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How Big Is Small?

January 14, 2011

Being a visual person, I picture my food-knowledge growth like this:

So I’m this little question-mark-head and because I have certainly not reached the end of the journey, I’m partway down the line.  Learning, but I have a lot to learn.  I eat better today than I did a year ago and a year from now, I will have changed again.  The important thing to me is that I’m asking questions and moving forward.  If you haven’t made all the food transitions I’ve made, no big deal.  I’d just encourage you to get on the line!  Ask questions and start moving forward.

You can see that the line is a continuum, a process and not a goal.  And interestingly, neither end is visible.  Yes, I can look back at some wonderful, formative food events in my life.  Instructional, I suppose, but the past is also riddled with highly-processed foods too and who wants to think about that?  Right.  So I let the line ‘o knowledge slink off into the unknown behind me, thank you.

My desire to eat the way I do, which is as local as possible, from farmers whose names I know and, starting last year, lots of home-grown stuff too, is informed by a variety of factors.  Eating fresh, local foods:

  • is tasty
  • is healthier for me
  • is healthier for the farms, farm animals and our environment
  • is healthier for our local economy (I like to think – keep reading)
  • is incredibly rewarding and tasty

Did I mention how tasty fresh produce is?  And how you’ll swell with pride when you slice a tomato you grew, sprinkle it with olive oil and sea salt and offer it for dinner?  Wow, I highly recommend this to you.  It’s an incredible feeling.

Viewed from above, that line would probably look a little more like this:

And I’m writing right this minute because the line just took a small step forward and a huge jump off to the side at the same time.  I’d seen and read a little about the town of Hardwick, Vermont and the fact that it is “reinventing itself based on a local food economy” or some such.  Sounded great when I heard the soundbites.  I even admit to twittering that I wanted to move to Hardwick, which I only meant symbolically.

So I’m reading Ben Hewitt’s book, The Town That Food Saved which is about Hardwick and I am thankful to him for shaking my worldview a little.  He makes two points that are interesting to consider:

First, he doesn’t like the term “sustainable”, largely because as he argues, “…agriculture is a human manipulation of a natural process.”  He allows there might be a sustainable version, but he doubts there is one that can feed 7 billion people.  Now, I admit to being in the choir of people who are constantly arguing for “buzzword agriculture”.  (In place of “buzzword” you insert things like: sustainable, local, organic, pasture-based, etc.)    The concept of sustainable sounds so wonderful, why wouldn’t you strive for it?  But Ben is asking me to pause at that word and consider whether it’s a realistic goal.  Interestingly, I heard a piece on NPR about the same time that described the life of leaf-cutter ants.  Turns out they cut leaves not to eat them, but to drag them to their nests where a mold grows on them.  The ants eat the mold.  In other words, the ants are farming!  Which I took as some sort of smallish proof that agriculture is at its core, a “natural” event.  It’s natural that ants do it and it’s natural that humans do it, given that we’re part of nature and all.  But I see Ben’s point that it may not scale up to 7 billion people.

In an interview recently Joan Gussow defined the term “unsustainable” by saying that it will stop.  As in: our current industrial food system is going to stop…it is unsustainable.

Well, three cheers for that!

Part of me thinks it’s academic whether sustainable is attainable or not but that having the ideal in mind as an end goal keeps us moving in the right direction.  Is there such a thing, for example, as a zero input farm?  Maybe not, but moving toward as few inputs as possible strikes me as a good plan.  I’m going to end by saying that I haven’t finished the book and I haven’t made up my mind what the definition of sustainable really is, but thanks to Ben, I’m thinking about it.

The second thing Ben has me mulling over is how a “local food system” treats the locals.  He sets out his own working definition of a “healthy decentralized food system” this way:

It must offer economic viability to small scale food producers.
It must be based on sunshine.
It must feed the locals.
It must be circular.

So about that third one there.  The idealized small farms we are clamoring for need to stay in business (part of sustainability to be sure) so they need to earn money.  And their healthful product does not have the economy of scale that a large farm has.  It is a lot of grueling work to farm organically and without combines and it costs money .  If you happen to be a dairy farm, for example, you quickly learn that you can make more money selling as a premium product at farmers markets and even more than that if you make a value-added product like cheese.  Selling your milk on the commodity market is not a financially smooth move.  So this small, local dairy produces hoity-toity milk and cheese.  Can its local, blue collar neighbors afford it?

Ben (and Joan Gussow) points out that much of what we all love about small, local farms prices them right out of reach of the actual local economy they find themselves in.  So a farm looks to the nearby big city if there is one.  Suddenly the sustainability and warm fuzziness of a local farm is in question if it is producing things that the community around it cannot afford to eat.  How odd to think Farm X sells in Chicago and Farm X’s neighbors shop at Walmart for their food.  This happens.  A similar example:

Edible Cape Cod reported this past summer on a certain irony.  Local Cape fishermen offload their daycatch and it is immediately transported to Gloucester (off the Cape).  Never mind all the tourists, there are plenty of people who call Cape Cod home and the “local catch” goes right past them.  They cannot get it.  Or if they do, it goes to Gloucester and comes back.  Hmmm.  The good news is there is a fishermen’s organization that wants to change that and is starting a seafood CSA.  Wish I could get in on that!

My farmer friend Rink DaVee challenged me a while ago with a question:

How big is small?

In other words, how large can a farm be to take advantage of some economies of scale and still be prized for being “small and local”?  It is an important question.  It could be a way to grow more healthful food than our “factories” currently grow, but at a cost its neighbors could afford.  Think of it like this: Hardwick is a community and its developing food economy will be a laudable one if it serves the community.  Now pick a small farm in central Illinois and imagine its community.  To what degree is that farm contributing to its local community when it sells all its goods in Chicago?  Is it enough to provide a few jobs?  It is in the food business after all, shouldn’t it be giving food to its community?  Please understand I am not criticizing the farm.  I am learning from Ben to question the emerging system.  We criticize large agriculture because it always sells its food far from where it grows it.  Is the same thing happening with small farms?  Do we justify that by saying, “Yeah, well, they only drive 150 miles to sell their produce.”  Is that ok?  What about the neighbors of that small farm who are still eating California-grown produce they buy at a big box?  Farmers, please hit the comment button below and chime in here.  What are your neighbors eating?

Ben’s question about whether we want our “local” food system to also feed the folks near the farms and Rink’s question about size are the sort of thing we “local food advocates” need to puzzle over more than we do.  I learned from four meat producers recently too that much of our food system, even the farmers market-based system that we prize, is fraught with grey areas.  Guess that line under me should be a little fuzzier!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Sabel permalink
    January 19, 2011 11:06 am

    Grant, nice piece of writing. These are great ideas and the picture is a great way to think about it. I’m a little further back on the line, but at least I’m getting on the line! Talk to you soon!


  2. January 21, 2011 6:14 pm

    Jody Osmund of Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm was kind enough to email me in response to this blog post and agreed to let me share his thoughts here for everyone to read. Thanks Jody!


    Have you read The Small-Mart Revolution by Michael Shuman? If you haven’t, please consider adding it to your reading list. It speaks of taking a more holistic, local approach to the economy.

    Our current food system is dictated by globally connected, massively scaled, vertically integrated, multi-national mega-corporations with vast budgets and legions of lobbyists. A revolution IS needed – it may begin with food; but it can’t end there or nothing will change. The ills of the food system are endemic across businesses. Phthalates are in our childrens’ toys AND in our food containers.

    It’s pretty daunting being an independent farmer up against this racket.

    Still, I am hopeful because folks like you are starting to ask these questions, but don’t stop with asking about your tomatoes or your ground beef. Think, too, about the sneakers on your feet and the electronics that permeate your life.

    Where do they come from? Can they be made sustainable? What effect does their production have on your world?



  3. January 26, 2011 12:52 pm

    I continue to be humbled and impressed by the thoughtfulness of the farmers who feed us. I don’t know how you can read the words of these farmers and still go buy anonymous food at a grocery store. I admit I do it in a pinch, but it is my very last choice because I get so much more than physical nourishment from farm foods!

    Here is another wonderful farmer checking in. Jeremy House of Meadow Haven Organic sent me this email:

    In the movie Star Wars The Empire Strikes back Obi Wan Kenobi tells Luke that many of the truths we hold to are only true from a certain point of view. Now I don’t really hold to this point of view, but there is an application. It relates to how we ask questions. How the question is asked sometimes influences the answer we arrive at. So your post has questions which are good. I’ll show you how I look at those questions.

    Is farming sustainable?

    People can’t fly but since some people didn’t like that answer now we can. There was an article in the magazine The Radish about a family that built a barn. It was modeled after barns from Europe that were more than 800 years old and were still a usable barn. This type of thinking changed my perspective. Now I ask myself what decisions I make could influence the future that far down the road.

    Feed the Locals?

    Is that like asking, “who is my neighbor?” A local is someone who is in need of really good food and knows it. Education seems to be the key from my point of view. We all need good buzzword food; we don’t all know it. The best is if someone will commit 2-3 weeks eating local first, organic if possible, minimizing the over-processed, over-sweetened. When a commitment like that is made then when they do cheat “normal” has been redefined and what used to be “normal” now fells terrible.

    Earn money?

    How do I earn a living? Money is a tool. How to earn a living and also teach others but most importantly my kids what I am learning?

    How big is small? How big is big enough? Will I know it when I get there? Or will I get too big? Is there a point where better is better than bigger?

    My hard question. How do I fit a production system into a natural system? As I write the question I realize I have asked the question wrong and it should be: How do I get a production system out of a natural system?

    The movie A River Runs Through It starts off with the dad instructing his two boys about fly fishing but also life. He says that only by picking up on God’s rhythms are we able to regain power and beauty. That trout, as well as all good things, come by grace, grace comes by art and art does not come easy. It is my understanding that we must learn to be in God’s grace and we must be willing to learn from the Creator of the system and be willing to work hard. I think that would apply to producers as well as consumers?

    Very little ever happens with those that are happy with the status quo. If we never ask questions we rarely find answers. Keep asking questions.


  4. April 1, 2012 7:27 pm

    I am really enjoyed your article. I agree with most of it. First, in all your thinking you are assuming that food coming from a large farm vs. a small farm has a different nutritional quality component. This is simply not the case. Now we could disagree on the way the animals are house but not the nutritional value. This is a false assumption. As an example The Ohio State University Extension recently did a study of organic produce from a small farm compared to a large “industrial” farm. They found that there was no research to support one over the other. When it came to food safety, it showed in favor very slightly over the large “industrial” farm vs. small organic. Now there were small differences going both ways but nothing HUGE.
    Often we get our food from local farmers such as pork. I have compared what I buy from farmer Brandt to a store bought pork chop and even the toughest food critic would find both of the highest quality and no taste difference. I like you, want to support local farmers, (like myself) to help them continue to do what they do because they love to do it. I 100% believe that people should have a choice to use their hard earned money to buy the food they wish to buy. I think we do need to work on making sure parents and children eat a balanced healthful diet but we cannot force healthy food choices. This is an education issue not a farmer issue. Yes we farmers strive to produce a healthy product. At some point willpower has to be held accountable. Moderation is a word many people need to learn and understand. Our food system is far from perfect. There is always room for change and perfecting what is in place.

    Answering your question: We have local customers who see the value in our products, but when they are in a pinch for time or money they also shop at a “big box” store. They have a choice and I am glad I can offer them this choice. I do not get offended mad or upset when they buy eggs from the store one week, and me the next. Most of my friends shop at major grocery stores on a regular basis and local/markets when time and money allows. Also, our grocery stores have an assortment of organic, non organic, pasture fed etc. So they still have a choice when in the store if they wish.

  5. April 1, 2012 9:01 pm


    First off, please know that I very much appreciate your engagement on this.

    You argue there is no difference between (I think you mean) organic and conventionally produced foods. I would very much like to see a link to the study you mention. Unfortunately these days, for each person in a discussion like ours, it is easy to search the web for data and research that substantiates their viewpoint. I realize this is somewhat of a trap, but I also think it is the strength of our knowledge world these days. So I counter with this very long list of studies that show pastured/grass-fed/living in sunlight leads to foods with better nutritional content, better balances of Omega 3s to 6s etc:

    Here’s a government study with the same findings:

    You may or may not agree with these findings.

    Let’s say though, just for fun, that the two methods of raising food are equal nutritionally. (I’m not conceding that; just creating a follow up question.) Now, I think you would have to agree that the conventionally raised foods are FAR MORE likely to have absorbed or carry pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and antibiotics. Surely you can’t disagree with that. Likely you will say you feel these pesticides, chemicals and antibiotics are there, but safe, which I have to disagree with. You can say what you want about the FDA, but they have said since 1977 that constant use of antibiotics in livestock is not safe…but they did not regulate based on their own findings. That’s why they are finally being ordered by a court to act:

    Finally, recently, someone figured out maybe we shouldn’t spray methyl iodide on strawberries:

    It is nice to see some crackdown on these chemicals and unnecessary antibiotic use. Surely you see that these chemicals alter the food we eat, the food you are saying is “equal”. And I haven’t even gotten to the environmental impact nor the impact these chemicals have on farm workers.

    Regarding moderation, I couldn’t agree more. The thing is, excess salt and sugar in processed foods leave people hungering for more, so they eat more. It is hard to practice moderation when the foods you eat are designed in laboratories to lead you to buy more of them. Two words for you: Big Gulp. Yes, the consumer is partly to blame and should exercise restraint, but I would argue that food formulation (scary phrase) and marketing of cheap foods (the result of most grocery store foods, including meats, being corn and soy based) stack the deck against the willpower of a consumer.

    Regarding taste, I have to completely disagree with you. A pastured pork chop has so much more flavor than a conventional chop. It may not matter to everyone, but I can tell you they taste different.

    Regarding the word “choice”, I think there is a lot to say there. I do hope you’ve been reading Ellen’s blog and the comments there as well as the post from @pointsnfigures. This word choice keeps coming up – choice. Please understand, I am totally in favor of choice, and would be in favor of the two product types being in the marketplace for consumers to choose between, but on these stipulations:

    – they need to have comparative regulations from the government and equal or no subsidies so that the organic/pastured/local products have at least a fighting chance to price themselves near the conventional foods.

    – the conventional foods need to tread exactly as lightly on the environment as the small/medium-sized diverse organic/sustainable farms do

    – they need to treat animals in a way that the majority of Americans would consider humane (I realize this may be a little vague, but read the next item)

    – the conventional farms need to allow cameras, video recorders and reporters on their farms just like the org/sustainable farms do (sorry, but conventional farms look ridiculous allowing/supporting/not fighting against ag gag bills!)

    – conventional farms would agree to (even encourage!) GMO labeling.

    If these conditions were met, then I believe we would have a fairer marketplace that would be presenting true “choice” to the consumer. Prices would come down and all your friends who have to shop at the “cheap” stores for “cheap” food would have access to foods without pesticides if they want them, without GMOs if they want them, with their perceived or scientifically proven health benefits if they want them.

    That would be choice.

  6. April 2, 2012 9:41 am


    I engaged your comment above about the nutritive value of foods in one way, that is putting two leaves or two pork chops under the microscope to compare them.

    I also think there is another way to view it. Step back and take a big picture view. There has been a huge growth in the quantity of commodity corn grown in this country – that is exactly the point everyone keeps making, that technology is wonderful and increases yield.

    At the same time, we have ballooning rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, allergies and our kids are maturing at alarmingly early ages.

    Do you honestly feel there is no correlation?

    You can argue that consumers have a choice and their health is in their own hands, that they should choose healthier foods. I do agree we need to be responsible for ourselves, BUT, I would argue that the government and the big agriculture advertising have led us to believe the 52 colored cereals at the market ARE nutritious, when they clearly are not. They are replacing whole grain eating with highly processed corn and spraying it with vitamins and minerals, as called out in the colorful splash ad on the package. That is not nutrition in my book. Consumers are misled and don’t even know what proper choice is anymore.

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