Perspectives Online

Man in the middle: Scott Marlow strives to strengthen family farms

With the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, Scott Marlow promotes sustainable agriculture; helps to protect diversity of plants, animal and people; and tries to ensure responsible use of new technologies.
Photo by Becky Kirkland

For Scott Marlow, the son of a minister and grandson of a farmer, there's something sacred about the earthly enterprise of farming - something worth working hard for, in the face of oftentimes discouraging odds.

"Bringing food from the land, being a caretaker of the species - there's something special there," he says. "It's not just another business."

While not a farmer himself, Marlow works every day to strengthen farming and farm families through his efforts with the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA. The College of Agriculture of Life Sciences alumnus serves as RAFI's director of community-based agriculture.

A Pennsylvania native, Marlow earned a master's degree in crop science from N.C. State University after earning a bachelor's degree in political science from Duke University. He was interested in pursuing a career in hunger and agricultural policy, and he knew that additional science training would give him a deeper foundation.

"In my courses at Duke, lecturers would come in and give us numbers, and I had no way to tell if they were telling the truth or not," he said. "I wanted to know what the numbers meant, and I didn't have the framework. Having an agricultural science background makes me a better policy person, I think, and I got that through N.C. State."

After working for on an agricultural project in Jamaica and in the College's soybean breeding program, Marlow joined RAFI, which works to promote sustainable agriculture; strengthen family farms and rural communities; protect diversity of plants, animals and people; and ensure responsible use of new technologies.

Marlow's work with the non-profit has ranged from conducting on-farm research to helping develop programs to aid the clergy's understanding of the dramatic changes taking place in rural America and the mental toll these changes have taken on producers, their families and their communities.

Through RAFI, he's had the chance to collaborate frequently with his former coworkers, teachers and others in the College.

With Dr. Rick Brandenburg of the Department of Entomology, for example, Marlow conducted on-farm research to help farmers better understand the threat from rootworms and to avoid costly pesticide applications. By participating in the research, farmers saw firsthand the costs versus the benefits of using insecticides to control the pests.

"What we found was that in less than 10 fields out of hundreds would it be economically advisable to use the pesticide," Marlow said. "When we followed up last year with a quarter of the farmers who had participated in the research, we found that they had dropped their production costs by 35 to 40 bucks per acre. That's a substantial savings."

That experience working directly with farmers, on their farms, also helped position Marlow to help teach an N.C. State course in participatory research with Drs. Keith Baldwin, now with N.C. A&T State University, and Nancy Creamer, director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems in Goldsboro.

And, he says, it has helped inform his work in the public policy arena.

"We try to work at the local level and then take that understanding of what's happening at the local level to policymaking levels," he says.

Recently, Marlow has focused on helping farmers survive amid structural changes that have made survival hard for independent family farms that are too big to sell directly to consumers and too small to compete in commodities markets.

Traditionally the heart of American agriculture, "agriculture of the middle," as it's come to be called, is disappearing, Marlow says, and the families and communities that have depended on it are in the midst of a difficult transition.

To address the trend, Marlow serves on a national Agriculture of the Middle initiative task force. The initiative, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, seeks to renew agriculture of the middle by connecting it with promising consumer trends.

"There's a developing market for food and products that are produced in sustainable systems, and consumers are seeking out products from family farms," Marlow says. "It is the farms in the middle that have a comparative advantage in responding to this demand because their size allows them to be flexible enough to implement new production and marketing systems but with enough volume to supply significant markets.

"The question," he says, is whether "the infrastructure can be created to connect farmers of the middle with these emerging markets quickly enough to keep the rapidly disappearing farms in operation."

Success, Marlow says, will also require public policy changes as well as research and education support from land-grant universities like N.C. State and nonprofits like RAFI.

- Dee Shore