“As a society, we devalued farming as an occupation and encouraged the best students to leave the farm for ‘better’ jobs in the city. We emptied America’s rural counties in order to supply workers to urban factories. To put it bluntly, we now need to reverse course. We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America — not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security.” – Excerpt from Farmer in Chief, written by Michael Pollan, published in the New York Times Magazine on October 12, 2008.
New opportunities are emerging in Georgia for producers to grow for their own communities as demand for local, organic food rapidly expands. Georgia, with the 3rd largest acreage of fresh-market vegetables planted in the nation, is well-poised to capitalize on these shifting markets. Georgia has an opportunity to be a bigger player in the organic and sustainably-produced market, and to reconfigure food chains to feed its own residents with fresh, seasonal Georgia-grown products. To do this, Georgia must seed farmers into these areas of growth by providing high-quality education and resources. Growers must be sought from conventional agriculture, the existing pool of organic growers, and the next generation of farmers who can be future leaders, educators, and advocates for sustainable agriculture.
There is a delicious revolution taking place that is being fueled by:
- Increasing consumer demand for “clean” food
- Concern over the population’s collective environmental footprint
- The link between epidemic public health concerns and overall quality of our food
- Concerns about food safety and food security
Sustainable and organic agriculture is at the heart of all these issues and can serve as a viable and productive solution for a more sustainable future. As consumer demand for better food outpaces supply, increasing numbers of small-scale sustainable farmers – young and old – are coming onto the scene to meet the need. The benefits of a shift toward sustainable agriculture include:
- protecting the environment by moving away from an industrialized, central food system heavily reliant on fossil fuels;
- providing healthier food to the community and combating obesity and diabetes;
- bolstering local economies by keeping revenue and jobs local;
- building community around a most fundamental need – food.
Why Sustainable & Organic Agriculture?
Beginning in the 1950s, the agricultural system in the U.S. experienced a drastic shift from small-scale family farms to industrial agribusinesses and massive farm complexes that produce the majority of our food – a shift catalyzed by the abundance of cheap fuel. Soaring fuel prices and supply uncertainty, along with the inherent requirements of petroleum-based inputs and cross-country shipping, means the costs of conventional farming are increasing every day. With the resulting rise in food prices and growing concern about environmental impact, consumers are seeking responsible alternatives more than ever. Organic agriculture and reliance on sun-power, as opposed to petroleum-power, offers a welcome alternative.
“We’re doing something important; something that has meaning to people and to us – and we get fresh air and sunshine all day.” – Tim & Liz Young, Nature’s Harmony Farm.
On average, food travels 1,500 miles from farm to fork because our food system is highly centralized. Reliance on a centralized production and distribution system raises concern about the issue of food security and the impacts of the higher amounts of energy and water required to maintain a centralized food system. Conventional agriculture and large-scale farming complexes rely heavily on petroleum-based fertilizers. Monoculture, which is the practice of growing large amounts of one crop, makes crops more vulnerable to disease and contamination, and threatens the supply reliability. As fuel prices soar and clean water becomes increasingly threatened, these indirect costs are being evaluated by both consumers and producers alike.
In Georgia, we face major drought threats year after year as growth and development devour water supply and run-off from pesticides and fertilizers remains the number one source of water pollution. Growing/eating organically is becoming more important than ever before.
Growing Green Collar Jobs
As younger generations search for greener jobs, sustainable and organic farming offers an opportunity to make a positive impact on the environment and make a comfortable living. Sustainable farming operates with the understanding that the health of the soil is directly related to the health of the crops and future yields.
Inspiring younger generations to have a role in agriculture becomes more and more important as the average age of a farmer, currently 58, rises and questions abound over who will grow our food in the future. However, young people aren’t the only ones interested in advancing organic agriculture – motivated by a longing to leave a lasting and positive impact on the world. This is no surprise after the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that agriculture is responsible for an estimated one-third of global warming and climate change.
The return to sun-powered agriculture is also being fueled by concerns over public health. Several recent studies highlight the health concerns related to conventional agriculture, including one by the Environmental Protection Agency which reports 60 percent of all petroleum-based herbicides and 90 percent of all fungicides used in conventional agriculture are carcinogenic. Sustainable and organic farming has the potential to improve our overall health, protect and preserve our environment, provide a more secure food future for our communities, and bolster local economies. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of these benefits and are voting with their forks.
A Wave of Opportunity
The increase in demand for organic food is fueling a resurgence of small-scale farms around the world. Concerns over obesity, pesticides, hormone use, and protecting the environment are reshaping the way many consumers think about food. Potential dangers in food from overseas sources, as well as the local economic benefits, are key issues in the shift in outlook. Stemming from that attitude shift is a market demand that is far outpacing supply. Organic food sales are the fastest growing sector in the food industry, swelling by 18% in 2007 and continuing to grow ever since. U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to an estimated $47 billion in 2016, with organic food now accounting for over 5% of all total food sales. Most states cannot keep up with this demand and presenting new opportunities for sustainable growers.
The number of local farmers’ markets nationally has grown from just under 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,600 markets currently registered in the USDA Farmers’ Market directory. Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions, a program where consumers purchase shares in local farms and receive fresh, seasonal food, are exploding around the country and here in Georgia also serve as a great distribution vehicle for farms, as well as an investment opportunity for consumers to guarantee a source for fresh, local foods. Georgia has benefited from this growing momentum for local, sustainable agriculture and has enjoyed its part of the excitement and growth.
“There’s this idea that farming is dying out as a profession, that it is really hard to make it as a farmer. All you hear about in the media is that big farms are going under – all we can say is that we’re doing it. It’s working.” – Jenny and Chris Jackson, Jenny Jack Farms
A Sustainable Career
The growing market demand, expanding options to get crops into the market, and the resurgence of small-scale sustainable farms are all yielding exciting opportunities for new farmers. There are so many opportunities available:
- Selling at local farmers’ markets
- Running Community Supported Agriculture programs to support their operations
- Conducting direct sales to restaurants and institutions seeking local, sustainable food
- Forming cooperative purchasing and sales ventures
- Taking part in agritourism as a form of eco-tourism
These options provide farmers with diverse and creative income sources that help support their farming enterprise as well as the local economy. In tandem with the financial benefits to the local economy, the local community is strengthened because of all the direct connections to the farmers and good food.
“We have been very lucky to tap into creative and diverse income sources to support our farm. We sell at a local farmer’s market, manage a growing CSA program, work with some restaurants, sell at a permanent farm-stand in downtown Atlanta and recently started an on-farm market during the week. We love connecting with the people who will be eating our food – it makes the hard work very worthwhile.” – Judith Winfrey & Joe Reynolds, Love is Love Farm, Douglasville, GA
Growing more Growers
The South lags far behind in advancing and supporting sustainable agriculture, yet the opportunities for success are growing steadily. A career in sustainable agriculture provides the chance to have a comprehensive and far-reaching positive impact on our environment, economy, our health, and our communities by growing food in a thoughtful and intentional manner. Sustainable agriculture is not just a trend but is a viable and popular option to creatively and sustainably address global climate crisis and water pollution issues.
“One amazing thing in Georgia is that everyone wants to be in contact and share ideas – it’s not a closed group. We are truly a community.” – Daniel Parson, Gaia Gardens in Atlanta
Many resources are available to budding and established sustainable farmers in addition to this curriculum. Georgia Organics is proud to provide the following resources:
- Resource-based website featuring a Grower’s Exchange virtual community and direct marketing tools
- Annual educational conference
- Farmer Network
- Ongoing educational classes for new and transitioning farmers
- Connection to a supportive community that wants to see you succeed
Food is in the critical intersection where health, the environment, and the economy meet. By improving the way food is grown, strengthening the community connections, and supporting local farmers, a shift to a localized, sustainable food system has the potential to reshape the way food is grown, distributed, and eaten in America.