Turning "Big Ag" into "Better Ag"

As the stereotype goes, Americans like things BIG. Big cars. Big houses. And big mounds of produce to pick through at the supermarket. But when it comes to where that produce comes from, many American shoppers don’t like the idea of their fruits and vegetables coming from big farms. Indeed much of today’s movement around reforming our food system is focused on smaller, more local farming.

Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with small and local farms. In fact, we probably need more small and medium-sized farms in every region of the country growing a greater diversity of crops—and there is actually some great news on this front. According to the Census of Agriculture, after declining for some time, the number of farms in the U.S. is actually on the upswing.

But our focus on size alone all too often misses the larger challenge (or opportunity, depending on your point of view).

Rather than pitting big agriculture against small agriculture, we need to improve farming practices on all the acres where agriculture is taking place. And this means paying more attention to the vast majority of acres being farmed "conventionally" today, even if they ultimately fall short of a pastoral ideal. Ignoring conventional agriculture—the dominant means by which we produce food in this country—means missing a critical opportunity to improve environmental outcomes for our health, our soils, air, and water, and to drive broader reforms in our food system.  

Enter Mark Bittman, back from a trip to California, where his readers literally sent him packing last month. The goal was simple: travel somewhere, explore the food, and write about it—and Bittman’s readers got to have a hand in deciding the destination. [I actually pitched in a suggestion that Bittman travel to the Greek island of Crete, where I’ve had the fortune to spend some time and experience what I think is some of the simplest, most delicious food on the planet—olives picked by hand and pressed by my taverna owner, grilled fish caught that morning, you get the idea. Plus, I figured it was an opportunity to support a beautiful country that’s struggling at the moment.]

But I have to say, when Bittman announced he would be traveling to California’s Central Valley, the proverbial light bulb went off in my head. What more perfect destination to seek answers about the food we eat, how we grow it, and what that means for consumers, farmers, and our farmlands than the place where so much of that food comes from?

And when I say so much, I actually mean quantities that are hard to fathom.

Consider this bit of description Bittman offers on his visit to the first stop on his tour, Bolthouse Farms:

"Something like 50 industrial trucks were filled to the top with carrots, all ready for processing. Bolthouse, along with another large producer, supplies an estimated 85 percent of the carrots eaten by Americans. There are many ways to put this in perspective, and they’re all pretty mind-blowing: Bolthouse processes six million pounds of carrots a day. If you took its yield from one week and stacked each carrot from end to end, you could circle the earth. If you took all the carrots the company grows in a year, they would double the weight of the Empire State Building."

Throughout Bittman’s excellent account of his journey, I was repeatedly struck by references to the sheer scale of agriculture as an endeavor in the Central Valley. Upwards of 230 crops grown, entire hills of almonds, millions of tomatoes ripening at once, a single cattle feedlot with 100,000 cows (don’t miss Bittman’s nauseating description of the associated fumes), and a single company managing 60,000 acres—or the equivalent of four Manhattans—annually. Can you imagine?

But it seems that the scale of this production is only matched by the scale of the environmental devastation that accompanies it. As Bittman points out, the Central Valley is America’s greatest food resource, but we are treating it very badly. Giant freshwater lakes drained. The San Joaquin River now dry. Millions of pounds of chemical pesticides and fertilizers applied. Massive manure lagoons polluting the air. Not to mention the exploitation of countless farmworkers.

Depressing stuff. And you don’t have to take my or Bittman’s word for it. A landmark report released earlier this year found that a whopping two-thirds of all applied nitrogen in California became groundwater pollution instead of crop nutrient. This pollution has devastating consequences for the communities relying on local groundwater (in addition to the climate warming impacts of resulting nitrous oxide emissions, a greenhouse gas 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide).  

But what it also means is that only one-third of all the nitrogen California’s farmers are applying to grow crops is actually absorbed by the crop. As my colleague discussed here, that means a wide open field—pun intended—to make cost-effective efficiency improvements in how farmers apply nitrogen.

And fertilizer is not the only farm input where there’s room for efficiency improvements. I’ll stick with the sports metaphor to say that today it often seems like “conventional” and “organic” are our goal posts and only options when it comes to produce, with some sort of no man’s land in between. But despite this limited nomenclature (and the limited number of tools retailers and consumers alike currently have to identify more broadly sustainable foods), there is actually tremendous variability in the farm-level practices used to produce our fruits and vegetables—and with it, tremendous variability in input efficiencies and environmental outcomes.

Like in football, our goal should be to get the ball closer and closer to the end zone. That means encouraging all farms, big and small—wherever their starting point—to move across the sustainability spectrum towards farming methods that are less reliant on intensive inputs of chemicals and water and more reliant on natural systems for water, nutrients, pest management, and energy.

Bittman, it seems, came away with a similar conclusion:

“There must be, I thought (or fantasized) as I traveled through the valley, some movement toward pushing farmers, big and small, to produce decent food sustainably. Because if there’s not, the valley’s problems will only worsen, and we’d be complicit in destroying one of the country’s greatest resources, one that has served us amazingly well until now. Indeed, I found a number of large farmers experimenting with sustainability and scale. John Diener’s 4,500-acre Red Rock Ranch, in the west valley town of Five Points, uses mostly so-called conventional methods, but does so in creative and intelligent ways. Over all, his vision of big farming — minimizing chemical application, for example, and reducing tillage (turning over or otherwise disturbing the soil) — may point a way toward a future in which big-time farming can become more sustainable.” 

Improving the environmental performance of agriculture in places like the Central Valley won’t be simple. But it’s a critical part of promoting food and farming systems in the U.S. that protect human health, animal welfare, natural ecosystems and our climate.

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