Big Ag, Small Farms, and Going Local

What local, sustainable eating boils down to is knowledge and choice.

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 12.36.39 PMNot long ago, on a postcard-perfect Sunday afternoon, I happened to be driving through the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Just south of James Madison University on Interstate 81, I decided to take a spur-of-the-moment detour.

Though Yankee by choice, I am a Southerner by birth, and thus know the area fairly well. I was driving with the windows down, taking the unencumbered opportunity to see (and smell) the miles and miles of rolling Virginia farmland. Much of it is highly industrialized and operates under the veritable Darth Vaderesque cloak known as “Big Agriculture.”

But there is a well-known family farm in this neck of the Virginia woods, too—one made famous by books such as Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and films such as “Food, Inc.” and “Fresh.” I decided to take a quick, unplanned detour and visit the place and soon found myself at Polyface, Inc.—the “farm of many faces” operated by Joel Salatin and the Salatin family.

The Ideal?

Approximately eight miles west of Staunton, Virginia, and not far from the interstate, the farm was easy to find. I quickly recognized it from photos I have seen. In a scene that appealed to both my artistic and sustainable-agriculture sensibilities, the long white buildings and the tall white farmhouse served as a beautiful aesthetic contrast to the farm’s green fields and the Blue Ridge Mountains that rise behind them.

I didn’t stay very long, nor did I try to meet any of the Salatin family or tour the farm’s famously transparent operation. Polyface is open to anyone at anytime, and the Salatins are legendary for welcoming guests with their charming southern graces. There are no trade secrets, no locked doors, and every corner is camera-accessible. But I never felt the need to really explore the place. Something in me just needed to see it and take it in, particularly since today it is held up as a farm that models the non-industrial and sustainable ideal of food production.

Your food choices are your voice in the agriculture industry. And choice is how consumers can effect change.

And what is that ideal? According to the Polyface website, the farm’s mission is to develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world.

For obvious reasons, such a positive model of food production is a notion that has quickly caught on over the past several years, and passionate foodies, food cooperatives, organic growers, and family-farm activists have promoted similar ideas and concepts that are changing the way our society looks at its food and food sources. Today the First Family tends an organic garden on the South Lawn of the White House, books about the food industry are best-sellers, and concepts like “food miles” and “localvores” are more and more a part of the popular lexicon.

In short, in the minds of many, the tide is turning against Big Agriculture and turning toward the importance of humane, organic, and sustainable family farms and the pivotal role local-food networks could play in feeding the people of our planet without doing so at the planet’s expense. Darth Vader is on the ropes. The Polyface ideal is the planet-wide ideal, too.

Well, maybe.

The Not-So-Ideal Ideal?

If a world filled with—and fed by—a network of Salatin-like farms sounds like Shangri-La and a bit too good to be true, it may be because it is. There are critics of the whole idea, and not all of those pointing out the problems are from Big Agriculture.

In a groundbreaking report still cited today, Mother Jones, the famed magazine devoted to hard-hitting journalism and progressive socio-political ethics, outlined some of the challenges facing the current idealized notion of feeding the world through a vast network of local farms and small-scale food producers. The results are thought-provoking for even the most Pollyanna of sustainable-agriculture activists.

In a nutshell, the magazine reported that widespread food production simply isn’t an easy undertaking, and many of the familiar models of sustainable agriculture won’t work on the scale necessary to feed billions of people across the globe. In addition, the environmental benefit of local food and small-farm networks is also much more complex than it might seem on the surface:

At the Co-op, the idea of a local-focused life is often touted as a paragon of environmental virtue.

In theory, locally grown foods have traveled shorter distances and thus represent less fuel use and lower carbon emissions—their resource footprint is smaller. And yet, for all the benefits of a local diet, eating locally doesn’t always translate into more sustainability. Because the typical farmers market is supplied by dozens of different farms, each transporting its crops in a separate van or truck, a 20-pound shopping basket of locally grown produce might actually represent a larger carbon footprint than the same volume of produce purchased at a chain retailer, which gets its produce en masse, via large trucks.1

At the Co-op, the idea of low food miles and living a local-focused life is often touted as a paragon of environmental virtue. It’s an idea that not only makes sense to me, but is also advocated by a wide variety of sources within the cooperative world—including our own co-op’s sustainability coordinator.

But given all the points raised in the Mother Jones report and a wide variety of other sources, could it be true that the living-local model may not be the ideal that it seems to be?

“What sustainable eating boils down to is knowledge and choice,” said Amanda Charland, Co-op Director of Outreach and Member Services and sustainability guru. “You have a better chance of making a sustainable decision when you choose local foods from farms that you know.”

Your food choices are your voice in the agriculture industry, Amanda added. And choice, she emphasized, is how consumers can effect change.

“Sure there are unique benefits to Big Ag’s mass production of food, but there are also undeniable environmental, social, and economic consequences,” Amanda said. “If we continue to make choices that show producers we are interested in more sustainable and trustworthy agriculture, then we will continue to create a better system.”

A Hopelessly Confused Sense of Hopefulness

So where does all this leave us? For me—admittedly far from an expert on any of these matters—it leaves me more than a little confused, even a smidgen disheartened, and yet nonetheless hopeful about it all. (Still Pollyanna after all these years.)

Returning to the metaphor of my artistic sensibilities, my wiring is often based more on gut feeling rather than rigid analysis. A work of art may break every rule in the book, but if it still feels and looks right, you go with it. Standing on Salatin’s land that day and thinking about the future, the farm and the goals it works for each day just felt right compared to what’s happening in the factory farms just a few miles up the interstate.

Gut feeling may be a dangerously simplistic approach to such important issues, but even if the trend toward sustainable agriculture is simply an experimental and noble detour—similar in concept to the one I took that Virginia Sunday—my gut feeling is that it is still one well worth the taking. The road ahead may not be easy, and the journey may prove to be far more complex and potentially problematic than it might seem on the surface. But isn’t the destination worth it?

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Ken Davis

Ken Davis

Ken is a writer in the Co-op Outreach Department. Email him at kdavis@coopfoodstore.com.