Dave Bishop, now mostly retired from farming, has settled into his role as an educator. Informed by almost a half century of agricultural experience, the instructor at Heartland Community College and founder of PrairiErth Farm wasted no time in our discussion before giving me several lessons on the state of agriculture in Illinois.
Regenerative, not Sustainable Agriculture
My first question to Dave was, “How do you perceive the status of the movement for sustainable agriculture?” I was quickly corrected. Sustainability has long stood as a buzzword that is associated with better living for a better future. However, Dave asks, “Sustain what?” Are we sustaining our current system? Whose definition of sustainability are we operating with? As it exists, “everyone has their own definition.” In its place, Dave champions “regenerative agriculture.”
Rather than sustaining the system producing inequality, ill-health, and environmental degradation, regenerative agriculture seeks to regenerate the soils, the communities, and the natural world that has sustained humanity throughout our history. From Dave’s perspective, it is through regenerative agriculture that we can transition to an organic system. Where organic is a defined label managed by a bureaucracy, regenerative agriculture is a set of principles intended to invite people to try a different way of agriculture.
Dave did not come to regenerative agriculture from nowhere. Rather, the principles of regenerative agriculture and his broader philosophy of agriculture are products of contingent events in US history. Dave started out not as an organic farmer, but a run of the mill commodity cropper. For his first ten years, Dave grew monoculture soybeans and corn. He was wrapped into what Nixon’s secretary of agriculture Earl Butz deemed the era of “get big, or get out.” In 1988, however, things changed for Dave. In the face of a nearly unprecedented drought, Dave decided to change things up.
From the “Monoculture Mindset” to a Diversity Principle
Recalling the era of his childhood and the experiences of his grandfather, Dave started to diversify his operation. This started with bringing animals back to the land. Rather than growing one or maybe two things, diversity became Dave’s guiding principle. Amid a rising neoliberal economy where farmers more than ever became dependent upon international commodity markets to make a profit, Dave was setting out a path away from wholesale and commodity markets and toward retail. Instead of just soybeans and corn, Dave started growing a bit of everything including meat and vegetables.
In this sense, Dave’s story is one of transitioning from what he calls the “monocultural mindset” to an adherer to a diversity principle. The diversity principle is a call to structure the farm’s ecology and economy on several crops and animals. For Dave, diversity is the key to environmental and economic resiliency. It contrasts the monoculture mindset, which is “we only do one thing.” For Dave, it is a mindset and not simply a business practice because it is emblematic of a close-mindedness and resistance to thinking out of the box. Dave gave an example of a solar panel company who came out to his farm that didn’t want to build raised solar panels so that his cattle could graze underneath them. Their response was, “Because that’s not what we do.” This, to Dave, is the monoculture mindset.
Working with Nature
I asked Dave what he most enjoyed about being a farmer. His answer was, “working with nature.” To Dave, when you’re immersed in the systems that sustain us, you realize how much we depend on nature. He contrasts this to the alienation from the natural world that often accompanies urban living. When we go to a grocery store, we take it for granted that something will be there. However, “On the farm you see how easily we can go from abundance to nothing in months.” There is nothing inherent about there being plenty of food and it may not always be this way. For Dave, this point was punctuated when the pandemic started and people panic-bought toilet paper. What would people do if instead of toilet paper going scarce, it was their food?
Optimism Amidst the Challenges of a 21st Century Agriculture
Change is Coming
Something inspiring about Dave is his commitment to optimism despite the number of pressing challenges facing society and agriculture. To be clear, Dave is well-aware of what those problems are. However, how he sees it, when it comes to building a better system, “[It] may sound arrogant, but I know how to do it.” It is not a matter of knowledge that stands in the way, but a matter of will. But where is the will going to come from?
Dave places his hope in the next generation of farmers. The average age of an American farmer is 57. Dave looks at this fact and sees change coming when the new generation takes their place. He also looks at changing consumption patterns of increasing the demand for organic products as a good omen as well. For Dave, the consumer is the “big boss.” If the consumer wants an organic, local product, then the market will have to adapt. Other places of hope for Dave are universities which are beginning to invest more money in regenerative agriculture initiatives.
Necessity of Reform
However, as even Dave recognizes, consumer demand is not sufficient for solving the manifold problems facing agriculture. Problems like land prices, pollution, water supply, and corporate influence over society are intractable without some type of dramatic reform. For example, in Logan County where Dave resides, Bill Gates owns 5000 acres of land as investment properties. How can we build a new system of agriculture when a handful of billionaires have the power to outcompete farmers buying farmland?
Dave sees the necessity of the reform in the context of the “gutting of rural America.” Rural industrial jobs, which began leaving the US in the 1970s, are mostly gone and the opportunities for farming in these spaces are limited because of the consolidation of land into larger, and larger farms. Rural America, consequently, is lacking in economic opportunities. As Dave put it, “Before we make any meaningful progress, two things have to happen: Number one, we have to get rid of Citizens United and address the inappropriate level of corporate influence in government.”
Dave Bishop’s Call to Action: Get to Know Your Farmer
When I asked Dave if there was anything he wanted to share with people, his response was that he wanted people “to get to know their farmer. Buy your food from somebody you know, where if there are questions that come up, you can go ask.” When you buy ground beef from the grocery store, even if it says organic on it, you can’t ask them if they really let their cattle pasture. If you talk directly to the farmer that raised the cattle, you can.
As Dave stated in our interview, if one of his customers asked him that question at the farmers’ market, he would tell them, “Of course we do. Come out to the farm if you don’t believe me.” For Dave and his successors at PrairiErth, his son Hans and daughter-in-law Katie, “We want to show you how we do things. We want to tell you a story about where your food comes from and why that’s a good thing, how it affects you, how it affects the economy, and how it affects the country.”
For those of us in the younger generations, Dave is assigning us an additional task: “what your generation is going to have to do is . . . to come up with the will. We’ll leave you the means, but you’re going to have to come up with the will to do it all by yourself.” As I told Dave, you wouldn’t want to make it too easy on us.
For more on Dave Bishop’s thoughts on agriculture, reform, and more, read the whole interview here.
In case you missed the previous the previous parts of Farmers at Large: