Why We Need Small Farms
An Introduction to the Numbers
In a recent article from National Geographic titled "The Courageous Optimism of Young Farmers," we came across the statistic that over the last 12 years, we’ve lost 40 times more farmers than we’ve gained in the US.
We're also well aware that while the numbers of individual farmers are decreasing, the average size of farms is going up. In other words, we are losing small farms, and our food production is increasingly in the hands of large-scale factory farms.
Some folks might wonder why this is a problem. Can't big farms feed us just as well or better than small ones?
But that's not the big question.
We all know factory farms are capable of stocking grocery store shelves. But what's the true cost of all this production and is it sustainable?
To answer these questions, we have to examine the basis of it all, the place where all our food begins - the soil.
Soil Health and Factory Farming
How is our soil holding up as these trends toward factory farming continue? Sadly, not well at all.
There is a general consensus within much of the scientific community that we have less than 100 years left before the planet's farmable topsoil is totally degraded. And although they are a major reason for it's decline, factory farms do not prioritize building or even preserving the soil.
After all, what incentive do big farms have to care for the soil when they can deploy fertilizers and pesticides as substitutes for traditional soil-building practices?
The short is answer is "None." So they continue to degrade with their technology and chemicals.
We may wish it were different or believe these farms will see the bigger picture and "do the right thing" for the planet. But that's not really how it works.
Like in any other industry, lower costs and higher production is the name of the game for "Big Ag."
We believe this is a short-sighted mentality because farming is not like any other industry. It deals with living, biological entities, not cogs in a machine. Topsoil degradation is not something we can throw more innovation at to solve. It takes time and will never get fixed in a lab.
The big picture is this: over the long term there’s no outwitting nature. No panaceas exist in farming. And no shortcuts do either. The true cost to the environment of factory farming is devastating. Soil health is perhaps the most urgent aspect of all.
More than 50 years ago, conservationist Fairfield Osborn wrote the following lines in his book Our Plundered Planet: "The miraculous succession of modern inventions has so profoundly affected our thinking as well as our everyday life that it is difficult for us to conceive that the ingenuity of men will not be able to solve the final riddle--that of gaining a subsistence from the earth. The grand and ultimate illusion would be that man could provide a substitute for the elemental workings of nature."
Don't get us wrong. We are not opposed to technology or innovation in farming. Better tools and better systems are always going to be out there.
But there are certain corners that just can't be cut, and that's the problem with the high-intensity, chemical-dependent practices of the big, conventional farms today. Their practices disregard so many of the "elemental workings of nature" Osborn warned about. Building healthy soil is just one of them.
Our Views and A Final Word on the Future
We believe farmers have to care about their environmental impact as much as they do about the plants and animals they raise.
There can be no giving in to the illusion that nature is something like an opponent to outwit. On the contrary, nature is the playing field we have to care for and mend.
Perhaps disillusionment in conventional farming contributed to so many people giving it up. We'd be disillusioned too if we had to farm the "conventional" way.
Our model of pastured poultry is not the easiest or cheapest way to raise birds. It’s management intensive and non-automated. But to us, it's rewarding work that we know benefits the whole ecosystem and we enjoy it.
Ironically, in farming today, to innovate away from “conventional” means to go back to traditions practiced when society relied more on small farms than big corporations.
Those were days when people knew their farmers by their first names and never had to question what they ate. There was trust in those relationships and the farmers did right by their customers because it was their names on the line.
They also knew if they wanted to stay in business for long then they could only depend on farming practices that were sustainable over time.
In other words, ones that avoided erosion, pollution, environmental degradation, and resource waste - such things that we've learned modern-day factory farms do little to consider.
We have the opportunity to return to wisdom of the past. Small, traditional farms are capable of so much more when it comes to feeding the world than what they've been diminished to today.
They sustained us throughout history. That has to count for something. We'd be wise to sustain them today.