Peak Farmers: A Guest Post by Elaine Solowey

Sharon April 28th, 2008

This is a guest post by my internet friend, Elaine Solowey.  She sent me this piece and I liked it so much that I couldn’t resist publishing it here:

Elaine Solowey is a displaced orcharder who went into agricultural research in 1985. She has been researching low water use, sustainable crops for arid and saline areas for the last twenty years and domesticating desert plants for use as food and medicinals. She has worked cooperatively with MERC/AID, the IALC, the FAO and the Natural Medicine’ s Unit of Hadassah Hospital. She lives, works and teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies with her husband Michael. Her books _Small Steps Towards Abundance_ and _Supping at God’s Table_ are both available through Amazon, and highly recommended - the latter, though is a bit more technical.

Here’s her wonderful essay on yet another thing we’ve thrown away as though it were garbage. 

Peak Farmers— “Not a Bibbed Overall In Sight”
That was the title of a particularly obnoxious article written in the late 1990’s extolling the wonders of agribusiness and agri-tech — promising fertilizers delivered by guided rocketry, fields plowed by smart lasers and huge computer run combines cultivating and harvesting whole counties for crops that would not be touched by human hands.
And not a bibbed overall in sight.

That was the point of the whole shallow, arrogant, machine-worshipping paen to the destruction of the countryside-.

The article was promising production without producers, an ultimate free lunch.

Would anyone write a piece like that now in 2008?

Joel Stein, the Angelino columnist said just last fall. “Agribusiness feeds us. Farmers are obsolete. They are one step above fire starters and cave painters”.

Now with food prices rising, food riots in 35 countries as of this writing and the concerns about peak oil, peak food, peak phosphorus, peak fertilizer finally crashing into mainstream consciousness it is surprising to me that no one connects the current crisis with a peak that was passed long ago.

Peak farmers.

But that peak should not be a surprise to anyone.

For the last 100 years there has been a world-wide effort to get rid of farmers…
Some were eliminated for political reasons the way that Stalin starved the Ukrainians to death and shipped the kulaks off to Siberia.

Some were driven off their land by the vast illegal enclosure actions of wealthy landowners in South American nations.

The Nazis in WWII swept up the farming inhabitants of Russian and Polish and Jewish villages and worked them to death in the factories that fed their war machine.

Millions of farmers were displaced by dams financed by the World Bank

Millions more were removed from agriculture by the policies of the WTO.

Some had their farms were taxed out from under them and the land tuned over to developers who built cheap houses and strips malls on it.

And more were eliminated by agricultural globalization, the belief that every farmer should specialize and produce as much of their single product as possible (to the neglect of everything else) - then we would all merrily cross- ship these things to each other for ever.

Still others were “sanitized” out of business. The small dairies and animal husbandry operations could not afford the large and expensive machines needed to raise animals and process milk and meat under the rules of “modern” hygiene.

These small operations were declared to be inefficient and dirty, never mind the fact that modern “hygienic” production units for meat and milk are nightmarishly cruel, filthy, and squalid.  (Indeed, a backyard pigpen or chicken coop is a relative paradise compared the confining “crush” pens of the modern pig farm or the cage batteries of the modern poultry house.)

So farmers were eliminated, one after another, by murder, displacement, bankruptcy, by taxes that would not let land be passed from generation, by on- farm prices that left farmers unable to feed their own families, by subsidies that favored farms beyond human scale.

Many studies over the years showed that the small farm produced much more food with less environmental damage than the larger “economic” models. But the “economic” models produced more of their one product and looked good on paper, never mind the cost to the locale, the water or the soil or the people who lived in the area.

Get big, said the US secretary of agriculture.

Or get out.

So we got out.

Not that we had much choice in the matter.

I escaped into agricultural research, I will probably never own a piece of land that I can improve and cherish, but at least I have had the privilege and pleasure of taking care of trees and medicinal plants, tasting strange fruits, working with other people who love the green growing things of the world.

There is not much financial support for the kind of work I do and grants are hard to come by-I may have to go through the tiresome scientific rituals of recorded observation, boring empiricism and endless paperwork-but I regard that as an acceptable price to pay.

Most of us were not so lucky and had to make do with whatever job a dumb farmer who lost the farm could get.

And for many of us there were no jobs at all.

Though the peak for farmers was passed long ago there is still a persistent strain of anti- farmerism in the world, reflected by rules and laws that coddle GM technologies and outlaw open pollinated seeds, that allow modern dairy farmers to burn out their animals in a few years by giving them growth hormones but outlaw the keeping of a few goats or chickens in a rural yard.

In the US the average farmer is 55. And there is no one to follow.

Exactly my age by the way.

And I am getting tired of the endless, thankless work I do, the reports no one reads and the policies that never change and thinking longingly of a little garden somewhere where I can grow my own food and do what I have always wanted to do while I still have the time.

We are almost gone-and now that we are as the modern world has wanted us to be.
Extinct, obsolete, one step from the fire starters and cave painters.

Who will grow your food for you?

Just when you need them—there is not a bibbed overall in sight.

18 Responses to “Peak Farmers: A Guest Post by Elaine Solowey”

  1. anonymous says:

    A nice essay Elaine. If you are looking for an idea, how about Suburban Farms. The idea would be to share crop with people growing food on their own property. Don’t know if it would work, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t.

    There is a significant cottage industry of people taking care of suburban lawns. Here in Southern CT, it is a huge effort done mainly by people who have migrated from South of the Border.

    Three years ago we started serious efforts to grow some portion of our food on our own property. We have a long way to go and are finding it hard doing this without help. The landscapers in the area pretty much offer all the same thing. Recently, some have started to convert to organic practices, but it is still essentially lawn maintenance.

  2. equa yona says:

    Poignant essay. My grandfather lost his little farm during the depression and had to feed his 14 kids off his railroad pay.
    I came across a relevant article yesterday while researching my post. The Union of Concerned Scientists has just issued a report on CAFOs(confined animal feeding operations) or factory farms. It reports on apalling government policies

  3. ValP says:

    Great essay! Thank you for posting it!

  4. Segwyne says:

    We are trying to buy a piece of protected farmland and the bank doesn’t want to give us a mortgage for it because we said we want to raise a few animals. They don’t finance farms.

  5. Greenpa says:

    This is, truly, a huge problem. Farmers are tremendously expert, and rarely appreciate their own knowledge. It’s extremely hard to replace the system of learning at grandpa’s knee, and watching the grown-ups and processes for years while growing up.

    I’m intimately familiar with trying to teach urbanites to grow crops- it’s a nightmare. They seem to learn only by disaster- and even then they don’t change gears and start learning from other’s mistakes; they have to make their own. Oh, the stories…

    Not funny, in current circumstances- a tremendous number of neophytes are being primed to zip out and till up their lawn- expecting to reap bushels of potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and melons. Weeds? what? Raccoons? eh? - you know what happens.

    The trick is to get them to try again, next year- which is where the old timers come in; the example of a garden that WORKS - somewhere nearby- is critical.

  6. MEA says:

    When I bring up Greenpa’s point, people alway suggest some book or other, but it doesn’t really anwer the problem. Or the question of how were are going to get massive amounts of organic material into your average suburban lawn. I also hear about seed sales up 60%, and wonder how many people are picking up floor sweepings at the dollar store and expecting bumper crops.

    Which is not to say I’m trying to discourage people — just trying to find better ways to help.

  7. NM says:

    Poignant and stunning. Thank you.

  8. ValP says:

    Interesting points Greenpa. I was raised in the country but now live in a suburban area close to a major city. There is always a varmit, weed, drought, or failure of one of the crops. I think the challenge is a valuable part of the equation. At least it teaches me a lot. Where there is a will there is a way. I think we have been so disconnected as a country we have forgotten farming isn’t instant gratification like the produce section of the grocery.

  9. Paula Hewitt says:

    Thanks for this essay. we are in the process of buying 14 acres of ex-dairy farm (thanks to de-regulation of Aust dairy industry thousands of dairy farmers went tits up). One of the farmers we spoke to is travelling 2 hours from his new job ‘in town’ getting the farm ready to be divvied up and sold as ‘hobby farms’ yeecckk. Of course we are one of the urbanites that are planning to live there, but hopefully with more luck than Greenpa predicts. Our aims were (and have been for years) two fold: One is it re-vegetate with native bushland, the other is self-sufficency (to whatever extent is possible these days)…and now perhaps a bolthole when peak oil hits. At the moment - we are practising growing own own veggies/fruit and eggs in our backyard, safe in the knowledge that any disasters can be assauged by the local supermarket - for now.

  10. Susan Bruso says:

    That’s our goal, Greenpa. A producing front yard garden so we can offer encouragement to our neighbors with their gardens.

  11. lydia says:

    This was an awesome essay. I live on a postage stamp size city lot. Four summers ago I dug up all my lawn (talk about being a sodbuster!) in my front yard and built a potting/tool shed and put in a 400 square foot garden. Not very big, but every year I grow tomatoes, green beans, winter and summer squash, onions, leeks, kale, chard and lettuces. Granted, it does not feed me all year round. If only it did! But every year I learn more and am expanding with barrels and large containers. Next year I plan to dig up the back yard and plant there.

    I have four apple trees 3 blueberries and tons of strawberries in among all the roses. I compost everything, even my dryer lint and cat hair! I decided not to wait for farmers to come back around close to where I live. No one can afford to wait for that. We must start today and work to be as food secure as possible on the land we have, if any.

    I read and study everything I can, and every morning I look my garden over. It’s amazing how much it can change in one day! You learn all the time.
    Two things are THE MOST IMPORTANT of all - Soil! and rain water. Do not water with city water, too many chemicals and build up your soil with straw, woods chips and compost as much as possible. I built raised beds and I do not till, I just add to all the time. I bought worms and put them in the beds and they love the compost I add. Nothing is more satisfying than learning how to grow your own food and be “grocery store independent” for at least 4-6 months out of the year.

    Also research the best seed companies. Most of the seed packets sold in the stores are the “dregs” of the seed companies. If you plant crappy seed, you wont get good plants and you wont even know why. You might think you did something wrong, not enough sun, or whatever. No-it’s the crappy seeds. Do not buy them at the thrift store/dollar store. Get open pollinated only and save them for the next year.

  12. Andrew says:

    Maybe it’s not peak farmer. I’m hoping we’re at…um… “valley” farmers.


    [...] Peak Farmers: A Guest Post by Elaine Solowey [...]

  14. Ailsa Ek says:

    I’m preparing to petition the town yet again for permission to raise chickens. This essay is exactly what I want to say to them. How can I contact Elaine to see if I can get permission to reproduce it?

  15. jay says:

    agricultural research is a nice topic
    we need to discuss it

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  16. jay says:

    nice blog……

    cheap houses


    [...] for conventional farmers, whose fertilizers and sprays are oil-based, the situation is even worse.  Even though commodity prices are rising, farming expenses are rising [...]

  18. Fairy says:

    I got a grant from the federal government for $12,000 in financial aid, see how you can get one also at

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