The (Heartbreaking) True Story of an Organic Vegetable Farmer: by Farmer Gary

I read this post by Gary Brever (owner of Ploughshare Farm, an award winning farm operating in Minnesota since 2002) on a CSA forum the other night. Its raw honesty brought me to tears.

I went down the road to my neighbor's farm for some raw milk today. I hadn't seen him in a while. He's in his 60's and has been dairy farming for the last 40 years. 20 years ago he was a great voice and vision for sustainable farming. Now though, the toll of farming has made its mark. Bad knees and a bad back make him walk a bit hunched over and wobbly. He's just trying to continue his operation with very little help since his kids have gone and went away. 
I happened to catch him in one of those days where only a fellow farmer knows quite what kind of pain and hopelessness he may be experiencing. He had lost 3 cows already this morning and many more were sick. Apparently some of the silage that he fed them had gone bad and the cows were bloated. He very well indeed may suffer a huge loss and if he does I just don't know how he will continue. 
When I started farming 18 years ago I had some high hopes for agriculture. I was seeing a renaissance of young people like myself getting into sustainable and organics. We had real hope for the future of farming. 
Of course, it was hard work (folks don't quite get how many 90 hour weeks I put in). The money was difficult and there was a lot of stress and vulnerability. However, I was able to sacrifice all because of the vision I had. I believed in what I did, and I was on the rising tide of the others who believed the same in the local food movement. 
But the machine of food industrialization saw profits in this "trend" and hopped on the band wagon, crushing farmers like myself out of the market place. Today, customers still appreciate organics but the reality is that a small farm cannot compete on the same playing field with industrialized agriculture(organic or not). Hence, consumers chose cheaper over the values of supporting local, a standardized commodity over unique local flavor. 
I think about what's happening in America and how it relates to the loss of the family farm. What it comes down to is that we've lost that connection to one another. We cannot relate to our neighbors suffering. Living our lives on Facebook we've reduced our interactions to memes. 
We are all hungry for something real. A hunger not even our organic veggies from our farm can feed. We are lonely and long to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to feel like we belong to a tribe.
I think of days gone by when neighbors shared a common experience. A hail storm would rip through a community and affect everyone's livelihoods alike. A loss for one neighbor did not become a gain for another like today's capitalistic profit driven system does. This common hardship (as well as abundance) amongst neighbors allowed us to relate to one another better. There didn't have to be a sense of blaming someone else for what you were going through because there was a sense that we were all in this together. 
Today though, the community atmosphere is corroded. Most of us haven't a clue what our neighbors really do for a living. When we speak to one another it may sometimes feel that the other person is from a different planet. When we are anxious about the world and feel vulnerable to the stress of change we try to find blame. We lash out against those that may dress different, may look different, speak different because we are fearful that others are encroaching on the little bit of security in the world that we have left. And when we do suffer, we suffer alone. 
And then I come back to my dairy farming neighbor, and what he must be going through. We saw what happened to most farmers in the 80s with the farm crisis.... let's just say there were many "hunting accidents" by farmers whose farms were being repossessed. We lost a generation of those who grow our food. The few holdouts like my neighbor have struggled, struggled, struggled until they have nothing more left in them. 
As a young farmer I've had to make a choice myself. Do I continue on? I see now the need for what I was doing at our farm greater than ever. Global warming puts all of our world's farmers at risk. I've always known how important food security is for a healthy democracy. We need healthy food to have healthy minds. It's vital that we have control over where our food is coming from. As Kissinger pointed out, "those who control the food supply, control the people."
If you go back to the German ghettos under Nazi rule you'll realize that the Nazis allowed the Jews to have their own businesses, their own fire departments,even their own police. What the Nazis did control were two things. #1 the information coming in (they didn't want them to know about what was happening in the war or concentration camps).#2 the food supply (a hungry population is easier to control). 
This was at the heart of why we started Ploughshare Farm in the first place. The name derives from Isaiah 2: "They shall pound their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks. And nation will make no war anymore." Ours was a vision of peace. Ours was a vision of growing life through on the land. The hope was to grow love in community of others. 
But the reality of that vision has fallen short, and I have felt ever increasing isolated just trying to get by and not get overwhelmed by the load of our own farm debt. Quite simply, I have become burned out. Because of this I have made the decision that I'm no longer willing to sacrifice my health and my family for an ideal that quite frankly, maybe only I see. I have a lot of respect for my dairy farming neighbor, but I've had to make a personal choice that I don't want to be in the spot he is in twenty years from now. As long as I kept going that's what was going to occur... or something worse. 
That doesn't take away the need I see for young farmers to continue. Perhaps the only way that society will begin to realize this is if the shit really hits the fan and our country's hunger will be no longer just figurative. As the prophets of old warned the Israelites, "change your ways or the wrath of god will be unleashed." Perhaps we need a collective catastrophe and through crisis we will come together in our world.

This is our final year doing CSA. Know that this year was an incredible struggle (financially and emotionally) for a number of reasons. My main concerns in the end was to make sure that our employees would be paid and that you, our customers would receive your vegetables through out the seasons. (We still will be delivering fall and winter shares). We've made good on this despite how much more it's set us back. I felt it essential to have closure. Going forward, I don't yet know what our family will do. Like I mentioned, our farm's debt can be quite overwhelming at times. The past three years of not making our membership goals put us deep in the red very quickly. So, navigating through is something that I will have to figure out. What will happen to the farm? Ideally, it would have been nice for someone else to come and take over. There's a lot of infrastructure here that we built up throughout the years and which would be perfect for anyone wanting to get into vegetables. Unfortunately, I know the reality is that those that may want to do such an endeavor do not have the money to do so. And it would be pretty rare to find someone willing to do as much work as is required. So I don't know...

What will happen to me and my family? This is wide open as well. It's a new chapter. We may decide that it's best to stick around. Or I may pursue a career out of state. It's a change that's going to be exciting and scary at once. 
On a final note. I want to thank you, our members for supporting us throughout the years. I know that there are many of you that will be sad that we will no longer be around. Your appreciation thoughout the years has been really, ultimately the best compensation.


Farmer Gary