Looking Over the Mountain

For as long as I can remember, farmers in Clarion and the surrounding region have, after reading Lancaster Farming and other agricultural publications from the area, longingly looked East with visions in their minds of the flat and fertile land constituting Pennsylvania’s breadbasket.  ‘They have it all on that side of the mountains.  If only we had just one of their fields!’ is the paraphrased mantra of our Western end of the state.  The tables, however, might be turning.

I recently heard a rumor that increasing pollution regulations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are causing industrial farms to take a closer look at our landscape on this side of the divide. Ours is a region that’s been largely missed through the years from an agricultural standpoint. Situated in coal country between the bounteous flatlands in Ohio and the fertile farming region out east, Clarion and the surrounding area have long been mocked by anyone who’s serious about farming. Even native planters lament working in the ‘armpit of the world.’

Because of such oversight, the war between confinement hog and chicken operations that stink for miles and a burgeoning population of suburbanites looking to live in the country has not been fought on this turf. We don’t have walls of opposing regulations attempting to appease one side or the other largely due to the reality that we’ve never needed them. Today, that lack of laws is making our slice of the world look awfully good to agribusiness.  Apparently it’s being quietly recommended that they move operations this way, building their hog and chicken barns in a region that ‘has nothing.’

Capital ‘A’ agriculture (the big guys), of course, will respond to this proposed shift West as though it brings manna from Heaven to our farmers dotting the hills. It’s an opportunity to finally put ourselves on the map and start making some money, from their standpoint, and plenty of people with John Deere green underwear will enthusiastically agree. Apparently even agricultural universities are on board with the plan (to be fair, I can’t confirm such a claim - it’s a rumor, but, given their track record with Big Ag, I would say it’s accurate.)

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Do we want our relatively regulation-free, overlooked, uncrowded piece of the world to become a free-for all of pig houses? Hog and poultry rearing associated with industrial production are both vertically integrated processes, so the farmers tending their stock don’t even own the stock they’re tending (beef is soon to follow - JBS is working out an integrated system with Holstein bull calves as you read this). A LOT of manure comes out of those places; eventually the deluge of liquid fertilizer reaches a saturation point in the soil, and then what happens? Ask the people battling the situation out East. They truck poop all over the place trying to get rid of it. If you dump enough crap on your neighbors, the regulation war is soon to follow, and the Feds don’t target just one person, they go after everyone with their red tape.

Is that what we want to picture when we think of Clarion? A farmer, stripped of his independent persona, tending 400,000 birds belonging to someone else and stuffed in a windowless barn and supported by a fleet of manure trucks? Truly, I hope not.

My friend and mentor Steve Reichard has long proclaimed that our region is perfect for grassland agriculture. Our terrain isn’t well suited for expansive planting and harvesting, but we have vast amounts of wasted grass that is begging for a well managed herd of cattle to graze it and restart the carbon cycle. Green, lush countryside is considered a useless resource to the concrete-and-rebar mentality propounded by commodity farming, but to the rest of us it’s something to be coveted, responsibly utilized, and forever enjoyed.  Infusing the countryside with diversified, independent farms that capitalize on our proximity to major populations of people via direct marketing will change our landscape and our farm economy in a way that does not continuously extract wealth from the area. People-oriented farms have a soft, beneficial touch on the world around them, so an influx of such farmers will not result in a stink war with the neighbors and piles of regulations arriving from Washington.  An incursion of specialty farms and the associated businesses will in fact attract people who are longing for a connection to their food.

We’re facing a tipping point: do we want to passively let the Big Boys come in to take advantage of us, or would we rather dig in and proclaim ‘Not here!  This spot is taken!’?  It doesn’t take legislation or elbow-rubbing to create such a reality, it takes a population united by good food and good farms driven by a universal willingness to support and grow what we already have in this slice of the world.  That, friends, is a pretty delicious way to protect our future for generations.