Ben Hewitt: A Groundswell For Agricultural Change

Written by: This commentary is by Ben Hewitt, who lives in Stannard, VT, where he and his family operate a diversified hill farm. He is an organizer with Rural Vermont

When I was a young boy, I traveled every summer to the Iowa farm where my mother was raised. There, my grandparents grew hundreds of acres of corn and soy. It was not the biggest farm in Iowa, not by a long shot, but it was plenty big enough. I remember standing at the edge of a cornfield, gazing toward the horizon, trying to discern where the field ended. And failing. I remember riding in the combine with my grandfather at harvest time, listening to the crop report on the radio, watching row after row after row of corn fall beneath the cutter bar. My grandfather didn’t talk much. Neither did I.

This was in the late ’70s and early ’80s, in this nation’s halcyon days of commodity cropping. Those who truly understood how damaging this style farming was to the land, the soil, the consumers and even the farmers themselves were relatively few and far between, while the rest of us were in the thrall of rapidly increasing yields, economies of scale and the lure of new technology.

Forty years later, we no longer have any excuse for failing to acknowledge the destructiveness of contemporary commodity agriculture and the fragility it has engendered across the spectrums of economy, ecology and human health, to name but a few. In Vermont, this is most visible in the perennially stressed commodity dairy industry, in which farmers are currently paid less than the cost of production, and over the years have been coerced to rely upon practices and products that negatively impact animal health, while playing a significant role in the degradation of our waterways and environment. This is emphatically not the fault of the farmers; as my grandparents were, so are today’s farmers caught in a tangled web of policy and economic incentives that are not of their making, yet which drive many of their decisions.

The need to reform our state’s agricultural policies and practices extends far beyond the dairy industry. Although Vermont’s local food movement has made tremendous progress, the ability for all farmers to achieve access to land and maintain a reasonable livelihood, while supporting the health of their communities and the land, is severely and unjustly compromised. The economic incentives still point in the wrong direction — consolidation, concentration, commoditization, exploitation of cheap labor and exporting of products and wealth. These incentives, coupled with policies that too often disadvantage community-scale food production, ensure that Vermont’s local food offerings remain unaffordable to a wide swath of our population. And as goes viable, accessible community-scale production, so goes the vibrant, diversified farms that once defined and nurtured Vermont’s rural landscape, fed our communities, and invigorated our economies.

Regenerative agriculture is a term meant to describe agricultural and food-production practices that return more to the land, community and farmer than they extract. Often the term is associated with improved grazing and cropping methods that grow and protect rather than deplete topsoil, in the process sequestering carbon, increasing water retention capacity (critical in the context of massive flooding events like hurricanes Irene and Sandy), and creating wildlife habitat.