Family farming is resurgent. I know something about local agriculture here in New Jersey, because I’m involved with a local farmers’ market. There are family farms that used to be looked upon as the fields that hadn’t yet been developed into housing but are now taking on a whole new life. One of those farms, here in central New Jersey, is now run as a year round organic vegetable farm.
The woman who runs the farm hires other local women and a few men to help her with both the fields and her farmers’ market stalls. She has a unique way of marketing her year round produce through a CSA program (Community Shared Agriculture) she coordinates with a dozen or more farmers’ markets. She works very diligently at satisfying her expanding following, even growing produce in unheated greenhouses in the winter. The flavor of the produce is different (sweeter) than summer grown produce.
The family farm is part of a new local-based economics that is directly tied to people’s health and well-being. There’s some new technology involved in this type of local farming, but for the most part that technology is cell phones, laptops, point of sale credit card readers and a few software programs – for the most part nothing unusual. But let’s look at the other type of family farm.
Digital Farming And Chemistry
For decades the family farm has been in decline as an occupation. Farmers too often die early of cancer from handling the many chemicals involved in modern farming. Few parents want to hand that type of opportunity/ life-style along to their children. So, unless one of the children (usually a boy) absolutely insisted on being a farmer, the farm was abandoned and sold.
My wife’s family are farmers in North Carolina and I’ve watched them for decades as they figure out how to continue their farming tradition. Unlike the woman farmer in New Jersey, my wife’s family is out in the country with little access to a middle-class buying public eager for organic farmers’ market produce.
Rural farming families are generally guided by agricultural commodity markets and those markets are complex and have intermediary vendors such as John Deere and Monsanto. The costs of farm machinery and agricultural chemicals and seed dictate the type of farming that a farming family can do.
It takes a lot to buck the system. A few family farms have refocused their growing to free-range livestock or heirloom fruit varieties but they usually struggle until they find a market, which is often a collection of farmers’ markets.
The other direction for a rural family farm is to go high-tech. The New York Times recently wrote an article titled, “Working the Land and the Data” which was about how small family farms are able to change the trend towards big commodity farming by using technology. They use “satellite-connected tractors” to plow with great accuracy and without drivers. The soil is tested for chemical composition electrically and then fertilized with “computer-controlled machines.”
This change in high-tech family farming still requires lots of acreage, but with digital assistance a small number of people can be highly productive. Farming is headed in new directions and digital technology is playing a bigger and bigger role.
How is family farming and agriculture relevant to you? Well, it may not be directly relevant, or maybe it is. Certainly the quality of the food produced on farms is an issue that touches everyone. But there’s more; some of these farms are now dependent on farmers’ markets and farmers’ markets usually have a list of regular attendees.
Farmers’ market managers are interested in offering information about high quality food and related issues to their email list. If you join your local farmers market’s email list you’ll be kept up to date about the market, but also about the farms who attend the market. And, even more important, you’ll begin to learn about the changing practices of local agriculture, which are likely to surprise you and hopefully delight you.