.

Putting value on immeasurable benefits is crucial to breaking the factory farm’s grip on families, just as it is to putting a life consumed by superficial success back on track, he said.

Like many family farmers, Mr. Ikerd said he spent years trying to “amount to something” by following the conventional path to success. In his case, it was the career path of higher pay and more prestige as he rose in rank as an agricultural economist. Then it was stress, heart surgery, divorce, and the dark night of the soul as he faced the answer to his question: “If my advice to farmers is wrong, then what is wrong with me?”

Now, with wisdom and health shining from his eyes, Mr. Ikerd is a testament to his words. “In my search for a better way of farming, I found a better way of life.”

Patty Cantrell founded and directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s New Entrepreneurial Agriculture Project. You can reach her at patty@mlui.org.

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