A Small Farmer’s Thoughts on Decentralizing the Food Chain – How Sustainability Is a Conservative Principle

The current Covid-19 pandemic has awakened Americans from a cushy slumber with the revelation that their comfortable existences have left them unprepared for real world events – even predictable ones. As the famous (and infamous) Professor of Risk Engineering at NYU, and professional curmudgeon and author, Nassim Taleb, has vehemently objected to referring to this pandemic as a “Black Swan” since it was wholly predictable. The big wake-up call for me happened while walking through the grocery story just last week. Where’s the beef? No, seriously, where is it?

There’s no shortage of cows that I can see out here in rural North Carolina. Obviously, we have introduced some fragility into the system by creating a bottleneck in processing. One guy on the meat packing line shows positive for Covid-19 and things start to shut down. Incidentally, this centralized, factory farming model is exactly how e-coli and salmonella outbreaks occur. The very same federal Wholesome Meat Act that requires all beef and pork, plus any large quantity of poultry to be processed at USDA facilities has made it nearly impossible for small farms and abattoirs to process and sell retail cuts of meat. In fact, the law itself has led to a consolidation in meat processing such that the four largest beef processors control 80 percent of the country’s meat supply.

CSAs & Direct to Consumer Models: Robustifying the Food Chain

Small meat and produce farmers are having to find new revenue channels as restaurants have closed down, and grocery store sales have plummeted. Farmer’s market sales are on the rise as restrictions are eased on public spaces and market managers have implemented spacing and crowd flow precautions. The newest revenue model for some small farmers is really just an old one, the CSA. CSA is a confusing term. It stands for Community Supported Agriculture, originally started by an individual small farmer in a church group or a neighborhood who would collect funds up front for the seed, fertilizer, and labor costs in exchange for a share of the crops over a defined season. Usually, the CSA boxes were picked up on a set schedule at a central location. More modern CSA programs do farm to door delivery and other value added services. Full disclosure – my other job is implementing this model at Turner Family Farms. There are worthy aggregators who collect from regional farmers and provide similar services, but do not grow the produce themselves, and they are a godsend to a lot of small farmers.

Remember the Victory Garden? True Robustness = Grow Your Own

While there are limitations due to available space and climatic conditions, most homeowners can grow far more food than they might think. If you live in an apartment or condo, hydroponic gardening is not difficult and the lighting is so much cheaper than it once was. Greens, Sprouts, and Microgreens are healthy and nutritious crops that are easy to grow inside. If you have just a deck or patio, you might be amazed at how beautiful and productive a container garden can be with the judicious choice of compact varieties. Landlords would do well to keep this trend in mind and provide space, even rooftop space perhaps, for tenants to produce vegetables, lest they all start looking for rental homes in the suburbs.

For suburban homeowners, it’s not necessary to dig up your whole front yard and turn it into a for-profit garden/farm, though you can if your neighborhood covenants and zoning allow. In fact, even before the pandemic, there was a movement to do just this, started by “the urban farmer,” Curtis Stone. For those not willing or able to take it that far, it’s very possible to grow a lot of food with some simple edible landscaping principles in mind, such as, planting nut and fruit trees, leaving sufficient bed space for a succession of low annual crops, and even creating screening with trellised fruit vines instead of the ubiquitous and obnoxious privet hedges, photinia, and the like. If you’re willing to eat seasonally, instead of sticking to everything-all-the-time consumerism, you can learn to grow a lot of your own food at home. I’ll be posting information about suburban edible landscapes in the near future right here and at our farm blog.

Decentralizing The Food Chain

In the middle of writing this, I was upstaged by Joel Salatin’s appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast. Joel has a knack for upstaging other farmers, but, to his credit, he’s a good representative of the small farm/sustainable agriculture movement – and has been for decades. I wrote a bit here about his appearance on this very site. He even goes as far as to talk about the resurgence of home gardening – something we were already preaching and teaching.

Conservatives and Classical Liberals are big proponents of taking personal responsibility, and being self-sufficient. Producing food for yourself, your family, your neighbors, and your community very much fits this ideal. What I’ve noticed while attending the large sustainable agriculture conferences is that while the organic educators and many of the presenters tend to lean left of center politically, a large percentage of the attendees are (center-right) agricultural entrepreneurs interested in serving a more local market. They detest the top-down Federal guidelines and costs levied on them by corporate-captured regulators. Even those farmers who started out as “movement” farmers (left wing idealogues) often have a come-to-Jesus moment when the fruits of their hard work is hampered and diminished by the very same rules and regulations they previously championed.

For some good news on this front, check out my previous post on Joel Salatin, and, in particular take a look at, and support if you agree, the Prime Act 2020. It’s a good start to making common sense changes that will create a healthier and more robust food system.

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