Growing Right

Small-scale farming is an answer, but not the solution.

WHILE 100-MILE DIETERS provide a ray of hope, small-scale farmers the world over continue to face intense pressures, and many are still forced out of farming each year. In response, we need to think carefully about our aspirations for the 21st century food system.

WHILE 100-MILE DIETERS provide a ray of hope, small-scale farmers the world over continue to face intense pressures, and many are still forced out of farming each year. In response, we need to think carefully about our aspirations for the 21st century food system.

From a sustainability perspective, what are the advantages and disadvantages of farming and food distribution on a small scale? And what policy measures or distribution models need to be in place to ensure that any advantages of small-scale food production systems are retained in light of the pressures on farms to grow and adapt?

First, let’s consider the pressures. In the global South, many countries are now experiencing what Canada went through in the 1950s and 1960s. The growing popularity of supermarkets among consumers, and thus the ability of these chains to dictate what farmers grow and get paid, is squeezing small-scale producers. In the North, small farms are no longer just dealing with the competition of large operations that are subsidized to maintain the high-input/high-output model of industrial agriculture. They now also face poorly thought-out policies designed to counter the risks induced by that industrial model.

Small-scale poultry operators in Quebec are a good example. Since November 2005, they have been banned from selling meat and eggs raised outdoors because of worries about avian flu, even though this disease is more of a problem among industrial farms. In California, competition among farmers for land, along with relaxed national agricultural standards and other factors, has forced many small-scale organic farmers to “get big or get out.” This dynamic has led to the creation of 8000-hectare farms that provide organic salad greens for stores throughout North America and even Europe. Such farms reduce the pesticide load on the environment, but their reliance on cheap contract labour, and the ecological footprint associated with trucking and flying mean they are a far cry from sustainable.

A “small” farm in Canada is radically different from a small farm in India or Mexico. Still, there are commonalities in ecological, economic and social benefits, and drawbacks that set these farms apart from typical industrial operations. Small-scale farms tend to be less reliant on outside sources of energy. Although not all are run organically, they generally employ mixed cropping and livestock systems that help replenish soil organic matter and nutrients. They also benefit from the natural pest controls achieved through crop rotation and rotational grazing. When compared to large-scale monocultures, these operations have higher levels of on-farm biodiversity, which provides wildlife habitat and contributes to the diversity of agricultural seeds and animal breeds. Managed well, these farms tend to replenish aquifers. They are also more likely to be among the farms that act as carbon sinks, instead of being net greenhouse gas emitters.

Small operations that produce a number of goods have more diverse sources of income, thereby providing farmers with a form of insurance in the face of changing climate patterns and fluctuating markets. Finally, although not universally the case, small-scale producers are more likely to have closer connections with their customers, at a farmers’ market, for example. These relationships build trust and networks of mutual aid, which are key components of community resilience.

It is for these and other benefits that small-scale farms were recently recognized by an unlikely source: The World Bank. In International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, a World-Bank-sponsored report that was endorsed by countries worldwide, with the notable exceptions of Canada, the US and Australia, it identified the need to support small-scale operations. Given the World Bank’s history of financing large-scale, export-oriented agriculture, let’s hope that this report is a harbinger of a major turnaround in conventional development thinking.

Still, it’s important to avoid getting stuck in the rural idyll. While the reasons are complex, the reality is that over half of the world’s hungry are small-scale agriculturalists, particularly women, working marginal land. Their farms simply do not provide enough food and income to meet their family’s basic needs. Then there is the issue of whether or not small farms alone can meet the world’s food needs. For 50 years, global food production has closely tracked the production of nitrogen fertilizer. As a result, it is not certain whether small-scale organic operations that use no artificial fertilizers could feed the world’s population today, even with a diet low in animal products.

In Canada, farmers with small parcels of land in the Annapolis Valley or on the fringes of Victoria may be able to sell directly to the public at the growing number of markets or through the community-shared agriculture (CSA) model. But this setup may not be practical for Saskatchewan producers who live 500 kilometres from the nearest urban centre. Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense to replace Southern Ontario orchards with Durum wheat, just so that Toronto has access to local grain as some advocates of localism might suggest. In terms of both cultivar suitability and achieving ecologies of scale, those Saskatchewan farms should produce wheat, which is then delivered by train to places like Toronto.

Another issue is that many of the options available to small farmers remain capital intensive. A visit to an artisanal goat-cheese maker, with hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in state-of-the-art equipment, brings this home. The product from the operation is very tasty, and gentle on both the land and animals, but costs can only be recouped by selling the cheese at a hefty price in niche markets. Finally, is it fair to expect our farmers to become full-time marketers in order to keep afloat small operations dependent on direct relations with customers?

In “Saving the Land that Feeds Us,” an article published in Alternatives, (34:3, 2008), Stew Hilts listed a number of strategies to keep land in agriculture, ranging from land trusts to paying farmers for ecological goods and services. Two other options that recognize the benefits and challenges of scale are described below.

It is important to rethink policies that systematically discriminate against small farms. BC’s new meat regulation is an example. It requires farmers who have traditionally slaughtered on the farm and sold meat directly to the public to send their animals to provincially or federally inspected abattoirs. Such a policy may be appropriate for large-scale operations, for which E. coli or listeria outbreaks can be catastrophic – witness the recent Maple Leaf case that affected deli-meat consumers across Canada – but may be inappropriate for small producers. Those affected in BC are, in fact, reeling from the burden imposed on them by the new regulations just as the buy-local movement is taking off.

As a corollary, we need to develop commercial opportunities that give preference to smallholders when this route represents the more sustainable option. With fair trade sales growing at over 50 per cent per year in Canada, a good example is provided by the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). Despite pressures exerted by the entrance of large-volume buyers like Starbucks, FLO has decided that certified “fair trade” coffee will only come from small-scale operations, rather than from the large plantations that have historically marginalized these small growers.

Second, we need to design distribution systems that allow farms to achieve some of the benefits of growth without sacrificing other sustainability gains. The UK’s food-box schemes, which are scaled-up from the CSA model, offer a possibility. One of the UK’s largest food-box operations, Riverford Organics, puts a semi-truck on the road every 45 minutes, delivering fruits and vegetables directly to 100,000 customers in regional hubs. Eighty per cent of the produce comes from small- and mid-sized farms, with the remainder comprised of imported fruit during the off-season. Prices are kept competitive with conventional supermarket produce because all the boxes in a region provide the same assortment of fruit and vegetables. This means that the producers can efficiently move everything they grow, reducing waste and costs compared to similar farms locked into supermarket contracts.

Along these same lines, we need to reaffirm our commitment to policies that allow mid-sized farms to remain viable, despite the challenges they may pose for their smaller cousins. Consider Canada’s provincial milk marketing pools. These structures are legitimately criticized as barriers to entry for small producers, because of the high cost of “quota” (the right to sell milk into the pool). However, these systems pay farmers in relation to their costs of production without relying on direct government subsidies. The result is reasonable farm sizes – from an ecological and social perspective – and regionalized production and distribution. In the US, where dairy is not managed in this way, farms are considerably bigger and their heavy product is trucked nationwide.

In farming, small is beautiful, but it has limitations. Policy makers mustn’t repeat the error in BC, whereby the meat regulation did not adequately account for its impact on small-scale operators. New policies mustn’t be premised too heavily on the assertion that small is always better. Eating locally, as 100-mile dieters are proving, will help small-scale farmers, but it is only part of what is required to adequately address the world’s agricultural dilemmas.

When he is not teaching environmental politics at Carleton University in Ottawa, Peter Andrée grows organic vegetables in Wakefield, Quebec.