Creating Local Sustainable Farms

People living in the city are hungry for a sense of connection to their food source. They want to know who grows their food, and where, and how. If they have the opportunity to witness farmers acting as true stewards of the land—as Stephen and Gloria Decater do—it is a transformative experience. Once you see that kind of love for the land, it is impossible to see the relationship as a simple market exchange anymore. It is inevitable that we fall in love with them and their work. And what a blessing to reconnect to the source of life!

—Jessica Prentice, Bay Area Chef,
Locavore, Food Activist, and Author

If we are to have an ecologically, socially and financially healthy food system, we need to create more sustainable farms. Discussions of sustainability usually center on the important issue of preserving soil fertility. Without caring for the health of the land, farming certainly cannot be sustained over more than a few years. The ecological farming practices we use address not only soil fertility but also energy self-sufficiency through the use of renewable sources and conservation. However, social, cultural and economic viability are equally important but often overlooked topics when discussing how to create sustainable farms.

We believe agriculture must be community-based rather than market-based to be sustainable in the long run. In market-based farming, the farm gets a lower return than a community-based farm on its produce as a result of middle-man expenses. Even when selling at a farmer’s market and getting a retail price, the farmer has to absorb the marketing costs of getting the food to the market, spending time selling, taking back what didn’t sell, and getting to other markets to have enough sales overall. Additionally, a certain percentage (perhaps up to 20%) of the produce that is not cosmetic, even though it is perfectly good nutritionally, will not sell and will not r esult in income. A community-based farm, however, plans its production for a specific member community that pays its operating expenses. Thus, the community-based farm is in a position to achieve greater stability and reduced expenses.

Comparing Market-Based and Community-Based Farming

Crops planned for a variable and somewhat unknown market
Non-cosmetic produce is often discarded or devalued
No, or limited, opportunity for community participation
Producer carries all the risk
Cost of food based on current market rate, regardless of production sustainability
Success measured in terms of individual well-being
Farmer is alone and relies on own resources
Farmland is entirely in private ownership
Crops planned in specific quantity for a known member group
Even non-cosmetic produce has food value
Creates opportunity for community involvement and interaction
Risk shared by producer and consumers
Cost of food is based on actual costs of sustainable production
Success is measured in terms of the well-being of the whole community and the ecosystem
Farmer has support of consumers
All non-farming equity in the farmland is moved into nonprofit ownership

Although large, corporate farms are increasingly adopting organic farming practices, we do not believe they will be sustainable ultimately because the economic practices they use are not sustainable. Community-based farms, using associative economic principles, can heal some of the negative social aspects of market-based farming by organizing the farm as a community. In the present market-based relationship, we expect the farmer to invest time and capital to produce a crop for which there are no consumers committed to buy or use the product. Community Sustained Agriculture is an example of an associative relationship between farmer and consumers that better meets the needs of both and will be sust ainable. This direct, committed farmer-to-consumer relationship is much stronger than a market-based relationship; farmer and consumers work together to resolve adversities in a way that those in traditional commercial relationships will not.

Meets the needs of investors in the form of profit
Labor is a commodity sold to the highest bidder
Land is a salable commodity
Land usage rights owned privately with limited community oversight via state and federal law
Capital accrues to individuals without regulation

Includes partial costs of production on a short-term basis
Meets the needs of all parties: producer,consumer, and environment
Includes all costs of production on a long-term, sustainable basis
Labor as a creative expression of service
Needs are compensated by the community served
Land is a resource of the community
Farmer is steward of land preserved for sustainable farming in perpetuity through deed restrictions or
other community oversight
Capital is redirected by community to provide needed infrastructure

We may or may not have reached peak oil yet, but at some point the extraction of oil from the earth will reach its peak. We believe that after peak oil, the diminishing availability of fossil energy and the health risks of nuclear and coal will create major challenges to our present farming and food system and at the same time will create a real opportunity to build a truly sustainable system, one that is more local than global. For perspective, it is well to reflect that barely 100 years ago, until the early 1900s, in this country we did have a largely solar-based, localized farming and food system with hundreds of thousands of small horse-powered farms.

The diminishing availability of fossil energy will cause energy prices to rise. That in turn will cause the cost of food produced and distributed with fossil energy and industrial methods to rise also. Transporting farming inputs such as compost, feed, livestock, and energy and farm products to consumers over thousands of miles will no longer be viable. Individual farms will need to generate their inputs from their own land base (see Solar Electric and Horse Power) or in cooperation with adjacent farms, and will need to be located closer to the people consuming their food. Local, nonmechanized organic food production will then become as cost effective as industrialized, fossil energy based organic food.

In creating a more local sustainable agriculture, we will need to plan for an increased land base to create the compost and tillage energy required. This will present a real challenge for supplying urban and suburban communities with food since so much of the farmland close to those urban areas has fallen into the hands of developers over the past 100 years.

To get an idea of the proportions of land base to generation of farming inputs/needs, we can look at the example of Live Power Community Farm, which has approximately 50 acres of arable land and supplies 160 households with part of their food needs. Of the 50 acres:

– 6 acres of ground are used for vegetable growing
– 2 acres for feed grain
– 30 acres for hay and pasture
– 2 acres are devoted to buildings and orchard

The livestock complement for this land is:

– 6 herd cows/6 calves
– 8 ewes/12 lambs
– 4 draft horses
– 2 feeder pigs
– 40 laying hens

The manure from these animals and crop residues generates about 50 tons of compost a year, which are used primarily for maintaining fertility in the vegetable production. Small quantities of oyster shell lime and rock phosphate may need to be imported. The draft horses provide energy for soil tillage, cultivation, and transportation within the farm.