The Small-Minded, Small Farm Conundrum

Small is beautiful, said E.F. Schumacher to the world in 1973, but that declaration in itself was no small idea. Many people understood the implications of his work then, as they do now . . . except, it would seem, for those who have the power to make the big changes for which Schumacher advocated. One wonders if his ideas and efforts suffered from a basic, long-term marketing and communications problem.

I wonder that about our situation today in the sustainable agriculture community as well.  Our ideas are not small in any way, but we end up time and time again arguing our case primarily on the basis of size.  It almost seems we have replaced the “get big or get out” mantra of industrial agriculture with “get small or get lost,” resulting in an ineffective, elitist brand of policy formulation that leaves us far from the broad-based respectability and progressive goals we would like to achieve.

Nowhere is this more evident than in our current work with the food safety issue. As avowed advocates for safe food, our overall goal is to move toward a risk-based, self-regulating system to accomplish what others would rather do with a top heavy, “search and destroy” method of tracking down pathogens and killing them wherever they exist.  Our emphasis on reducing risk is focused on bringing consumers closer and closer to the sources of their food over time, since such things as processing, handling, shipping and extended storage increase the opportunities for bad bugs to get into the food-stream and do their thing. This is a fundamentally positive approach that is supported both by science and commonsense, and would tend to boost local economic strength in addition to preserving human health.

Notice there is nothing in my description of a risk-based approach regarding “size” at all, with respect to either farms or food-related businesses.  That is not to say that scale of an operation is a nonissue, since management challenges and opportunities for error (i.e. risk) will increase with the size of any farm or food facility. What’s worse, once any business gets so big that an inordinate chunk of its constituents become over-dependent on its ongoing existence, regardless of relative risk or success, then we really have a problem, e.g. banks that are “too big to fail.” But size alone seems not to be the primary driver of risk.  Rather, such factors as time, distance and system complexity are the most immediate keys to controlling risk, and that would make local and regional food systems a critical part of any effective national food safety strategy.

So why is it that almost none of us involved in this movement can talk about the advantages of sustainable systems in agriculture without extolling the virtues of small farms as the apparent top priority and usually the first thing that comes out of our mouths? It’s like a mental plow furrow that is difficult to avoid once you enter the field. I stand guilty as charged, as much as anyone else.  I’ve tried, and it really is quite difficult to have a conversation with any lawmaker without resorting to the “small farm defense strategy,” even as the conversation gets filed under “small ideas” in the mind of the listener. I assert that such small talk also has a negative effect on the motivation and effectiveness of the speaker as well.

That is the conundrum . . . how do we talk about the big ideas of sustainable agriculture without unnecessarily turning the discussion to the plight of small farms? After all, it’s really not possible to talk about achieving sustainability in the form of a regional (or even local) food system without assuming the scalability of sustainable farming methods and diversity of farms in terms of size.  This is true despite the fact that we also might very well take issue with the unsustainable farming methods used on various agricultural operations, large and small.

And we do have some really big ideas to share.  All of the following are, to my mind, within the grasp of our society, not only to understand, but to achieve:

  • Science can be restored to its rightful practice of searching for the principles by which nature works, rather than chasing after the latest technological profit-making schemes.
  • Large watershed areas, such as those associated with the Chesapeake Bay or Mississippi River, can be healed in terms of the environment, economy and human health by simply matching the agricultural productivity of the region with nutritional needs of its residents as a necessary starting place.
  • The growing world population can be fed in a more just, efficient and healthful way by a vast network of farms and businesses serving local and regional markets wherever the people happen to live.
  • We can minimize the risk associated with eating food of any kind by maximizing the biodiversity and health of the entire system, from the ground up.
  • Ultimately, we could begin the long road back to normalcy in terms of the effects of human civilization on the climate of our planet, which is really a more subtle strategy for achieving worldwide economic stability and peace on Earth as well. 

There is nothing in this list we could not, or should not aim to achieve, while also assuring the critical role of rural culture and farms of all sizes at the core of the process.  But we will not get there if fixated on upholding an abstract and often elitist ideal of small farm success in isolation from the concomitant success of diverse “neighbors” also participating in our local and regional food networks.

Within the sustainable farming community, small may indeed be beautiful, but there is nothing small about our dreams and aspirations for life as we know it, and we should not represent them as such.

5 thoughts on “The Small-Minded, Small Farm Conundrum

  1. Pingback: Fortnightly Feast – vol. 7 | Nourishing Ontario

  2. This is excellent, Brian. We in ‘the movement’ do well to reflect on our own biases, as you have aptly pointed out. Here’s to breaking down the scale barriers and working with farmers at all scales to make meaningful change in our food and agricultural system. I also think your list of big ideas is spot on!

  3. Great post, Brian! I really thought about this over the weekend.
    I work in agricultural education, farm-based education, ag advocacy with the Maryland Ag Ed Foundation. I work across disciplines, with everyone from legislators to government agencies, to K-12 teachers and their students, to foodie groups and the farmers themselves. My biggest obstacle at the legislative and special interest group levels is the language and concepts of sustainable agriculture and what this represents to different audiences.
    It is assumed, on the whole, that sustainable agriculture equates organic agriculture (which carries it’s own baggage), that small farms are somehow less productive, and that industrial or the Big A is somehow associated with the devil himself. How hard it is to have a productive conversation about improving our regional food systems when preconcieved and ill-concieved understandings block creative and progressive forward momentum for making our region self-sustaining, healthy, and robust – ecologically and economically.

  4. Small becomes big by cumulative effect–think velcro or flimsy blades of grass wrapping around your mower blade. Perhaps a shift in focus from the small farm to the big effect of many small farms would be useful in the conversation, especially with lawmakers.

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