By Chris Newman
Sylvanaqua Farms, Earlysville VA
1. You used tractors, track loaders, and even bulldozers to start your farm. How can you call yourself sustainable?
We’re sustainable because 1.) in our particular situation, creating the farm would have been impossible without tractors and dozers, and 2.) our long term holistic goal requires that we ultimately eliminate non-renewable energy from the farm’s operations.
While sustainability purists cringe at the notion of using fossil fuels, establishing a farming operation that restores the health of the land is the best use of fossils I could imagine. And when the alternative is to not start the farm at all (because clearing our land for pasture by hand would have taken longer than our savings would last), and instead keep up the 60-mile daily urban commute, using fossils to get the farm quickly up and running makes even more sense. And the fact of life is, sometimes you have to do a little “bad” to do a lot of good.
2. How realistic is sustainable, non-industrial farming? Could we really feed the world this way?
The big boys like ConAgra, Monsanto, Cargill, and others like to claim that organic/sustainable/etc. farming are fine as “lifestyle choices” for a small segment of the population, but our model of production couldn’t possibly feed the world. This is a nice way of saying that the grownups have real work to do while we in the sustainable segment peddle our wares to bleeding hearts and those with guilty consciences. This, frankly, is nonsense.
When the big boys say that sustainable, natural farming can’t feed the world, they generally justify the claim by pointing out the enormous disparity in production between an individual conventional farmer and an individual natural farmer (e.g. a natural farmer like Joel Salatin produces 30,000 broilers per year on 100 acres, while a confinement poultry house produces that many in a space the size of one football field – or just over one acre). Here are the big problems with this justification:
- On that 100 acres, the natural farmer isn’t just running broilers. She’s also running cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, rabbits, ducks, and laying hens. This layered model may not result in the same production per acre as the conventional model, but it gets close, and does so without creating macro-environmental problems and planting time bombs in the public health.
- The justification ignores the fact that natural farmers actively encourage others to likewise become smallholding, natural farmers. We think it’s ridiculous that less than 1% of the population consists of full time farmers. These corporate, thousand-acre mega farms should be replaced by 10, 20, or 30 farms at 100 acres or less. The big boys’ assumption that we natural farmers are simply failed attempts at becoming agro-behemoths is offensively incorrect.
- To make up for possible shortfalls in natural production, and to restore the public’s relationship with the natural world, natural farmers encourage people to grow as much of their own food as possible. This is discussed in the next question.
3. If you encourage people to grow their own food, won’t that put you out of business?
The big boys have one thing right about natural farming: we can’t produce in the quantities they can, even on equal acreage. That’s because our farms aren’t juiced up on agricultural amphetamines. Even if every acre of conventional farm were replaced with one or two acres of natural farm, there is the potential (but not a certainty) that we would not be able to produce enough food for everyone.
The answer to the potential food deficit? Grow as much as you can yourself. It doesn’t hurt my farm’s bottom line when you grow food I can’t produce. Furthermore, it is widely known that worldwide food shortages are a result of problems in distribution, not production. People growing a bigger share of their own food reduces the consequences of national and global food supply chains. If American do-gooders traveling to Africa would help the folks there build farms and homesteads in the traditions of their pre-colonial ancestors instead of western-style schools where they learn to become cogs in the global industrial machine, their quality of life would finally start to change for the better.
4. Is organic or beyond organic food really better for you?
The answer to this question depends on its scope. If your question refers only to the content of calories, carbs, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc. that are found on the nutritional “facts” label, then I would have a difficult time arguing that any given sustainable food item is materially better for you than its conventional counterpart. But once the question goes beyond the nutritional label, the two major benefits of buying sustainably produced food show themselves.
The first benefit regards long term food safety, an arena in which the big boys claim that there’s no proof that questionable practices like feedlot finishing of cattle and confinement housing of poultry/pork have any negative health impacts on people. Technically they’re right; they’re as right as American Tobacco Company was in the 1940s when it claimed there were no negative side effects of tobacco use, all while the U.S. government packed Lucky Strikes into GI rations. It took a massive health crisis several decades later for most people to understand that smoking was actually risky.
Likewise, health problems resulting from industrial food production have taken decades to surface. But surface they have, in the form of exploding rates of chronic disease traceable to everything from chemicals to lack of diversity in the diet to over-reliance on processed food. Personally, I believe it’s only a matter of time before our chronic health problems are directly linked to the environments found in large-scale slaughter facilities, city-sized feedlots, and genetically modified organisms, among others. By eating food produced under conventional methods, you’re playing Russian roulette with your future quality of life.
The second benefit regards the effects of agriculture on the land. And before you roll your eyes because you’re not a Birkenstock wearing, granola crunching environmentalist, ask yourself if you’ve noticed a few things:
- Where did all these gluten-intolerant people come from?
- It’s getting harder and harder every year to catch good fish in the Chesapeake Bay on your annual fishing trip
- The price of a bushel of crabs is absolutely freaking ridiculous
- It’s either raining constantly, or not at all
- Were there always this many ticks and mosquitoes everywhere?
- Wild caught salmon is HOW MUCH per pound???
- Why was sweet corn twice as expensive last year as it is this year?
- Why is the cereal box getting smaller while the price keeps going up?
- Pollen and ragweed in cities get worse every single year
All of these problems (yes, ALL of them) are fundamentally rooted in improper land management practiced by industrial agriculture. It would take a book to explain exactly why; if you’re interested in how poor land management leads to the consequences above, stop by the farm and I’ll gleefully give you an earful.
At $2 a pound, the confinement house chicken will always beat the price of our pastured broilers. That is, until you add in the hidden costs of putting that chicken in your mouth and supporting with your food dollar the flawed model that produced it: taxes to clean up environmental disasters and pay for Farm Bills, the price of allergy medication, your astronomical medical bills in 20 years, and that expensive fishing trip on the Bay coming up empty every year.