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May/June 2006 – Thinking Big

Fred Kirschenmann and Brent Warner are as normal fellows as you are likely to meet. Fred is sturdy as a timber-framed barn, with platter-sized hands and a swath of fine yellow hair across his forehead. Brent is slim the way old–fashioned farm hands used to be, leggy, and his upper lip is the landlord of a marvelous handlebar mustache in the style of Mexican revolutionaries. Both are genial, thoughtful and possessed of ideas about small farming that will blow your wool socks off.

In the last few weeks I have had the great privilege of having my mind utterly and marvelously confused by these two; by Fred at an agriculture conference in Prince Edward Island and by Brent at a similar event on Vancouver Island.

Fred speaks from vantage of a third generation American Midwest farmer who boldly took his North Dakota family farm organic in the 1970s. He is also Distinguished Fellow of the Leopold Center of Sustainable Agriculture, based in Iowa (www.leopold@iastate.edu). So, given such potentially earnest credentials, we might expect Fred to support such shibboleths of small farming as the argument—purveyed by me and others—that factory farming often leads to obscene waste of fossil fuels. I call this the “approximately 1800 kilometer chicken argument,” for the often quoted statistic about the distance the average US chicken travels from farm to plate. Well, according to Fred, this argument is built on a rickety foundation. According to a study commissioned by the Leopold Center, small farms may in fact use more fuel than bigger farms. Think of it: 30 beat up F150s making their way to the farmer’s market each Sunday, each carrying (maybe) 50 kilos of produce versus a 400 hp Freightliner hammering down the Interstate with 30 tonnes of frozen roasters.

Fred’s organization, and others, are also studying farm production systems—not from the point of what we want to hear, but from the point of what we may need to hear. His comment about the feeble returns biofuels produce—i.e. the cost, in fossil fuel, to produce ethanol and other so-called savior fuels—did not win him any friends among those who subscribe to the belief that if we only grow enough corn we can kiss goodbye to dependence on the nodding donkey.

Similarly, Brent Warner raised a few eyebrows at a gathering of farmers in Nanaimo when he pronounced that the vast majority of farms in North America were hobby farms. His reasoning? With 90-something per cent of farms surviving on direct and indirect subsidy, and therefore not viable businesses, there is no reason not to regard them as hobby farms. Talk about brave! I’d rather tell a biker that his Harley was a scooter than stand in front of a gang of grizzled farmers and announce that they were, effectively, hobbyists. But Brent is a realist, and I think it fair to say they he cares less about bruised egos than he does about finding ways to make farming work. If that means promoting agri-tourism, corn maizes, farm tours and direct farm marketing—all of which are anathema to many conventional commodity farmers—then so be it. After all, watching the farm go bust isn’t good for the ego either.

My point isn’t that Brent Warner and Fred Kirschenmann have definitively overturned accepted truths. They haven’t. More studies are sure to challenge their ideas. Rather, their ideas have merit because they are (a.) essential for the evolution of successful, responsible agriculture and (b.) enormously stimulating for those of us who love small farms and their myriad possibilities.