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Farmer John: An agriculture economy on our scale

J.D. “Farmer John” Wilson

BY J.D. WILSON

VIRGINIA BEACH — Pop quiz: Which of the following terms does not fit with the others?

GDP, trade wars, tariffs, short-term profit calculations, quarterly reports, soil stewardship, derivatives, the Gaussian copula formula.

The what?

That last one is real, a mathematical model used by traders and regulators before the financial collapse. I looked it up. 

Probably, at least intuitively, most folks figure soil should not be on this list. 

I agree with a growing number of people that we have run the course of allowing farms to be factories. Or for food to be an industrial commodity traded like so many inanimate objects waiting on the shelf until the receipt of your currency. Or traded by people who didn’t even grow the food. 

We can do better for our health, the individual farm’s economy and for our environment.

Our farms need stewards who care as much about soil health and worms as they do about anything else. Farmers need a society in which the people they feed care about them and their work as much as they do about the next sale at their favorite store.

The earth is carrying us right now, but it is groaning under the weight of our plastic islands in the ocean, the carbon load in the atmosphere and the dead zone in the gulf of Mexico.

And we are still allowing the soil to erode down the river, despite the obvious problems this suggests. I think its time we clean up our own mess by investing in sustainable practices. 

Now I am, at heart, an optimist, and I’m currently reading the work of people who have proven practical solutions for our farms. Farms have great potential to help solve big problems. 

I have previously mentioned some recommended reading – Growing a Revolution by David Montgomery or most anything by Wendell Berry – and a monthly periodical called Acres U.S.A. always has good ideas for new farm techniques.

There was a recent article in The New York Times Magazine that asked the question, “Can Dirt Save the Earth?” Of course. With some caveats.

It would require a fairly complete revamping of our current way of farming. The good news is we do know how to do it.

Making it happen would require  a shift in economic thinking or perhaps coming up with a new system of delivering food to people – to decentralize with a largely regional, self-sustaining system in all parts of the country.

I recently joined an organization called Slow Money, mostly to see who they are in greater depth. The concept behind it is to help build the very system I am describing. It is based on the work of Woody Tasch, who has written two books, Slow Money and Soil 2017.

Part of the subtitle to Soil 2017 says it best: The Considerable Virtues of Bringing our Money Back Down to Earth.

And this is where the rubber hits the road. Or the shovel digs the soil.

This is an investment plan which offers low interest loans with easy terms for people creating local and healthy food systems. They sometimes offer grants as well. This is a group of people saying we value our farmers and our farms enough to participate with them to create this new system. We slow the money down and put it to work in the soil.

From an economic incentive angle, we could subsidize farms which are sequestering carbon. This is measurable. We could even pay more for nutrient-dense food. This is also measurable.

I believe the days of free lunch – cheap food – are over. We need to take into account all the collateral damage to the environment and our health care system. 

It’s time to separate our food system from these incomprehensible economic theories in the hands of industrial Big Ag corporations. Food systems, to remain sustainable, need to be run by people who understand soil as a living part of nature. And the benefits of the food dollar need to be going back to the farmer – about 7 cents out of a dollar for a loaf of bread go to the farmer. Not much. 

I say the farmers doing the work of storing carbon in the soil, promoting biodiversity and encouraging more life should get the financial rewards to keep them growing and innovating.

And speaking of the agriculture economy, the agricultural reserve program, or ARP, has been up for discussion recently. This is an excellent program, and it shouldn’t be ransacked for other purposes. I’m glad to see it has been maintained in the recent Virginia Beach budget.

I would recommend some revisions. It should only benefit farmers actively farming and, if a farm is sold and is in the program, the payments should pass to the new farmer. 

The spirit of the program is clear – to benefit and help farmers stay on the land and keep farming. Keep the program, but no loopholes, please.


Wilson, a farmer and consultant who lives in Sigma, writes about sustainable agriculture for The Independent News. Reach him via farmerjohnnewearth@yahoo.com.


© 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

The Independent News

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