While touring several working farms this week, my ideas about agriculture were flipped upside down. I had seen the ag industry as the scary combine from Disney Pixar’s Cars, a giant and all-consuming monster that somehow gets food onto my table. I knew that productions of large monocultures (when one crop, or a single variety of a single crop, is the only thing grown on a farm) are bad, that the meat industry has huge environmental impacts (raising livestock takes up 1/4 of earth’s total land), and that understanding where your food comes from is extremely valuable.
Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL) is a Smithsonian project that works with citizen scientists and local landowners to promote biodiversity and sustainable land use in 16 northwestern Virginia counties. Because the program is based out of SCBI, we get a unique perspective on some of their research on campus as well as getting to visit two innovative farms that were near-by.
The Over Jordan Farm is home to Bean Hollow, a grass-fed sheep and cattle endeavor where the owner has been experimenting with short-burst rotational grazing. This involves splitting the grazing fields (which make up less than 1/2 of the total property) into 90, 1-3 acre temporary lots to allow for maximum “rest time” in between grazes. This rest time is vital for the grazed grass to shed its roots and add nutrients into the soil, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and re-grow. Bean Hollow has vastly improved their soil quality, reduced runoff, increased grass regrowth. Through their “restorative agriculture” approach, they also utilize wildlife corridors (these allow for the safe passage of wild animals and native plants through their property), and their owner gives presentations on his livestock model as an environmentally friendly but still profitable venture.
The other farm we visited that was part of VA working Landscapes was The Farm at Sunnyside. This farm is unique in that the property backs up to Shenandoah National Park. They employ a full-time conservation biologist to ensure their impact on the park and surrounding ecosystem is as beneficial as possible. *modern mass-production farming use a monoculture which drains the soil of nutrients, making it less and less productive and healthy overtime* Their fully-organic fruit and veg farm has measures like riparian buffers (stream-bed protection to minimize erosion), crop rotation (planting a variety of crops on a piece of land over the years to allow for the rebuilding of nutrient contents), and wildlife corridors that advance both the farm and surrounding ecosystem!
Sustainable and restorative agriculture practices are not only possible, but socially, environmentally, and fiscally beneficial as well!. Why don’t more people do it? The first issue is that the mean age of producers in the US as of 2017 is 57.5. Not all, but many of these older farmers use traditional methods like soil tillage, pesticide application, and heavy fertilizer use. And after all of that effort and environmental impact, 1/3 of all food produced globally is lost or wasted. Throwing away good food not only adds to food waste being the largest component entering municipal landfills, but the “land, water, labor, energy and other inputs used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing” of the discarded food is also wasted.
Of all the food we waste, fresh fruits and vegetables have the highest chances of being thrown away (45% of all fruits and veg produced are tossed). We have extraordinarily high cosmetic standards for our produce that are simply unsustainable *thanks instagram food porn*. Services like Imperfect Produce have started to come up and are trying to combat food waste and our societal beauty standards for produce. Last year, Imperfect Produce kept 30 million tons of produce that otherwise would have been left to rot in the field or tossed in a dumpster. Purchasing directly from local farmers can also bring about opportunities to buy “second class” produce. Many have bruised apples and peaches or lumpy carrots for a fraction of the usual price! Again, I’m not talking about rotting tomatoes or moldy potatoes, I mean healthy, fresh, delicious, but slightly misshapen fruit and veg. Like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said, “Make room in your heart for ugly fruits [and vegetables] so that they fill stomachs and not landfills.”
We all need food to survive but we don’t treat it with fervent respect it deserves. By learning about how food is produced, supporting local farmers, and taking steps to reduce our food waste, we can show an appreciation for the food on our plates and the people who helped get it there. Here are the UN’s suggestions for ways to reach their goal of #ZeroHunger worldwide. A cool suggestion that’s new to me is an app called Olio. It’s a platform for neighbors to share food that would otherwise go to waste!
Here is an ear-worm to drive the point home:
Dirt Made My Lunch by The Banana Slug String Band
And a playlist I made after having a vegetable garden revelation last year
thank you dirt, thanks a bunch!
dirt made your lunch
(and every other meal)