Modern Farmin, A Question of Scale | St. Lawrence University Sustainability Program

Modern Farmin, A Question of Scale

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The sustainability program started off with a few visits to North Country Farms. One reoccurring topic seemed to be that the size of the farm needs to be tailored to the working methods, equipment, as well as the market they are producing for in order to be successful. The nostalgic view of a small-scale family farm is only a reality in very few places. If the farm is small scale, the farmer(s) often needs to work in another job, often full-time, and do the farm in the “free time”. This model of farming does not seem to support farmers in a socially sustainable way.

Small scale farms have often more manual labor than large operations. Therefore, we tend to see technology as a threat to small scale farming. However, I would argue, technology alone is not a cause. More the way it is implemented causes the consequences we see today like the decline in farms in the U.S. I got this idea after reading a National Geographic article describing how the small nation of the Netherlands became a major food exporter and on top a leader in sustainable practices.

The agricultural landscape varies greatly from the U.S. as the article describes: “a fragmented patchwork of intensely cultivated fields, most of them tiny by agribusiness standards”. More surprisingly, the use of pesticides and antibiotics decreased. This is only possible because tiny patches of land are used intensely with high yields. These yields have been boosted with the help of science.

Arguably, not everybody sees sustainable farming, in the same way, the Dutch do. On the summer NOFA conference, organic farmers proclaimed that produce from hydroponic farms is undermining the ethics organic. On the other hand, hydroponic allow producing high yield crops without artificial fertilizers and pesticides. It is clear what sustainable farming is. It is also a hard question if the degree of technological advancement influences sustainability. We do know, that technology can also help to end unsustainable practices and, therefore, we should keep an open mind about it.