World’s second-largest organic farmer discusses smaller farms

Written by Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN

Bringing farming back to the family farm or becoming your own farmer may no longer be an option, but it’s certainly not a bad thing.

In terms of climate change, part of the problem is that we’re moving away from a farming model that results in ecological benefits to a fragmented model where some agriculture may not be sustainable in its current form.

Plagued by naysayers, topography, infrastructure and societal changes, small farms could be a big first step for Canada

Steve Katz is an eighth generation farmer in Ontario, Canada who grows apples, peaches, plums, pluots, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, cherries, cherries, figs, almonds, grain crops, asparagus, cauliflower, watermelon, celery, tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, spinach, strawberries, spinach, melons, grapes, and lettuce. Most of the fruits and vegetables he grows are for Ontario’s summer farmers’ markets.

Is a small farm the wave of the future?

His farm, Lorneberry Farm, was recently recognized as the country’s second largest independent supplier of organic produce by the Organic Agribusiness Association. Katz raised his farm’s production to 1,200-1,350 tons of organic produce last year, which provided only 20% of his income, and makes him eligible for a special registration program from the Ontario government.

He recently organized a symposium on small farms and greenhouses in Ontario, and has also taught a course at Chatham-Kent College in his home province.

From farms like his, to a more progressive landscape including rooftop farm and ‘pods’ on people’s houses, it’s important for smaller producers to be recognized and respected.

How does this differ from other small farms?

Small farms have distinct advantages over large farms because they control every facet of their food, marketing and distribution. Because of that, small farms stand out as a preferred alternative to big food systems.

As the United States moves away from a global grocery store, as China becomes a destination for food supply chain ownership, and as other countries consider “germ-free zones,” it’s important for small farms to have the connections with those destinations, and to be able to trade with those markets.

They have unique insight that can help farmers become leaders in their communities, influencing their governments to pass more progressive legislation and important policies.

In terms of climate change, many theories suggest that there should be more micronutrient-rich food sources in our food supply, and food diversity, and small farms are best suited to produce sustainable food systems that include a number of different types of farm systems.

It’s also important for small farms to be recognized, respected and organized. Locally, which can be hard in the Midwest where they don’t look like places like Toronto, Ontario has its Small Business Coalition to support entrepreneurs and farmers, many of whom are operating one or two small farms. The group has recently organized a 1-2-3 Tour of Ontario, and is promoting micro tourism efforts by helping the province to join the many small businesses involved in the Green Orbit program.

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Why is it important to champion small farms?

A number of factors make small farms more sustainable. First, small farms are community-based, providing revenue to local farmers, with no need to divvy up ever greater portions of revenues between larger farms.

They don’t need a lot of space. Whereas large farms need 12 acres to produce 600 tons of produce, a family farm needs no more than six acres and produces 300 tons, and may even get that much in the first year. With no grid to use for irrigation, maintaining small farms means farmers do things like plow and tend their fields by hand. These small farms also have lower land and labor costs and are able to grow what is called organic produce in many cases, which increases the nutrient-richness of the food. Small, family farms are also cheaper to operate than large farms, as they employ less people.

Having larger family farms on food supply chain organizations can generate profits by creating arbitrage between bids from larger farms for food and then selling that food to smaller farms at a premium, but in turn could jeopardize access to food for those smaller farms.

Often, large farms promote hybridized super-plants, hybridised insects, and have horticultural staff that spend most of their time running machines and turning products into ready-to-use seed heads. Small farms have smaller staff, larger quantities, and have longer-term planning, making it possible to withstand conditions such as variable weather and drought.

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