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John Ikerd

John Ikerd

Back again to the Small Farms Conference. (Nope, I’m not done blogging about it.) The keynote speaker was Dr. John Ikerd, author and Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics from the University of Missouri, whose speech was Small Farms in the Year 2050. (An earlier version is on his web site.) According to the conference bio, Ikerd “came to the conclusion that not only was American agriculture not sustainable but neither was the American economy or society.” He is a huge advocate of sustainability and local food systems, and has written a great number of papers with that perspective.

Ikerd posed the question, “Can farmers meet the challenges of creating a sustainable agricultural system? Innovative farmers commit to meet needs of the present without diminishing future productivity.” He said that the current industrial approach to farming is simply not sustainable, and that lack of sustainability is a major part of a growing global economic problem. Industrial farming uses an enormous amount of fossil fuel, generates over one fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and maintains an income disparity for farm and food workers working for low wages.

So what’s the solution? According to Ikerd, the local food movement (which evolved from the organic food movement in the 1980s) has more potential for transforming society. It requires a fundamental change in thinking, primarily that local growers are producing food that is good, clean and fair, not a commodity that large, industrial farmers produce.

Sustainable agriculture is based on people compared to industrial agriculture which is centered on capital and technology. Ikerd described local farmers who choose to grow high-quality food that is natural, organic and sustainable. They work with the forces of nature, and fit their farm to the land and climate. Their crops are diverse and complex because nature is diverse and complex.

In 2050, Ikerd predicted a connectedness among local growers who create regional liaisons among themselves to market their crops, forming the backbone of a national network of community-based food systems. Out of local/regional connectedness comes farmers markets, CSAs, farmers selling directly to restaurants and markets, farm-to-school and farm-to-hosptal programs. Ikerd mentioned Alice Waters and her legendary restaurant Chez Panisse which set the trend decades ago by serving fresh, local and seasonal food from local and sustainable farms.

He also predicted in 2050 the major trend in food marketing is targeted toward a specific group of consumers, not the mainstream. Sustainable farmers work to build relationships with their customers instead of making a quick sale. Their customers are not naive hippies, but conscious buyers looking for food with ecological and social integrity, and expect farmers to have the same integrity and care about their customers and society. Ultimately there is a sense of connectedness — between growers and their customers, and between customers connecting with their food and the place it comes from — which ensures ecological and sustainable integrity.

Ikerd’s speech was full of fire and brimstone, and got a standing ovation. It was fascinating to hear Ikerd’s predictions for a new food system. But it’s not that far off into the future. Something similar to what he describes is happening right in our own backyard. Redland Organics is a group of local organic and natural growers that Farmer Margie organized to market their diverse foods directly to the CSA members and buyers at the farmers market. You could say that Redland Organics is cutting edge.

“Change happens one person at a time. Never underestimate the power of individual choices,” Ikerd said. So, here’s some questions to chew on: What are your choices? How are you making changes? How do you connect with your food and where it comes from? Most importantly, have you returned to the common sense pursuit of happiness?

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