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The Case of the Missing Agricultural Middle

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The recent debate among food writers on the New York Times op ed page and Grist magazine highlighted a glaring problem, one that concerns not only our food system but also our advocacy for a better one: The middle is going missing, and no one's speaking up for it.

The two "sides" of the debate (which, as I've stated, I don't believe are really opposing sides at all) seem to be speaking up for the benefits of the extremes. Stephen Budiansky writes in the New York Times that industrial operations might have their place in a workable food system in instances where the efficiency they offer is tantamount. The writers on Grist, on the other hand, emphasize that there are myriad values to small and local agricultural enterprises, including vibrancy of community, improvement in food safety, and health of local economies, to name a few.

What is conspicuously missing from this conversation is a voice speaking up for the types of enterprises most eligible to form the basis of a sustainable food system for our big country: mid-sized, regionally focused farms and businesses. The middle, unfortunately, is not a sexy pick. The players in this arena don't have the level of mechanized muscle that characterizes the big guys, but they also don't have the quaint, homespun feel that endears the little guys to so many. What they do have, however, is the ability to be relatively efficient, responsible to the environment, and responsive to their communities, all at the same time.

Isn't that what we all want, after all?

Some who study the issue of sustainable food production have long ago come to the conclusion that we need to focus our food system on a regional scale where middle-sized enterprises do the bulk of the heavy lifting. In the most notable example of those who are speaking up for this priority, an inter-institutional committee headed by Fred Kirschenmann of Iowa State's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture have put together a program on the Agriculture of the Middle. The researchers point out that 80 percent of U.S. farmland is managed by mid-scale farms that are finding it difficult to succeed in a food system increasingly geared toward only the large-scale bulk and the small-scale niche markets. "If present trends continue," the project's Web site states, "these farms, together with the social and environmental benefits they provide, will likely disappear in the next decade or two."

I recently went to the Leopold Center offices on Iowa State's lovely campus to ask someone about the middle's role in a sustainable food system. Associate Director Rich Pirog, the leader of the Marketing and Food Systems Initiative, told me that there is a general lack of support for helping farmers create and maintain businesses at this scale. "Part of it is the market infrastructure isn't there," he said. "Part of it is the incentives aren't there. There's a number of policy changes that would need to be put in place to make those opportunities grow."

He'd like to see the development of regional hubs for cooling centers and distribution. Needed also is greater availability of information about how to scale-up a food-related business or how big farms can diversify and tap into regional markets.

And then there's the matter of incentives: Right now, many systems seem to be set up to dissuade those who might be interested in working in middle-scale farming or diversifying to hit a regional market instead of the commodity market."It would be easier here in Iowa for a farmer to go and get a recreation loan to buy a boat than it would be for a farmer to get a loan to buy a string bean picker because of the risk associated with the picker," Pirog told me. "If there's no one else that has one, then if I loan it and he defaults, what am I going to do with a string bean picker?"

The farmers who want to work on bulk commodity crops don't have the same problem, however. "If it's a conventional farmer and it's a combine, everybody has those and are using them," he said. The upshot? "We have to be able to provide more incentives."

Once we figure out how to do that, it's got to happen fast. Otherwise, America's going to be left with a food system composed entirely of the big and the small, the national/international and the hyper-local, the super cheap and the very costly. Unless we want to live in a world with nothing between these extremes, we better start speaking up for the middle.

A version of this post originally appeared on Change.org

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