About Small-Scale Farming

A SPIN Farm, photo courtesy of Keystone Edge
Photo courtesy of Keystone Edge

Where is the nearest farm to you? Do you picture it hundreds of miles away, or do you pass it on the highway half an hour outside of town? Is it in a field on the outskirts of the suburbs? On an empty city block? In your neighbor's backyard? One of the biggest myths about farming is that it only takes place in rural settings, on large plots of land, and with just a few crops in cultivation. Small-scale intensive farming doesn't require large acreage, allows for the cultivation of multiple crops and livestock, and can take place right in your community. Agriculture is something that we believe should happen everywhere, even in your own backyard.

Why? The average distance that food travels from farm to consumer in the United States is 1,500 miles, and much that we value is lost in supporting the type of agriculture that ships its products across these distances. Large-scale agricultural production, the kind that takes place far from the closest community and sells to companies even farther away, can lead to problems with soil infertility, water shortages, water pollution, and food security issues. Rural communities are often crippled by food insecurity, even while they are surrounded by farmland, because the crops being grown in those fields aren't being grown for their lunch bags or dinner tables.

But there's more—flavor and nutrition content are sacrificed when produce is bred for withstanding long-distance travel and is harvested before ripening so that it makes the trip in one piece. Nutrition is often processed out of the products you find wrapped in plastic or sealed in aluminum on the grocery store shelves. And we will likely never meet the people who profit from this long-distance food system. When we spend a dollar in our local grocery stores on food produced on the other side of the country, or even the other side of world, that's a dollar that a local farmer didn't get—a dollar that that local farmer didn't spend in the café where you make coffee, or in the shoe store your parents own, or on the kids' guitar lessons that your brother teaches.

A SPIN Farm, photo courtesy of spinfarming.com
Photo courtesy of SPIN-Farming

The concept of farming is changing. Only since World War II has agriculture been industrial like this. Now, farming is moving back to communities, back into cities and towns across America. Small-scale agriculture, the kind that fits in your backyard, the vacant lots in your neighborhood, and the fields on the outskirts of town, can bring local food back to our communities. This means fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes, sweet carrots, and maybe even broccoli and spinach you actually love. It means helping your neighbors help you. It means farm products that taste good and are good for you, good for the local economy, and good for the local environment. SIFT is helping shift the concept of farming away from something foreign that only happens in distant fields with center pivots along the highway, to something that you play a part in and that happens in your community. Even with just a small plot of land, you can help shrink the distance and bring the community focus of agriculture back to life.

Sustainable Agriculture

Small-scale farming is a natural outgrowth of sustainable agriculture, which is essentially agriculture that produces abundant food without depleting the earth's resources or polluting its environment. It is agriculture that follows the principles of nature to develop systems for raising crops and livestock that are, like nature, self-sustaining. Sustainable agriculture is also the agriculture of social values, one whose success is indistinguishable from vibrant rural communities, rich lives for families on the farms, and wholesome food for everyone. But in the early 21st Century, sustainable agriculture, as a set of commonly accepted practices or a model farm economy, is still in its infancy—more than an idea, but only just.

Although sustainability in agriculture is tied to broader issues of the global economy, declining petroleum reserves, and domestic food security, its midwives were not government policy makers but small farmers, environmentalists, and a persistent cadre of agricultural scientists. These people saw the devastation that late 20th-Century farming was causing to the very means of agricultural production—the water and soil—and so began a search for better ways to farm, an exploration that continues to this day.

The NCAT SPIN Farm
The SIFT Demonstration Farm at NCAT

Conventional 20th-Century agriculture took industrial production as its model, and vertically-integrated agri-business was the result. The industrial approach, coupled with substantial government subsidies, made food abundant and cheap in the United States. But farms are biological systems, not mechanical ones, and they exist in a social context in ways that manufacturing plants do not. Through its emphasis on high production, the industrial model has degraded soil and water, reduced the biodiversity that is a key element to food security, increased our dependence on imported oil, and driven more and more acres into the hands of fewer and fewer "farmers," crippling rural communities.

In recent decades, sustainable farmers and researchers around the world have responded to the extractive industrial model with ecology-based approaches, variously called natural, organic, low-input, alternative, regenerative, holistic, Biodynamic, biointensive, and biological farming systems. All of them, representing thousands of farms, have contributed to our understanding of what sustainable systems are, and each of them shares a vision of "farming with nature," an agro-ecology that promotes biodiversity, recycles plant nutrients, protects soil from erosion, conserves and protects water, uses minimum tillage, and integrates crop and livestock enterprises on the farm.

But no matter how elegant the system or how accomplished the farmer, no agriculture is sustainable if it's not also profitable, able to provide a healthy family income and a good quality of life. Sustainable practices lend themselves to smaller, family-scale farms. These farms, in turn, tend to find their best niches in local markets, within local food systems, often selling directly to consumers. As alternatives to industrial agriculture evolve, so must their markets and the farmers who serve them. Creating and serving new markets remains one of the key challenges for sustainable agriculture.

Adapted from the ATTRA publication Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction by Richard Earles, NCAT program specialist. For more practical information on how to achieve sustainability, follow the above link.

For a more in-depth look at the principles of sustainable agriculture, see the ATTRA publication Applying the Principles of Sustainable Farming.