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, as the 6th largest vegetable producing state 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 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 as well as 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,” fresh food;
- concern over the population’s collective environmental footprint;
- the link between epidemic public health concerns and overall quality of our food;
- and 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 agri-businesses 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 more and more are seeking responsible alternatives. 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, the current paradigm of modern American agriculture 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 in the state of Georgia. In 2006, the United States Geological Survey tested over 186 streams and over 5,000 wells in 51 regions. Every stream sampled contained one or more positive sample for pesticides. In agricultural areas, 97 percent of the samples had one or more pesticides and over 90 percent of fish in farming regions had detectable levels of pesticides.
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 55, rises and questions abound over who will grow our food in the future. Young people are not the only ones interested in advancing organic agriculture, however. With the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimating that agriculture is responsible for an estimated one-third of global warming and climate change, conventional farmers and second-career individuals are entering sustainable agriculture motivated by a longing to leave a lasting and positive impact on the world.
The return to sun-powered agriculture is also being fueled by concerns over public health and studies such as one released 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. U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to an estimated $20 billion in 2007 and are projected to reach an estimated $23 billion in 2008. In the National Restaurant Association’s 2007 Restaurant Industry Forecast, chefs ranked organic food as third on the list of the top 20 items of importance for 2007. Most states cannot keep up with this demand and presenting new opportunities for sustainable growers.
In the past 14 years, the number of local farmers’ markets nationally has more than doubled from 1,755 to 4,585, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Community-Supported Agriculture subscriptions, a program where consumers purchase shares in local farms and receive fresh, seasonal food, are exploding around the country and here in Georgia serving 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 benefitted 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.”
A Sustainable Career
The growing market demand, creative options to get crops into the marketplace, the critical lack of supply catalyzing a resurgence of small-scale sustainable farms – all these are shifting the paradigm and yielding exciting opportunities. Farmers now sell at local farmers’ markets; run Community-Supported Agriculture programs to support their operations; conduct direct sales to restaurants and institutions seeking local, sustainable food; form cooperative purchasing and sales ventures; and take part in agri-tourism 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.”
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.”
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
- Farmer mentoring program
- 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 and strengthening the community connection to and relationship with food and 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.