This past weekend I sat down and spoke with a group of corn farmers who had gathered in Moline, IL for the annual meeting of the American Corn Growers Association. My purpose for being there was to gather their insights and wisdom about how they view the current state of American agriculture and the challenges and opportunities now visible on the horizon. I am working on a new project at Farm Aid aimed at bolstering the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of family farms. One of the first steps in this project is to gather as much information as possible from farmers themselves who think of these issues on a daily basis.
In the shadows of John Deere’s headquarters, ten corn growers from nine different states expressed their opinions and outlooks on everything from the ever-present threat of the big corporate monoliths that buy their product, to the emerging opportunities of bio-energy markets like ethanol, to the reasons behind the recent up-tick in corn prices and to the general mood of farmers across the country.
I learned a lot listening to these farmers. I gained insight about how they think about their farms, their fellow farmers and their views of America’s future. Their rural sensitivities often seem out of place in a landscape increasingly dominated by urban pop culture. In many ways, these farmers represent the last of their kind: few of them will hand down their farm to their children. With the pull of jobs and life in the city luring kids away from the farms, many of today’s farmers are the last link of an unbroken agrarian chain that has remained intact for many generations. As they witness the continuing depletion of their ranks, many farmers wonder who will grow the good food and renewable energy more American are now demanding. Even more, I wonder, who will pass on the wisdom and knowledge these farmers possess to those who follow in their footsteps.
And yet, these farmers persist. And not only persist – they have hope! As one farmer said, “This is a great time to be in agriculture.” For despite the ongoing threats and challenges, for the first time in their lives farmers see new opportunities that not only rekindle their love of farming, but are also attracting new farmers to join their ranks.
I left Moline a little more enlightened, and yes, more hopeful, about the future of agriculture. After all they’ve gone through, if these farmers are hopeful how can I not be hopeful? And I left Moline convinced more than ever that Farm Aid has a very important role to grow this hope deep into the roots of the next farming generation. Our future depends on it.