Farm Advocacy and the Small Farmer

I read an article in Progressive Farmer this morning as I sipped my coffee about Ashley Reding, a city girl-turned-farm advocate who is training for a roll as a spokesman for Common Ground. Reding, a native Kentuckian, and her family raise about nine thousand acres of corn, winter wheat and soybeans and employ between ten and fifteen workers on the family farm. Reding’s mission is to share with other women the agricultural family’s common concerns about “safe, healthy food.” Reding also shares her views on the environment. “We are all about taking care of the land that is entrusted to us,” the article quotes.

While I praise Reding for her advocacy, a couple of readily apparently things come to mind. First, what the heck am I doing reading Progressive Farmer at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning?! Seriously. It’s not like I ever got up that early on a Sunday morning to read Womens Day and any of those other female oriented publications! Who in the city would actually read Progressive Farmer, anyway?!

The second thing that came to my mind was, “Hey, wait a minute. She doesn’t live on a farm, she lives on an estate!” Nine THOUSAND acres?!!! TEN regular employees?!! Now, I’m not saying that Reding isn’t a good advocate for Kentucky farmers, after all, her message is that family farmers do care for the environment and are concerned about safe food. And Reding is pleased to inform us that her farm is certified through Validus for socially responsible practices in agriculture. I am wondering, though how Reding can speak for farm families with less than one-tenth of her family’s land, who work off the farm to make ends meet, and whose priorities put an environmental inspection way down the list of expenditures. Are those farmers concerned about food quality and the environment?

From my point of view, I would have to say, yes and no. Food quality is, of course, a high priority. Better quality farm products mean better prices and better profits, thus many farmers seek the assistance of agricultural scientists and government agencies to better their production. Time, however, is a major factor. If a farmer is unable to attend training sessions, he is likely to get advice second-hand or third-hand from other neighboring farmers and may or may not be aware of concerns regarding various new technologies. He wants a good product that will bring high yields and at the first hint of problems with the technology, he will seek out other means. But second and third-hand information can produce a lag between advisories and either the implementation or withdrawal from use of those technologies. It does not mean he is not concerned with the same issues we city-people find, since he too purchases products for his family. It is only that his response time may be slower than that of larger concerns.

Environmental regulations and ‘best practices’ may also lag on small family farms. While the small farmer greatly values the land and water on his farm and its surroundings, until recent years some simply were not aware of problems with agricultural run-off or contamination. Environmentalists and the media have helped on that score, even if, at times, the small farmer feels threatened by the adverse media attention and the costs associated with new methods. He readily seeks the assistance of regulatory agencies when he perceives a problem, if it is economically feasible to do so, but balks at regulations meant for larger and more problematic locations when those affect his bottom line. Time and money are ultimately his major motivations.

In years past, most farms contained their own dumps for household waste, irreparable equipment, and other farm wastes which are now known to cause ground water problems. Carcass removal, septic and sewage systems, and trash hauling are all now part of farm compliance, except in the most remote locations. Similarly, many chemicals once used habitually, such as DDT, are no longer in use. Greater numbers of small farms are implementing more organic styles of farming without being entirely organic operations. The change may be slower than desired by environmentalists, but they are proceeding at a more rapid pace than some perceive. The same is not necessarily true of imported farm products from countries that still allow pesticides and herbicides long-banned in the United States.

When we purchase our food products from the grocery, we all need to be aware of where those products originated and buy according to our consciences. My suggestion is, when in doubt buy American and perhaps one day advocates like Reding can concentrate entirely on the family farm.

About cattlebaroness

I am a graduate of the University of Kentucky with a BA in History, nearing completion of a Master of Arts in American history. Born and raised first on military bases around the world, then in Orange County, CA, I moved to Kentucky when my children were small. I now live on a small family farm and am learning about farm life, planting and our newest addition to the landscape--cattle. Until a month or two ago, all I knew about 'cows' were that they came in brown, black and white and that some are raised for milk and others for meat. I am a quick study out of necessity.
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2 Responses to Farm Advocacy and the Small Farmer

  1. Rob Thomas says:

    You’re a bit mistaken. They rent the land they farm, it’s called sharecropping and its what almost everyone does. If you borrow money from the bank to rent or lease farm land, does that make you an estate owner? Farmer’s survive on the margins. They have to add more ground to stay competitive. At least you’re asking questions though, a conversation can’t happen without someone saying what they think.

    • They rent or lease 9000 acres in Kentucky? They must have a huge cash flow, even if they only paid 100 dollars per acre per year to lease the land ($900.000), it is NOT a small family farm. I do appreciate their advocacy, though. I appreciate your comments as well.

      The USDA gives the average farm size in Kentucky, as of 2007, as 164 acres; farms over TWO thousand acres make up only 0.6 percent of all farms in the state. Nine thousand acres is a huge farm, regardless or whether farmed on shares, owned, or inherited.

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