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Farm For America

December 2, 2008

By David Thier

break01_11With Barack Obama president, anything is possible. The industrial food system will instantaneously blink into a system of small, sustainable farms, McDonald’s will transition to selling shade-grown Iphones, the obesity crisis will end, and we will finally be rid of this winter business for good. We’ll all be living off fresh pluats and grass-fed beef in a matter of hours. The organic beer will flow like organic wine.

But wait, you might ask, don’t we need actual policy decisions? Well, when blind, unfounded faith doesn’t work, those are usually a good fallback plan. In a guest column for the Des Moines register, director of the Agricultural Law Center and law professor Neil Hamilton has recommended a “New Farmers Corps” to combat the impending death of the rapidly aging population of American farmers. Hamilton advised the Obama campaign on agricultural issues, so these suggestions come with a bit more weight.

The plan resembles “Teach for America” in its effort to bring excited young folk into what might otherwise be viewed as a punishing and economically unrewarding profession. The key would lie in getting the legions of younger people interested in sustainable food linked up with available land from aging farmers and absentee owners.

Hamilton points out that there are already a number of programs with similar aims that could be expanded with federal interest, like Iowa’s voluntary land-link program and USDA loans from Farm Credit banks.

People are always asking where the country is going to get the labor to support a sustainable food system, but Hamilton suggests that that isn’t really the problem:

America has no shortage of people eager to put their hands in the soil to feed us. Thousands of potential new farmers exist – college students laboring on urban farms, farm kids hoping to continue the family tradition, and immigrants and refugees who brought their agrarian legacy to America. What we lack is a coordinated, creative national effort.

Damn straight. Neil Hamilton may not end up as secretary of agriculture, but hopefully he will play a similar role advising the president that he did advising him during the campaign. The industrial food system has had the unflinching support of the federal government since the 1970’s, and it’s time to level the playing field. What’s great about this kind of plan is that while it would be a massive step towards developing a sustainable food system, it would do so without overtly challenging existing systems – a famously disastrous thing to do in any field.

Daniel Birnham, designer of the 1892 Chicago World’

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