Encouraging new growth in family farming

| Shawn Peterson | March 22, 2017 | 1 Comment

The decline of small, family farms and rural communities isn’t just a problem for small-town residents or American Gothic enthusiasts. It carries with it consequences for all Minnesotans that we should address.

That’s why the Minnesota Catholic Conference has lent its support to House File 608/Senate File 1414, a bill that would make it easier for the beginning farmer or rancher to enter into this important work. This legislation would create tax incentives for older, established farmers to rent or sell their land to new farmers.

This bill and HF 1461/SF 1317, which would create grants to be used to increase urban agriculture production capacity and fresh food access, are practical, sound steps that each Minnesotan can support to restore a vocational vision to agriculture, whether or not it is our particular calling.

Changing landscape

Rural America and agriculture have changed considerably since my great-grandfather, Paul Dehn, a staunch German Catholic, first put his plow in the rural North Dakota soil in the early 1900s. In his day, farms were small and families were big. The millions of family farms that dotted the countryside supported thriving rural communities across the nation; Small Town, USA, was growing, and Main Street was lined with businesses, schools and churches.

But agriculture has changed in America. Farms have become bigger, while families are smaller. In the pursuit of higher yields and with fewer children choosing to embrace the farming vocation, farms have consolidated into huge enterprises. As a result, rural communities have become stagnant, the
network of business and social relationships once centered around family farming now waning.

In 1920, there were nearly 6.5 million farms nationwide, with the average size no more than 200 acres. But by the early 2000s, the numbers had flipped. The total number of farms had dropped to fewer than 2 million, but the average farm size had ballooned to well over 400 acres. In fact, only 10 percent of farms account for 70 percent of all food produced in America today.

Big problems with big ag

This shift toward more large-scale, industrial agricultural operations has brought with it serious consequences. For one, the concentration of food production in the hands of a few (and increasingly in the form of fewer and fewer genetic strains) undermines food security, which would be better served by more suppliers and by biodiversity in our seeds, crops and even livestock.

For another, industrial agriculture’s reliance upon heavy machinery and chemical usage to produce maximum yields is taking a toll on creation. Topsoil is being depleted at record rates. And agricultural abuse has environmental implications beyond just our ability to grow food: The Environmental Protection Agency reports that chemical usage in agriculture is responsible for 70 percent of water surface pollution in America.

The change in the face of agriculture has coincided with an exodus from rural America. According to U.S. census data, 60 percent of the nation’s population lived in rural areas in 1900, compared to less than one-fifth of Americans today. Fewer farmers working the land means fewer people living in our rural areas, fewer families attending small community parishes, fewer children attending our rural Catholic schools and fewer people opening businesses to serve their rural neighbors.

Agriculture as vocation

The problems facing agriculture in America are complicated, but one part of the solution could be restoring a vocational vision to agriculture, the type of vision that upholds farming as not merely a way to make a living, but as a comprehensive and fuller way of life.

The Catholic Church has long championed this vocational approach to agriculture, recognizing the farmer’s unique call to steward God’s creation, and also to nurture social and even spiritual growth in his or her house and community. Pope Benedict XVI has called family farming a “guardian of values and a natural agent of solidarity between generations.”

Restoring a vocational approach to agriculture necessitates restoring more farmers to the land. Currently, the median age for ranchers and farmers is 56 years, and there are not enough younger people waiting in the wings to take on the load when the current generation retires.

Much of this is due to the prohibitive cost for the beginning farmer. But if we are to attract more young farmers and their families back to the countryside to build community, practice sustainable agriculture and share in the work of the Creator, we will need public policies that support them in their vocation. Tax credits to support new farmers and to encourage others in urban areas to get back to the land are a step in the right direction.

Peterson is the associate director for public policy at the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

Ask lawmakers to support new farmers

Newcomers to agriculture face many obstacles in Minnesota. Let’s ask lawmakers to pass HF 608/SF 1414, a bill that would make it easier for the beginning farmer or rancher to live out this important vocation. This legislation would create tax incentives for older, established farmers to rent or sell their land to new farmers, instead of turning it over to a large corporate farm.

You can also ask your legislators to support HF 1461/SF 1317, which would create grants to be used to increase urban agriculture production capacity and fresh food access.

To find contact information for your state senator and state representative, call 651-296-8338 or visit Who Represents Me?.

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Category: Faith in the Public Arena

  • Matthew Fitzgerald

    Great piece. More family farms = more vibrant communities, churches, and schools. Thanks for the work and living out our values with practical applications.