Grace Oedel: Farming at the intersection of economic and climate crises

This commentary is written by Grace Oedel, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.

I belong to a local CSA that supplies my weekly milk from a small herd of 15 or so cows. Across Charlotte’s gentle hills the small herd grazes, (one of the farming practices known for sequestering carbon out of the air and growing healthy soil, while creating wildlife corridors, pollinator habitat, and filtering water). Truly exemplary people tend this land. They regularly host pasture walks to share with other farmers how they have restored so much ecosystem health to their land and soil. They also offer incredible generosity and build community within their pricing model, offering milk at a sliding scale range so that all Vermonters have equal access to this nourishing product. They exemplify the “best of the best” in small-scale farming.

Then, two weeks ago, an accident: tractor flipped, broken leg. It was a harsh moment of reality. The family had a brief debate, and quickly made the call that after being in dairy for almost twenty years, they would sell the cows. This accident wasn’t the main reason, but it was the last straw; dairy farming has become simply too taxing, too costly, and despite caring deeply and being the best managers and community members — dairy simply isn’t tenable.

Why is this? Why are Vermont’s postcard-perfect farmers one broken leg away from having to sell their cows? Factors surely vary farm to farm, but the big picture remains the same at present: economic crisis (inflation, fuel, feed all up enormously, while the price of milk is not) and climate crisis (ever drier and hotter years, making hay more costly and scarce, cows harder to keep cool and healthy, new infrastructure demands to beat the heat) — both layered onto a federal policy background that values giant corporate profit above all else.

And dairy isn’t unique. Farms of all types are having a rough season — wells running dry, transport costs up to get to market, consumers who themselves have less in their wallets to spend on food. 

Corporate consolidation — that is, a few major companies gobbling up all they can of food production and distribution — is a pattern that repeats across the whole food system.  

I’ve painted this picture to some non-farmer friends who have replied with some form of, ‘yeah, true. But it’s hard for all small businesses.’ Which is absolutely correct, and we should investigate why being small in any sector is impossible right now. (You don’t have to dig too deep — corporate consolidation is ubiquitous.) But also, for two major reasons, farming is different, and we all need to care.

First: farmers aren’t just business owners. Farmers — particularly organic farmers — are ecosystem stewards. Organic dairy farms keep land open (organic regulations require cows to be on pasture), sequestering carbon, protecting biodiversity and filtering water. What happens if an un-conserved farm goes out of business? 

Look no further than the mini storage units recently plunked down in what had previously been a farm field up in Fairfax. Then think about that pattern repeated across the state: the ripples of box stores slapped onto any field that a farmer can’t afford to keep in production. Consider what this does to Vermont’s identity as a pastoral, beautiful place people wish to come visit and live. What it does to the rural community that the farm helped to sustain. 

Think also of the environmental difference of a store versus a farm field. What happens to the rain that falls on that impermeable concrete parking pad and the soil underneath it. Consider the pollinators that used to find food for their journey in the hedgerows and the wildlife that came to the pond to drink. 

While on the surface this looks like an outcome of an economic crisis, it morphs into yet another small piece of kindling tossed onto the climate fire that grows hotter by the year. Or in the hopeful alternative: each small, organic farm that can remain viable protects a bucket of water for dousing climate chaos.

Second: farmers grow food, which, at the risk of stating the obvious, we all need to stay alive. Currently, you can go to a box store and buy food brought in from away. But we must not quickly forget the lessons we learned at the start of the pandemic about how utterly brittle massive food supply chains are. How it doesn’t take much to disrupt that food showing up stocked on our shelf. What will we eat when the next disruption happens if there is no local farmer who has been able to keep producing?

We cannot let short-term economic crises exacerbate longer-term climate chaos and food insecurity. Vermont’s small and organic farmers feed us, help Vermont thrive, and feed our chances of a habitable planet. Every way we as individuals, (if we are in the fortunate economic group who can) or we as a collective (through state policy and investment), can support organic, small farms in thriving is a step toward a livable future for us all.

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