When it comes to sustainable farms, size shouldn't matter

When it comes to sustainable farms, size shouldn't matter

Big carrot, little carrot
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Just as bigger produce isn't always tastier, small farms aren't always greener.

What comes to mind when you think of a “family farm”? You’re probably picturing a bucolic spread of less than 100 acres, with a red barn, farmer in overalls and cows grazing a big pasture. What about the phrase “corporate farm” or “big ag”? Do you see a giant, impersonal and industrial-looking operation?

Unfortunately, these common (mis)perceptions are regularly promoted in everything from TV ads to online chats. But the reality is that “big” does not equate to “bad,” and “small” doesn’t necessarily mean “good” when it comes to sustainable farming. In fact, it’s the wrong debate altogether.

What really matters is performance, not size.

If we’re to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population, we’ll need large and small farms alike. And no matter their size, they’ll need to minimize their impacts on the natural systems that sustain us all.

Addressing the myth

It’s a myth that large farms can’t be sustainable, just as it’s a myth that all family farms are small and better for the environment.

Take Christine Hamilton, whose family farm produces corn, soybeans, winter wheat and cattle across 14,000 acres in South Dakota. For years she’s been participating in USDA conservation programs, using no-till practices, planting trees to limit erosion and using variable rate technologies to improve the environment and her yields.

There are also places such as Fair Oaks Farms, which milks over 500 cows an hour. To make their large operation more sustainable, Fair Oaks pumps methane from its 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 Farms, a 400-acre organic farm in Northern California that won last year’s prestigious Leopold Conservation Award. But I’ve visited small farms where livestock roam freely into streams, soil erosion destroys riverbanks and nutrient management plans are nonexistent.

Sharing responsibility

In the U.S., 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. In the coming decades, U.S. farms will be responsible for producing even more food. In order to make agriculture a plus for the environment, farm practices will need to change.

Dairy cows in barn
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</p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p>The number of cows in the barn is only part of the equation.</p>

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 in order to bring sustainable agriculture to scale, they will have to do the bulk of the work. But small farms have a much higher share of production for specific commodities in the U.S. — they account for 56 percent of domestic poultry production, for example — so we’ll need their leadership, too.

Regardless of size, all farms need to manage resources wisely. This includes using water as efficiently as possible, improving soil health through strategies such as cover crops and minimizing the loss of nutrients and soil to air and water through nutrient optimization strategies such as conservation tillage.

We also need to to avoid plowing up ecologically important lands, use strategically placed filters to capture excess nutrients, fence livestock out of streams and implement management plans to maintain healthy grazing lands and avoid overgrazing.

It’s time we shift the public debate and get everyone on board the sustainability train. Arguing about a farm’s size won’t deliver environmental benefits. In the end, it’s all about performance.

This article first appeared at EDF’s Growing Returns blog.