What makes a farm sustainable? Hint: Size doesn't matter

Suzy Friedman

Adapted from a post first published on EDF’s Growing Returns blog.

When it comes to sustainable farming, the reality is that “big” does not equate to “bad,” and “small” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” In fact, it’s the wrong debate altogether.

Arguing about a farm’s size won’t deliver environmental benefits. In the end, it’s all about performance – not size.

Milking 500 cows an hour - sustainably

Take Christine Hamilton, for example, whose family farm produces corn, soybeans, winter wheat and cattle across 14,000 acres in South Dakota. For years, she’s been participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s conservation programs, using no-till practices, planting trees to limit erosion, and using technology to improve the environment and her yields.

There are also places such as Fair Oaks Farms, which milks more than 500 cows – an hour. To make its large operation more sustainable, Fair Oaks pumps methane from livestock to an on-site natural gas station that compresses it into fuel for the farm’s fleet of 40 milk trucks.

Many small-farm operations implement sustainable practices as well. A perfect example is Full Belly Farm, a 400-acre organic farm in Northern California that won last year’s prestigious Leopold Conservation Award.

But I’ve also visited small farms where livestock roam freely into streams, soil erosion destroys riverbanks and nutrient management plans are nonexistent.

Farms of every size should pitch in

In the United States, agriculture already occupies 51 percent of our land, uses 80 percent of our water and is responsible for 8 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. And in the coming decades, we are looking to U.S. farms to produce even more food.

To make agriculture a plus for the environment, farm practices will need to change.

Of course, we have to keep in mind the context here. Mid-size and large-scale family farms account for 8 percent of U.S. farms, but 60 percent of the value of production. So to bring sustainable agriculture to scale, we are counting on them to do the bulk of the work.

But small farms have a much higher share of production for specific commodities. They account for 56 percent of domestic poultry production, for example, so we’ll need their leadership, too.

If we’re going to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population, farms of all sizes and operational styles will have to minimize their impacts on the natural systems that sustain us all. Fortunately, many of the farms and farmers I’ve worked with are up to the task.

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