Big farm v. Small farm

| 06 Mar 2012 | 03:48

When it comes to keeping us fed and healthy, who does it best?

Big Farm Anyone who bites into a rock-hard California tomato in February and compares it to a sweet Jersey tomato in August quickly learns an indisputable truth: there are certain things large-scale agriculture can do, and certain things it can’t.

But what happens during a drought, or a flood, or a poor year for crops?

Remember the rice shortage of 2008? Most Americans don’t. Why? Because our ag and transport industries adapted so quickly that consumers hardly noticed. In fact, the only evidence of a rice shortage in our local grocery stores here in northern New Jersey was a brief limit of two 20-pound bags of rice per customer. And within two weeks, rice in our local stores was in oversupply and put on sale at 50% off. Remember: this was a shortage severe enough to cause food riots in some countries.

Admittedly, Big Food and Big Ag can be hilariously easy targets to criticize. To the most paranoid among us, they represent everything wrong with America today: Big Food makes irresistible snacks as part of a master plan to fatten us all up, while Big Ag secretly grows genetically modified produce, soaks it in e. coli for good measure, and then drives it cross-country in an orgy of fossil fuel consumption.

But this perception is parody, not reality. American consumers are reaping the benefits of a full-blown renaissance in local food. A truly robust food industry — one that can handle spot shortages, manage uncooperative regional weather, and adapt to the natural fluctuations of food production — needs to have both local and large-scale food production to work properly.

Daniel Koontz, of Morristown is the author of food blog

Small Farm Food doesn’t fit into the concept of economics of scale. A high production line of things like car parts is awesome, but a spark plug isn’t a living thing. It doesn’t need the same care as an eggplant or a chick.

A big farm tends to mono-crop. It makes money by growing a huge number of acres entirely of corn or wheat that can be planted, tended, and harvested by machines. It sounds really productive, but after all the fertilizer and machinery and equipment and labor, crops like that sell at low prices – pennies per acre. That’s a silly waste of resources. The small farms, with diverse planning, make a lot more money per acre. For example, small farms tend to intercrop so the same acre could be used for livestock as well as vegetables. Small farms tend to be creative and use the land they have intensely.

Small farmers are acutely aware of issues of erosion and depletion of minerals; they use less fossil fuel and create less pollution than factory farms. The equipment employed by the factory model and the long shipping distances take a toll on the environment.

Small farms create a diversity of green spaces. In this area, we have flower farms, herb farms, beef farms, grass-fed meat farms, egg farms, CSA farms, dairy farms, hay farms, pumpkin farms, apple orchards, and wineries.

The small farms in this area are brimming with beautiful, fluffy lettuces that make salads enjoyable – a far cry from the tasteless iceberg and leathery romaine in supermarkets. It is the food produced with care that will provide people with the ability to achieve their optimum weight and get healthier.

Barbara Taylor-Laino is an organic farmer of Midsummer Farm in Warwick.