Monday, October 27, 2008

CAN SMALL, ORGANIC, FAMILY FARMS FEED THE WORLD?

That's a grandiose question, but implicit in the big question is whether farms like ours are frivolously inefficient or whether they're a model worth supporting because of their better care of people, communities, and ecosystems.
Certainly big, industrialized farms free up/displace lots of workers. Lots of small, family farms would require lots of farmers and that means fewer people doing other jobs. A shift to small family farms might come about in part by farmers replacing workers in pesticide manufacturing plants or global food transport workers or food marketing specialists, but that would only be a part of the shift; small farms can really only become mainstream in America to the extent that mainstream Americans become farmers again.
But what if the workers were willing and able? How much food could such farms even produce? To try to answer that question, we must confront the reality of synthetic fertilizers. In the case of garden crops, which take up very little land, there are reasonable alternatives to synthetic fertilizers, particularly in the presence of all the organic waste materials that our current economy generates. On the other hand, the yields of the crops that take up a lot of land -- the crops that ultimately really feed the world -- depend much more heavily on synthetic fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers allow for supplying practically unlimited nutrients to crops, at least so long as the fossil fuels and other mined nutrient sources required to synthesize the fertilizers -- fertilizers are a major part of our entire fossil fuel consumption -- are plentiful. Growing crops organically means the only nutrients available to the crop are what can be recycled (through manures, kitchen scraps, animal bones, mulches, etc.) When it comes to the crops that produce the calories that feed people, crops like corn and wheat and oats and forages for livestock, synthetic fertilizers make a huge difference, perhaps doubling potential yields per acre or even more.
Does that mean small, organic, family farms could only produce half the food as big, industrialized farms (and would be at least twice as expensive)? Some of big ag's proponents might suggest that, but that ignores the great efficiency with which small, diversified farms can make use of land, land that is too sloping, too varied, or divided into plots too small to suit big machines and extensive management. Even vacant lots in large cities have proven fertile ground for small, organic farms and gardens. Our own farm was long ago abandoned by mainstream agriculture as too marginal; yet to us it offers overwhelming potential production. The biggest difference may be that small farms are so much more flexible in terms of how they can convert sunlight into food. For example, instead of growing (and devoting land solely to) genetically modified, herbicide-resistant soybeans for chicken feed, free range chickens on small farms can scavenge 100% of the worms and grubs they need for protein, along with much of their energy needs, all from land devoted primarily to other uses. Hogs, similarly, are wonderful at utilizing what would otherwise be waste: crop residues from the field, acorns and beechnuts from forests, leftover whey from cheesemaking, etc. The dairy goats we bought this spring, as another example, have thrived all year on nothing but unwanted weeds in fencerows and along the edge of the garden. In contrast, industrialized agriculture devotes a majority of America's most productive cropland strictly to growing animal feed. How uneconomical!
Even if a predominantly industrialized agriculture can currently more or less feed the world, one must ask whether current practices can be sustained. What will industrialized agriculture do without cheap and abundant fossil fuels for its machines and for synthesizing its fertilizers? What will industrialized agriculture do when the weeds and insects and disease organisms develop resistance to the current array of synthetic poisons? Of course, the only answer is blind faith in the prospect of newer and higher-tech poisons and machines, meanwhile assuming that the pollution and side effects of yesterdays poisons will prove negligible. As for us, we maintain hope in a different kind of agriculture, a culture of small, organic, family farms.

1 comment:

Able Oaks Dairy Goats said...

I envision that as the price of fresh vegetables and greens continues to skyrocket in the super markets, that more and more families will augment their diets with backyard "victory gardens" like our parents and grandparents did in the 1930's and 1940's. We folks lucky enough to have acreage with livestock, need more farmer's markets outlets to sell our produce, dairy products, and fiber.