The First Family’s Fallow Gardens

While Michelle Obama tends an organic plot at the White House, her husband loves up industrial agriculture


| September-October 2010


This article is part of a series of articles on food and the American diet. For more, read Food Fight , In Praise of Fast Food , Waste Not, Want Not , and The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Go Hungry . For more writing on food from the alternative press, visit utne.com/FoodFight .

Morse Pitts has been cultivating the same land in New York’s Hudson Valley for 30 years. His operation, Windfall Farms, is the very picture of sustainable agriculture. From early spring to late fall, the farm’s 15 acres are luxuriant with snap peas, squash, mint, kale, and Swiss chard. Its greenhouses burst with sun gold tomatoes and baby greens. Pitts, who is in his 50s, doesn’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides or any genetically modified seeds. He cultivates biodiversity, not just vegetables.

Twice a week, he hauls his produce 65 miles south to Manhattan in a biodiesel school bus to sell at the lucrative Union Square farmers market. Pitts does a brisk trade; demand for his produce is high. Since the mid-1990s the number of farmers markets has shot up 300 percent, and the organic sector has seen annual double-digit expansion.

But despite having no mortgage debt (he inherited the place), a ready market, and loyal customers, Pitts wants to leave his farm. His town recently rezoned, and the area is now industrial; if he wants to cultivate soil that isn’t surrounded by industry and its attendant potential for pollution, he has to move. The problem is, he can’t afford to.

In addition to the standard instability—bad weather, pests, disease, and the vagaries of the market—that all farmers endure, holistic and organic growers face great but often overlooked economic hardship. They must shoulder far higher production costs than their conventional counterparts when it comes to everything from laborers to land. In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) showers billions on industrial agriculture. Growers who go the chemical, mechanized route have ready access to reasonable loans, direct subsidy payments to get through tough years, and crop insurance, plus robust research, marketing, and distribution resources.

What makes Pitts’ situation untenable is that he earns just seven dollars an hour. If Pitts could boost his pay, he’d be in a more stable position, but he can’t. And he’s not alone. Small farms rely on off-farm sources of income for up to 95 percent of what they bring in. Medium-sized operations rely on off-farm resources for almost 50 percent of their income. This means that most local unconventional and organic growers don’t even come close to earning a living from being farmers.

rriverstone_3
10/21/2010 1:53:50 PM

I resist a term in your article, "unconventional farming," to describe organic and sustainable agriculture techniques. These are traditional skills, dating back to the first humans who invented agriculture. The UNCONVENTIONAL "farming" includes factory farms, GMOs, toxic chemicals and medicines, feed lots, sick animals, dangerous crops and exploited peoples we see in agribusiness. They are the freaks, not the CONVENTIONAL farmers who are being pushed out.


rriverstone_3
10/21/2010 1:53:45 PM

I resist a term in your article, "unconventional farming," to describe organic and sustainable agriculture techniques. These are traditional skills, dating back to the first humans who invented agriculture. The UNCONVENTIONAL "farming" includes factory farms, GMOs, toxic chemicals and medicines, feed lots, sick animals, dangerous crops and exploited peoples we see in agribusiness. They are the freaks, not the CONVENTIONAL farmers who are being pushed out.