Critical to rebuilding sustainable and resilient food systems, conversations about the future of agriculture must include envisioning a variety of alternatives to the conventional industrial models that degrade the environment, people, animals, and local economies. There are many possible solutions that will instead build healthy soils and healthy communities — solutions that are sustainable environmentally, economically, and socially. We must consider the wide range of possibilities so as to find solutions that are appropriate for each region and each community.
Convention, or what is common, transforms through time and isn’t the same from region to region. It is reflective of the local history and culture, as well as the resources available. In developed nations, large-scale industrial agriculture is currently the norm. However, the United Nations reports that 70% of the world’s food supply is grown by small farmers, many of whom are using traditional methods that have been practiced for thousands of years. There are those who argue that we can’t feed the world without industrial agriculture, but it looks like a lot of folks are doing it. And they are doing it in a lot of different ways. That’s because, similar to what is conventional, what is sustainable isn’t the same everywhere. It is highly dependent on the unique set of local characteristics—history, culture, economy, politics, climate, soil, topography, and availability of resources such as water, land, fertilizer, pest control options, and farming knowledge.
We all have our stories. In the Ozarks region of Northwest Arkansas where I call home, our conventional agriculture has been shaped by rocky, clay soils, rough terrain, pests, diseases, and highly variable climatic conditions that limit the large-scale production of grain crops, vegetables, and fruits. The majority of our agricultural receipts are now from livestock production, mostly confinement poultry operations, cattle, and hay. We are home to several giant multinational corporations headquartered here, which are based on conventional industrial agriculture and distribution systems, and that are an integral part of our regional economy.
At the same time, much of Northwest Arkansas is rural and has a rich agricultural heritage of small farming and backyard growing. In the past our small farmers commercially produced apples, strawberries, tomatoes, grapes, sorghum molasses, and milk. As agriculture became more centralized, prices dropped and local processing facilities disappeared, challenging the economic viability of these products. Beset by ingenuity and a fierce independence shaped by our rugged conditions and relative isolation, many people continued to engage in small-scale agriculture to feed their families and their local communities. They are joined by many new farmers as well as former contract growers who are turning to unconventional methods that are sustainable for our region. As a result, pastured poultry, beef, and pork are becoming an important part of our local food landscape.
Although livestock production has been vilified by many in the environmental community for being unsustainable, others are beginning to understand and argue that it is highly dependent on production practices and local conditions. In the case of Northwest Arkansas, livestock production on perennial pastures is a viable way to preserve large areas of our agricultural landscape, store carbon, and produce food without degrading our soil and water resources, since our soils are marginal and not best suited for large volume production of plant-based products that require tillage. Some small farmers in our area are also using soil-building no-till raised bed methods that are appropriate for our landscape to produce vegetables and calorie crops. It will take many solutions to continue making sustainable farming capable of feeding the world.