The Promise of Micro-Farming, Part III

This blog series is written by one of the School’s founders, Michael Foley. Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.

In previous blogs I’ve made the case for “micro-agriculture,” farming commercially, that is, on just an acre or two.  And I’ve shown how people are doing it.  Here I want to step back and look at the larger picture.  How can farming on this scale possibly address the crisis of our agricultural model and, more important, our need to feed a world of billions?

Very small-scale fruit and vegetable farming can feed a lot of people, but can it “feed the world,” as advocates of industrial agriculture insist they can?  The answer has to be nuanced.  The sort of production we are talking about here can scarcely supply all the calories and protein even the farmers themselves need.  Fruits and vegetables are a vital part of any diet, but they cannot replace calorie dense or protein rich foods to any large extent.  There are exceptions, of course.  Potatoes can well be a market garden crop.  They are enormously productive and a good staple.  But the sort of small-scale agriculture I’ve been advocating is oriented towards producing high-value crops for sale.

Don’t misunderstand.  Small-scale agriculture is tremendously productive.  So productive, in fact, that economists and sociologist are constantly trying to figure out why the “inverse relationship” between size and productivity comes out that way in study after study.  Can peasants really be better producers than agribusiness?  The answer is most often, Yes.  And that’s whether we are talking about high calorie crops like corn or wheat or fruit and vegetables.  The popular press often confuses the issue by asking a different question:  Can organic agriculture feed the world?  It turns out that larger-scale organic agriculture is generally less productive and more expensive than conventional agriculture.  It may be better for the earth (or not) and better for you (or not); but it doesn’t have the magic bullets that larger-scale conventional agriculture deploys in the form of chemical inputs.  As farmer and permaculture advocate Chris Newman provocatively puts it, “organic farming is little more than conventional farming with all the tools taken away. It’s a well-intended but insane way to farm, and it will kill us all if we decide this is the way to ‘fix’ agriculture.”

Small-scale agriculture, on the other hand, benefits from all sorts of advantages – so many, in fact, that economists and sociologists are at war with one another over just which one is crucial (see Chris Smaje, “Three stories, many variables”).  Is it more labor?  Clearly that’s part of it.  Is it greater attention to crops?  Yes, again.  Could it be better care for the soil?  Undoubtedly.  How about lower input costs?  Of course.  Is it mixed crop production?  Integration of crop and livestock production? All these variables are relevant, but the social scientists just aren’t decided; and some (Marxists, neo-classical economists) see small-scale production as a relic of the past, inevitably doomed to fall, however productive.  English farmer and social scientist Chris Smaje insists history may be pressing us in the opposite direction, to “re-peasantization” (see his blog, Small Farm Future, especially his posts on a “neo-peasant Wessex).

In contrast to the older small-holder agricultures Smaje celebrates, which were most often “subsistence first” and only then market-oriented to meet the small cash needs of subsistence farmers, the micro-agriculture I’ve been describing is thoroughly integrated into contemporary markets.  Such an agriculture may not meet the needs of the future, and it certainly won’t produce all the food we need; but it can be extremely important to today’s food movement.  What are it’s advantages and implications?

Micro-agriculture: Good for the Farmer, Good for the Soil

First, as I emphasized in the first blog, micro-agriculture can provide a decent income to farmers and often to farm workers as well.  Highly productive, year-round (in many cases), and intensive, it can generate a steady stream of income for farm families and decently paid work for farm workers.  This would be enough for many, and that’s why I chose to highlight the many examples in my first blog.

But, second, micro-agriculture also has the advantage of addressing a key constraint on the food movement today, the lack of available land at affordable prices for aspiring farmers.  Agribusiness, traditional patterns of landholding, urban/suburban sprawl, gentrification of rural areas, and the ever-expanding network of highways and roads have put millions of acres of prime farmland out of the reach of young farmers.  High value crops like wine grapes and cannabis drive up land prices, as does urban flight to the countryside, making much farmland not affordable.

Micro-agriculture doesn’t need much space, and it can thrive on marginal land.  The techniques of micro-agriculture build soil, and some of the most unpromising land can be transformed with proper management.  This make take time and patience, but it provides a hope for cash-strapped aspiring farmers looking to make a start.  John Jeavon’s experimental garden in Willits, California, was built on a steep hillside on clay soil with serious mineral imbalances.  Today the garden is tremendously  productive, thanks to careful attention to correcting those imbalances and, above all, compost.  Other micro-farmers report similar results on marginal land.

Third, and by the same token, micro-agriculture addresses one of the key failings of the industrial food system, including industrial organic agriculture.  The depletion of top-soils due to standard agricultural practices, tillage in particular, has been astounding.  The Wenner Gren Foundation’s 1956 symposium on Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth brought together for the first time studies of the destructive impact of cropping, forestry and livestock management on the earth over millenia, leading to degraded landscapes from the ancient Near East to Spanish New Mexico and desertification that had already drastically expanded existing deserts by the time of the Roman Empire.  That process has not abated.    We may have only 60 years of harvests left at current rates of soil degradation, according to a recent UN Food and Agrigulture Organization report.

Micro-agriculture, by contrast, builds soil.  It has to if it is to remain viable.  The sort of intensive production that very small-scale vegetable growers carry on requires ever renewed fertility; and chemical fertilizers quickly ruin soils.  That means that micro-agriculture depends upon compost, mulch, manure, and cover crops for continuing renewal of the soil.  And many practitioners are turning to no till techniques to ensure that their soils grow healthier with each crop.

Fourth, its intensive, largely hand modes of production using low inputs, also means that micro-agriculture has lower start-up costs than conventional agriculture and is therefore easier to launch and sustain.  Eliot Coleman estimated the basic equipment for a very small farm could be purchased for $8,000, with another $7,000 for greenhouses and irrigation (in The New Organic Grower, p. 22 [1995].  Jean-Martin Fortier estimates the basic set-up costs at $39,000 (The Market Gardener, p. 9 [2014, Canadian dollars]).  Both include a walking tractor, something a no till operation wouldn’t need.  Fortier includes a heated greenhouse, two hoop houses, and cold storage.  Ben Hartman’s micro-farm relies on greenhouse and hoophouses, too; but Hartman insisted that each building paid for itself before he invested in the next.  In any case, these are remarkably low start-up costs for a beginning farmer, even inflating them for the passage of time and the inevitable odds and ends.  Micro-agriculture clearly enjoys what the economists call “low barriers to entry.”

Micro-agriculture and the challenge of transforming our food system

But let’s put micro-agriculture in the larger context of the urgent need to transform our food system.  A growing recognition that we cannot feed people on vegetables alone has called for rethinking how we are going to produce the calories and protein the world’s enormous population requires in a sustainable way.  There are many answers out there, including small-scale, even backyard, grain production (John Jeavons, How to Grow More Food….), food forests based on nut trees (Mark Shepard, Regenerative Agriculture), grains as perennial polycultures (Wes Jackson, The Land Institute).  It’s not always clear, however, how we can get from A to Z, from a food system dependent on large-scale staple and meat production to one that is sustainable ecologically and economically.

In the view of Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer, authors of Miraculous Abundance, micro-agriculture can become the economic foundation for a much more inclusive farming and food system, one which could withstand the impact of declining oil production and rising fuel prices that is our inevitable future.  Because intensive fruit and vegetable production can be productive and profitable on a very small acreage, these two French farmers envision collections of farmers sharing a diversely farmed space, economically anchored in the living that their individual micro-farms could provide.  Perrine and Charles suggest that a medium-sized organic grain farm of 100 hectares (247 acres) could be broken down into a 5 hectare nature preserve, a 40 acre “edible forest”, 20 hectares devoted to grain production and another 20 to cattle and other livestock in the sort of multi-product “savannah” advocated by Mark Shephard, with the final 15 hectares (37 acres) given over to as many micro-farms.  The whole complex could not only employ twice that many farmers and feed hundreds, but support other workers, from bakers, butchers and candlestick makers to food processors and innkeepers.

The vision is currently a fantasy, of course, but it emphasizes what is unremarked in even the best of current business advice to farmers.  Farms, after all, are not isolated units either ecologically or socially, nor should they be economically.  They depend upon a web of “eco-system services” for fertility, local climate, water, and pollination, not to mention the timber that goes into farm buildings and the firewood that fuels the wood stove.  They depend, too, on a larger social and economic system.  The destruction of much of that system, from local feed stores to mills, granaries, and cold storage has crippled the recovery of small-scale agriculture in the United States.  Finally, farms depend upon webs of economic reciprocity if they are to survive the future.  From labor parties to emergency loans to just plain good will, small farms need the help of other community members to survive and thrive.  Micro-agriculture can provide the basis for some of the millions of small farms we need today and in the future, but it will have to be integrated in larger systems of care for the land, its people and its products.


– Michael Foley, March 2017