Select Page

One organic spokesperson paints a possible picture of the future.

Let me first state what is written below cannot be viewed as a comment about President Trump. So,  setting politics aside, I was taken by the written comments of Mary-Howell Martens, who manages Lakeview Organic Grain, an organic feed and seed business in upstate New York and a presenter at the Rodale Institute. But, first let me set the stage a bit.

Trade tariff talk is all over agricultural news and social media. As one would expect, those who support industrial commodities agriculture are crying foul. They claim, and maybe rightly so, that reciprocating tariff’s with China will hurt America, especially rural America. That is a real possibility if American farmers don’t change what they do.

U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) warned of the damage Trump’s high-stakes strategy could wreak on the economy. “Hopefully the president is just blowing off steam again, but if he’s even half-serious, this is nuts,” Sasse said. “Let’s absolutely take on Chinese bad behavior, but with a plan that punishes them instead of us. This is the dumbest possible way to do this.”

It’s only dumb if American farmers don’t change the way they operate. If farmers intentionally put their livelihood at the mercy of two products sold to one or two buyers, then that is a terrible marketing strategy.

Any good marketer knows it’s wise to offer more than just two products to one or two outlets. American farmers need to diversify what they produce. They need to stack functions in their operations and generate multiple income streams from the same ground.

Is it easier to sell one product to one buyer each year? Sure it is. But fiscally, it’s also very dangerous. Is there a way around this? There absolutely is.

I know of many farmers who are not threatened by international tariffs because they extricated themselves from a system that kept them in financial bondage and removed control of what they could charge for their products. They are still growing crops and protein, but are doing so for markets that are more diversified than the traditional industrial system.

Farmers such as Gabe Brown, Mark Shepard, and Joel Salatin and many others have seen the trap of conventional agriculture and have escaped the slavery of subsidies and commodities markets. How did they do this? They developed their own markets for a diversity of products. As one example, Salatin’s Polyface Farms produces and sells dozens of products directly to thousands of consumers. Does it require a different approach? Absolutely. But, if a farmer wants to protect income and provide more security for the family, a different approach is worth it.

But a different approach has been attacked by conventional agriculture voices, including regulatory voices, as a means to unfairly protect market share. Now, these same voices who attacked regenerative farming want to rally everyone together in unity to decry a tariff war with China. Somehow, they want innovative farmers to forgive conventional ag voices for the attacks they’ve laid against them through the years.

Martens adds some salient thinking to the discussion. She recently wrote:

For 25 years or more, the conventional ag sector has viciously attacked organics, often with the well-funded likes of Dennis Avery and Henry Miller spreading blatant lies … Now, in the face of these tariffs, we are being told we must all stick together as farmers and support all facets of farming, with nary an apology or acknowledgement of the staggering hypocrisy. While I agree that supporting my neighbor is a good thing. If he is using practices that result in negative off-farm impacts, such as pesticides, fertilizer, manure or genetic runoff, then my ‘support’ is really just enabling damaging and disrespectful practices.

I venture to guess most of what some might call the organic sector will not join with conventional industrial agriculture in the fight against a tariff war. Why should they when, as Martens aptly points out, all they have done is attacked eco-agriculture and tried to use government muscle to force others out of business?

It’s hard to be sympathetic to someone who doesn’t see the folly of their current logic when an alternative logic is available to them. It goes something like this: If I grow one crop for one buyer, I’m at significant risk if that buyer will no longer buy my crop. If I grow one crop and sell it to five buyers, I reduce my risk. If I produce 10 crops or products for hundreds of buyers, I have dramatically reduced my economic risk and no longer am threatened by an international tariff. In fact, the likelihood that I am now producing actual food and not food ingredients also is much higher. If farmers want to claim they are feeding the world, wouldn’t the diversified model make that true?

Notwithstanding the dubious claims of feeding the world where nearly half of what is produced never makes it to our mouths, let’s return to the notion of how tariffs just might influence how farmers farm. Addressing this, Martens wrote, “If these Chinese tariffs result in less conventional soybeans being grown, with their load of glyphosate and synthetic fertilizers, perhaps in the long run, it is a good thing.”

That might be hard to swallow for some who will have to change the way they are doing things. But, if what conventional ag is claiming will happen happens, then isn’t changing better than selling off? Martens describes that if the changes that tariffs bring about result “in us as an ag sector finally being able to recognize that the current ag system as brittle and weak, propped up by federal direct subsidies, federal crop insurance, protected markets and cheap chemicals, and more farmers make a change to greater diversity and fewer chemicals, then perhaps it is a good thing.”

This is not the first major disruption in the agricultural industry and it won’t be the last. The terrible advent of what some call The Green Revolution was one such shift. Agriculture can and should shift its model to a multi-income-stream approach and relying on domestic markets with a more localized focus. We certainly should be diversifying our products and markets to protect our individual operations and no longer rely on government to artificially influence the market. If it can be done in rural North Dakota, it can be done everywhere.

Martens final words ring loudly true:

The current system of extracting and polluting our land, water and children, to grow vast quantities of soybeans to ship to China needs to change. If we ‘expert witnesses’ in the ag sector – who were once conventional farmers but developed a better way – do not have the courage to say this, then we are enablers, and we are not standing firm on either our principles and the truth. Perhaps we need the Chinese to save us from ourselves.

Brava, Mary-Howell, brava.