As I think I've mentioned before, I originally planned to write a blog about food and agricultural policy and then realized that a food blog was what I really wanted to write. But every once in a while, I come across something that I feel compelled to mention.
Today's case in point? George Monbiot's article from The Guardian about the productivity of small farms. Anthropological studies of small farmers have shown this to be true over and over again: per unit of land, small farms are more productive than large farms. It is true even when you look at the very same farmers; if a farmer has access to lots of land, that farmer will grow less food per unit of land than if the same farmer has limited access to land. In areas of highly restricted land availability, farmers plant multiple crops in the same space during the year, grow plants closer together, and find other ways to increase their harvests.
And -- this is key -- they virtually always do this without depleting the productivity and fertility of the land. Usually, this is because they integrate both animals and plants in one system, using the animal manures to keep up soil fertility. Anyone who has read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma is familiar with some of the ways this can be done. But his Virginia farmer is just one example of the immense creativity of people who are working to feed their families off the land.
What Monbiot does not really touch on is that there are cultural downfalls of large-scale farming as well as the agricultural and environmental woes. When newspapers talk about towns on the Great Plains dwindling down to 15 or 20 elderly residents, or disappearing altogether, a lot of it is the result of increased farm size. In a county where two or three hundred farms have been consolidated into two or three farms, run with very little human labor because of machinery, there aren't many families needed.
Most foodies don't need reminders to support local, small farms. Unfortunately, many others do need not only reminding, but convincing. Superior productivity -- and production of actual food products, not commodities -- is yet another reason to buy from local farmers whenever possible.