Over the last century, agriculture has drastically evolved. The food that was once produced locally by human labor is now produced primarily by machines in large-mega farms. The ownership of the farm industry in the United States is also very concentrated, with businesses more concerned with costs and profitability rather than quality or environmental sustainability.
Due to environmental impacts and population growth, these agro-production methods are becoming decreasingly sensible and practical, calling for a need for a shift in agricultural practices. The following are defining setbacks of large-scale agriculture, in addition to the advantages brought with small-scale sustainable farming.
Monoculture, also known as monocropping, is the agricultural practice of planting one type of crop on the same land year after year, the goal being to maximize potential profits for agro-businesses. However, this practice has caused many issues for farmers such as soil degradation and the increased need for pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides. Soil degradation has led to farmland being too nutrient-lacking to continue growing crops, forcing farmers to rely on chemical fertilizers to account for the poor soil quality.
According to master gardener Susan Patterson, these fertilizers “disrupt the natural makeup of the soil and contribute further to nutrient depletion.” This only furthers farmers’ reliance on chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, further depleting soil quality.
The increased need for pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides has also brought many unforeseen effects, the most impactful being superweeds. As herbicides continued to be used over time, weeds have begun to attain a tolerance to them, resulting in weeds that grow inches a day, becoming increasingly difficult to get rid of.
In addition, Patterson states that “the effects of monocropping on the environment are severe when pesticides and fertilizers make their way into groundwater or become airborne, creating pollution.” When the scale of these mega-farms are accounted for, the toll of monocropping on the environment becomes significant, largely contributing to global climate change, calling for a need for change in these practices.
Compared to large mega-farms, small farms almost entirely avoid the practice of monoculture and in turn, do not have to rely on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Instead, small farms tend to grow a multitude of in-season crops which do not require any synthetic fertilizers or chemicals to grow. Over time, rather than depleting soil quality, this helps to develop healthy, rich soil, providing the nutrients necessary for plants to thrive and leading to much higher quality crops.
As many coastal states such as California, which produces the majority of the nation’s food, continue to grow in population, dedicating large amounts of land to agricultural production is no longer as practical. The land is needed for alternative uses, mainly consisting of housing and commercial areas such as service and retail businesses. In addition, large farms placed near suburban areas cause many concerns as well.
Odors and loud noise from the spraying of pesticides and other farm tasks are often complained about by residents of the area. This problem is only further aggravated by the hours of farm labor, mainly taking place during the early hours of the morning. In turn, land value surrounding farms is lowered, negatively affecting development in the area.
Compared to large commercial farms, small farms do not require large plots of land, containing more flexibility as to where they can be located. This helps to alleviate many land use conflicts, allowing for the development of new housing and commercial areas without placing an infringement on food production.
The American Farmland Trust reported that between 1982 and 1992, an average of 400,000 acres of “prime” farmland was lost every year in the United States due to new development. Without flexibility in farmland location, agricultural and commercial development becomes very difficult.
Large-scale farming largely depends on exporting and selling goods across state lines, causing the transportation of goods to be a significant factor in the industry. According to Dr. Steve Amosson of Texas A&M, just in the Texas High Plains area, the equivalent of 800,000 semi-loads of feed and cattle are transported every year.
With this dependency on transportation causes many external problems beyond just the farm. The largest impact comes with pollution caused by the high levels of transportation, mainly carried out by diesel-powered semi-trucks, introducing large amounts of pollutants and degrading air quality.
Secondarily, with the high levels of transportation of agricultural output from commercial farms comes the extensive need for road maintenance and traffic congestion. This has caused many interstate road issues such as cracking asphalt and potholes, placing unnecessary wear-and-tear on all traffic on these roads, largely affecting pedestrian vehicles.
Compared to large commercial farms, transportation of goods is a much less significant factor in small local farms. Many more goods are sold directly to the consumer and produce is almost completely transported locally. This combats the large amounts of pollution and road degradation associated with commercial transportation of agricultural goods.
- Buy Local: Supporting local farms is the best way to support small-scale sustainable food production. Not only will the produce be higher quality, but you will be supporting your local economy, the future of farming, and biodiversity.
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): Community Supported Agriculture further connects local producers to consumers, allowing consumers to receive a share of the local harvest through subscription services or through contributions of labor on the farm. CSAs help strengthen a sense of community through sharing the risks of farming with both producers and consumers while allowing the knowledge of knowing exactly how and where our food is produced.