The Case for Sustainable Local Farming
How a return to working the land could be the answer to the question everyone is asking
By CHRIS CUMO
Special Contributor, Allegany Magazine
Among its effects, COVID-19 idled workers, who—as in earlier downturns—visited charities for canned beans and boxes of macaroni and cheese. Because pandemics, recessions, and similar events affect nearly everyone, it might be time to start a new conversation about an age-old practice. A conversation about how we live, work, and eat in uncertain times and to outline a vision for how we might do all three sustainably.
This vision proposes to achieve sustainability through a nationwide network of organic farms, which might extend to every community that wants one. Government might partner with businesses to fund the enterprise, but where the private sector supplies little or no money. Local, state, federal, or a combination of agencies should shoulder the cost.
Misers might oppose this undertaking, though most communities manage to support a public library without provoking a backlash against the expense. Moreover, we created on a national scale in the past. In 1862, for example, Congress passed the Morrill Act, giving every state public land to endow at least one agricultural and mechanical college. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for instance, lists eight such colleges and universities in Montana. This success should prompt us to act as boldly now as we did then.
Schools, churches, parks, and prisons could even start their own farms. Any neglected land would better serve its neighborhood as farmland than as sanctuary for rodents and kindred pests. Although populous cities might seem unpromising, workers need only demolish abandoned buildings to free land for cultivation. History again provides a model. When a depression eliminated jobs in 1894, Detroit mayor Hazen Pingree opened derelict land to anyone who would grow potatoes and other vegetables.
The urban farm continues his legacy. In one initiative among many, Bryan, Texas business and technology firm Advent GX has since 2004 grown cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower on land once vacant. Restaurants serve this bounty, and students tour the farms to witness sustainability’s beauty and benefits.
Using data from May 2021, the U.S. Labor Department announced in June that roughly 9.3 million Americans were unemployed. Perhaps 22 million are underemployed. If 85 percent of workers dislike their job, as a Gallup poll suggests, then the number of potential community farmworkers must be enormous.
Such variability warrants the establishment of many farms where unemployment and underemployment are large and persistent and fewer where problems are less severe. In this way the number of jobs would roughly match the demand for work. Where numerous farms are needed to absorb mass unemployment and underemployment, the scale of operations might grow to encompass land cropped to vegetables and legumes, hills devoted to fruit and nut trees, pasture for laying and meat hens, and ponds for aquaculture. Cattle’s emission of methane, a greenhouse gas, makes them unsuitable for these initiatives.
Inclusion of chickens and fish would enhance sustainability by supplying manure for cropland. In Austin, Texas, for example, Texas Sunshine Community Gardens have roughly 40 hens on their 3 acres. These birds produce some 2.6 tons of manure yearly, enough to fertilize about half an acre.
Returning to labor, a few enthusiasts – students and inmates at prisons -- might volunteer, but for others, this could provide jobs. Thomas Jefferson did not exaggerate in calling farmers “the chosen people of God.” Of the first seven U.S. presidents—including Jefferson—only John Quincy Adams did not farm. America’s oldest farm organization, the Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, counted George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Payne among its first members. A national network of organic farms would honor our origin as an agricultural powerhouse.
It should also be noted that farming and farm work is not for everyone. Farm work is not easy. And not everyone relishes physical labor. Dislike of such tasks does not negate this proposal, however, because those who want sedentary jobs should apply elsewhere. A living wage might overcome some resistance to hard work. Another option, one that policymakers have debated, would rely on government to mandate a year or two of national service. Work on a community farm might satisfy this requirement, if ever enacted.
But farm labor should not be stigmatized as so undesirable that compulsion is necessary to secure employees. Proponents must emphasize that exertion is not punishment. Physical labor through the use of tools rather than machines would not only improve workers’ strength and stamina but would reduce reliance on fossil fuels—which worsen climate change—thereby enhancing sustainability. Savings might be large given Colorado State University’s estimate that an average tractor burns more than seven gallons of gasoline or diesel per hour, the amount depending on the load and task. Physical labor also would lessen chronic diseases.
Conceived in this way, community farms would promote work and self-reliance. Although paid by government, business, or both, laborers would bring the venture to fruition through their efforts. Sweat equity would entitle them to make all important decisions about farm and harvest. Workers would take pride in their efforts, earn a living wage, own the local, nutritious food they grow, and decide how to distribute it. They might keep some for themselves and their families, sell another portion, and donate the rest. Local decision making and the cooperative nature of work would strengthen communal ties at a time when social cohesion, amid a pandemic and unrest, is desperately needed.
Besides these benefits, a community would eat local organic food. Michigan State University avers that such sustenance is more nourishing, tastier, and safer than agribusiness’ produce. Considering only flavor, nobody who has savored a ripe garden tomato prefers the megafarm’s imposters.
Reliance on local organic food would reduce dependence on produce trucked long distances and warehoused before sale. The contrasts between local and faraway and between organic and industrial explain why natural, nearby edibles are healthier, more nutritious, tastier, and safer. A local economy, supported by abundant local food, would save transit costs, reducing demand for fossil fuels. Through local production, we would spurn unsustainable energy, breathe cleaner air, use safer water, and eat fresher, more wholesome fare. In sum, sustainable local farms—worked and managed by an area’s inhabitants—would help build durable, resilient communities worldwide.
Could it work in Allegany County, Maryland? This idea already has – on smaller levels – and those ideas, practices, and success stories a of local sustainable farms that exist here – like at the Evergreen Heritage Center and Savage Mountain Farms – just to name two – could serve as the models for all others to follow.