Could farmers markets help turn Big Ag into sustainable ag?
Every summer since 2011, I’ve sold my organic veggies at a farmer’s market in Colorado. It gives me a chance to talk with people about how I grow food, and swap stories and recipes with them. It also lets me talk with kids about where their food comes from. My customers love all the healthy dishes they make with locally grown produce. I wish I could give them more.
The reason I can’t is simple: the prices are prohibitively high and the selection and access prohibitively low. While small-scale farming is marketed as a solution to the pollution, global warming, and soil erosion produced by industrial agriculture, it’s mostly a social phenomenon of young Americans going back to the land and trying to make a business out of growing food.
In my years as a farmer I’ve learned to recognize the elements that make it so hard for small growers to be successful. They include the lack of affordable land access near urban areas, hefty carrying costs thanks to expensive equipment needs, a steep learning curve, and the challenge of selling low-cost, low-margin products for only six to nine months a year. The result is necessarily high prices that allow market farmers like me to turn enough profit to keep our businesses alive. This means the majority of our crops are sold to people who can afford to pay extra for locally grown food, or to disadvantaged communities that rely on nonprofit support and donations.
While this can be discouraging, I believe there’s an opportunity for small farmers to make a real difference. Our products may be too expensive for widespread distribution. But by showing up every week in markets across the country - at last count roughly 8,600 farmers' markets were registered in USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory - we’re creating a demand for tastier products grown with fewer chemicals in rich soil, and this is where our power lies.
Americans can’t eat a farm experience. We need more calories than small, local farms can provide. But what if we applied the raised ecological consciousness generated by farmers’ markets toward growing another product, like grain, a huge source of the calories we consume every year?
Replacing short-term grains
Grain agriculture has been eroding fertile land for centuries. Even as modern agriculture allows farmers to pull greater yields of wheat, corn, and rice out of each acre, it’s destroying soil faster than we can replace it. Scientists estimate the world has less than sixty years left of topsoil.
For 10,000 years we have been in “an elegant trap,” says Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas. Farming has at once allowed for the success of our species and “created the conditions for our potential demise.” In his seminal collection of essays, Nature as Measure, he writes, “Do not try to improve on this patch of native prairie, for it will serve as your standard by which to judge your agricultural practices. There is no higher standard of your performance than the land and its natural community.”
The way out of this trap, says Jackson, is to farm by mimicking nature, like planting a variety of perennial grains. Perennials are deep-rooted, which allows them to conserve significantly more water and nutrients, and support and build healthy soil. Productive perennial grains would allow farmers to plant a crop once and harvest it for many years without having to till and replant. This allows more organic matter to build up in the soil, which in turn draws down global greenhouse gases and cools the planet.
We’re not there yet, but the newest variety of perennial rice already produces double the yield of annual rice in Southeast Asia. Perennial sorghum is producing a similar yield to annual sorghum in Western Africa. These grains comprise the significant majority of regional diets, and millions of acres of cropland can be saved with their widespread adoption. In the United States, Kernza, a perennial wheat developed by the Land Institute, has been gaining national recognition by forward-thinking chefs and brewers, though the yield isn’t impressive enough yet to take on industrialized wheat.
All I’m suggesting is that just now, as we’re considering a Green New Deal, perhaps we can push for a new Green Revolution as well. With enough money, there’s every reason to believe we can achieve dramatic results in large-scale production of perennial crops.
For my part, I will continue to grow food in a way that relies on few chemicals and sequesters carbon in the soil. I’ll also keep talking with my neighbors in hopes that shopping locally turns into a bigger movement that improves our food system, cooling the planet we all share.
Greg Veitch is a News Fellow and sustainable vegetable farmer in Colorado who is committed to growing food regeneratively. He’s a contributor to Growing Perennial Foods: A field guide to raising resilient herbs, fruits & vegetables, and Growing Good Food: A citizen’s guide to backyard carbon farming, both for sale on Stone Pier Press.