The Scoop

Landship Foods is inspired by the conviction that growing and eating healthy food is one of the most important things we can do for both ourselves and the broader communities of which we are a part. The name comes from the language of pre-industrial Europe. Before the enclosure movement and the associated rise in notions of private property swept England, the suffix “-ship” (as in "relationship," or "friendship") referred to an object or an abstraction with collective duties and mutual rights. Thus, the term “landship” suggests that land was an entity through which humans were joined to each other by a set of rights and responsibilities. I advocate for a revival of this awareness.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Paradox of Small-Scale Agriculture

I am obviously a supporter of efforts to improve modern agriculture, under whatever label: organic, local, traditional,... I think it important to qualify these distinctions at times, but sometimes I get tired of those conversations and just boil it down to scale: I think agriculture must before all else be responsible, and this is easiest when done at a reasonable scale. All this said, I think most responsible agriculture also faces its own paradox of scale.

Small scale agriculture, although loudly opposed to the globalization of food, is in many ways itself a global system. Even in extremely "local" situations, where food is grown right outside of town and you pick it up yourself, there is often a significant "industrial" and "global" component. How can this be so? Most "small-scale" vegetable production in America today is a 21st century variant of mixed husbandry. Mixed husbandry as it was practiced in, say, 18th century New England, was the practice of setting aside different parcels of land for fodder production, vegetable production, grazing, and wood harvesting. As Brian Donahue shows in his masterful book The Great Meadow, when implemented wisely, this could be a very sustainable practice. Essentially, the animal manure provides the fertility for vegetable production. Of course, small-scale and "local" vegetable growers of today must also amend their soils to maintain its fertility, and most of them use organic methods. Just as in 18th century New England, animals are often the best sources of organic fertilizers. Most farmers (and backyard organic gardeners) today, however, order bags of bone meal and blood meal or bottles of fish emulsion. These amendments are exactly what they sound like: the by-products of industrial animal processing. Thus, most local, small-scale vegetable farming is indeed a global system of mixed husbandry.

I know this because the farms I have worked on and visited in Georgia do so, and the same goes for New Mexico. When I started planting here this summer, I thought I was faced with the choice of using synthetic fertilizers, blood meal and fish emulsion, or just not planting. I have never been a purist, so I chose the organic fertilizers. They were affordable, but using them made me uneasy. When one realizes that these by-products are inexpensive for the same reason that the products are (mainly industrial "efficiencies"), they might seem less attractive. No doubt they are a better choice than synthetic fertilizers, but how much better? I am still unsure.

I insist that I am not being impractical or overly-rigid, however. I just think it important to ponder this matter. Really, this question reminds me of the history of recycling in America. As Susan Strasser shows in her book on the subject, Waste and Want, recycling did not begin as a reaction to the waste of modern consumption, but actually provided the raw materials central to the birth of many industries. In the same way, it is not entirely accurate to see local and small-scale agriculture as a form of production outside of, or entirely counter to, the larger industrial and global system. It is just as embedded in the global, industrial era as it is a reaction to these trends. Local agriculture cannot escape its historical moment, and we must come to terms with this.

Does all of this thinking get us anywhere? I think so. I think it highlights the importance of using all of our near-by resources, even if it is "organic" and affordable to do otherwise. It is ridiculously easy to buy a gallon of fish emulsion and spray it on your plants, just as easy as getting a bag of 10-10-10. But just as the price on the bag of 10-10-10 does not represent the true costs of the fertilizer, the affordability of the fish emulsion does not represent its true cost either. For an agricultural system dependent on cheap industrial animal wastes is only slightly more stable than one dependent on cheap fossil fuels. Perhaps the best answer is to work hard to source local manure, and then work even harder to compost it well. If your plants still aren't growing fast enough or big enough for the "local" market demand, raise the price instead of lowering the standards.

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