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Sustainability

Here are two things that happened to me last week.

First: I sent a message on my old condo’s listserv letting the residents know that I’ve set up a farm hub there, and that they can order fresh/local/etc. produce and meat directly from a farmer who’s not only local, but one that literally owns a unit in the building. A few days later, a non-profit CSA aggregator (a 501c3 non-profit) who apparently has a rep in the building, sent a nearly identical email out on the same listserv advertising a 10% early bird special on their CSA shares.

Second: I’m driving around Charlottesville delivering food and running errands, and everywhere I go, I see the delivery truck for an increasingly popular online grocery store whose name rhymes with “we lay crudes.” They weren’t following me of course; it was just sheer coincidence. But seeing that gigantic shiny green truck in the rearview of my 100,000-mile, farm-dusted F-150 for two hours was quite the visual metaphor for what local farmers determined to remain independent are up against.

BRIIIIIING IT OOOOOOON!!!!!!

BRIIIIIING IT OOOOOOON!!!!!!

Independent farmers committed to sustainable agriculture turned their backs on the ConAgras and Cargills of the world, determined to free themselves from poverty, debt, commodity pricing, and a litany of other unhealthy farming realities. Using farmers markets and door-to-door sales, they blazed a trail leading back to independence – they determined to take as close to100% of the food dollar as possible to secure the financial stability that’s necessary to steward the land properly without relying on government grants and other forms of ecological charity.

The rest of the world is understanding that this is a good thing. Dollars are quickly flowing into local/organic/sustainable and, just as quickly, well-intentioned organizations are springing up that threaten to erode the foundations of the Local movement. Here are three good reasons why you, as a consumer, should take the time to cultivate relationships with farmers and buy directly from them… and here’s why we, as farmers, need to do a much better job of direct marketing our products:

1. Centralization in agriculture is bad.

Modern agriculture is a hot mess. Giant corporations pay next to nothing for agricultural commodities produced by farmers whose financial incentive is to produce as much as possible at all costs. The corporations consolidate the commodities, process them, and then distribute them across the country and around the world. This system leaves the environment degraded, the farmer in poverty, and the consumer with an outrageously unhealthy diet and the manifold consequences thereof. Why are things this way?

Consolidators have investors to consider, so they must grow profits. To grow profits, they must reduce their costs. Consolidators – whether it’s Walmart or ConAgra – reduce their costs, and thus their prices, by squeezing their suppliers. The ability to do this comes, ironically enough, by enlisting more and more suppliers to service more and more customers. As these customers pile into the consolidators’ stores, they create an ever-strengthening vise that the consolidators use to squeeze their suppliers.

Sometimes.

Sometimes.

Eventually, a tipping point is reached where the consolidators have enough customers and suppliers to offer prices so low that suppliers can’t survive on their own. At this point, the consolidator owns the supplier, and the supplier begins making tradeoffs to meet the price set by the consolidator. For Walmart’s suppliers, this might mean closing American factories and sourcing the work to Asia to reduce labor costs. For ConAgra’s suppliers, this might mean using genetically modified seed and contracting to feedlots to reduce unit costs.

Online grocery stores, even the Local-oriented ones with the big green truck, are consolidators with investors to consider (that’s how they got the big green truck). Right now they’re fairly small and don’t have enough customers to force farmers to take their prices, but one day and with enough customers, they will. Perhaps they won’t apply the squeeze when they’re able, but capitalism’s record of self-restraint is not encouraging.

2. Government subsidies in agriculture are bad

Some CSA consolidators, like the one that’s more or less competing with me in my condo, are non-profits that operate with government grants, tax-deductible donations (another kind of government grant), and self-generated revenue.  On its face, that may seem like a good thing: people like to think of sustainable agriculture as an enterprise too pure to be stained by the pursuit of profit, so going the non-profit route presents a pleasing image of donation-funded hippie farmers sitting above the earthly fray of markets. So what’s the problem?

Besides the hair. And the smell. And where are the women?

Besides the hair. And the smell. And where are the women?

Here are two things that the giant 1,000-acre GMO corn farmer and the 501c3 non-profit local CSA have in common: they are utterly dependent on government largesse. The corn farmer would be out of business tomorrow without the commodity payment and insurance programs in the Farm Bill, and the non-profit CSA would be out of business tomorrow without the tax-deductions allowed its donors and the ability to receive municipal/state/federal grants. This dependence has consequences.

The first consequence is volatility. Remember all the talk of milk prices doubling if the latest Farm BIll remained stalled in Congress? And if that non-profit CSA loses 50% of its government funding, they’re going to have to either fold the business or make up the difference at the register, either option promising to spike the prices of your CSA shares.

The second consequence is the artificial lowering of the price of food. Many non-profits use their donations and grants to reduce food costs at the register, usually to service low-income customers. While I absolutely agree that low-income individuals should have affordable access to food that’s fit to eat, I also believe that artificially lowering the price through subsidies is not the way to do it. If SNAP, WIC, or CSA grants get cut, low income folks are back to poisoning themselves with ramen noodles and Hot Pockets. Farmers should instead be working to lower the real price of food with things like multistory and closed-loop agriculture, perennial and locally-adapted systems, and a refusal to take on debt. That way, good food remains affordable no matter who’s in Congress. Government subsidies, however, remove the financial incentive to pursue these innovations, which leads to the third consequence, which is…

Opportunity cost. It’s very difficult for market-oriented, innovative, socially/economically/ecologically-sustainable, independent farms to get off the ground when their competitors are “juicing” on government funding. We know these utopian farms are possible – Sepp Holzer’s Krameterhof and Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm being prime examples – but we’re going to see a lot fewer of them if we continue to believe that government money belongs in agriculture.

3. The solution is so much better

Consolidators, whether they’re government funded CSAs or investor funded online grocery stores, are not evil. They simply exist because they’re filling a niche that farmers have failed to fill ourselves. Local food is not as accessible as it should be, the farms producing the food are few and far between, and many of them aren’t oriented toward direct marketing off the farm itself. Any farmer knows that a bare patch of earth, left alone, will sprout a giant tap-rooted weed that will become almost impossible to deal with if it’s ignored for too long. Likewise, the need for convenience and accessibility in Local food is much like that patch of exposed earth; instead of nature filling it with pokeweed, capitalism is filling it with consolidators.

Pokeweed is the same color as that danged green truck...

Pokeweed is the same color as that danged green truck…

Changing this would require a massive proliferation of small farms, and the creation of farmer-owned cooperatives that could handle distribution beyond the farm – especially into cities. The reasoning is simple: if there are lots of farms everywhere then they are more accessible; farmers don’t have to take commodity prices and become slaves to the distributors if the farmers are the distributors.

Getting more farmers into the field and organizing cooperatives is going to take some work, and will become a focus of Sylvanaqua once our production is established, we’ve turned a small profit, and we’ve thuys demonstrated that this model of ours can, in fact, work. Stay tuned, stay positive, and buy direct from your local farmer!

Chris Newman
Manager, Sylvanaqua Farms

Our farm is dedicated not just to responsible, healthy, accessible food, but also to changing the very model that our country uses to produce and consume food. We’ve said before that being certified organic doesn’t go far enough to affect this change; in this article we take a look at a few more reasons that eating local beats both organic and conventional. And at the end, we give you a sneak preview of what our “dream” food model looks like.

1. Local really is more nutritious

An organic controversy exploded in 2012 when a Stanford University study asserted that there’s no meaningful difference in the nutritional content of organic and conventionally raised foods. Stanford, along with many other food scientists and supporting institutions, make the claim that the only substantial drivers of nutritional content in food are genetics and freshness. If you take two seeds from an identical heirloom plant, raise one on a conventional farm, the other on an organic farm, and harvest and eat them at the same time, there will be virtually no difference between the two.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Supporters of organics naturally (hehe) fired back, citing everything from the university’s relationship with agro-giant Cargill to alleged technical flaws in the study itself. Importantly, however, critics of the study did not attack its underlying premise: that genetics and freshness are what really matters when it comes to nutritional content.

When you make the decision to ignore the labels, buy local, and source all your food from a nearby ecological farm, this controversy immediately loses meaning for you. If you’re buying heirloom produce from a farm less than an hour away, you’re pretty much guaranteed two things: 1.) you’re getting plant genetics at least as good as what you’d find in an organic market, and 2.) you’re getting your produce at the peak of freshness, especially if you visit the type of farm that lets you pick produce yourself. The only way to get fresher food would be to disguise yourself as a cow during the day, graze the fields with the rest of the herd, and hope the farmer doesn’t notice.

Soon.

Soon.

2. Local really does taste better

It’s not hard to find people – especially those who patronize expensive restaurants – that will insist that organic food tastes hands-down better than conventionally raised food. Unfortunately, those people would be proven wrong by a slew of blind taste tests in which people truly can’t tell the difference between stuff that’s grown in a chemical-bound psedo-soil and compost-pampered supersoil.

Much like nutrition, taste is largely the effect of freshness and genetics. For eggs, meat, and dairy, the inputs that create them are also a very significant factor… but one whose positive effect on the taste of the food is correlated with freshness.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

As great as organic farming is compared to its conventional counterpart regarding environmental impact, it gleefully shares conventional ag’s most glaring structural problem: centralized distribution. This model of distribution underlies the efficiency that some would argue is modern agriculture’s biggest strength, but it also underlies its biggest weaknesses: the ecological compromises demanded by farming for economies of scale, and products whose nutrition and taste suffer from shipping (to distribution facilities and markets) and waiting (in markets to be bought).

Do you find it strange that you can buy organic sweet corn and vine tomatoes at health food markets in January? If you don’t, then you should. That sweet corn and that big red ‘mater, being more than six months out of season, are both going to taste like hot-house garbage. If you buy from an ecological farm, however, this isn’t going to be a problem because an eco-farmer worth her salt will not grow things out of season, even in a greenhouse. Shopping for groceries at such a farm ensures that you’re buying food in season and at the peak of freshness, which is the ONLY way to guarantee your food is at the height of its nutritional content and taste.

3. Local really is best for the environment

Conventional and organic farming have something else in common besides centralized distribution: they’re founded on the idea that you have to fight nature to produce enough food for civilized society. The only difference between the two is that organic farmers are following the rules of gentlemanly warfare, while the conventional farmers are whipping out the nukes and mustard gas.

To be sure, organic farming is much gentler on the environment than conventional farming. The “Three Cs” of organic farming are compost, cover crops, and crop rotation; together, these are intended to minimize the effects of farming on the environment and reduce risks to public health. The first “C”, compost, provides natural soil fertility without frying soil life the way synthetic fertilizers do. The second, cover crops, prevents soil erosion and runoff pollution while improving soil structure and nutrient content after cash crops are harvested. The third, crop rotation, interrupts cycles of pests and diseases by taking away their food sources.

So... what do they eat?

So… what do they eat?

The Three C’s, unfortunately, do not address organic agriculture’s reliance on monocultures. A monoculture is what you get when you have a whole bunch of the same plant (or animal) covering a large area. This is something you almost never see in nature because, in nature, such a state can’t persist for very long. If a 50 acre field were to spontaneously sprout nothing but corn, then the beetles and armyworms would soon follow. With a gigantic food source and no habitat for their predators, these pests would reproduce explosively until all the corn was gone, at which point the they would starve to death. Their decaying bodies and rotting corn husks would cover the soil with new organic matter while the occasional breeze or four-legged creature would deposit various seeds from elsewhere. Over time, a new and balanced ecosystem would develop – one that would invariably be a polyculture rather than a monoculture. I won’t say that monocultures aren’t “natural” since “natural” is such a slippery term. But I will say that we’re swimming against nature’s current when we use monocultures, and that’s a dangerous proposition when we’re relying on them to stay alive.

If there’s one thing your small, local family farm probably doesn’t have, it’s a 50 acre cornfield. These little farms generally use hoophouses and/or raised garden beds to produce plants in polycultures that are much more environmentally sound. And while these fruits and veggies don’t provide the staples we rely on from corn and soy, there are permaculture farms coming online using tree guilds to replace them both affordably and with ecological soundness. Most of these operations are small family farms that need your patronage in order to succeed.

4. It’s the only way to make responsible food affordable

America’s food model is broken because it demands an interface between the consumer and the producer in the name of efficiency and centralized profit.* Proponents of this model will argue that such ruthless efficiency is necessary in order to meet demand; a dubious claim considering that America trashes nearly half it’s food.

"Smashes" rhymes with "trashes."

“Smashes” rhymes with “trashes.”

The organic movement, God bless it, does not address the structural flaw in this model. It instead funnels food into the same broken system as its conventional adversary (or parent company) using a production method that’s much less efficient. With its misguided focus on markets and monocultures, organic farms fight a relentlessly uphill battle against the efficiency of conventional farming’s chemical marvels and the inertia of mother nature’s ecological inclinations. The result? The most difficult, expensive food on planet Earth.

But in spite of the cost, farmers markets and agritourism are booming at the same time unprecedented public outrage is being directed at GMO, feedlots, and big agribusiness. The enormous demand for organic, relative to its supply, is one of the drivers of its high price. If we could only lower the price of responsible food to make it accessible to the average person, the sustainable food movement would be on its way to fulfilling its mission of saving the world by feeding it. This is where your local permaculture farm comes in.

Permaculture farms are those that intensively mimic natural systems to produce food that’s both ecologically sound and affordable. The affordability stems from a number of things: reliance on perennials that only need to be planted once; emphasis on forage rather than feed for livestock; selection of locally-adapted plants and animals that require minimum human intervention; focus on a hyperlocal customer base that does most of the harvesting; adoption of multistory agriculture (fungi, ground covers, tall annuals, bushes, and trees occupying the same space) to improve efficiency; providing the diversity of products that allows the farm to replace the supermarket.

Taking central Virginia as an example, the new agricultural model here would have 1,400 small (20 – 30 acres) plantations set up near population centers, each providing food for the 160 or so people living with the immediate vicinity of that farm. People would go to these farms to do most of their food shopping; the Whole Foodses and Harris Teeters would be for the things you can’t get locally – coffee, spices, citrus, etc. The time a farmer would ordinarily spend every year planting, cultivating, spraying, harvesting, shipping, etc. would instead be spent on value adding (e.g. milling wheat into flour, grinding corn into hominy, smoking bacon, baking bread) and surveying the neighborhood to see what products her customers want more or less of.

"Coming right up!"

“Coming right up!”

This model doesn’t exist yet, but it can in your lifetime. All you have to do is make a commitment to cultivate a relationship with a local farmer, make a commitment to buy from her as often as you can, and of course stay tuned to our website as we work to make this model a reality for everyone.

Chris Newman
Sylvanaqua Farms, Earlysville VA

*Before my more conservative readers accuse me of Marxism, please know that I’m not a proponent of socializing or nationalizing food production (notwithstanding charity). Farmers and those who own farms should enjoy comfortable lives financially to the extent their talents will allow them to steward the land responsibly. It is another matter entirely for Monsanto to advocate for market-divorced commodity subsidies, soil-killing chemicals, seed patents, and a factory farm system that brutalizes both farmer and animal… all in the name of its stock price and at the expense of literally everyone in the world.

Click here for the first article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part I: Canaries in Camouflage.

Click here for the second article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part II: The Renegade Generation

*     *     *

Here’s one great thing about Millennials: they don’t want to live in traditional suburbs. The sterile, cookie-cutter, vinyl-sided planned developments filling the space immediately surrounding cities are arguably among the most poisonous, least productive, wholly-uninspried landscapes on the planet. Suburban landscaping says little more than “at least I’m not concrete.”

Cities themselves, however, are generally too expensive to offer Millennials the space they’ll need to raise the families that, though they’re doing it later than their parents, they still very much want to have. And so this generation will move to the area outside the cities, and reinvent them completely. In fact it’s already begun; next time you’re driving through the closest-in suburbs of a major city, take a good hard look at the kind of development taking place. Real estate developers are finding higher demand and profits in mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods where all necessary amenities are located within walking distance of the residential units, lawns are replaced with common areas, room are smaller, hallways shorter, and bathrooms/kitchens more chic than grand.

This applies, of course, mostly to new development. There are countless suburbs of the old “white picket fence” model that will wind up coming on the market sooner or later, and it’s in these wasteful spaces that the Millennial’s appetite for change and transformation could revolutionize the way we live… and especially the way we eat.

Next time you’re taking a walk through a suburban neighborhood, take a look at all the lawns. The medians. The park and recreation areas. While you’re looking at them, think about this: a mature permaculture food forest can produce six million food calories on an acre, in a year. That’s the equivalent of 4,000 lbs of beef and enough food to feed eight people for an entire year. Assuming I’m off by half since we’re not raising any animals in the suburbs, that’s still enough to feed four people for a year.

Now imagine your typical suburban development with a 200 units sporting 0.2 acre lawns. That’s 40 acres without counting all the medians, common areas, and woodlots – and it’s enough space to easily provide a free organic lunch every single day to each and every person in the neighborhood. Imagine the amount of money households would save! The average worker spends about $2,000 a year on lunch. Doubling this figure to account for most suburban households having two workers (but leaving the estimate conservative since we’re not accounting for children) means the food forest would save the entire 200 household neighborhood close to $1 million annually. That’s going to be important as adult Millennials are predicted to enjoy lower inflation-adjusted incomes than their parents.

The environmental and aesthetic benefits are manifold. Food forests are polycultures that don’t have to be mowed, weeded, or artificially fertilized. Car-averse Millennials could narrow the roads in the neighborhood to encourage bicycles and more space for planting. Less impervious surface area coupled with a multi-story food forest means less runoff, flooding, and pollution. Finally, tree guilds are quite beautiful as they rely on a dozen or more different species planted together. The boring tree-mulch-grass trio common in suburbs today would be replaced by guilds of apples, comfrey, lupins, clover, daffodils, dill, fennel, chives, and chicory growing on every non-concrete surface in the neighborhood.

These benefits also wind up in your pocketbook as your HOA doesn’t have to spend money on lawnmowing, trimming, pruning, mulching, and annual ornamentals. The runoff reduction, if the food forest model were adopted among enough neighborhoods, would curtail runoff to the point where stormwater taxes could be halved, the costs of treating water quartered, and the price of environmental cleanup transferred to the corporations and factory farms doing most of the polluting.

You get all this just by changing the way we “decorate” the suburbs, and the seeds of that change are already being planted. Many universities and regional parks are already adopting the concept of “edible landscapes,” and it’s only a matter of time before a critical mass of individuals decides that it’s silly not to grow food right where they live. And there’s no reason this revolution couldn’t happen in workspaces either, as office parks suffer the same uninspired landscaping as most suburbs. Office food forests could save employees money and save the employer lost productivity as workers no longer need to take time to drive to lunch. Supporting all this could be an entire new industry of farming-as-a-service rising from the ashes of the landscaping industry, as the latter trades in its lawnmowers and hedge trimmers for greenhouses and harvesting tools.

The possibilities of this new model of sustainable food production are positively endless.

*          *          *

Part IV of this series will be released on December 23, 2013.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

Click here for the first article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part I: Canaries in Camouflage.

*     *     *

Go to reuters.com, nytimes.com, npr.org, wsj.com or the website of just about any other major news outlet. On each of those sites, check out their major topics. Then drill down into those one or two levels and check out the subtopics. Notice what you haven’t found in a single one of them? The topics of sustainability and the environment.

The lack of primacy and general visibility afforded to sustainability is a glaring indicator of our general attitude toward the subject: It’s someone else’s problem. To be sure, you can find environmental writings on any of these websites if you search for them… but you do have to search for them, which means you have to already have an interest in the topic.

Meanwhile, we don’t have to search for the latest nonsense Kim Kardashian was involved in, the launch of the next Apple product, the latest unfortunate thing said or done by some politician, or what the stock market did today. These things wind up front and center under the main media topics of Style, Fashion, Politics, and Business, shoved into our faces whether we want to know about them or not.

What we see, and don’t see, on these websites reflects a striking public dissonance on the environment. Most people seem to believe that climate change and environmental degradation a.) are occurring, and b.) pose existential threats to humanity, yet these problems are afforded a measure of practical seriousness so small that critical environmental problems literally starving millions of people require a search feature, while the score of an NFL game involving two teams that aren’t even in playoff contention (I’m looking at you, NFC East) finds itself on the front page above the fold. How can we explain this? I pose the following:

  1. People in developed nations are, by and large, not yet directly and materially affected by environmental issues. As explained in part I, environmental problems are the kind that will hurt our great-grandchildren, not us. The problems are important but not urgent, and therefore are not afforded gravity in a culture obsessed with short-term-everything.
  2. People in developed nations believe that technology and financial wealth will either curtail environmental degradation or, failing that, insulate them and future generations from the consequences.

There isn’t much that can be done about the first item. Self-destructive short-term thinking is the inevitable long-term result of a society whose culture promotes material wealth as its highest calling, and over the past few centuries has systematically exterminated cultures offering appealing alternatives.

Regarding the second item, a good friend of mine once told me, “I tell my kids to go to school to get good jobs and make as much money as they can. If you have money, you don’t have to worry about how stuff works.” He wasn’t being completely serious, but there’s a kernel of truth to the statement that underlies our rationale for not taking environmental issues seriously: we regard money as the Great Insulator. Whether it’s conscious or not, an awful lot of us believe that a healthy bank account will somehow protect us when the air is too poisonous to breathe, the water too filthy to drink, and food impossible to grow.

We don’t ignore the environment entirely, of course. We toss our soda cans into special recycling bins, drive Volts and Priuses and Leafs, become vegetarians, and shut off the lights when we leave a room. These little things constitute “doing our part,” but ultimately we’re hoping for some magic bullet(s) to do the heavy lifting and spare us any substantial changes in lifestyle. So we look to innovations in technology (e.g. offshore wind farms, hydroelectric cars), policy (e.g. cap and trade, farm bills), or some combination of the two (e.g. municipal composting), only to watch in horror as even these limited solutions are ripped to shreds by interests possessing no concerns beyond the next quarterly earnings call. It’s at that point, I suppose, that we tell our children to accumulate lots of money so they can eat it once there’s no more food, potable water, or clean air for that money to buy. Or maybe we think the money will secure a berth on Elysium.

Interestingly, however, it seems that a lot of kids aren’t buying what the parents are selling. Millennials will be the first generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents, and the first generation to be denied the American Dream since its inception. As dreadful as that may sound, I believe this is where the best hope for a sustainable future lies. Millennials and the generations that come after them are going to redefine the American Dream, because they’ll have no other choice. And the characteristics of this generation that will define a new social, cultural, and economic order are looking rather promising.

Unlike the previous few generations, most Millennials won’t scoff at the notion of homesteading, being organic farmers, working in skilled trades, or creating technology to be offered to the world for free. They prioritize relationships over careers and wealth, probably because the latter feel hopelessly out of reach. They love modern technology, but not to the exclusion of the value of ancestral knowledge. It’s a generation that wants to travel, meet people, share ideas, and volunteer for reasons not related to their resumes. It’s the first generation in recent history searching for meaning beyond the context-free pursuit of profit, accumulation of wealth, and advancement of technology.

In adopting these values, Millennials are balking at the prospect of adopting a socio-economic model, created by Gen X and the Boomers, that doesn’t include a mechanism to thrive beyond its creators. They’re the Renegade Generation that just might save us all by turning their backs on the traditional notion of the American Dream, and the traditional tools for achieving it.

*     *     *

Part III of this series will be released on December 16, 2013.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

Sustainability Rant is a multipart series from Sylvanaqua Farms about the need for sustainability to become a ubiquitous concern in American life.

Part I: Canaries in Camouflage

Environmentalists aren’t going to save us. Neither will America’s wealth or power.

Let’s examine a few facts:

  • Air quality is decreasing
  • The planet is warming (regardless of the cause, yes, it’s happening)
  • The rivers are polluted and starved of oxygen
  • The oceans are filthy and being precipitously depopulated
  • Land is desertifying at a terrifying clip
  • Storms are intensifying
  • Soil is becoming sterile, then eroding
  • Pollinators are dying
  • Species diversity in plants and animals is vanishing.
  • “Pests” that attack our food supply are getting harder to kill

Take a minute to re-read the list when you’ve slowed down for a moment. When you’re not commuting to work, or arranging play dates, or picking the kids up from soccer practice, or worrying about a deadline, or checking Facebook statuses and Twitter updates, or sending text messages. Read this list after you’ve had five minutes to unplug, to sit down, and to do absolutely nothing. Find a moment in which the stillness lets you hear nothing but the passing of air through your lungs and the beating of your heart – the simple, unconscious things without which your life, as busy and important as it is, would cease in an instant.

Done? Found your center? Good, let’s continue the discussion with some better news.

Here are some things that probably won’t happen in your lifetime:

  • The air gets too poisonous to breathe without machines
  • The planet warms to the extent that few regions are able to grow food
  • The rivers become undrinkable
  • The oceans rise and warm to an extent that changes weather patterns permanently and catastrophically
  • Hurricanes are the size of continents and routinely kill thousands of people, even in developed countries

That’s good news! The bad news, however, is that it’s well within the realm of possibility that these things will happen within the lifetimes of our great grandchildren. If you’re 30 years old and have a child today, the lives of your grandchildren would, more or less, span 60 to 140 years from now. It’s not crazy to think the Earth, even (and perhaps especially) in the developed world, could be utterly uninhabitable in the next century and a half.

Why isn’t that a crazy thought? Because I asked old people.

In the 1940s, my grandfather Ernest could walk into the Potomac River with a big net, scoop it in a long circle around him, and come up with a net full of blue crabs. Oysters and clams were similarly bountiful. And we’re not talking about some idyllic location in the rural upper reaches of the Potomac. My grandfather pulled this stunt in southern Prince George’s County, MD within eyesight of the nation’s capital, where his and my ancestors had similarly fed themselves for at least a thousand years prior.

Seventy years later, the crabs my grandfather ate all summer long for free are now $140 a bushel at the Wharf. The oysters he harvested on God’s dime to accompany pre-hipster PBR while he and his friends played Tonk now sell for nearly $30 a dozen at Hank’s Oyster Bar. It took just seven decades of overfishing and environmental degradation to turn what was once a staple meat along the Potomac into a delicacy that even bespoke-suited K Street lobbyists can’t afford eat everyday.

You don’t have to go back to World War II to see this kind of difference. Ten years ago, my father-in-law’s fishing trip on the lower Potomac yielded an unbelievable catch of stripers, croaker, spot, and perch. Last month’s fishing trip yielded literally nothing that could be kept. Vegans and animal rights activists bemoan the existence of hunters and fishermen, but the former would do well to recognize the latter as a very useful component of the sustainability machine: they are the camouflaged canaries in the coalmine of environmental sustainability. And they’re not singing.

If you ask any seasoned hunter of fisher(wo)man how their last outing was compared with a decade or two ago, it’ll probably elicit a despondent grunt. Unless, of course, that person is a deer hunter. Deer populations are exploding in the east as the animals enjoy an environment utterly devoid of predators, unless you count Toyotas. Couple that with habitat being continually compressed by urban sprawl, and you wind up with deer hunts that are like turkey shoots, while the actual turkey shoots turn up nothing.

Moral concerns about game sports aside, what is not debatable is that “sportsmen” are the first people to really notice when something is off in the natural world. They notice it even before farmers because, unlike farmers, sportsmen harvest their food from animals whose fate is directly pegged to that of their immediate environment. As that environment thrives or degrades, so too does the animal live or die, and that right soon.

In farming – even pasture-based farming – things aren’t so elastic. The pastured poultry farmer brags about his phalanx of corn-fed broilers injecting organic nutrients and building topsoil while staying mum on the 500 acre monocrop corn field that feeds those chickens while decimating the organic life in, on, and above the soil which, incidentally, is eroding. It’ll take awhile, perhaps centuries, but ultimately the corn monocrop will fail (either by refusing to grow or becoming impossibly expensive) and thereby starve the chickens on that pasture.*

Whereas the Rockfish succumbs to environmental degradation almost immediately, the pastured chicken endures for a hundred years, but only by transferring the environmental damage to a slowly-dying cornfield. Thus will environmental degradation spare us, only to starve our great-grandchildren. Toby Keith has the luxury to wax myopic about “both ends of the ozone burnin’, funny how the world keeps turnin’,” but his great-granddaughter won’t. She’ll be too busy battling skin cancer because her great -granddaddy didn’t give a shit.

Over the next 140 years and through the lives of your great-grandkids, as the population and demand for resources increase at a greater-than-linear pace, we can only expect the stories of my grandfather and father-in-law to accelerate in severity. We can also expect the stories to bleed out of the realm of outdoor recreation and into the Earthly Trinity that keeps us alive: air, water, and food. And be warned, America: neither our money, nor our power, nor an elite cadre of environmentalists, will save us.

Unless, of course, we change the way we use our money, power, and environmentalists…

*Incidentally, this is why Sylvanaqua made the strategic decision to move from pasture systems to permaculture systems.

Part II of this series will be released on December 9, 2013.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

A few weeks ago I was discussing various topics in sustainable agriculture with farmers and apprentices at the Accokeek Foundation’s Ecosystem Farm in Accokeek, Maryland, about 20 minutes south of Washington, D.C. During the course of the discussion, it was mentioned that my farm’s goal was to move the price of sustainably-raised food into a sphere competitive with that of conventionally-raised food. This statement drew two reactions, both of which are rather common whenever I mention the idea of democratizing sustainability through price.

The first reaction is amused disbelief: “Do you really think that’s possible?” is what I most often hear from a concerned face pitying my delusional optimism.  Naturally, I think it’s possible to compete with conventional agriculture on price, but not if we insist on playing their game: focusing on commodity and wholesale markets, relying on annual labor/machine intensive agriculture, and leveraging economies of scale. All of these practices require sustainable operations to compensate for their shortcomings in ways that will always result in a more expensive product.

Permaculture offers a way to lower prices in a revolutionary way: reducing the need for human intervention in agricultural systems. Pasture-based farms are the gateway to this model in offering a limited-input method for producing herbivores, but staple crops and omnivorous meat products (e.g. pork and poultry) can’t be produced in these systems at a competitive price point. Moving into staples would require a fundamental shift in the entire agricultural model: away from commodity/hybrid species and toward locally-adapted species, away from annual crops and toward perennial crops, away from specialization and toward diversification, away from centralized distribution and toward localized distribution.

When you read about all that necessary change, the “do you really think that’s possible” question sounds awfully appropriate. But ultimately, someone has to believe it’s possible because the alternative – maintaining the status quo and keeping sustainable ag products solely in the realm of the elite – is quite hopeless. The sustainability movement can’t save the world if it’s only accessible to a small slice of it.

The second reaction is more nuanced and requires a bit more thought. Many natural farmers chafe at lowering their prices, and not just for selfish reasons. The logic holds that people don’t place enough value on food, and the relatively high price of organic food teaches people that food isn’t a commodity and is something important enough to be valued. I’ve heard Joel Salatin echo this argument: “If you can understand the difference between a BMW and a Honda, then you can understand the difference between a Polyface Broiler and a Purdue Broiler.”

There are two big problems with this line of argument. First, it assumes that price is either the only or the most important vehicle for conveying the value of food. I’ve always thought the best way to convey the value and fragile nature of food production is to have people grow it themselves. Growing a tomato plant will change a person’s outlook on food in a way that higher prices and exclusive markets never could. And for middle- and lower-income people, the price of organics is not just higher, it’s prohibitively higher.

As I argued that last point, the folks I was debating made the valid counterargument that it’s not impossible to get middle and lower-income individuals to pay more for a good product. One of the apprentices, who grew up in southeast D.C. around the same time I did, correctly mentioned that you could go to a Section 8 project in the worst part of the city. and see kids with $400 iPhones and $200 sneakers walking out of apartments where the $60 heat bill hasn’t been paid all winter. The problem we have to contend with, I argued, is the fact that premium products in areas like consumer electronics and fashion provide instant, tangible benefits. To get benefits from an iPhone or a new pair of Jordans, you buy it one time and your friends ooh and aah over it right away.

Healthy food, on the other hand, conveys benefits that are both intangible and delayed. To get benefits from healthy food, you have to buy it for a lifetime and the benefits are only realized decades later when your friends ooh and aah over your lack of diabetes and hypertension. Of course, healthy food isn’t the only thing that people consume for a lifetime to provide a delayed benefit. Toothpaste also falls into that category. But the reason that only 26% of people regularly buy organic food while 94% brush their teeth at least once a day? Toothpaste doesn’t cost twice as much as the next best alternative.

Second, the Honda/BMW analogy hits the mark in terms of the value proposition (i.e. of course you pay more for a better product) but misses the broader point entirely. BMW, whose mission is to make a tidy profit and produce the world’s best-engineered cars, benefits from the exclusivity that stems from its price point. BMW can fulfill its mission without appealing to people with Honda budgets. In fact, offering products to appeal to budgets outside of BMW’s high-luxury wheelhouse (i.e. the introduction of the 1 series) produced quite a bit of groaning among the company’s core clientele.

Sustainable agriculture on the other hand, whose mission is to save the world by displacing conventional agriculture, would find that exclusivity directly contradicts its mission: We can’t replace conventional agriculture if we can’t capture their customers. This presents the following set of realities:

  1. Sustainable agriculture is producing BMWs
  2. Most people can only afford Hondas
  3. The fate of humanity depends on us getting Honda customers into BMWs

We’re left, then, with two options. 1.) Convince people with Honda budgets to pay the high price of our BMWs, or 2.) Find a way to make our BMWs more affordable without compromising quality.

The first option seems, to me, unworkable. Assuming that some marketing genius is able to convince the masses that organic food is as worthy a luxury item as an iPhone, you’ve still got a problem: people don’t consume luxury items everyday. It’s not enough to have people buying “BMW food” for special occasions to show off to their friends; sustainable agriculture only works if the majority of agricultural land is under sustainable management, and that only makes sense if people are getting most or all of their food from us. Catering to a bigger niche market may satisfy the 20 year financial goals of a few sustainable farmers, but it doesn’t satisfy the 100+ year goal of restoring the environment and changing the face of American agriculture. The bottom line is, even if you’re able to convince lower and middle-income people to pay the higher price for your food, our movement still loses in the long run because they can’t afford to buy from us every day.

That leaves us with the second option: making our BMWs more affordable. As I mentioned earlier in the discussion of low-input permaculture, this option seems viable. Our hope here lies in the yin and yang of technological innovation and ancestral knowledge, a holistic marriage of human ingenuity and natural elegance. In this space lies the solution to making the sustainability movement not just visible, but accessible, and capable of continuing our ability to live happily on this planet.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

Much of the push in sustainable agriculture centers around getting more farmers in the fields. The logic holds that smaller farms are easier to manage in an ecologically responsible manner, but smaller farms mean that we’ll need more of them to feed the population. These small farms would preferably take the place of the large factory farms now dotting the landscape. But I’ve always wondered… exactly how many of these small farms would we need?

Mark Shepard’s “Restoration Agriculture” got me thinking about that question in earnest. In this book, Shepard conservatively calculates that a mature, multi-tiered permaculture farming operation could produce 5.97 million human food calories (i.e. calories actually ingested by humans rather than diverted to animal feed, bio-fuels, etc.) per acre, per year. I decided to use this estimate to determine how many farms like mine would be needed to feed the town of Earlysville, VA, where we’re located.

Earlysville’s population is about 5,520 people. If each of them eats 2,000 calories per day on average, that’s 5,520 x 2,000 = 11,040,000 calories per day. Multiply that by 365, and we have Earlysville consuming 4,029,600,000 calories per year.

Once the permaculture infrastructure is mature, we’ll have about 20 productive acres (26 total acres minus 2 acres for homes and buildings, minus 3 acres for riparian buffer, minus another acre of generally unusable land). If we multiply that 20 by Shepard’s calorie production estimate, then our farm can produce 20 x 5.97 million = 119.4 million calories per year.

Finally, we divide Earlysville’s annual consumption of 4.0296 billion calories by the 119.4 million calories the 20 acre farm can produce, and we see that we need 34 twenty-acre farms to feed Earlysville.

Depending on where you’re coming from, that might seem like a lot of farms and farmers for such a small town. But it’s really not that bad when you crunch the numbers a little more. Assuming each farm employed two people (it really doesn’t take more than that to manage 20 acres), the town’s farming population would be just 1.2% of the population, which is actually lower than the current nationwide percentage.

Each farm would need to feed about 162 people. If each person purchased just $100/month in meat and produce from the farm, we’d gross close to $197,000 a year. Without conventional farming’s massive debt service, input costs, and labor/machinery costs associated with planting, harvesting, and protecting hundreds of acres of monoculture crops – this near $200K gross would allow the two farmers on each farm to enjoy a comfortable middle-class living once overhead, purchasing, maintenance, rent, etc. costs were removed from the total.

These numbers are conservative and well-grounded, but they’re still just theoretical. Our farm will be a real-world test case over the next several years to explore the very exciting possibility that a.) farming could again become a financially rewarding enterprise without b.) spiking prices on consumers or c.) destroying the environment.

So ask yourself… how many small farms would it take to feed your town?

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms