Updated: Aug 27, 2020
Author: Lucia Kearney
Hallie and I were half-joking the other day how small-scale, organic farming really is the solution to everything. Feeling anxious or depressed? Get your hands in the soil and help things grow. Want to feel more connected to your community? Get to know your farmer and buy food grown locally. Want to reconnect to the natural world? Work on a small farm that works in tandem with the surrounding ecosystem. Want to create meaningful, local jobs? Support small farms.
I say half-joking because, of course, all of these things are also serious. Farms can help alleviate anxiety and depression; researchers have found that bacteria commonly found in soil activate the production of serotonin in the brain and were found to alter mice’s behavior “in a similar way to antidepressants.” Small farmsnhelp to build a sense of community; by their nature, they are deeply connected to place helping to create a sense of belonging to folks who participate in farm life, even just by visiting the market. Farms help us reconnect to the natural world of which we are a part; in her book Braiding Sweetgrass Robin Wall Kimmerer notes that recent research has shown that the smell of humus (fully decomposed organic matter) stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, known as the “cuddle hormone” which promotes bonding between mother and child, between lovers, and, it appears, between people and the earth. Farming, if funded and valued properly, has the potential to create meaningful, local jobs that keep capital in the community.
Small farms, I would argue, also have a big role to play in one of the biggest challenges facing our globe today: climate change. As things stand, the combined effects of agriculture, deforestation (meat production is the leading cause of deforestation), and other land uses (like harvesting peat moss) generate about a third of global greenhouse emissions. Agriculture is also responsible for 40% of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas 80x more potent than CO2 (most of this comes from conventional meat and dairy farms).
The good news is that this means that agriculture can be a leverage point for positive change; using smaller-scale, organic methods not only create systems that are more able to withstand the effects of climate change, but have the potential to mitigate its effects as well. Here are just a few ways that small, organic farms do just that:
Strawberries are one of the perennial crops that we’ve added to the farm – this photo is from the 2019 season.
The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that climate change is already impacting precipitation patterns; as the planet warms, there will be more periods of drought and more periods of intense, heavy rain. Living, healthy soil, built through organic practices does a much better job of absorbing and retaining water making such systems more efficient in their water use, making crops more resilient to drought, and not depleting aquifers and other water sources. Conventional soils, lacking structure and vegetative cover, are unable to properly absorb water, leading to erosion and pollution as topsoil is washed away into our waterways, and rendering conventional systems much more vulnerable to drought. An ongoing field study begun in 1981 by the Rodale Institute has found that in times of drought, organic systems have as much as a 40% higher yield than conventional systems.
Organic practices can also help to capture and hold onto carbon from the atmosphere. Through the process of photosynthesis, plants draw CO2 out of the atmosphere, about 40% of which is released into the soil. Practices like planting cover crops, applying compost, reducing or elimination tillage, and planting more perennials (all practices that we employ here at 10th Street) help keep that CO2 from escaping back into the atmosphere.
The majority of emissions from agriculture come from the conventional production of meat, especially beef. In feedlot operations, manure gathers in lagoons where it decomposes anaerobically, thereby producing methane gas. Cattle in these types of operations are fed grains that their bodies weren’t built to metabolize, leading to more methane release through belches and farts. On the other hand, well-managed systems based on rotational grazing and silvopasture (the integration of trees and grazing livestock) can draw down and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Project Drawdown, a group of scientists and policymakers who model effective ways to battle climate change, report that silvopasture “could reduce CO2 emissions by over 31 gigatons by 2050 if it were ramped up from its current 351 million acres to 554 million acres worldwide.”
One of the criticisms leveraged at organic farming is the claim that it requires more space than conventional systems. This question of land usage is a very complex one and is often misstated or misconstrued by short studies paid for by big agribusinesses and cherry-picked data. As scientists at the Rodale Institute point out, the popular study that this claim is often based on, “Assessing the Efficiency of Changes in Land Use for Mitigating Climate Change” was based on data from a three year period regarding two crops grown in Sweden; trying to extrapolate global phenomenon based on so little data is absurd, and the high degree in variation in the data actually suggests that the differences in this particular study “may not be statistically significant.”
The Farming Systems Trial at the Rodale Institute, on the other hand, has been running for almost 40 years. It compares six different systems: conventional till, conventional no-till, organic till systems based on manure, organic no-till systems based on manure, organic till systems based on leguminous cover crops for fertility, and organic no-till systems based on leguminous cover crops for fertility. This study has found that:
- After a five-year transition period (during which time soil is being rebuilt from the depletion caused by conventional practices), organic yields are competitive with conventional yields.
- As mentioned above, organic yields are up to 40% higher than conventional yields in times of drought.
- Organic systems require 45% less energy input, and release 40% fewer carbon emissions than conventional systems.
- Crops produced in the organic systems are more nutritionally dense.
- In 2016, their no-till organic manure-based system produced 200 bushels of corn per acre, a record-breaking amount for the county, and almost twice that of the conventional no-till system.
- In organic systems, soil health continuously improves over time as organic matter increases.
What all of this means is that correctly employed organic systems produce more food with a higher nutritional density on less land that conventional systems, thereby requiring less land for agriculture and freeing up land to be reforested. Practices that go beyond organic – like the biointensive model from Ecology Action, agroforestry, and Ben Hartman’s lean farming principles (practiced here on the farm) have shown how to produce even more food in a smaller space and in a manner that benefits the ecosystem.
How we farm has a huge role to play in tackling the issue of climate change. Small farms catering to local communities and using sustainable practices can not only reduce emissions but sequester carbon, and they’re much better equipped to deal with the challenges of climate change. Once seen as a hippie niche, it’s becoming clear that sustainable farming is the only way forward.
So thank you to everyone who supports our work here at the farm – thank you to our CSA members who help us shoulder the risk and share in the bounty, and all the folks who visit our market and spread the word! Thank you to all the farmers doing the good work out there, farming sustainably and responsibly in the face of great adversity. Thank you to Congresswoman Pingree of Maine’s 1st District, an organic farmer since the 1970s who introduced The Agriculture Resilience Act to Promote Farmer-Driven Climate Solutions. Thank you to all the folks researching ways to make farming a greater asset to our ecosystem. Thank you thank you thank you!
2019’s all-lady farm crew.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2015. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Potawatami woman and a botanist who looks at the intersection between indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge.
NPR’s story on agriculture’s impact on the climate:
The Rodale Institute’s response to the paper claiming that organic systems are worse for climate change in terms of land-use:
Information regarding the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial:
The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture’s piece on ways that farming practices can fight climate change:
Information on carbon sequestration and silvopasture:
Information on methane gas:
Findings by UK scientists that friendly bacteria found in soil can affect the brain in similar ways to antidepressants:
Information on Congresswoman Pingree’s Agriculture Resilience Act to Promote Farmer-Driven Climate Solutions
The EPA’s breakdown of greenhouse gas emissions:
The Union of Concerned Scientists warnings and recommendations for US agriculture: