Farmers are collaborating…

In a recent piece, Shaun Haney asks “why don’t farmers collaborate more?” (http://www.realagriculture.com/2012/06/why-dont-farmers-collaborate-more/) This struck me as a simple yet provocative question, especially taken within the context with which Haney poses the question; Crop protection, trait developers and plant breeding companies are doing a great job of leveraging their assets and intellectual capital through collaboration… With the cost of land, equipment and labor increasing, does it make sense that farmers collaborate so little?
Mr. Haney mentions the collaboration between companies like BASF, Syngenta, Cargill and Monsanto and their agreements to develop technologies and products for farmers.

As a small farm using organic growing practices – we grow 2 acres of diverse market crops – I can tell you first hand that farmers are collaborating! Just because we don’t have multi-million dollar corporate backing, near-endless marketing capital and teams of lobbyists and attorneys, doesn’t mean we aren’t working towards common goals.

Before I go any further, it’s important to make a distinction between the product or type of farming I’m speaking of and the type of ‘farming’ most targeted by the biotech industry. What do you think of when you hear the term ‘farmer’ or ‘farming’? Is it a small farm, say 5, 20, 40 acres, producing a diverse selection of market crops? Or, is it 3,000 acres of wheat, corn, soy, etc. being worked by GPS guided, $300k plus pieces of equipment?

So, how are small-scale farmers collaborating anyway? This is where the biotech and industrial-farming industry are missing the movement. The first and perhaps most obvious point of collaboration is your local farmers market. According to an article in the Chicago Herald-News, written in August 2011, there are an estimated 7,175 farmers markets throughout the U.S. and more than 100,000 farms selling directly to local customers. What could be a more solid form of collaboration than this? You can’t have a farmers market without a collaboration of farmers. Think of the millions of shoppers supporting these local markets and his/her dedication to local farms. That’s a pretty nice lobby to have behind you when mobilization is needed. We need look no further than the spinach scare back in 2006 – when e coli brought the national spinach industry to its knees, local farmers markets were flooded with people looking for the homegrown greens. The vast majority of Americans support labeling of GMO foods. For all the money and advertising the biotech industry has put into the agricultural community, it doesn’t seem to be resonating with local food buyers.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms now available to communities everywhere. This too is another form of farmer collaboration. What about the Organic Valley Coop? 1,723 farm families are currently listed on the OV website. These are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how farmers are coming together to keep small-scale viable and profitable.

In addition to the above mentioned, many farmers are collaborating on things like, seed-saving, equipment sharing, order consolidation, etc. If you live in a world at 30,000 feet, you’ll never see what’s happening here on the ground.

The most important distinction between the biotech/industrial approach to collaboration and the small-scale, local approach is in the philosophy. Whereas the biotech/industrial approach is most concerned with profit and growth, the local approach is most concerned with environmental and viability issues. While it’s important that as small business owners we are profitable, that is not the driving force behind our dedication to growing food for our communities. What legacy will we leave for our future farmers? What type of markets will be available to the next generation? How do we keep land viable and healthy?
How do we gain control of our destiny without corporate interest? These are the driving forces to the not always visible collaboration of local, small-scale farmers.

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