Personal Food Production

Between Fertile Fields and Hallowed Halls: The Institutions of Agriculture

One Farmer’s Experience

by Chet Kendell

As a farming family we’re really not that different. We worked in town and farmed as an avocation for seven years after we bought the farm and then left the town job and shifted our focus, full time, to the farm. For eight years it was our primary source of income. We began direct marketing, developed a base of return customers who looked for our label in the grocery stores and even had many who came directly to the farm. We were modestly diversified, not certified organic, but in looking back, we were oriented toward deep sustainable agriculture and earnestly tried to develop the natural systems on the farm to work cooperatively. At the beginning we weren’t familiar with the great body of literature on Alternative Agriculture. We had never read anything by Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson or Gene Logsdon, we simply farmed from our heart the best way we knew how.

If the reader desires more information about our farming systems and practices, Karen L. Kirsch wrote an article about our farm and family that was published in the American Small Farm in November of 2005.

One of the highlights for our farming family was participating with the USDA, Bee Laboratory in the development of the native Blue Orchard Bee as a commercial pollinator of sweet cherries. Our little farm then became a research laboratory as well. We homeschooled our four children and they too, became immersed in the research, learning all the time. That research was by all accounts a success.[1] We saw a major increase in pollination, continued excellent quality and the bees were easy to manage.[2] It resulted in dozens of publications, inclusion in one Turner Broadcasting Movie, and a National Science Foundation Documentary. The book published by the USDA, SARE, “How to Manage the Blue Orchard Bee as an Orchard Pollinator” features our farm on the front cover. There was even a patent, but most important, in my mind, there were friends made in that research for a lifetime.

As we worked through those years, relying on the farm for our livelihood, the theme of farm viability was a recurring topic at our dinner table discussions. We were reasonably successful as farmers, but our farm was very small, housing developments were closing in and there was no room to grow and more importantly no room for the next generation to farm. If we had to sell the farm could we hope to duplicate a similar success elsewhere? We wondered if we really understood as much as we thought we did about farming or if we were really just the beneficiaries of fortunate circumstances. To this end, having time in the off season and wanting to learn, I went back to school. My father and brother agreed to help with the farm and I enrolled in an Economics program with an agriculture focus. It was a good program that emphasized mathematical modeling but in the process had given up relevance to a very real world. As a result, I transferred to an Interdisciplinary Department at Michigan State University.

It was a great department in a great school with the flexibility for real learning. The courses were very applicable, even enjoyable and I completed them satisfactorily. I received the department’s Outstanding Returning Graduate Student award in 2003. The problem surfaced at research time. In my dissertation proposal I planned to research with peer farmers into their understanding of the key factors in farm viability and sustainability. After all, sustainable agriculture would be a hollow academic exercise if farmers couldn’t make a livelihood from the practice of the same. I looked for farmers in Michigan with a history of at least 10 years of continuous practice in taking at least 50% of their livelihood from sustainable agriculture. I found just a handful, a small handful; in fact I found that Michigan had more professors than farmers of sustainable agriculture. I expect there were more, I just couldn’t find them. That farming is a difficult, rigorous, low paying occupation with high turnover, we understand, and with sustainable agriculture it appears even more so, but this is not news to us down on the farm. At the same time we have to realize that it’s not impossible; some are obviously able to do it. The research was even more valid than before, but there was a problem.

I’m sure you, the reader, will understand the problem. The scholarly theories on institutional performance suggest that it is the ‘long-term stakesholders’ whose interests will be preserved;[3] meaning, that when you look under the covers, when there is a conflict of interests in an academic setting, it is usually the faculty’s and administration’s interests that will win. In short, my research was blocked including a $10,000 research grant that had been awarded by NCR-SARE. What was a farmer to do?

I’m an older student than most, and have worked with short budgets and hidden agendas as well as respectable rocks that show up in the fields. Some of these you can dig out, others you just have to go around. I went around this obstacle. I’d been asked to be the primary organizer of the State of Michigan Organic Conference. I strategically placed those farmers that I had found for my research group on the panel discussions, invited others from out of state and encouraged the Key Note speaker to consider the topic.[4] Many of the questions for the panel discussions were intentionally structured to address my research questions. It was unfortunate that the committee was circumvented, but my advisor was on the conference board that approved it all and I was paying for dissertation credits at the time. In the end I found what my family and I had come to the university to learn. After all, as students, don’t we hear all the time about the importance of taking ownership for our own education? I simply did.

Come comprehensive exam time I was failed once, then a second time. I had serious questions about the process and so asked for an independent review of the comprehensive exams. The independent reviewer issued a pass. It went to a second independent reviewer and a second pass was issued. I, of course, was not privileged to the details of the discussions that took place within those hallowed halls, but ultimately, the entire committee, all four, which included a Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Agriculture and the C.S. Mott Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture all quit and refused to serve further.

The upside is that in the process, I got a great education. Subsequently, the Assistant Vice President for Research Ethics and Standards at Michigan State University volunteered to be my major professor. A man of most incredible integrity, I suspect he was one of the independent reviewers. Meanwhile, I have a new committee, have passed new comprehensive exams and am moving forward on a new dissertation, hoping someday to earn the degree. The problem is the time; from the first comprehensive exam to the official pass took over 4 years. That’s fine if you’re a professor drawing a salary and benefits, but another story if you’re a graduate student trying to piece together a life for a family while the university works through their institutional requirements. Ultimately, I am encouraged, at least a little. It is not that there was self interest, perhaps that should be expected, but what is important is that there was integrity at the larger institutional level. The system works… slowly, problematically, but with immense perseverance the process can be navigated.

Can we expect things to be different at other institutions, such as the USDA? Not really. If the theory holds, it will most always be the ‘long term stakesholders’ whose interests will be protected in any institution. It is as if there is an ‘Iron Cage’[5] that reinforces the long established norms and values of the institution. It even appears that USDA, SARE, which was initiated to have a different agenda, has, after 20 years, been pulled back closer inline to old values held by the USDA. Perhaps it’s not an ‘Iron Cage’ after all, but a ‘Rubber Cage’ that flexes initially but ultimately returns to its original position.[6]

So, what’s a farmer, who wants to do things differently, to do? We typically don’t form our own institutions very well, if at all. And, if history is really any prologue to the future, we can be reasonably sure that both the Land Grant Universities and the USDA have not and will not have our best interests at heart, as should be obvious by comparing the viable livelihoods and salaries in them to those in farming.

However, recently, I am seeing a number of changes that give me hope as a farmer for farmers:

· While we don’t form institutions very well, we tend to network with reckless abandon. It appears that farmers who talk regularly and often with other farmers do better as they develop networks of peers who work and learn together. Two things are facilitating this. One is the internet, much of the fence time we used to spend in conversation with other farmers has broadened and moved to the internet.

· The other is the number of diversified farming magazines that facilitate the development of farming networks and act as quasi institutions performing many of the same functions that conventional institutions do. A good example of this is the newly formed Small Farms Conservancy.[7]

· Education is changing. While most conventional schools are busy talking about re-thinking and re-doing education, their institutional norms prevent real innovation. Meanwhile, independent networks of homeschoolers have changed education significantly and forever. Even the casual observer will notice the frequent link between homeschool, better food and different agriculture. As families they are making a difference by making major decisions based on deeply held, even intrinsic values.

· While the pillars of higher education are currently struggling with sagging enrollments, contracting budgets and departmental consolidations others are thriving. These new institutions of education are typically fully accredited universities that are springing up with a new emphasis on the student. They embrace new learning models that accommodate flexible learning schedules, students learning and working together as well as qualified faculty with extensive real world experience in their subject area.

· Finally, to the amazement of many, often unrecognized and unexplained, farming in the United States is changing, even as you are reading this. Small farms are making a serious comeback,[8] even the numbers of horses used for farm work are consistently increasing.[9] Many diverse farmers are learning, thinking and acting independently to their own betterment. For example, one of the most viable farm models in the U.S. today is the Amish model and with their large families and preference for agriculture it is becoming ever more widespread each year.[10] They are prospering in spite of or perhaps because of their disassociation with the USDA as well as the Land Grant Universities.

For ourselves, we sold the farm several years ago while we were in the midst of working through the comprehensive exams. Looking back, that may have been a mistake. Never-the-less, looking forward we realize our homeroom is not within the hallowed halls of academia but out the back door in the fertile fields of America. As of this writing we are actively searching for another good farm and hope to find one and make an offer this month.

  1. Narang, S.K., Blue Orchard Bees and other pollinators for agriculture. Forum: USDA, Agriculture Research Service, 2000. May 2000.
  2. Wood, M., Blue Orchard Bee-A Champion Cherry Pollinator, in Agriculture Research magazine. 2003, USDA, Agriculture Research Service.
  3. Schmid, A.A., Conflict and Cooperation: Institutional and Behavioral Economics. 2004, Oxford, UK: Blackwell. 360.
  4. Kaufman, M., Organic Farming and the Organic Way of Life, in MLT Newsletter. 2005, Michigan Land Trustees: 24760 CR 681, Bangor, Michigan 49013.
  5. Weber, M., The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1952, New York: Scribner.
  6. DiMaggio, P.J. and W.W. Powell, The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields. American Sociological Review, 1983. 48(April): p. 147-160.
  7. Miller, L.R., Small Farms Conservancy. 2010, Small Farmer’s Journal: Sisters, Oregon.
  8. Census of Agriculture, Data by Primary Occupation: 1992 Table 48; 2002 Table 60. 1992-2002, National Agriculture Statistics Service.
  9. NASS, 2007 Equine Survey Summary. 2008, USDA, NASS, Michigan Field Office.
  10. Stoltzfus, D.K., Draft Horse Farming, Editor. 2004: Leola, PA.

For additional relevant reading I would suggest Our Hidden Wound, by Gene Logsdon and The Prejudice Against Country People, by Wendell Berry.