Why local? Part III: Environmental sustainability
Updated: Jun 7
In this next look at why I choose to invest in local businesses (i.e. shop at Farmers Markets & locally owned grocery stores, eat at locally owned restaurants, imbibe at locally owned watering holes, etc.) I’m looking from the Earth-y perspective. Not just because we celebrated Earth Day recently, but that is convenient timing, huh? ;)
This angle is a doozy though because when it comes to examining the environmental advantages that local small scale food growers and producers have over larger, centralized, and global corporations, it quickly becomes clear that there are no straightforward answers.
For starters, there are differing opinions about what constitutes a “small scale farm”. But, for the sake of this post, I will use the USDA definition - “a small farmer is defined as one that grows and sells between $1,000 and $250,000 per year in agricultural products” (Dawson, 2011).
Now comes the next challenge - how do I know which farmers and producers in SLO County fit that criteria?
Well….. I don’t, truthfully. But I do know that farmers who are selling at Farmers Markets, to local grocery stores, via their own CSA (community supported agriculture), or through other locally owned and operated outlets, are more likely to fit this criteria. I deduce this from my knowledge that small scale farmers typically lack the production quantities that large shippers and distributors require, which is at least part of the reason they sell via local outlets.
Ok, now that I’ve established which growers and producers are likely small scale, let’s dive into more potential reasons that shopping small scale is/will be my priority.
Julia's Juices sells their locally sourced products at farmers markets around the county.
(Photo courtesy of North County Farmers Markets Association.)
There are various pros and cons of small scale farming versus large scale farming when it comes to environmental benefits.
While small scale growers tend to grow more diverse crops (Cho, 2012) which is beneficial to soil and ecosystems, these growers don’t have the same efficiency as larger scale growers, so their energy inputs (human, renewable, non-renewable) tend to be higher.
There is the environmental advantage of smaller scale growers using fewer and/or less synthetic inputs (fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, etc.) which means less energy cost for production of those inputs, and less nitrogen and carbon off gassing from the soil.
However, to be most effective, this use of fewer inputs has to be coupled with catch and/or cover crops (Smith and Gregory, 2012) to keep those greenhouse gasses (GHG) locked in plants (catch crops) and/or the soil (cover crops). Not every small farmer has the time, resources, or understanding of the value of catch and/or cover crops, let alone the means (or the climate) to plant them.
The good news is that more incentives and support, including (hopefully) in the Farm Bill, are being directed toward climate forward agricultural techniques (such as catch/cover crops), and small, medium, and large scale farming operations are taking notice.
Small to medium scale operations are more likely to implement those climate forward techniques, while “large corporate-owned farms don't want to put in the time or effort to take care of the land” (Ahl, J., 2023). Techniques that improve soil health, for example, may not be an investment corporations are interested in because they want to plant a marketable crop. This gives more “points” to our small and medium growers in regard to where I plan to spend my money.
Furthermore, in addition to lax attitudes on soil health, studies show conventional large-scale operations use much more water than small scale operations and that due to “cropping inputs, fuel, packaging and shipping” (Stone, Thompson, and Friedrichsen, 2022), their overall contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is higher.
Local organic certified grower Blosser Urban Garden sells their produce to various local grocers including the Avocado Shack, pictured here. (Photo courtesy of the Avocado Shack.)
Phew! This barely scratches the surface of all of the environmental implications of food production, but it’s already rather complex. How is a consumer going to figure out what to eat with all of this information (and more) to consider?!
Me personally, I will tend to choose to shop with small and medium scale producers as well as the local restaurants and watering holes they supply. I'm motivated by the care and attention these folks give to their land and ecosystem.
Furthermore, I think small growers and producers (including food and beverage business, grocers and restaurants) have more control over their business (mostly) because they can be hands-on. They have more choice in the inputs they choose (growers), ingredients they use (producers and restaurateurs), and the management of their land and/or business.
Of course, they may get priced out by their larger competitors, which would mean they would have to forfeit some control. But I believe that if I am investing in their products, it gives them the revenue and encouragement to continue to improve their practices. So even if they are only growing a single crop now (aka monoculture), or have limited locally sourced ingredients on their menu, providing them more business can assist their ability to diversify their crops and locally sourced menu items.
There are so many constraints on growers and food/beverage companies (regulations, land accessibility, available labor, etc.) and they have to work within a system that is not set up to give them any advantages. Therefore I want to do whatever part I can to connect them to resources (through Slow Money SLO work and/or by shopping with them) with the goal of inspiring others to do the same.
I think together we can bring change to the system and give small producers a fighting chance to realize sustainable businesses.
If you or a small food, beverage, or farm business you know has an environmental mission and would like support to grow in a sustainable way we are here to help! Check out our resources page and/or contact us!
Ahl, J. 2023. More Midwest farmers are planting 'cover crops' in the off-season to help the climate. Morning Edition; National Public Radio.
Cho, R. (2012). How Green is Local Food? Columbia Climate School. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2012/09/04/how-green-is-local-food/
Dawson, B. 2011. So, what is a small farmer? Small Farm News. University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=4222
Smith, P. and Gregory, P. 2012. Climate change and sustainable food production. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, Volume 72 Issue 1.
Stone, T., Thompson, J., and Friedrichsen, A. (2022). Research shows significant environmental benefits of local food production. College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Iowa State University.