Small is Beautiful: The Benefits of a Decentralized Food System

Seasonal, gluten-free, farm-to-table eating never tasted so good!

By Diana Rodgers, NTP and Andrew Rodgers


July 2015

Small Farms

"Small-scale sustainable farms that use organic growing techniques are better for the planet."

Photo by Fotolia/marcuspon

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On her farm in Massachusetts, nutritionist Diana Rodgers has found a way back to a healthy, active lifestyle with a focus on nutritious and delicious eating, raising animals, growing vegetables, and balancing work and play. With over 100 seasonal Paleo recipes, guides to growing your own food and raising animals, and inspiring how-tos for crafts and entertaining, The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook (Victory Belt Publishing, 2015) is a guide not just for better eating, but for better living—and a better world.

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook

It’s probably no surprise that fresh, local produce is more nutrient-dense than produce that was harvested a week ago, sat on a truck for days, and then waited in a supermarket bin before you brought it home. But the reasons to buy from small-scale, local farmers who use sustainable practices go far beyond nutrition.

It supports local communities

When you spend your money at a small local farm, more of your dollars stay in the community, since small-scale farmers generally purchase their supplies (seeds, machinery, tools, and so on) from local businesses. That helps to generate local jobs and stimulates the economy right in your community.

It’s better for the farm workers

According to the National Farm Worker Ministry, the average income of a crop worker is between $10,000 and $12,499 a year. To give you some perspective, the 2014 federal poverty line was $11,670 for an individual and $23,850 for a family of four. Cropworkers are often paid “piece rate” wages, which are based on how much they pick, instead of an hourly wage. The piece rate for oranges in Florida, for instance, is $0.85 per 90-pound box of oranges. The average productivity for a worker is eight boxes per hour. This means that during an eight-hour workday, a worker picks about sixty-four boxes of oranges, 5,760 pounds. For that day, the worker receives $54.40— $6.80 per hour, which is less than the minimum wage. Paying workers this way also creates an incentive for them to take fewer much-needed water breaks, and on large farms, rent for housing for farm workers (which often means overcrowded trailers) is automatically deducted from their paychecks.

Children are particularly vulnerable when it comes to farm work. There are an estimated 500,000 farm workers under the age of eighteen in the U.S. Farms are exempt from many labor laws, and these children suffer extreme working conditions: infrequent water and food breaks, high temperatures, pesticide exposure, and dangerous machinery (70 percent of all tractor injuries involve children). The kids are also often subjected to intense emotional strain due to unstable home lives, as families follow the harvest and pull kids from school. Young girls are especially in danger of sexual abuse from their bosses in the fields. And all that’s just in the U.S.—working conditions in other countries can be far worse.

Small-scale farms are much more likely to offer fair wages, paid time off, and opportunities for advancement. In addition, they often train future farmers through apprenticeships and internships. This is critical for the future of farming. On our farm, for instance, we employ a mix of local teens, young adults who want to get into farming, and adults who volunteer their labor in exchange for food. We pay fair (not piece rate) wages, and take the time to ensure proper training and safety precautions are being met.

It’s better for the animals

Livestock raised on small farms are generally subjected to less-stressful living conditions, fewer antibiotics, and more peaceful slaughter than those raised on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Instead of spending their whole lives in cramped spaces under fluorescent lights, eating a strictly grain-based diet, cattle on small, sustainable farms spend their lives on pasture, with sunshine, green grass, and the freedom move comfortably.

But just because a farm is small doesn’t necessarily mean the animals are grass fed or treated well. I highly encourage you to do your homework and visit the farm you purchase your meat from. Do the animals look happy? Do they seem healthy and have enough space? Are there signs of vermin or disease? Ask where they are slaughtered and see if any complaints have been filed against the slaughterhouse. When we start considering the treatment of animals, we’re in a much better position to buy humanely raised meat, which is healthier for us, too.

For their products to be labeled “Certified Organic” or “Animal Welfare Approved,” farms and slaughterhouses must meet strict guidelines for the care and end-of-life process for farm animals. Not all farms that treat animals humanely have these certifications, but if you aren’t able to visit a farm firsthand, these labels are a good way to make sure you’re supporting a humane, sustainable operation.

It encourages biodiversity

When you join a CSA or shop at a farmers market, you’ll see all kinds of produce and meat from heritage animal breeds and heirloom produce varieties. These older breeds and varieties are dying out as a few commercial ones dominate agribusiness, and as they go extinct, their genetic lines—and valuable traits that let them thrive in different habitats—are lost forever. It’s critical that we support biodiversity when it comes to our food consumption to keep these breeds and varieties thriving year after year, and small-scale farms offer the best way to do that.

Large, industrial-scale agricultural operations tend to use monocropping, in which a single crop is grown on the same piece of land year after year. Monocropping reduces biodiversity and damages the soil. Small-scale farms, on the other hand, tend to diversify and rotate their crops, and to allow parts of the land to remain fallow and rest between seasons. It keeps native and heirloom varieties alive and improves the health of the soil.

Large industrial farms also destroy the many native species of plants and animals that once thrived on their land. Seek out farms that encourage small ecosystems like wetlands, ponds, woodland, and fallow fields, so that the whole farm is a living system, not only a place to plant seeds.

Preserving heritage breeds of animals, and crossing them for hybrid vigor, is also important. Factory farming has led a handful of breeds of pigs, cows, and chickens to dominate our food system. Those breeds, which do well in indoor conditions and put on weight quickly but aren’t adapted for life outside factory farms, have supplanted heritage breeds, and as these go extinct, their adaptations for different environments are lost. The best way to ensure that heritage breeds survive is to create a demand for them by eating them.

It’s environmentally responsible

When we purchase inexpensive, conventionally grown bananas from the grocery store, we don’t see their real cost. We don’t see the devastating effects of toxic pesticides that are sprayed over the monocrop plantations and land on neighboring schools, making the children sick, or the environmental effects of shipping bananas around the world.

We also don’t see the real cost of conventional meat, dairy, and egg products at the supermarket. The negative consequences of CAFOs—which affect all of us, whether we choose to buy the products or not—are known in economics as “externalities,” and they include massive waste, from toxic sludge to poisonous chemicals, that have the potential to heat up the atmosphere, poison fisheries, pollute drinking water, contaminate the soil, and damage recreational areas. Ultimately we taxpayers foot the bill for CAFOs with hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies, medical expenses, insurance premiums, declining property values, and cleanup costs.

Even organic growing practices aren’t really enough, although they’re important—they eliminate the toxic effects of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. An organic Cavendish banana is still grown in a monocrop environment and shipped to the U.S. from far away. We need to seek out more varieties of bananas, so that it’s impossible for one disease to wipe out the entire supply. An even better choice would be to seek out locally grown fruit instead—apples in Washington and New York, for instance, oranges in Florida, or pawpaws in Ohio. Many of the problems of large industrial farms exist at large-scale organic farms that produce bagged spinach, broccoli, and peppers: they’re still growing monocrops and using fossil fuels to package and ship them all over the country, creating pollution.

Small-scale sustainable farms that use organic growing techniques are better for the planet. They improve the soil through crop rotation and rotational grazing. They avoid petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides and instead use products like fish emulsion, a fertilizer made from seafood industry by-products that adds nutrients to the soil. And because they’re mostly selling to local residents, less fossil fuel is needed to package and transport food.

More from The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook:

Spring Salad of Arugula, Radishes, and Grilled Steak Recipe
Kohlrabi Cakes with Bacon and Dill Recipe


Reprinted with permission from The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook by Diane Rodgers, NTP with Andrew Rodgers and published by Victory Belt Publishing, 2015. Buy this book from our store: The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook