Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Big Farms vs Small Farms

Big Farming VS Little Farming

There are a LOT of ideas in these areas coming to light lately. In Omnivore's Dilemma, Micheal Pollen talks about this a bunch. His stance is that big farms are pretty necessary. We wouldn't have populated places where there isn't farm land without them. Think; people who live in Phoenix, AZ. The plant and animal bio-diversity there is severely limited by the lack of water and the lack of soil. People there are constantly shipping in foods just to survive. Without the large farms, people couldn't live in parts of our country that are heavily populated... but what about the impact?

The biggest impact of huge farms is Mono Cropping. Mono Cropping, in a nutshell, is planting the same thing, on the same land, over and over and over again. Thus having to put in nutrients that the soil lacks each year by artificial means to keep the crop that has depleted the soil of those same nutrients, growing there. 90% of the time, they do this with chemicals. Many of these chemicals are leached into the water table beneath these huge farms because the soil is barren and dry for the part of the year that the crops are NOT producing there. There is no reason to plant cover crops (which would replace some of these nutrients) with the chemicals so readily available, and there is no reason to crop rotate if you know that whatever your soil is lacking, you can just add chemical #1 from this box, and chemical #2 from this box and call it good. It is cheaper, faster, and takes MUCH less work.

The largest mono crops in this country are soybeans and corn. Usually not even grown for human consumption, but for cattle and livestock feed. But that is another post all together.

Every single gardening book I have (not just the ones that are for 'organic' or 'beyond organic' gardening) recommends crop rotation and cover crops if you have a large part of unused land. These things are vital to keeping the soil healthy. They bring back nutrients, and if you are careful, can even yield you another full crop! Yet, many (I dare say 'most') large farms have stopped doing this. Trucking in manure and planting legumes to overwinter seems out of the question on a large scale... but for the back yard gardener it is essential.

Big Organics VS Big "Conventional"

Using the word "conventional" here annoys me. The conventional way of growing has only been 'conventional' for less than 75 years. When talking about the history of farming, that doesn't seem to be long enough to set it as the "conventional" methods. But I digress....

Big organics are forced (and most willingly) to be more sustainable than their conventional counterparts. They use animal manure (usually organic as well) to supply the nutrients that their crops have used up. Some even still use cover crops for their needs as well, making them as efficient as many smaller organic farms (where it is the norm to do both of these things). So when asked if big organic is better than big conventional, the answer is a resounding YES! The more big organic companies are supported, the few chemicals are put into our soil and the more soil is used sustainably. But I say that with a bit of hesitation because big organic still is monocropping. Many large organic companies have one or two crops. This inhibits the biodiversity of an area, and that, as much as we can see now, is not the best for the environment.

Here is something I picked up from Wikipedia on the topic:

Proponents of organic farming say that "conventional" farming is unsustainable, because it relies on artificial inputs (synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals, machinery, etc.) that ultimately requires energy in the form of fossil fuels, and because the land is degraded through soil erosion, salinization, and other processes that eventually render the soil infertile. Many claim that without cheap fossil fuels and government subsidies, conventional agriculture would not be possible, and that despite technological advancements, there will eventually be an agricultural crisis as a result of depleted soil. The cultivation of monocultures, many acres planted with the same crop year after year, increases susceptibility to pests and diseases and depletes the soil, while eliminating most native flora and fauna.

In contrast, organic farming often utilizes
intercropping, crop rotation, fallow periods, and integrated pest management to promote biodiversity and preserve the health of the soil while minimizing the risk of diseases. The main goal of organic farming is sustainability, so organic farms seek to minimize dependence on outside resources and be self-sufficient.

Small Farms

You would not make it on a small farm with only one crop. Not unless you had a full time job to go with it. Being small, you are forced to find a niche in the food market so you don't get bumped out by the companies that can do things twice as cheap as you (and are usually 20 times as big). This is why most small farms you see now are certified (or becoming certified) organic. That is their niche. They can charge what they need, the supply line is shorter so the shipping doesn't cost quite as much (some customers will even come to you!), and they can raise a huge variety of crops, ensuring that when you stop by a farm stand, there will be something that catches you eye, and you will spend some money. Plus, if they loose one crop, it isn't their whole years livelihood. The small farms I have been to and worked with, all have been organic, so I couldn't tell you much about the small conventional farms. I have never seen one that was successful.

A few things have been true in all of the smaller farms I have seen. First off, they are organic. Like stated above. Secondly, they are family based. They have a few seasonal hands that come in here and there for planting and for larger harvests, but mostly, it is a couple, or a couple with extended family that is doing most of the work. Thirdly, their crops are very diverse. Peas to harvest in May, corn and new potatoes to harvest in July, and pumpkins to harvest in October. And lastly, they are working mainly for the local market. I have heard of being part of a cooperative of farms, such as Organic Valley farms is for dairy products, which get their products shipped all over the country, but for the most part, if you are a small farm, you do most of your work (planting, to harvest, to marketing, shipping, and sales) by yourself. So you don't tend to travel as far.

For me these factors mean two things. I like the idea of supporting families. Individuals. Not the guys at the very top of a big business organic food chain, but the actual people growing my food. I like that idea. Also, I appreciate that the food was picked maybe days before. Not weeks, but days. It stands to reason that they are picked much closer to peak ripeness as their conventional, big business counterparts because they don't have to be shipped from 2000 miles away to get to me. This could (I am not sure on the subject and there are many arguments for and against) mean that my food has been able to extract more nutrients from the soil in which it stayed for the entire period of time Mother Nature intended... making it far more nutritious than the ones that were picked weeks ahead of that natural schedule meant to be shipped from farther away than I go on my average vacation.

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