Courtesy of theearthfixers.com
“If I have any legacy it’s that I’ll leave thousands of acres in better shape than I found it,” says Harn Soper – organic farmer, businessman and one of the partners in Sustainable Farm Partners (SFP). He grew up on a conventional farm in Iowa, “farming the wrong way”, but has since tried out many types of organic farming, from livestock and vegetables, to row crops such as corn, oats and alfalfa.
Row crops are what he settled on. “The biggest environmental impact that can be made is switching to organic grains,” he says. “To get to a new type of agriculture and to reset things, the system has to be scaleable.” It can’t be just a series of market gardens in other words. He explains: “In an ideal world maybe, but right now, when you walk around the supermarket aisles around 80 per cent of what’s sold is not fresh fruit and vegetables.” And in areas with short growing seasons, it’s not feasible without shipping or flying food in from other parts of the world. Which then presents the problem of C02 emissions.
I ask him his thoughts on permaculture. He thinks without a doubt it’s the best way to farm, “Nature just explodes under diversity. However, it’s tough because food systems require scale”. He believes organic farming, while not perfect is the best compromise for now. In the words of both the political left and right, “we can’t afford to make ‘Perfect’ the enemy of the absolutely necessary” … We can start right now in our own backyards and on our own farms. Farmers can switch to organic more easily because they can use much of the same machinery, many of the same skillsets and the same markets. But the focus is on protecting the soil through things like using natural fertilisers, crop rotations, companion plantings and reduced tilling. “The only way in farming is to protect your single most important asset – your soil.”
The SFP model
Sustainable Farm Partners is an interesting and curious hybrid of organic farming and finance. It’s essentially a capital company, which means it raises money, buys conventional farms, finds an operator to convert them to organic and then after ten years, sells the land. Whenever possible, they try to sell it back to the farmer who has been tending it. The goal is then to put this land in an organic easement to ensure it is farmed organically in perpetuity.
SFP provides the land and shares in some of the input costs while farm operators provide the equipment, labour and fuel. The farmers and investors then split the sale of crops. It’s a win-win. Not only that but after the first three years it takes to be able to label food as ‘USDA-organic’, investors also get a dividend in addition to the increases in farmland value.
Harn believes that any farming model has to “work economically within the restraints of people and the planet”. With SFP launching this year, he has a few reasons to be optimistic about its future. For starters, more and more people are waking up to the potential health impacts of GM food. “The coincidence is not lost on much of the public that their health is tied to GM food and the farming model that the GM food industry promotes”. There has been much research reported recently about the links between glyphosate use, an ingredient in Monsanto’s Round-Up herbicide, and disease in humans.
Farmers are not intentionally poisoning people but GM has not been good – for people or the environment. As Harn points out, it seemed like a miracle solution, promising higher yields for less work. Unfortunately, it completely destroyed soil tilth and stoked exorbitant bank debts. And in the process, Harn says, “farmers have forgotten how to cultivate and farm without the use of synthetic chemicals”.
Change is a’comin’
However, Harn is optimistic that change will come with the next generation, not least because of the economic gains to be made. Demand for organic food in the US is currently four times greater than supply. And last fall, while non-organic corn was getting a measly $3/bushel, organic farm product was getting $12. With numbers like that, switching to organic seems like a no-brainer. Just as importantly, Harn believes that switching to organic food production is a national food security and balance of trade issue. For every unit of organic food the US exports, they import eight.
“Economics will force farmers to move towards at least a non-GMO, if not organic model,” he says. “The earth can only give so much and the cost of carbon-based synthetic inputs and patented seeds are going to take all the profit out. Over time the good ship lollipop will turn in the right direction.”
There’s another compelling reason for embracing organic – farmers are increasingly at risk of litigation for their profligate practices. For example, in Des Moines, Iowa, the Des Moines Water Works are suing three counties upstream for non-point source pollution of the water supply caused by nitrate run-off from agriculture. It costs the Water Works millions every year to filter out these pollutants to meet federal government water safety standards. The conservative governor of Iowa commented that: “It’s not helpful to sue your neighbors”. “Surely,” I offer, “it’s not helpful to poison your neighbors either?”, “Exactly,” Harn agrees.
Iowa farms are a large contributor to the growing Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by nitrogen runoff. For decades this problem has been ignored by the Iowa legislature and governor’s office. In stepping forward the Des Moines Water Works have opened a Pandora’s box on this issue and it cannot be closed. One way or another, better land and water stewardship will be achieved.
SFP are capitalising on the fact that productive farmland is a finite asset. You can’t make more of it and it’s diminishing in the face of urbanisation and soil erosion, among other things. This makes organic farmland an attractive investment – it’s productive and it’s a hard asset.
Then there’s the water issue. The 2012 drought saw many corn harvests fail across the mid-west. In Iowa however some farms survived. “Where, what and how you farm is what matters. Iowa has some of the best farmland in the world,” Harn says, “its deep soil structure and subsoil moisture content, along with our organic hay crop rotation, helped save our crops in northwest Iowa. Corn can put down a taproot of six feet to find water, but in shallow soils, there’s nowhere for it to go.”
As for the current drought in California and the western US, “Central Valley, California is no place to grow anything naturally, I would never buy farmland west of the 100th meridian,” He says, referring to the line that divides the western and eastern US. Endless sunshine is only one ingredient needed to grow crops. With no regular and dependable water supply, ancient aquifers that took millions of years to form, are being sucked dry by unregulated water drilling for agriculture. A lot of these farms are corporate owned and have to answer to shareholders who focus solely on short-term returns.
I ask whether he takes a positive or negative view on the future of farming and the environment in general, his reply is neutral, “all you can do is take a local view and not worry about what your neighbors are doing.” And it helps that he loves what he does, “organic farming is the easiest, cheapest and most delicious way to take care of the environment”.
Let’s hope, with the help of companies such as SFP, the pull of organic farming gets stronger and stronger and the old GM model is left to shrivel on the vine.