Gridlock in the Senate has diminished the chances of new farm legislation by year’s end. Unless a compromise emerges very soon, the Farm Bill will be tabled until 2008 or after the presidential election. But the setback is only temporary: despite delays in funding for important nutrition and environmental programs, there is growing support for shifting tax dollars from agribusiness to family farmers and overhauling the farm subsidy program.
Indeed, the seeds of true reform are being sown throughout the country, as consumers are forging closer connections to farmers and developing a deeper policy interest in agricultural issues. Increasingly, Americans are buying food at farmers’ markets or directly from farms through community-supported agriculture programs. State and local officials are adopting policies to expand farming in and around our nation’s cities. A large cross-section of chefs, college students, community activists, and farmers are redesigning the food systems in their institutions, communities and regions. With more Americans developing relationships with family farmers and consuming farm-fresh food, many are questioning the large subsidies for commodity crops, which often rely on unsustainable farming techniques and make unhealthy food more abundant and inexpensive than fruits and vegetables.
This affinity between consumers and farmers has even encouraged real estate developers to build communities that blend working farms into the suburban landscape. From Massachusetts to California, subdivisions that include farms have sprouted, countering conventional notions that farmers and homeowners don’t mix. Incorporating small farms into residential developments provides multiple benefits to everyone living in the community, not to mention profits for the developers. And unlike typical subdivisions, these farmland subdivisions have numerous potential environmental benefits, including land conservation, land restoration (if organic growing methods are used) and reduced reliance on food transported from distant sources. The social benefits are significant too. Residents in developments with shared open spaces report that they meet and connect with their neighbors on a regular basis.
Bringing homeowners and farmers together in a cohesive community, these developments reduce the physical and emotional distance between food producers and consumers that has widened in recent years. Small clusters of global firms control food production, processing and marketing with lengthy supply chains that stretch, on average, 1,500 “food miles” from farm to plate. Farming subdivisions shorten the supply chain to a ten minute walk to the farm-stand.
Carving out farmland and farmers’ markets in the midst of homes, these communities offer unusually inclusive spaces where residents can bond with their neighbors and with the people growing and selling food. They enable residents to know, quite intimately, the sources and attributes of the food they buy, encouraging producers in turn to adopt more transparent production methods. The result is civic agriculture–a sustainable system of food production and distribution that relies heavily on local resources and the active participation of local residents. The institutions that make up a civic agricultural system produce and sell food that matches the immediate needs of the community. They are small-scale, not capital intensive, and rely on the knowledge of the individuals who live in a particular place.
One of the best known farming subdivisions, Prairie Crossing, is located forty miles north of Chicago. Designed from the start as a conservation development, it features clustered homes, ecologically restored wetlands and prairie grasslands, two commuter rail stations that connect to Chicago, and 154 acres reserved for organic farming. Prairie Crossing houses Sandhill Organics, a small, organic, family farm on nearly forty acres. The farmers of Sandhill Organics say they think of themselves first as neighbors and second as farmers. One-quarter of Prairie Crossing’s residents have volunteered on the farm, and the farmers’ market is an important meeting place for the entire community. An elevated walking trail, above the homes and the farm, enables everyone to appreciate the working landscape as a collective creation.
Broader adoption of this farming subdivision model by developers, entrepreneurial farmers, non-profit organizations and private homeowners could help new forms of civic agriculture flourish throughout the country. By integrating organic farmland into residential developments, farming subdivisions give ordinary citizens, real-estate developers, policymakers, and other stakeholders viable alternatives to the current agro-industrial food system.
More food producers and consumers are learning to value human cooperation and shared responsibility, possibilities largely unavailable until they started building alternative food systems. Open your ears and you’ll hear public conversation about better practices that should govern food production, consumption and distribution. This democratic dialogue is the best mechanism for generating the political will necessary to overcome gridlock and ensure meaningful agricultural policy reform in the near future.