2020 Customer Letter

To ask “What is the future of agriculture?” is really to ask “What is the future?” To answer it fully one must describe not only the farm and garden of the future, but also future dinner tables, household budgets, fiscal priorities, public health challenges, technologies, and landscapes. Will we buy all our food from Amazon? Will restrictive immigration policies speed the coming of the robot age? Will we try to outsmart climate change by growing things on the moon? (The Chinese have already managed to sprout cotton seeds there, but the seedlings froze on a chilly lunar night: anyone who’s ever set her tomatoes out too early knows how that goes.)

Most farmers and gardeners share an almost pathological optimism. It’s a necessary trait if one is going to reseed the tomatoes after squandering six weeks of care and a bag of potting soil. This doesn’t mean we don’t see challenges: optimism sees hope against the odds (otherwise it’s just logic). The people we’ve profiled in this catalog don’t deny the threats of pollution, genetic loss, the normalization of extreme weather events, and market consolidation, but they shine light on paths forward for small-scale regenerative agriculture nonetheless.

I am an ex-farmer: my own optimism has taken some hits, but it hobbles along. I don’t see an end to the corporate appetite for expansion and assimilation. I don’t expect the state to protect the commons. I predict that most people in grocery stores will continue minimizing their investments of money and time into the meals they eat, and that more conscientious consumers will continue choosing the cheapest option that lets them feel they are making “better” choices. The fallout from climate change will worsen. Yet I have faith that small farms, good food, and thriving ecosystems will survive.

For one thing, we’re already surviving and even spreading. Purists may decry that Walmart’s organic milk is not organic enough, but the conversation has undeniably shifted to the point where the mainstream is trying, or at least pretending to try, to make different choices. Even if ideal practice is compromised in production of organics for the masses, I would still choose a world where lots of farmland is being managed better over a world where a sliver of land is being managed perfectly. But the fervor of the purists is necessary to keep the conversation moving: if Walmart is just now catching up to the “industrial organic” standard, and the organic community has moved on to “regenerative” standards, that bodes well for the future of agriculture. It’s like watching an inchworm move along a branch: the vanguard leaps forward and then drags the body of society along behind it.

I also see a promising new model of small-farm economy emerging. The cooperative model is the adaptation that will allow small-scale sustainable agriculture to survive and thrive into the next century. Few of the back-to-the-landers in the 20th century had much desire to earn their living on the farm: they either had family money or outside careers to fall back on, or they wished to drop out of the monetary economy as thoroughly as possible. My own cohort of small farmers, in the early ’00s, had business ambitions, but we each lived out the values of agricultural diversity and farm-to-consumer sales independently on our own farms. It turns out this is exhausting: vertical and horizontal integration are both tools that the big guy can wield more easily than the little guy.

I am talking to more growers these days who recognize that just because they value diversified agriculture and a direct connection to their customers doesn’t mean they personally have to grow broccoli and apples and chickens and wheat and take on all the marketing and transportation costs. Growers are pooling their production to achieve better selection and consistency, and sharing marketing resources and distribution channels, so that they can reach previously inaccessible markets and reduce their personal infrastructure. Cooperation allows small growers to enjoy the advantages of larger growers without losing their individual character or much of their autonomy. This approach holds promise for growers’ profits and quality of life, land use efficiency, and retail pricing, a win-win-win.

Individually and in cooperation with neighbors, we are all building the future of agriculture every day. What will you eat today? And what seeds will you plant?

– Alice Coyle, OGS Coordinator