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Sustainability: What it Means To a Family Farm

Sustainability: What it Means To a Family Farm


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'Sustainability' is one of those words used all over the place and everyone has their own interpretation. Even in agriculture, there’s no widely agreed upon definition, so I think everybody kind of has to create their own sustainable model. On the farm, we define sustainability to encompass three main components: environmentally friendly practices, social responsibility and economic viability. In recent years, we’ve emphasized a fourth, technology, which has a hand in affecting the others.

Environmentally Friendly

Sustainable agricultural practices evolved around leaving land in better condition for future generations. It took into consideration how you cared for the land. From water erosion to wind erosion, there are ways to manage them using sustainable practices. For example, if you have a hilly piece of land, water’s going to run down into the low spots, thus eroding the soil into ditches and gulleys, and you lose the land. Sustainable practices guide us to plant strips of vetch or clover in low spots to hold the land in place.

As a kid, I can recall having to clean soil from the insides of the window sills in the winter from wind moving the top frozen layer and lifting it through the cracks in the window seals. Applying sustainable practices here, we can prevent some of that wind erosion by planting a cover crop in the fall.

There are so many practices to preserve the irreplaceable soil. Not to embrace them fully is irresponsible and shortsighted.

Visualize a plant as an antenna. Different types of plants accept different types of energy from the sun and deposit excess into the soil. On the farm, we actually do lab analysis on the soil and plant crop specifically based on the deficiencies. It is our belief that God designed a system far superior to anything that we can mimic chemically or synthetically, so we rebuild nutrients naturally by planting cover crops and rotating the land. It’s really about working in harmony with nature rather than trying to outsmart it.

Socially Responsible

Social responsibility is the second component of sustainability, though it’s no less important. We have to think of what kinds of materials we’re using on the land. Is it going to stay in the ground? Will it be passed along to consumers? A very common pesticide that's typically used on corn grown on commercial farms never breaks down. You’re probably eating it in some form, and you will find traces of this chemical in your system. With the potential health hazards of consuming these chemicals, using these types of materials isn’t socially responsible and it’s not sustainable.

Fossil fuel usage and carbon footprint, and how they relate to planting, harvesting and distribution channels — these are all considerations that are still extremely important in sustainable agriculture. But sustainability must consider more than just the land. In our sustainable model, we're looking to preserve and rebuild the soil, and to prevent soil erosion and wind erosion, but we also need to consider the people committed to maintaining environmentally friendly and socially responsible agriculture.

Economic Viability

The third component of sustainability, the one that nobody likes to discuss because it’s the hardest to get our brain around, is that sustainable agriculture has to be economically viable. If we don’t consider real costs of business and we don’t price accordingly, we don't have a sustainable model.

I can go into nearly any restaurant in the United States and find produce in the coolers that the labor was paid $3 a day to harvest. We don’t have any $3 a day laborers here, nor do we want that — it’s not sustainable. We need to be competitive in our pay scales in order to recruit quality people to the farm. If we can’t pay a competitive wage, then it’s not realistic or fair to think that quality people would be willing to stay and work in agriculture.

Is money the only issue? If it were then we probably wouldn’t have anybody, because it’s hard work and long hours; that’s just the nature of farming. The people that are here have a core belief that sustaining agriculture and the family farm is important.

In addition, things like health insurance, hospitalization, vacation time, profit-sharing — these may not be as big a deal outside the realm of agriculture, but it's a stretch for a little family farm to offer them. We think valuing people is as important as the land; as important as the carbon footprint. Our sustainability is dependent on having quality people committed to stay and work on the farm.

Tying Things Together with Technology

The use of technology applies toward achieving each component of sustainability. We’re competing against farms that focus on producing cheap food as opposed to quality food, so we believe that it’s imperative to embrace technology. I know it’s kind of far fetched to think about when you’re talking about sustainable agricultural practices, but we believe embracing that technology is the key to a sustainable future in agriculture.

We must incorporate technology into any processes we can, including our food safety program with barcodes that track a product from seed to delivery. It’s about being smarter and more efficient and looking for ways to produce food-safe, quality ingredients in a more cost-effective way.

As technology continues to become more and more affordable, finding ways to apply this at the small family farm level will be imperative. That’s what’s going to entice more farmers to care for the land, attract more people to the industry and make sustainably grown, farm-fresh ingredients more readily available to the consumer.

Farmer Lee Jones is the co-owner of the The Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio, a family-owned farm that practices sustainable farming of specialty vegetables for some of the country's most heralded kitchens. He was the first farmer ever to judge Food Network's "Iron Chef America."


New research attempts to pinpoint “Why do small farms matter?” Critics say that’s not the right question.

Making the food system more sustainable is a multi-pronged challenge. But in the U.S., farm size is only one piece of the equation.

As the Biden administration debates how American agriculture needs to shift to become more sustainable/efficient/climate-resilient/racially and economically just, studies are emerging that investigate various bits of this complex puzzle: Recent research out of U.C. Berkeley examines the benefits of crop diversification food systems analyst Ken Meter has a new book out that breaks down how community food hubs could rebuild rural economies a Sustainability review links the proliferation of farms to farmers markets to the health of local communities and community members. And many other people are pointing fingers at Big Ag and the ways its confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrialized corn-and-soy rotations, and chemical dependency lead to polluted water and air, dead soil, and ecological collapse.

Is there a significant role that smaller farms—in terms of acreage—could play in solutions? That was the question recently posed by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. They reviewed 118 studies from 51 countries, published mostly in the last 25 years, to compare the less-than-two-hectare farms that dominate global agriculture with 100-hectare or larger farms, in terms of the amount of food they produced and the types of diversity they could support. “We know agriculture is a major driver of environmental issues and a lot of work is being done to understand how to make farms more sustainable,” said Navin Ramankutty, an agricultural geographer and one of the study’s co-authors. “One of many solutions proposed is the idea of smaller farms being better. We thought it would be useful to know if there’s any validity to that, which is an important policy question.”

“I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

Ultimately, the researchers concluded, there was reason to support small farms for the ecological and food-production sustainability they could provide, echoed by a recent piece in Foreign Policy. But Ramankutty said geographical context also matters—a sentiment echoed by critics who argue that in the U.S., weighing small against large is an unhelpful framework for understanding how to improve our food system. As Mitch Hunter, research director for conservation organization American Farmland Trust (AFT), puts it, “I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

In their review and accompanying analysis, Ramankutty and his team determined that smaller farms ticked a lot of important boxes. For example, overall they had higher crop diversity that favored good nutrition, market diversification, and drought risk mitigation. They also often boast greater non-crop biodiversity, although it’s possible this is less a result of size, said Ramankutty, than good ecological practices like less pesticide use and maintenance of non-crop planted areas to support wildlife.

“There are some good lessons from this paper, like the fact that small farms had more biodiversity because they grew a wide range of crops, rotated them, and maintained non-crop vegetation,” said Hunter. “That’s a lesson we need to take in American agriculture to be more resilient.”

But even more essential to improving on-farm ecology and resilience, in Hunter’s opinion, is adopting a combination of farming methodologies we already know to be climate-friendly, like cover cropping, no-till, and reduced nitrogen fertilizer applications. “We need to be farming regeneratively and in a diverse way one of the many good reasons is that the health of the soil leads to the health of crops leads to the health of eaters,” he said. Those practices are sound regardless of farm size, even if, said Hunter, small farms do have the benefit of producing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables (as opposed to the livestock-feed-bound corn and soy that proliferates on huge farms in the Midwest), and serve local and regional markets.

Small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor.

The Vancouver study also indicates that small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor. Lower labor costs give small farms the potential to be more financially productive, and therefore are a better entry point, for beginning farmers, “especially those from underserved populations,” Hunter said. Helping them find a way into the field, though, will require stanching the continued loss of farmland to development across the country, with conservation easements and more equitable federal programs to give newbies a leg up otherwise, he said, would-be farmers won’t be able take the plunge because they won’t be able to afford what farmable acreage remains.

Another area where the study found that small farms had an important role to play was in their ability to generate higher crop yields, with yields actually decreasing by 5 percent for every hectare of additional farm size. However, Christopher Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, argues that yields are “a bad measure of productivity,” he said, since they can be achieved even with unsound ecological practices. A more significant metric, he argues, is whether producers are engaging in the best on-farm behaviors that are good for the environment and the things living in it.

Beyond that, where small scale will make a difference, Barrett said, is in an area that the Vancouver study does not touch on, and that is with efforts to decouple the act of raising food from the land. This includes vertical farming, and transitioning land from growing feed crops to “farming” for renewable energy from wind and water. The former would allow vegetables to be grown more efficiently and closer to cities the latter, said Barrett, “will induce farmers to convert land to alternative uses while sustaining livelihoods and property tax bases for rural communities.” On-farm wind and solar energy could “improve farm viability and rural economic vitality,” said Hunter, but should not proceed without careful thought. AFT advocates for “smart solar sitings” that limit impact on ag use and the environment and take little or no land out of production.

Defining small and large “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us.”

Joe Maxwell, president of advocacy group Family Farm Action, believes there’s value in the broad way the Vancouver review is framed. “It helps us draw the conclusion that small farms can produce food to feed the world,” he said. This is a significant counter to the prevailing mindset from Donald Trump’s USDA secretary Sonny Perdue, that farmers needed to “get big or get out.” “This report says: Maybe not,” said Maxwell.

Nevertheless, like Barrett and Hunter, Maxwell thinks that focusing on defining small and large, he said, “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, and that is, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us—that doesn’t feed us, extracts wealth from rural communities, and whose whole driving force is greater yield regardless of the cost to the environment.”

Ultimately, Maxwell believes it’s not yield or ecology or size that threatens a sustainable U.S. food system it’s foreign ownership of land to round out investors’ hedge fund portfolios. This artificially inflates the cost of farmland and, again, denies access to young farmers. Ultimately, it also preserves the status quo in which a handful of wealthy corporations benefit from an industrial ag system that destroys communities, soil, land, health, and biodiversity. “The power those interests have seems almost insurmountable,” said Maxwell, especially when it comes to their lobbying power in Congress.

To break that monopoly power, build ecologically sound regional food systems, and get progressive funders to invest in research that will boost better ag policy—and knowing what meaningful policy initiatives to push for is at the heart of the Vancouver review—will take a lot more than focusing on farm size.


New research attempts to pinpoint “Why do small farms matter?” Critics say that’s not the right question.

Making the food system more sustainable is a multi-pronged challenge. But in the U.S., farm size is only one piece of the equation.

As the Biden administration debates how American agriculture needs to shift to become more sustainable/efficient/climate-resilient/racially and economically just, studies are emerging that investigate various bits of this complex puzzle: Recent research out of U.C. Berkeley examines the benefits of crop diversification food systems analyst Ken Meter has a new book out that breaks down how community food hubs could rebuild rural economies a Sustainability review links the proliferation of farms to farmers markets to the health of local communities and community members. And many other people are pointing fingers at Big Ag and the ways its confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrialized corn-and-soy rotations, and chemical dependency lead to polluted water and air, dead soil, and ecological collapse.

Is there a significant role that smaller farms—in terms of acreage—could play in solutions? That was the question recently posed by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. They reviewed 118 studies from 51 countries, published mostly in the last 25 years, to compare the less-than-two-hectare farms that dominate global agriculture with 100-hectare or larger farms, in terms of the amount of food they produced and the types of diversity they could support. “We know agriculture is a major driver of environmental issues and a lot of work is being done to understand how to make farms more sustainable,” said Navin Ramankutty, an agricultural geographer and one of the study’s co-authors. “One of many solutions proposed is the idea of smaller farms being better. We thought it would be useful to know if there’s any validity to that, which is an important policy question.”

“I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

Ultimately, the researchers concluded, there was reason to support small farms for the ecological and food-production sustainability they could provide, echoed by a recent piece in Foreign Policy. But Ramankutty said geographical context also matters—a sentiment echoed by critics who argue that in the U.S., weighing small against large is an unhelpful framework for understanding how to improve our food system. As Mitch Hunter, research director for conservation organization American Farmland Trust (AFT), puts it, “I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

In their review and accompanying analysis, Ramankutty and his team determined that smaller farms ticked a lot of important boxes. For example, overall they had higher crop diversity that favored good nutrition, market diversification, and drought risk mitigation. They also often boast greater non-crop biodiversity, although it’s possible this is less a result of size, said Ramankutty, than good ecological practices like less pesticide use and maintenance of non-crop planted areas to support wildlife.

“There are some good lessons from this paper, like the fact that small farms had more biodiversity because they grew a wide range of crops, rotated them, and maintained non-crop vegetation,” said Hunter. “That’s a lesson we need to take in American agriculture to be more resilient.”

But even more essential to improving on-farm ecology and resilience, in Hunter’s opinion, is adopting a combination of farming methodologies we already know to be climate-friendly, like cover cropping, no-till, and reduced nitrogen fertilizer applications. “We need to be farming regeneratively and in a diverse way one of the many good reasons is that the health of the soil leads to the health of crops leads to the health of eaters,” he said. Those practices are sound regardless of farm size, even if, said Hunter, small farms do have the benefit of producing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables (as opposed to the livestock-feed-bound corn and soy that proliferates on huge farms in the Midwest), and serve local and regional markets.

Small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor.

The Vancouver study also indicates that small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor. Lower labor costs give small farms the potential to be more financially productive, and therefore are a better entry point, for beginning farmers, “especially those from underserved populations,” Hunter said. Helping them find a way into the field, though, will require stanching the continued loss of farmland to development across the country, with conservation easements and more equitable federal programs to give newbies a leg up otherwise, he said, would-be farmers won’t be able take the plunge because they won’t be able to afford what farmable acreage remains.

Another area where the study found that small farms had an important role to play was in their ability to generate higher crop yields, with yields actually decreasing by 5 percent for every hectare of additional farm size. However, Christopher Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, argues that yields are “a bad measure of productivity,” he said, since they can be achieved even with unsound ecological practices. A more significant metric, he argues, is whether producers are engaging in the best on-farm behaviors that are good for the environment and the things living in it.

Beyond that, where small scale will make a difference, Barrett said, is in an area that the Vancouver study does not touch on, and that is with efforts to decouple the act of raising food from the land. This includes vertical farming, and transitioning land from growing feed crops to “farming” for renewable energy from wind and water. The former would allow vegetables to be grown more efficiently and closer to cities the latter, said Barrett, “will induce farmers to convert land to alternative uses while sustaining livelihoods and property tax bases for rural communities.” On-farm wind and solar energy could “improve farm viability and rural economic vitality,” said Hunter, but should not proceed without careful thought. AFT advocates for “smart solar sitings” that limit impact on ag use and the environment and take little or no land out of production.

Defining small and large “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us.”

Joe Maxwell, president of advocacy group Family Farm Action, believes there’s value in the broad way the Vancouver review is framed. “It helps us draw the conclusion that small farms can produce food to feed the world,” he said. This is a significant counter to the prevailing mindset from Donald Trump’s USDA secretary Sonny Perdue, that farmers needed to “get big or get out.” “This report says: Maybe not,” said Maxwell.

Nevertheless, like Barrett and Hunter, Maxwell thinks that focusing on defining small and large, he said, “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, and that is, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us—that doesn’t feed us, extracts wealth from rural communities, and whose whole driving force is greater yield regardless of the cost to the environment.”

Ultimately, Maxwell believes it’s not yield or ecology or size that threatens a sustainable U.S. food system it’s foreign ownership of land to round out investors’ hedge fund portfolios. This artificially inflates the cost of farmland and, again, denies access to young farmers. Ultimately, it also preserves the status quo in which a handful of wealthy corporations benefit from an industrial ag system that destroys communities, soil, land, health, and biodiversity. “The power those interests have seems almost insurmountable,” said Maxwell, especially when it comes to their lobbying power in Congress.

To break that monopoly power, build ecologically sound regional food systems, and get progressive funders to invest in research that will boost better ag policy—and knowing what meaningful policy initiatives to push for is at the heart of the Vancouver review—will take a lot more than focusing on farm size.


New research attempts to pinpoint “Why do small farms matter?” Critics say that’s not the right question.

Making the food system more sustainable is a multi-pronged challenge. But in the U.S., farm size is only one piece of the equation.

As the Biden administration debates how American agriculture needs to shift to become more sustainable/efficient/climate-resilient/racially and economically just, studies are emerging that investigate various bits of this complex puzzle: Recent research out of U.C. Berkeley examines the benefits of crop diversification food systems analyst Ken Meter has a new book out that breaks down how community food hubs could rebuild rural economies a Sustainability review links the proliferation of farms to farmers markets to the health of local communities and community members. And many other people are pointing fingers at Big Ag and the ways its confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrialized corn-and-soy rotations, and chemical dependency lead to polluted water and air, dead soil, and ecological collapse.

Is there a significant role that smaller farms—in terms of acreage—could play in solutions? That was the question recently posed by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. They reviewed 118 studies from 51 countries, published mostly in the last 25 years, to compare the less-than-two-hectare farms that dominate global agriculture with 100-hectare or larger farms, in terms of the amount of food they produced and the types of diversity they could support. “We know agriculture is a major driver of environmental issues and a lot of work is being done to understand how to make farms more sustainable,” said Navin Ramankutty, an agricultural geographer and one of the study’s co-authors. “One of many solutions proposed is the idea of smaller farms being better. We thought it would be useful to know if there’s any validity to that, which is an important policy question.”

“I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

Ultimately, the researchers concluded, there was reason to support small farms for the ecological and food-production sustainability they could provide, echoed by a recent piece in Foreign Policy. But Ramankutty said geographical context also matters—a sentiment echoed by critics who argue that in the U.S., weighing small against large is an unhelpful framework for understanding how to improve our food system. As Mitch Hunter, research director for conservation organization American Farmland Trust (AFT), puts it, “I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

In their review and accompanying analysis, Ramankutty and his team determined that smaller farms ticked a lot of important boxes. For example, overall they had higher crop diversity that favored good nutrition, market diversification, and drought risk mitigation. They also often boast greater non-crop biodiversity, although it’s possible this is less a result of size, said Ramankutty, than good ecological practices like less pesticide use and maintenance of non-crop planted areas to support wildlife.

“There are some good lessons from this paper, like the fact that small farms had more biodiversity because they grew a wide range of crops, rotated them, and maintained non-crop vegetation,” said Hunter. “That’s a lesson we need to take in American agriculture to be more resilient.”

But even more essential to improving on-farm ecology and resilience, in Hunter’s opinion, is adopting a combination of farming methodologies we already know to be climate-friendly, like cover cropping, no-till, and reduced nitrogen fertilizer applications. “We need to be farming regeneratively and in a diverse way one of the many good reasons is that the health of the soil leads to the health of crops leads to the health of eaters,” he said. Those practices are sound regardless of farm size, even if, said Hunter, small farms do have the benefit of producing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables (as opposed to the livestock-feed-bound corn and soy that proliferates on huge farms in the Midwest), and serve local and regional markets.

Small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor.

The Vancouver study also indicates that small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor. Lower labor costs give small farms the potential to be more financially productive, and therefore are a better entry point, for beginning farmers, “especially those from underserved populations,” Hunter said. Helping them find a way into the field, though, will require stanching the continued loss of farmland to development across the country, with conservation easements and more equitable federal programs to give newbies a leg up otherwise, he said, would-be farmers won’t be able take the plunge because they won’t be able to afford what farmable acreage remains.

Another area where the study found that small farms had an important role to play was in their ability to generate higher crop yields, with yields actually decreasing by 5 percent for every hectare of additional farm size. However, Christopher Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, argues that yields are “a bad measure of productivity,” he said, since they can be achieved even with unsound ecological practices. A more significant metric, he argues, is whether producers are engaging in the best on-farm behaviors that are good for the environment and the things living in it.

Beyond that, where small scale will make a difference, Barrett said, is in an area that the Vancouver study does not touch on, and that is with efforts to decouple the act of raising food from the land. This includes vertical farming, and transitioning land from growing feed crops to “farming” for renewable energy from wind and water. The former would allow vegetables to be grown more efficiently and closer to cities the latter, said Barrett, “will induce farmers to convert land to alternative uses while sustaining livelihoods and property tax bases for rural communities.” On-farm wind and solar energy could “improve farm viability and rural economic vitality,” said Hunter, but should not proceed without careful thought. AFT advocates for “smart solar sitings” that limit impact on ag use and the environment and take little or no land out of production.

Defining small and large “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us.”

Joe Maxwell, president of advocacy group Family Farm Action, believes there’s value in the broad way the Vancouver review is framed. “It helps us draw the conclusion that small farms can produce food to feed the world,” he said. This is a significant counter to the prevailing mindset from Donald Trump’s USDA secretary Sonny Perdue, that farmers needed to “get big or get out.” “This report says: Maybe not,” said Maxwell.

Nevertheless, like Barrett and Hunter, Maxwell thinks that focusing on defining small and large, he said, “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, and that is, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us—that doesn’t feed us, extracts wealth from rural communities, and whose whole driving force is greater yield regardless of the cost to the environment.”

Ultimately, Maxwell believes it’s not yield or ecology or size that threatens a sustainable U.S. food system it’s foreign ownership of land to round out investors’ hedge fund portfolios. This artificially inflates the cost of farmland and, again, denies access to young farmers. Ultimately, it also preserves the status quo in which a handful of wealthy corporations benefit from an industrial ag system that destroys communities, soil, land, health, and biodiversity. “The power those interests have seems almost insurmountable,” said Maxwell, especially when it comes to their lobbying power in Congress.

To break that monopoly power, build ecologically sound regional food systems, and get progressive funders to invest in research that will boost better ag policy—and knowing what meaningful policy initiatives to push for is at the heart of the Vancouver review—will take a lot more than focusing on farm size.


New research attempts to pinpoint “Why do small farms matter?” Critics say that’s not the right question.

Making the food system more sustainable is a multi-pronged challenge. But in the U.S., farm size is only one piece of the equation.

As the Biden administration debates how American agriculture needs to shift to become more sustainable/efficient/climate-resilient/racially and economically just, studies are emerging that investigate various bits of this complex puzzle: Recent research out of U.C. Berkeley examines the benefits of crop diversification food systems analyst Ken Meter has a new book out that breaks down how community food hubs could rebuild rural economies a Sustainability review links the proliferation of farms to farmers markets to the health of local communities and community members. And many other people are pointing fingers at Big Ag and the ways its confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrialized corn-and-soy rotations, and chemical dependency lead to polluted water and air, dead soil, and ecological collapse.

Is there a significant role that smaller farms—in terms of acreage—could play in solutions? That was the question recently posed by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. They reviewed 118 studies from 51 countries, published mostly in the last 25 years, to compare the less-than-two-hectare farms that dominate global agriculture with 100-hectare or larger farms, in terms of the amount of food they produced and the types of diversity they could support. “We know agriculture is a major driver of environmental issues and a lot of work is being done to understand how to make farms more sustainable,” said Navin Ramankutty, an agricultural geographer and one of the study’s co-authors. “One of many solutions proposed is the idea of smaller farms being better. We thought it would be useful to know if there’s any validity to that, which is an important policy question.”

“I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

Ultimately, the researchers concluded, there was reason to support small farms for the ecological and food-production sustainability they could provide, echoed by a recent piece in Foreign Policy. But Ramankutty said geographical context also matters—a sentiment echoed by critics who argue that in the U.S., weighing small against large is an unhelpful framework for understanding how to improve our food system. As Mitch Hunter, research director for conservation organization American Farmland Trust (AFT), puts it, “I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

In their review and accompanying analysis, Ramankutty and his team determined that smaller farms ticked a lot of important boxes. For example, overall they had higher crop diversity that favored good nutrition, market diversification, and drought risk mitigation. They also often boast greater non-crop biodiversity, although it’s possible this is less a result of size, said Ramankutty, than good ecological practices like less pesticide use and maintenance of non-crop planted areas to support wildlife.

“There are some good lessons from this paper, like the fact that small farms had more biodiversity because they grew a wide range of crops, rotated them, and maintained non-crop vegetation,” said Hunter. “That’s a lesson we need to take in American agriculture to be more resilient.”

But even more essential to improving on-farm ecology and resilience, in Hunter’s opinion, is adopting a combination of farming methodologies we already know to be climate-friendly, like cover cropping, no-till, and reduced nitrogen fertilizer applications. “We need to be farming regeneratively and in a diverse way one of the many good reasons is that the health of the soil leads to the health of crops leads to the health of eaters,” he said. Those practices are sound regardless of farm size, even if, said Hunter, small farms do have the benefit of producing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables (as opposed to the livestock-feed-bound corn and soy that proliferates on huge farms in the Midwest), and serve local and regional markets.

Small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor.

The Vancouver study also indicates that small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor. Lower labor costs give small farms the potential to be more financially productive, and therefore are a better entry point, for beginning farmers, “especially those from underserved populations,” Hunter said. Helping them find a way into the field, though, will require stanching the continued loss of farmland to development across the country, with conservation easements and more equitable federal programs to give newbies a leg up otherwise, he said, would-be farmers won’t be able take the plunge because they won’t be able to afford what farmable acreage remains.

Another area where the study found that small farms had an important role to play was in their ability to generate higher crop yields, with yields actually decreasing by 5 percent for every hectare of additional farm size. However, Christopher Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, argues that yields are “a bad measure of productivity,” he said, since they can be achieved even with unsound ecological practices. A more significant metric, he argues, is whether producers are engaging in the best on-farm behaviors that are good for the environment and the things living in it.

Beyond that, where small scale will make a difference, Barrett said, is in an area that the Vancouver study does not touch on, and that is with efforts to decouple the act of raising food from the land. This includes vertical farming, and transitioning land from growing feed crops to “farming” for renewable energy from wind and water. The former would allow vegetables to be grown more efficiently and closer to cities the latter, said Barrett, “will induce farmers to convert land to alternative uses while sustaining livelihoods and property tax bases for rural communities.” On-farm wind and solar energy could “improve farm viability and rural economic vitality,” said Hunter, but should not proceed without careful thought. AFT advocates for “smart solar sitings” that limit impact on ag use and the environment and take little or no land out of production.

Defining small and large “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us.”

Joe Maxwell, president of advocacy group Family Farm Action, believes there’s value in the broad way the Vancouver review is framed. “It helps us draw the conclusion that small farms can produce food to feed the world,” he said. This is a significant counter to the prevailing mindset from Donald Trump’s USDA secretary Sonny Perdue, that farmers needed to “get big or get out.” “This report says: Maybe not,” said Maxwell.

Nevertheless, like Barrett and Hunter, Maxwell thinks that focusing on defining small and large, he said, “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, and that is, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us—that doesn’t feed us, extracts wealth from rural communities, and whose whole driving force is greater yield regardless of the cost to the environment.”

Ultimately, Maxwell believes it’s not yield or ecology or size that threatens a sustainable U.S. food system it’s foreign ownership of land to round out investors’ hedge fund portfolios. This artificially inflates the cost of farmland and, again, denies access to young farmers. Ultimately, it also preserves the status quo in which a handful of wealthy corporations benefit from an industrial ag system that destroys communities, soil, land, health, and biodiversity. “The power those interests have seems almost insurmountable,” said Maxwell, especially when it comes to their lobbying power in Congress.

To break that monopoly power, build ecologically sound regional food systems, and get progressive funders to invest in research that will boost better ag policy—and knowing what meaningful policy initiatives to push for is at the heart of the Vancouver review—will take a lot more than focusing on farm size.


New research attempts to pinpoint “Why do small farms matter?” Critics say that’s not the right question.

Making the food system more sustainable is a multi-pronged challenge. But in the U.S., farm size is only one piece of the equation.

As the Biden administration debates how American agriculture needs to shift to become more sustainable/efficient/climate-resilient/racially and economically just, studies are emerging that investigate various bits of this complex puzzle: Recent research out of U.C. Berkeley examines the benefits of crop diversification food systems analyst Ken Meter has a new book out that breaks down how community food hubs could rebuild rural economies a Sustainability review links the proliferation of farms to farmers markets to the health of local communities and community members. And many other people are pointing fingers at Big Ag and the ways its confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrialized corn-and-soy rotations, and chemical dependency lead to polluted water and air, dead soil, and ecological collapse.

Is there a significant role that smaller farms—in terms of acreage—could play in solutions? That was the question recently posed by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. They reviewed 118 studies from 51 countries, published mostly in the last 25 years, to compare the less-than-two-hectare farms that dominate global agriculture with 100-hectare or larger farms, in terms of the amount of food they produced and the types of diversity they could support. “We know agriculture is a major driver of environmental issues and a lot of work is being done to understand how to make farms more sustainable,” said Navin Ramankutty, an agricultural geographer and one of the study’s co-authors. “One of many solutions proposed is the idea of smaller farms being better. We thought it would be useful to know if there’s any validity to that, which is an important policy question.”

“I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

Ultimately, the researchers concluded, there was reason to support small farms for the ecological and food-production sustainability they could provide, echoed by a recent piece in Foreign Policy. But Ramankutty said geographical context also matters—a sentiment echoed by critics who argue that in the U.S., weighing small against large is an unhelpful framework for understanding how to improve our food system. As Mitch Hunter, research director for conservation organization American Farmland Trust (AFT), puts it, “I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

In their review and accompanying analysis, Ramankutty and his team determined that smaller farms ticked a lot of important boxes. For example, overall they had higher crop diversity that favored good nutrition, market diversification, and drought risk mitigation. They also often boast greater non-crop biodiversity, although it’s possible this is less a result of size, said Ramankutty, than good ecological practices like less pesticide use and maintenance of non-crop planted areas to support wildlife.

“There are some good lessons from this paper, like the fact that small farms had more biodiversity because they grew a wide range of crops, rotated them, and maintained non-crop vegetation,” said Hunter. “That’s a lesson we need to take in American agriculture to be more resilient.”

But even more essential to improving on-farm ecology and resilience, in Hunter’s opinion, is adopting a combination of farming methodologies we already know to be climate-friendly, like cover cropping, no-till, and reduced nitrogen fertilizer applications. “We need to be farming regeneratively and in a diverse way one of the many good reasons is that the health of the soil leads to the health of crops leads to the health of eaters,” he said. Those practices are sound regardless of farm size, even if, said Hunter, small farms do have the benefit of producing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables (as opposed to the livestock-feed-bound corn and soy that proliferates on huge farms in the Midwest), and serve local and regional markets.

Small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor.

The Vancouver study also indicates that small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor. Lower labor costs give small farms the potential to be more financially productive, and therefore are a better entry point, for beginning farmers, “especially those from underserved populations,” Hunter said. Helping them find a way into the field, though, will require stanching the continued loss of farmland to development across the country, with conservation easements and more equitable federal programs to give newbies a leg up otherwise, he said, would-be farmers won’t be able take the plunge because they won’t be able to afford what farmable acreage remains.

Another area where the study found that small farms had an important role to play was in their ability to generate higher crop yields, with yields actually decreasing by 5 percent for every hectare of additional farm size. However, Christopher Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, argues that yields are “a bad measure of productivity,” he said, since they can be achieved even with unsound ecological practices. A more significant metric, he argues, is whether producers are engaging in the best on-farm behaviors that are good for the environment and the things living in it.

Beyond that, where small scale will make a difference, Barrett said, is in an area that the Vancouver study does not touch on, and that is with efforts to decouple the act of raising food from the land. This includes vertical farming, and transitioning land from growing feed crops to “farming” for renewable energy from wind and water. The former would allow vegetables to be grown more efficiently and closer to cities the latter, said Barrett, “will induce farmers to convert land to alternative uses while sustaining livelihoods and property tax bases for rural communities.” On-farm wind and solar energy could “improve farm viability and rural economic vitality,” said Hunter, but should not proceed without careful thought. AFT advocates for “smart solar sitings” that limit impact on ag use and the environment and take little or no land out of production.

Defining small and large “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us.”

Joe Maxwell, president of advocacy group Family Farm Action, believes there’s value in the broad way the Vancouver review is framed. “It helps us draw the conclusion that small farms can produce food to feed the world,” he said. This is a significant counter to the prevailing mindset from Donald Trump’s USDA secretary Sonny Perdue, that farmers needed to “get big or get out.” “This report says: Maybe not,” said Maxwell.

Nevertheless, like Barrett and Hunter, Maxwell thinks that focusing on defining small and large, he said, “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, and that is, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us—that doesn’t feed us, extracts wealth from rural communities, and whose whole driving force is greater yield regardless of the cost to the environment.”

Ultimately, Maxwell believes it’s not yield or ecology or size that threatens a sustainable U.S. food system it’s foreign ownership of land to round out investors’ hedge fund portfolios. This artificially inflates the cost of farmland and, again, denies access to young farmers. Ultimately, it also preserves the status quo in which a handful of wealthy corporations benefit from an industrial ag system that destroys communities, soil, land, health, and biodiversity. “The power those interests have seems almost insurmountable,” said Maxwell, especially when it comes to their lobbying power in Congress.

To break that monopoly power, build ecologically sound regional food systems, and get progressive funders to invest in research that will boost better ag policy—and knowing what meaningful policy initiatives to push for is at the heart of the Vancouver review—will take a lot more than focusing on farm size.


New research attempts to pinpoint “Why do small farms matter?” Critics say that’s not the right question.

Making the food system more sustainable is a multi-pronged challenge. But in the U.S., farm size is only one piece of the equation.

As the Biden administration debates how American agriculture needs to shift to become more sustainable/efficient/climate-resilient/racially and economically just, studies are emerging that investigate various bits of this complex puzzle: Recent research out of U.C. Berkeley examines the benefits of crop diversification food systems analyst Ken Meter has a new book out that breaks down how community food hubs could rebuild rural economies a Sustainability review links the proliferation of farms to farmers markets to the health of local communities and community members. And many other people are pointing fingers at Big Ag and the ways its confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrialized corn-and-soy rotations, and chemical dependency lead to polluted water and air, dead soil, and ecological collapse.

Is there a significant role that smaller farms—in terms of acreage—could play in solutions? That was the question recently posed by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. They reviewed 118 studies from 51 countries, published mostly in the last 25 years, to compare the less-than-two-hectare farms that dominate global agriculture with 100-hectare or larger farms, in terms of the amount of food they produced and the types of diversity they could support. “We know agriculture is a major driver of environmental issues and a lot of work is being done to understand how to make farms more sustainable,” said Navin Ramankutty, an agricultural geographer and one of the study’s co-authors. “One of many solutions proposed is the idea of smaller farms being better. We thought it would be useful to know if there’s any validity to that, which is an important policy question.”

“I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

Ultimately, the researchers concluded, there was reason to support small farms for the ecological and food-production sustainability they could provide, echoed by a recent piece in Foreign Policy. But Ramankutty said geographical context also matters—a sentiment echoed by critics who argue that in the U.S., weighing small against large is an unhelpful framework for understanding how to improve our food system. As Mitch Hunter, research director for conservation organization American Farmland Trust (AFT), puts it, “I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

In their review and accompanying analysis, Ramankutty and his team determined that smaller farms ticked a lot of important boxes. For example, overall they had higher crop diversity that favored good nutrition, market diversification, and drought risk mitigation. They also often boast greater non-crop biodiversity, although it’s possible this is less a result of size, said Ramankutty, than good ecological practices like less pesticide use and maintenance of non-crop planted areas to support wildlife.

“There are some good lessons from this paper, like the fact that small farms had more biodiversity because they grew a wide range of crops, rotated them, and maintained non-crop vegetation,” said Hunter. “That’s a lesson we need to take in American agriculture to be more resilient.”

But even more essential to improving on-farm ecology and resilience, in Hunter’s opinion, is adopting a combination of farming methodologies we already know to be climate-friendly, like cover cropping, no-till, and reduced nitrogen fertilizer applications. “We need to be farming regeneratively and in a diverse way one of the many good reasons is that the health of the soil leads to the health of crops leads to the health of eaters,” he said. Those practices are sound regardless of farm size, even if, said Hunter, small farms do have the benefit of producing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables (as opposed to the livestock-feed-bound corn and soy that proliferates on huge farms in the Midwest), and serve local and regional markets.

Small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor.

The Vancouver study also indicates that small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor. Lower labor costs give small farms the potential to be more financially productive, and therefore are a better entry point, for beginning farmers, “especially those from underserved populations,” Hunter said. Helping them find a way into the field, though, will require stanching the continued loss of farmland to development across the country, with conservation easements and more equitable federal programs to give newbies a leg up otherwise, he said, would-be farmers won’t be able take the plunge because they won’t be able to afford what farmable acreage remains.

Another area where the study found that small farms had an important role to play was in their ability to generate higher crop yields, with yields actually decreasing by 5 percent for every hectare of additional farm size. However, Christopher Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, argues that yields are “a bad measure of productivity,” he said, since they can be achieved even with unsound ecological practices. A more significant metric, he argues, is whether producers are engaging in the best on-farm behaviors that are good for the environment and the things living in it.

Beyond that, where small scale will make a difference, Barrett said, is in an area that the Vancouver study does not touch on, and that is with efforts to decouple the act of raising food from the land. This includes vertical farming, and transitioning land from growing feed crops to “farming” for renewable energy from wind and water. The former would allow vegetables to be grown more efficiently and closer to cities the latter, said Barrett, “will induce farmers to convert land to alternative uses while sustaining livelihoods and property tax bases for rural communities.” On-farm wind and solar energy could “improve farm viability and rural economic vitality,” said Hunter, but should not proceed without careful thought. AFT advocates for “smart solar sitings” that limit impact on ag use and the environment and take little or no land out of production.

Defining small and large “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us.”

Joe Maxwell, president of advocacy group Family Farm Action, believes there’s value in the broad way the Vancouver review is framed. “It helps us draw the conclusion that small farms can produce food to feed the world,” he said. This is a significant counter to the prevailing mindset from Donald Trump’s USDA secretary Sonny Perdue, that farmers needed to “get big or get out.” “This report says: Maybe not,” said Maxwell.

Nevertheless, like Barrett and Hunter, Maxwell thinks that focusing on defining small and large, he said, “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, and that is, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us—that doesn’t feed us, extracts wealth from rural communities, and whose whole driving force is greater yield regardless of the cost to the environment.”

Ultimately, Maxwell believes it’s not yield or ecology or size that threatens a sustainable U.S. food system it’s foreign ownership of land to round out investors’ hedge fund portfolios. This artificially inflates the cost of farmland and, again, denies access to young farmers. Ultimately, it also preserves the status quo in which a handful of wealthy corporations benefit from an industrial ag system that destroys communities, soil, land, health, and biodiversity. “The power those interests have seems almost insurmountable,” said Maxwell, especially when it comes to their lobbying power in Congress.

To break that monopoly power, build ecologically sound regional food systems, and get progressive funders to invest in research that will boost better ag policy—and knowing what meaningful policy initiatives to push for is at the heart of the Vancouver review—will take a lot more than focusing on farm size.


New research attempts to pinpoint “Why do small farms matter?” Critics say that’s not the right question.

Making the food system more sustainable is a multi-pronged challenge. But in the U.S., farm size is only one piece of the equation.

As the Biden administration debates how American agriculture needs to shift to become more sustainable/efficient/climate-resilient/racially and economically just, studies are emerging that investigate various bits of this complex puzzle: Recent research out of U.C. Berkeley examines the benefits of crop diversification food systems analyst Ken Meter has a new book out that breaks down how community food hubs could rebuild rural economies a Sustainability review links the proliferation of farms to farmers markets to the health of local communities and community members. And many other people are pointing fingers at Big Ag and the ways its confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrialized corn-and-soy rotations, and chemical dependency lead to polluted water and air, dead soil, and ecological collapse.

Is there a significant role that smaller farms—in terms of acreage—could play in solutions? That was the question recently posed by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. They reviewed 118 studies from 51 countries, published mostly in the last 25 years, to compare the less-than-two-hectare farms that dominate global agriculture with 100-hectare or larger farms, in terms of the amount of food they produced and the types of diversity they could support. “We know agriculture is a major driver of environmental issues and a lot of work is being done to understand how to make farms more sustainable,” said Navin Ramankutty, an agricultural geographer and one of the study’s co-authors. “One of many solutions proposed is the idea of smaller farms being better. We thought it would be useful to know if there’s any validity to that, which is an important policy question.”

“I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

Ultimately, the researchers concluded, there was reason to support small farms for the ecological and food-production sustainability they could provide, echoed by a recent piece in Foreign Policy. But Ramankutty said geographical context also matters—a sentiment echoed by critics who argue that in the U.S., weighing small against large is an unhelpful framework for understanding how to improve our food system. As Mitch Hunter, research director for conservation organization American Farmland Trust (AFT), puts it, “I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

In their review and accompanying analysis, Ramankutty and his team determined that smaller farms ticked a lot of important boxes. For example, overall they had higher crop diversity that favored good nutrition, market diversification, and drought risk mitigation. They also often boast greater non-crop biodiversity, although it’s possible this is less a result of size, said Ramankutty, than good ecological practices like less pesticide use and maintenance of non-crop planted areas to support wildlife.

“There are some good lessons from this paper, like the fact that small farms had more biodiversity because they grew a wide range of crops, rotated them, and maintained non-crop vegetation,” said Hunter. “That’s a lesson we need to take in American agriculture to be more resilient.”

But even more essential to improving on-farm ecology and resilience, in Hunter’s opinion, is adopting a combination of farming methodologies we already know to be climate-friendly, like cover cropping, no-till, and reduced nitrogen fertilizer applications. “We need to be farming regeneratively and in a diverse way one of the many good reasons is that the health of the soil leads to the health of crops leads to the health of eaters,” he said. Those practices are sound regardless of farm size, even if, said Hunter, small farms do have the benefit of producing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables (as opposed to the livestock-feed-bound corn and soy that proliferates on huge farms in the Midwest), and serve local and regional markets.

Small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor.

The Vancouver study also indicates that small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor. Lower labor costs give small farms the potential to be more financially productive, and therefore are a better entry point, for beginning farmers, “especially those from underserved populations,” Hunter said. Helping them find a way into the field, though, will require stanching the continued loss of farmland to development across the country, with conservation easements and more equitable federal programs to give newbies a leg up otherwise, he said, would-be farmers won’t be able take the plunge because they won’t be able to afford what farmable acreage remains.

Another area where the study found that small farms had an important role to play was in their ability to generate higher crop yields, with yields actually decreasing by 5 percent for every hectare of additional farm size. However, Christopher Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, argues that yields are “a bad measure of productivity,” he said, since they can be achieved even with unsound ecological practices. A more significant metric, he argues, is whether producers are engaging in the best on-farm behaviors that are good for the environment and the things living in it.

Beyond that, where small scale will make a difference, Barrett said, is in an area that the Vancouver study does not touch on, and that is with efforts to decouple the act of raising food from the land. This includes vertical farming, and transitioning land from growing feed crops to “farming” for renewable energy from wind and water. The former would allow vegetables to be grown more efficiently and closer to cities the latter, said Barrett, “will induce farmers to convert land to alternative uses while sustaining livelihoods and property tax bases for rural communities.” On-farm wind and solar energy could “improve farm viability and rural economic vitality,” said Hunter, but should not proceed without careful thought. AFT advocates for “smart solar sitings” that limit impact on ag use and the environment and take little or no land out of production.

Defining small and large “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us.”

Joe Maxwell, president of advocacy group Family Farm Action, believes there’s value in the broad way the Vancouver review is framed. “It helps us draw the conclusion that small farms can produce food to feed the world,” he said. This is a significant counter to the prevailing mindset from Donald Trump’s USDA secretary Sonny Perdue, that farmers needed to “get big or get out.” “This report says: Maybe not,” said Maxwell.

Nevertheless, like Barrett and Hunter, Maxwell thinks that focusing on defining small and large, he said, “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, and that is, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us—that doesn’t feed us, extracts wealth from rural communities, and whose whole driving force is greater yield regardless of the cost to the environment.”

Ultimately, Maxwell believes it’s not yield or ecology or size that threatens a sustainable U.S. food system it’s foreign ownership of land to round out investors’ hedge fund portfolios. This artificially inflates the cost of farmland and, again, denies access to young farmers. Ultimately, it also preserves the status quo in which a handful of wealthy corporations benefit from an industrial ag system that destroys communities, soil, land, health, and biodiversity. “The power those interests have seems almost insurmountable,” said Maxwell, especially when it comes to their lobbying power in Congress.

To break that monopoly power, build ecologically sound regional food systems, and get progressive funders to invest in research that will boost better ag policy—and knowing what meaningful policy initiatives to push for is at the heart of the Vancouver review—will take a lot more than focusing on farm size.


New research attempts to pinpoint “Why do small farms matter?” Critics say that’s not the right question.

Making the food system more sustainable is a multi-pronged challenge. But in the U.S., farm size is only one piece of the equation.

As the Biden administration debates how American agriculture needs to shift to become more sustainable/efficient/climate-resilient/racially and economically just, studies are emerging that investigate various bits of this complex puzzle: Recent research out of U.C. Berkeley examines the benefits of crop diversification food systems analyst Ken Meter has a new book out that breaks down how community food hubs could rebuild rural economies a Sustainability review links the proliferation of farms to farmers markets to the health of local communities and community members. And many other people are pointing fingers at Big Ag and the ways its confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrialized corn-and-soy rotations, and chemical dependency lead to polluted water and air, dead soil, and ecological collapse.

Is there a significant role that smaller farms—in terms of acreage—could play in solutions? That was the question recently posed by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. They reviewed 118 studies from 51 countries, published mostly in the last 25 years, to compare the less-than-two-hectare farms that dominate global agriculture with 100-hectare or larger farms, in terms of the amount of food they produced and the types of diversity they could support. “We know agriculture is a major driver of environmental issues and a lot of work is being done to understand how to make farms more sustainable,” said Navin Ramankutty, an agricultural geographer and one of the study’s co-authors. “One of many solutions proposed is the idea of smaller farms being better. We thought it would be useful to know if there’s any validity to that, which is an important policy question.”

“I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

Ultimately, the researchers concluded, there was reason to support small farms for the ecological and food-production sustainability they could provide, echoed by a recent piece in Foreign Policy. But Ramankutty said geographical context also matters—a sentiment echoed by critics who argue that in the U.S., weighing small against large is an unhelpful framework for understanding how to improve our food system. As Mitch Hunter, research director for conservation organization American Farmland Trust (AFT), puts it, “I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

In their review and accompanying analysis, Ramankutty and his team determined that smaller farms ticked a lot of important boxes. For example, overall they had higher crop diversity that favored good nutrition, market diversification, and drought risk mitigation. They also often boast greater non-crop biodiversity, although it’s possible this is less a result of size, said Ramankutty, than good ecological practices like less pesticide use and maintenance of non-crop planted areas to support wildlife.

“There are some good lessons from this paper, like the fact that small farms had more biodiversity because they grew a wide range of crops, rotated them, and maintained non-crop vegetation,” said Hunter. “That’s a lesson we need to take in American agriculture to be more resilient.”

But even more essential to improving on-farm ecology and resilience, in Hunter’s opinion, is adopting a combination of farming methodologies we already know to be climate-friendly, like cover cropping, no-till, and reduced nitrogen fertilizer applications. “We need to be farming regeneratively and in a diverse way one of the many good reasons is that the health of the soil leads to the health of crops leads to the health of eaters,” he said. Those practices are sound regardless of farm size, even if, said Hunter, small farms do have the benefit of producing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables (as opposed to the livestock-feed-bound corn and soy that proliferates on huge farms in the Midwest), and serve local and regional markets.

Small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor.

The Vancouver study also indicates that small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor. Lower labor costs give small farms the potential to be more financially productive, and therefore are a better entry point, for beginning farmers, “especially those from underserved populations,” Hunter said. Helping them find a way into the field, though, will require stanching the continued loss of farmland to development across the country, with conservation easements and more equitable federal programs to give newbies a leg up otherwise, he said, would-be farmers won’t be able take the plunge because they won’t be able to afford what farmable acreage remains.

Another area where the study found that small farms had an important role to play was in their ability to generate higher crop yields, with yields actually decreasing by 5 percent for every hectare of additional farm size. However, Christopher Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, argues that yields are “a bad measure of productivity,” he said, since they can be achieved even with unsound ecological practices. A more significant metric, he argues, is whether producers are engaging in the best on-farm behaviors that are good for the environment and the things living in it.

Beyond that, where small scale will make a difference, Barrett said, is in an area that the Vancouver study does not touch on, and that is with efforts to decouple the act of raising food from the land. This includes vertical farming, and transitioning land from growing feed crops to “farming” for renewable energy from wind and water. The former would allow vegetables to be grown more efficiently and closer to cities the latter, said Barrett, “will induce farmers to convert land to alternative uses while sustaining livelihoods and property tax bases for rural communities.” On-farm wind and solar energy could “improve farm viability and rural economic vitality,” said Hunter, but should not proceed without careful thought. AFT advocates for “smart solar sitings” that limit impact on ag use and the environment and take little or no land out of production.

Defining small and large “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us.”

Joe Maxwell, president of advocacy group Family Farm Action, believes there’s value in the broad way the Vancouver review is framed. “It helps us draw the conclusion that small farms can produce food to feed the world,” he said. This is a significant counter to the prevailing mindset from Donald Trump’s USDA secretary Sonny Perdue, that farmers needed to “get big or get out.” “This report says: Maybe not,” said Maxwell.

Nevertheless, like Barrett and Hunter, Maxwell thinks that focusing on defining small and large, he said, “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, and that is, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us—that doesn’t feed us, extracts wealth from rural communities, and whose whole driving force is greater yield regardless of the cost to the environment.”

Ultimately, Maxwell believes it’s not yield or ecology or size that threatens a sustainable U.S. food system it’s foreign ownership of land to round out investors’ hedge fund portfolios. This artificially inflates the cost of farmland and, again, denies access to young farmers. Ultimately, it also preserves the status quo in which a handful of wealthy corporations benefit from an industrial ag system that destroys communities, soil, land, health, and biodiversity. “The power those interests have seems almost insurmountable,” said Maxwell, especially when it comes to their lobbying power in Congress.

To break that monopoly power, build ecologically sound regional food systems, and get progressive funders to invest in research that will boost better ag policy—and knowing what meaningful policy initiatives to push for is at the heart of the Vancouver review—will take a lot more than focusing on farm size.


New research attempts to pinpoint “Why do small farms matter?” Critics say that’s not the right question.

Making the food system more sustainable is a multi-pronged challenge. But in the U.S., farm size is only one piece of the equation.

As the Biden administration debates how American agriculture needs to shift to become more sustainable/efficient/climate-resilient/racially and economically just, studies are emerging that investigate various bits of this complex puzzle: Recent research out of U.C. Berkeley examines the benefits of crop diversification food systems analyst Ken Meter has a new book out that breaks down how community food hubs could rebuild rural economies a Sustainability review links the proliferation of farms to farmers markets to the health of local communities and community members. And many other people are pointing fingers at Big Ag and the ways its confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrialized corn-and-soy rotations, and chemical dependency lead to polluted water and air, dead soil, and ecological collapse.

Is there a significant role that smaller farms—in terms of acreage—could play in solutions? That was the question recently posed by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. They reviewed 118 studies from 51 countries, published mostly in the last 25 years, to compare the less-than-two-hectare farms that dominate global agriculture with 100-hectare or larger farms, in terms of the amount of food they produced and the types of diversity they could support. “We know agriculture is a major driver of environmental issues and a lot of work is being done to understand how to make farms more sustainable,” said Navin Ramankutty, an agricultural geographer and one of the study’s co-authors. “One of many solutions proposed is the idea of smaller farms being better. We thought it would be useful to know if there’s any validity to that, which is an important policy question.”

“I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

Ultimately, the researchers concluded, there was reason to support small farms for the ecological and food-production sustainability they could provide, echoed by a recent piece in Foreign Policy. But Ramankutty said geographical context also matters—a sentiment echoed by critics who argue that in the U.S., weighing small against large is an unhelpful framework for understanding how to improve our food system. As Mitch Hunter, research director for conservation organization American Farmland Trust (AFT), puts it, “I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

In their review and accompanying analysis, Ramankutty and his team determined that smaller farms ticked a lot of important boxes. For example, overall they had higher crop diversity that favored good nutrition, market diversification, and drought risk mitigation. They also often boast greater non-crop biodiversity, although it’s possible this is less a result of size, said Ramankutty, than good ecological practices like less pesticide use and maintenance of non-crop planted areas to support wildlife.

“There are some good lessons from this paper, like the fact that small farms had more biodiversity because they grew a wide range of crops, rotated them, and maintained non-crop vegetation,” said Hunter. “That’s a lesson we need to take in American agriculture to be more resilient.”

But even more essential to improving on-farm ecology and resilience, in Hunter’s opinion, is adopting a combination of farming methodologies we already know to be climate-friendly, like cover cropping, no-till, and reduced nitrogen fertilizer applications. “We need to be farming regeneratively and in a diverse way one of the many good reasons is that the health of the soil leads to the health of crops leads to the health of eaters,” he said. Those practices are sound regardless of farm size, even if, said Hunter, small farms do have the benefit of producing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables (as opposed to the livestock-feed-bound corn and soy that proliferates on huge farms in the Midwest), and serve local and regional markets.

Small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor.

The Vancouver study also indicates that small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor. Lower labor costs give small farms the potential to be more financially productive, and therefore are a better entry point, for beginning farmers, “especially those from underserved populations,” Hunter said. Helping them find a way into the field, though, will require stanching the continued loss of farmland to development across the country, with conservation easements and more equitable federal programs to give newbies a leg up otherwise, he said, would-be farmers won’t be able take the plunge because they won’t be able to afford what farmable acreage remains.

Another area where the study found that small farms had an important role to play was in their ability to generate higher crop yields, with yields actually decreasing by 5 percent for every hectare of additional farm size. However, Christopher Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, argues that yields are “a bad measure of productivity,” he said, since they can be achieved even with unsound ecological practices. A more significant metric, he argues, is whether producers are engaging in the best on-farm behaviors that are good for the environment and the things living in it.

Beyond that, where small scale will make a difference, Barrett said, is in an area that the Vancouver study does not touch on, and that is with efforts to decouple the act of raising food from the land. This includes vertical farming, and transitioning land from growing feed crops to “farming” for renewable energy from wind and water. The former would allow vegetables to be grown more efficiently and closer to cities the latter, said Barrett, “will induce farmers to convert land to alternative uses while sustaining livelihoods and property tax bases for rural communities.” On-farm wind and solar energy could “improve farm viability and rural economic vitality,” said Hunter, but should not proceed without careful thought. AFT advocates for “smart solar sitings” that limit impact on ag use and the environment and take little or no land out of production.

Defining small and large “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us.”

Joe Maxwell, president of advocacy group Family Farm Action, believes there’s value in the broad way the Vancouver review is framed. “It helps us draw the conclusion that small farms can produce food to feed the world,” he said. This is a significant counter to the prevailing mindset from Donald Trump’s USDA secretary Sonny Perdue, that farmers needed to “get big or get out.” “This report says: Maybe not,” said Maxwell.

Nevertheless, like Barrett and Hunter, Maxwell thinks that focusing on defining small and large, he said, “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, and that is, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us—that doesn’t feed us, extracts wealth from rural communities, and whose whole driving force is greater yield regardless of the cost to the environment.”

Ultimately, Maxwell believes it’s not yield or ecology or size that threatens a sustainable U.S. food system it’s foreign ownership of land to round out investors’ hedge fund portfolios. This artificially inflates the cost of farmland and, again, denies access to young farmers. Ultimately, it also preserves the status quo in which a handful of wealthy corporations benefit from an industrial ag system that destroys communities, soil, land, health, and biodiversity. “The power those interests have seems almost insurmountable,” said Maxwell, especially when it comes to their lobbying power in Congress.

To break that monopoly power, build ecologically sound regional food systems, and get progressive funders to invest in research that will boost better ag policy—and knowing what meaningful policy initiatives to push for is at the heart of the Vancouver review—will take a lot more than focusing on farm size.


New research attempts to pinpoint “Why do small farms matter?” Critics say that’s not the right question.

Making the food system more sustainable is a multi-pronged challenge. But in the U.S., farm size is only one piece of the equation.

As the Biden administration debates how American agriculture needs to shift to become more sustainable/efficient/climate-resilient/racially and economically just, studies are emerging that investigate various bits of this complex puzzle: Recent research out of U.C. Berkeley examines the benefits of crop diversification food systems analyst Ken Meter has a new book out that breaks down how community food hubs could rebuild rural economies a Sustainability review links the proliferation of farms to farmers markets to the health of local communities and community members. And many other people are pointing fingers at Big Ag and the ways its confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrialized corn-and-soy rotations, and chemical dependency lead to polluted water and air, dead soil, and ecological collapse.

Is there a significant role that smaller farms—in terms of acreage—could play in solutions? That was the question recently posed by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. They reviewed 118 studies from 51 countries, published mostly in the last 25 years, to compare the less-than-two-hectare farms that dominate global agriculture with 100-hectare or larger farms, in terms of the amount of food they produced and the types of diversity they could support. “We know agriculture is a major driver of environmental issues and a lot of work is being done to understand how to make farms more sustainable,” said Navin Ramankutty, an agricultural geographer and one of the study’s co-authors. “One of many solutions proposed is the idea of smaller farms being better. We thought it would be useful to know if there’s any validity to that, which is an important policy question.”

“I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

Ultimately, the researchers concluded, there was reason to support small farms for the ecological and food-production sustainability they could provide, echoed by a recent piece in Foreign Policy. But Ramankutty said geographical context also matters—a sentiment echoed by critics who argue that in the U.S., weighing small against large is an unhelpful framework for understanding how to improve our food system. As Mitch Hunter, research director for conservation organization American Farmland Trust (AFT), puts it, “I wouldn’t say small versus large is the crux of the issue. We need to focus more on outcomes than argue about definitions.”

In their review and accompanying analysis, Ramankutty and his team determined that smaller farms ticked a lot of important boxes. For example, overall they had higher crop diversity that favored good nutrition, market diversification, and drought risk mitigation. They also often boast greater non-crop biodiversity, although it’s possible this is less a result of size, said Ramankutty, than good ecological practices like less pesticide use and maintenance of non-crop planted areas to support wildlife.

“There are some good lessons from this paper, like the fact that small farms had more biodiversity because they grew a wide range of crops, rotated them, and maintained non-crop vegetation,” said Hunter. “That’s a lesson we need to take in American agriculture to be more resilient.”

But even more essential to improving on-farm ecology and resilience, in Hunter’s opinion, is adopting a combination of farming methodologies we already know to be climate-friendly, like cover cropping, no-till, and reduced nitrogen fertilizer applications. “We need to be farming regeneratively and in a diverse way one of the many good reasons is that the health of the soil leads to the health of crops leads to the health of eaters,” he said. Those practices are sound regardless of farm size, even if, said Hunter, small farms do have the benefit of producing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables (as opposed to the livestock-feed-bound corn and soy that proliferates on huge farms in the Midwest), and serve local and regional markets.

Small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor.

The Vancouver study also indicates that small farms have more access to family—as opposed to hired—labor. Lower labor costs give small farms the potential to be more financially productive, and therefore are a better entry point, for beginning farmers, “especially those from underserved populations,” Hunter said. Helping them find a way into the field, though, will require stanching the continued loss of farmland to development across the country, with conservation easements and more equitable federal programs to give newbies a leg up otherwise, he said, would-be farmers won’t be able take the plunge because they won’t be able to afford what farmable acreage remains.

Another area where the study found that small farms had an important role to play was in their ability to generate higher crop yields, with yields actually decreasing by 5 percent for every hectare of additional farm size. However, Christopher Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, argues that yields are “a bad measure of productivity,” he said, since they can be achieved even with unsound ecological practices. A more significant metric, he argues, is whether producers are engaging in the best on-farm behaviors that are good for the environment and the things living in it.

Beyond that, where small scale will make a difference, Barrett said, is in an area that the Vancouver study does not touch on, and that is with efforts to decouple the act of raising food from the land. This includes vertical farming, and transitioning land from growing feed crops to “farming” for renewable energy from wind and water. The former would allow vegetables to be grown more efficiently and closer to cities the latter, said Barrett, “will induce farmers to convert land to alternative uses while sustaining livelihoods and property tax bases for rural communities.” On-farm wind and solar energy could “improve farm viability and rural economic vitality,” said Hunter, but should not proceed without careful thought. AFT advocates for “smart solar sitings” that limit impact on ag use and the environment and take little or no land out of production.

Defining small and large “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us.”

Joe Maxwell, president of advocacy group Family Farm Action, believes there’s value in the broad way the Vancouver review is framed. “It helps us draw the conclusion that small farms can produce food to feed the world,” he said. This is a significant counter to the prevailing mindset from Donald Trump’s USDA secretary Sonny Perdue, that farmers needed to “get big or get out.” “This report says: Maybe not,” said Maxwell.

Nevertheless, like Barrett and Hunter, Maxwell thinks that focusing on defining small and large, he said, “can lock us into a mindset that ultimately doesn’t achieve our objective, and that is, to not have the failed food system that the industrial model has brought us—that doesn’t feed us, extracts wealth from rural communities, and whose whole driving force is greater yield regardless of the cost to the environment.”

Ultimately, Maxwell believes it’s not yield or ecology or size that threatens a sustainable U.S. food system it’s foreign ownership of land to round out investors’ hedge fund portfolios. This artificially inflates the cost of farmland and, again, denies access to young farmers. Ultimately, it also preserves the status quo in which a handful of wealthy corporations benefit from an industrial ag system that destroys communities, soil, land, health, and biodiversity. “The power those interests have seems almost insurmountable,” said Maxwell, especially when it comes to their lobbying power in Congress.

To break that monopoly power, build ecologically sound regional food systems, and get progressive funders to invest in research that will boost better ag policy—and knowing what meaningful policy initiatives to push for is at the heart of the Vancouver review—will take a lot more than focusing on farm size.


Watch the video: Sådan arbejder Letbek med bæredygtige løsninger i MADE FAST (July 2022).


Comments:

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