One of the most interesting aspects of American agriculture to me is the nearly schizophrenic variety of its manifestations, with both the most mind-boggling of the big and the boutiquiest of the precious small, both fighting for representation. Equally revealing is how government responds to their demands. This week’s reading of sustainable-foods news uncovers plenty of proof that both camps are alive and kicking.

Monique Curet of the Columbus Dispatch reports that big farms are growing bigger at an alarming rate. The Ohio Feed Lot in Clark County, for example, has asked the state for permission to triple its herd to an astounding 29,000 head. How any government agency could give the go-ahead for that kind of explosive growth is beyond me. And the picture that the article shows of the Buckeye Egg Farm looks more like a warehouse complex than a place where hens are supposed to grow. It’s positively disingenuous to call the place a farm.  

On the flip side, the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture has started up an interesting initiative for graduates of its beef cattle management program. Students draw up a business plan and present it to the USDA’s Farm Service Administration and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. If they approve, the student receives funding for a 100-cow herd. They and their parents, employers and landowners must attend a series of seminars meant to help tweak the plan so it’s appropriate to everyone’s individual circumstances.

“Instead of just preparing its students for positions in Nebraska agriculture, [the NCTA’s faculty] is now preparing NCTA students to develop small businesses to take home to rural Nebraska,” says Nebraska College President Jay Wolf. The NCTA’s focus on entrepreneurship is powerful, given that 40 percent of rural Nebraskan communities contain 300 or fewer residents. 

In a day and age of expensive land, tight margins, giving beginning ranchers a leg up is certainly worthy. But the program, confusingly named the “100 Beef Cow Ownership Advantage,” aims to give NCTA graduates “a large enough asset that they will be a partner in an agricultural enterprise,” implying that cows will be their only assets and that they’ll have to rely on partners for land and other vital needs. Maybe helping the ranchers secure land as well as cows might help them towards a more self-sustaining future?

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Sustaining farms, big and small
Nebraska and Ohio offer vastly different examples of the kind of government help a farmer needs.