In the age of farm-to-table, only a small fraction of US farmers are profitable

More than 35% of US corn is used for ethanol production.
More than 35% of US corn is used for ethanol production.
Image: Reuters/Jim Young
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As Americans, we all participate in agriculture—the system that feeds our economy as well as our families. From our personal health to the state of the climate, agriculture affects critical aspects of our day-to-day lives.

Yet few people know much about how agriculture works. Over the past 70 years, small farms have gone out of business as industrialized multinational corporations have taken over our food supply. Even though food companies commonly adopt the “farm-to-table” language, the actual path from farmland to your plate has never been longer, more confusing, or more rife with contradictions.

Take the case of grains. The US is a superpower in grain production, thanks to massive stores of high-quality top soil in the Midwest built up over millennia. Most grains in this country do not go to feed people, however, but enter into an industrialized feed and biofuel industry that is extracting an immeasurable toll on our land.

Make food, not ethanol

We subsidize our crop surpluses with more than $16 billion each year, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s most recent farm census. About $7.19 billion of that goes toward commodities, such as corn and soy, which cost more to grow than what they can be sold for on the free market.

What do we do with this enormous surplus that our tax dollars fund? We make ethanol.

Corn is America’s largest crop, comprising over 90 million acres of farmland in the US. More than 35% of corn is destined for ethanol production. As a fuel, ethanol is remarkably inefficient: It takes 70% more combustion energy to produce a liter of ethanol than a liter of ethanol can produce.

In other words, ethanol production is not the answer to an over-abundant supply of corn. The agricultural practice of corn monoculture alongside petrochemical fertilizers and herbicides are degrading our soil, making our farmlands less fertile every year. Despite massive capital investment and the huge cost of soil fertility, only 43% of farms are profitable, the 2017 USDA agricultural census says. Deep-pocketed agribusinesses support the status quo and the federal policies that protect it, arguing that industrialized agriculture is necessary to feed a growing population.

But if that were true, we wouldn’t use farmland to make inefficient biofuels—we would implement regenerative agricultural systems, and diverse crops capable of providing real nutrition.

If that were true, we would be working to train the next generation of farmers to run healthy, profitable operations. If that were true, we would take care not to deplete our greatest national resource: soil.

But where is the support for better food policy? Or for America’s 2.2 million farmers?

Improve government’s crop subsidies

We need a healthier agriculture sector, and the government can support this by reallocating commodity crop subsidies to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The CSP has been cut over the years, starting with the 2014 farm bill, and it needs to be restored and increased.

The program is designed to provide incentives and train farmers on more regenerative systems, which can increase biodiverse food production as well as farmer incomes, while eliminating the need for commodity subsidies.

For example, if the government helps allocate 20% of the annual corn subsidy into a newly-defined CSP that has been well researched and will be closely monitored, this will in time reduce the need for tax subsidies and create more self-sufficiency within the farming community.

The government can likewise support young and new farmers by increasing funding for training and mentorship opportunities through the CSP, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, to imbue the industry with more innovation. And instead of limiting benefits, the government should help create more food jobs and support food education through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

We must move from a system of agriculture that relies solely on extraction and drawing down of resources. Soil fertility must be regenerated. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere must be reduced. There is a sense of urgency that can no longer be ignored.

The good news is that there is a better way forward. But we must act now. Regenerative farming —a system that increases biodiversity, enriches soil, protects watersheds, enhances ecosystems, and captures carbon in the soil—offers an important solution.

Regenerative agriculture operates on four tenants that improve land fertility, while building agricultural systems that can operate as economically self-sustaining programs:

Create healthier soil

By transitioning farms to more biologically sound practices such as no-till and cover cropping, and by planting crops that can manage soil erosion, soil fertility and add nutrients such as legumes, we can sequester carbon while also building nutrient-rich soil. This land becomes more resistant to drought, as proven by the Rodale 40-year crop report, since increasing organic mass in the soil increases its water retention capacity. Healthy soil better utilizes rainwater, reduces erosion, and protects watersheds.

Increase biodiversity

Add crop rotations such as lentils, hard winter wheat and non-GMO corn, which generate natural nutrient replacement. The root systems of legumes have healthy bacteria that adds nitrogen to the soil without the use of synthetic fertilizers, thus decreasing farm input costs while preserving natural habitats for wildlife and native pollinators, such as bees.

The USDA reports that wild and managed bees together add $15 billion in crop value each year. Simply put, we must have pollinators to grow food. Creating natural habitats leads to greater efficiency on less acreage through the proven benefits of organic regenerative systems.

Use integrated pest management

Natural predators like ladybugs and practices such as intercropping—where different kinds of crops are interspersed together—can dramatically reduce the need for herbicides and pesticides like Glyphosate or Roundup-ready crops, which are modified to be resistant to pests. In addition to the negative impact on human health, these chemicals lead to drops in soil fertility and the collapse of microbe ecosystems essential to healthy soil.

Practice better energy use

One of the biggest uses of energy in American agriculture is in the production of petrochemical fertilizers. By using less of these chemicals, which harm ecosystems and watersheds and destroy soil fertility, we will lower energy consumption in the industry, and by extension its carbon footprint.

If we follow these tenants of regenerative systems, we can eliminate the use of synthetic fertilizers through natural input creation, primarily in the form of natural nitrogen and better microbial life through biodiverse farming. This reduces carbon emissions and makes our sequestration of carbon even more valuable.

Regenerative agriculture is a way of relating to the planet that we have forgotten. Coupled with current research and technology, it has the potential to bring our soil to life while enhancing farming communities.

Regenerative farming can build a healthier planet. But we need to make sure it is carried out systematically, in a way that puts money back into the pockets of the people who grow our food, and most importantly, we need to create a system that can scale.