Bigger isn’t always better, and the techniques of Big Ag have taken the romance out of farming for many who grow our food. Not to say that farming isn’t fraught with its own challenges – strange weather, insect infestations, and a considerable learning curve – but at the Organic Farm School a new generation is bringing organic, small-scale farming back to life in ways it hasn’t been allowed to thrive for perhaps a century.
This and other non-profits and activist groups are teaching people how, even from urban areas, to hoe a row, plant seeds at the most optimum time, and how to fix a broken-down tractor. As our elders pass this information to younger generations, we are ensuring that our food sovereignty continues. Indeed, small-scale, diversified farming is seeing a resurgence it hasn’t experienced for a long time, with often surprising participants.
Even an NFL player has turned down a $37 million-dollar-contract to happily dirty his hands in farming.
The Hands On Approach
While you can read about how to garden or farm in a book, or even watch Youtube video, nothing substitutes hands-on learning. Without direct experience from farmers who have seen the ins and outs of the farming lifestyle, it is difficult to succeed. It is a much larger venture than just growing an 8 X 8 garden, even on the ‘small-scale.’
Another possibility for the new farmer is the micro-farm. The practice is similar to larger farm endeavors, using some of the very same practices, such as composting, rainwater harvesting, and even vermiculture, but on a smaller scale. This isn’t a new practice at all – it’s been around for centuries, but as more people observe the failures of the Big Ag farming model, they are turning to smaller scale farming and growing ample food for their families and communities.
Problems with Big Ag and Biotech
Just some of the problems that have arisen from the corporate farming model are as follows:
- Biotech leads the way with issues that affect our food supply on a global scale. While they have promised higher yields and efficient distribution systems, they have given us instead, disease-causing foods, environmentally damaging pesticides and herbicides, and corporate dominancy of the entire farming practice by monopolizing seed markets.
- Big Ag farming concentrates the market-share among a small handful of companies, removing price discipline along the supply chain through vertical integration, resulting in uncompetitive markets that ultimately hurt consumers and farmers equally.
- Big Ag creates environmental disaster through GM variety crops, namely through excessive pesticide use, soil erosion, monoculture, and the concentration of animal waste. The USDA estimates that over 335 million tons of “dry matter” waste (the portion of waste remaining after water is removed) is produced annually on farms in the United States, representing almost a third of the total municipal and industrial waste produced annually.
- Big Ag farming models threaten the intellectual property rights of local and organic producers via biopiracy and the patenting of indigenous crop varieties, while cross-pollination of non-GM crops can scarcely be avoided.
- Big Ag puts the small farmer out of business – ON YOUR TAX DOLLAR. In developing countries, millions of people rely on farming as a means to support themselves and their families, yet they increasingly find they cannot compete with million–dollar trade deals and the subsidies which give land-rights to corporations instead of the small farmer.“According to the Wall Street Journal, between 2005 and 2008, taxpayers provided fossil fuel producers–oil, coal, and gas companies–$72.5 billion dollars in subsidies and tax breaks. During the same period taxpayers subsidized “alternative” fuel producers to the tune of $29 billion dollars–$16 billon of that for ethanol.”What did small farmers get in subsidies to grow healthy, non-toxic food? I’ll give you a hint – it doesn’t end in lots of zeros, or the word ‘billion.’
- Big Ag farming gives lobbyists control over our food supply. The American Farm Bureau Federation – just one of the many politically savvy groups determining the outcomes of our food on Capital Hill – has spent more than $2.6 million with 37 lobbyists actively pushing the Big Ag model along with biotech. Others with big influence include the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Milk Producers Federation, the National Corn Growers Association, and more.
- Agribusiness is given privileged access to international trade agreements and exporting, often at the expense of local, small-scale, sustainable growers.
Conversely, according to the Benson Institute, a single hectare of land (about 2.5 acres) can provide all of the food for a family, including the fodder for their animals, and a cash crop as well. Is this something the biotech industry and Big Ag are worried about becoming popular again?
Micro-farming has been somewhat difficult to start in some areas as local ordinances and obscene laws crop up to tell home and landowners that they can’t farm on their own property! This isn’t stopping many people who understand they have the right to grow their own food and harvest their own rainwater without having to turn to commercial food and water streams at every juncture of their lives.
As people fight back when they are issued $500 fines for trying to grow vegetables on land they have paid for with hard work, or ordered to cease and desist starting a small chicken coup, we collectively establish our right to be self-sovereign.
Students learning small-scale farming learn about every aspect of running a diversified organic farm—first through classroom studies and then most importantly by getting their hands in the dirt. They begin on student farms, or apprentice for farms that are already commercially viable. Sometimes, they throw caution to the wind, buy a small piece of land (often even with help from friends and neighbors) and just dig in.
By learning soil science, organic insect ecology, and tractor mechanics, farm maintenance and budgeting, among other skills, they begin to experience success.
The Importance of Seed
One of the most important aspects any farmer can learn about his or her endeavor concerns seed cultivation and saving. As biotech continues to crowd-out indigenous and heirloom seeds, the act of organic seed cultivation becomes a radical act.
In the book ‘The Seed Underground, A Growing Revolution to Save Food,’ the author aptly points out that the “system is broken, and is not only destructive, but self-destructive.”
That is – until we unshackle ourselves from corporate farming methodologies and take growing food back to our roots. There’s a farmer in all of us – even if its one who only grows tomatoes and onions in a back-yard plot.
Dr. John Navazio, formerly of the Organic Seed Alliance, evaluates an escarole variety trial with participants of the 2014 Breeding Self-Pollinated Crops workshop at Greenbank Farm.