What does the future of farming look like? Will we see an increasingly centralized, industrialized and commodity-driven model win out, or will a local and sustainable network of small farms become the main source of our food in the future? Here's how I think the future is going to shape up, and how small farmers (and wanna-be's) need to prepare.
Smart consumers. I think the single most important factor that will determine the future of farming is the educated consumer. I have many customers that are at least as plugged-in and aware of local and organic and sustainable food issues as I am. More and more people want to know where their food comes from, and how it was grown. They are aware they can't trust Big Agriculture or Big Government to look out for their best interests. And consumers are 'voting with their dollars', by choosing local and organic food when that choice is offered.
Food for health. This trend is also driven by increasing evidence that good, healthy, natural food is the best medicine. The graying, groaning baby boomers (of which I am one) are looking for cures for their aches and ailments. They are aware they can't depend on the increasingly over-taxed (in all senses of the word) 'sick care' system to look after them. Prevention is always better than correction; healthy food is prevention at it's finest.
Resource costs and resource vulnerability. No matter what you believe about the future of Peak Oil, or Peak Water, or Peak Soil, the truth is the cost of maintaining and providing all these things keeps going up. The oil doesn't have to be completely gone for the price to reach levels that put trucking or shipping in our food supply too expensive for the ordinary consumer.
And costs will keep going up for conventional agri-business as well. I've written before that 38% of the petrochemicals used on a conventional farm are for fertilizers. This will only get more expensive. And long supply lines are increasingly vulnerable to disruption from any number of sources.
Labour availability (and the lack thereof). Seems like every year its gets harder to find good farm helpers. Might have something to do with that aging and aching population I mentioned earlier. The average age of farmers is climbing, too. I think this means that some operators will have to look to more mechanization in the future, and most likely change how they grow some crops.
What is the future of farming for the
small operator? Number one, any type of 'commodity' production is dead
in the water. You need to get in touch with your end consumer, and focus
on growing quality not quantity.
Look for under-served niches or where you can replace imports. For example, except for apples, my part of Ontario grows little fruit. We import hundreds of millions of dollars worth each year. My plans for the future on New Terra Farm include establishing a permaculture orchard of nut and fruit trees, vines, berries and brambles.
I'm working on this plan with a very knowledgeable farm that has been doing this for 30 years. The plants we are choosing are well-adapted to this environment, require minimum care, no spraying of toxic chemicals, and will produce a variety of crops over my whole season. Note: I am NOT gonna grow apples! They are pretty much a commodity around here.
Focus on creating a longer productive season. We are also going to invest heavily in putting more crops under plastic. We plan on putting up more movable hoop houses this fall. We believe this will generate a significant part of our farm income in the future, as we strive to move some of our production to the other side of the calendar.
Co-opetition not competition. We are also looking to form closer working ties with some local farms and businesses. These folks are not
our competition; our competition is the cheap, crappy food coming here
by long-haul trucker or the proverbial slow boat from somewhere. If
together a bunch of local growers can provide a greater variety of food
to their community, everybody wins.
Use appropriate technology. Any tool that really saves you time will save you money, too. We are moving away from a lot of 'hand' operations to more mechanization and the use of tools like multi-row planters, flame weeders, and tractor-drawn cultivation equipment to keep up with the work and be more efficient - i.e. profitable. This is also necessary because of that lack of local farm labour. We recognize this is a trade-off against a possible depletion of some resources.
To wrap it all up, what all these things have in common is trying to keep more of the consumer's food dollar, and also keep food dollars in the community. Every dollar that stays in the community has a 'multiplier' effect as it circulates and is re-spent to buy more products in that community. The future of farming is local.
Selling more to the same customer is more efficient than trying to get more customers, especially if the new customers are farther away. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm is a master of this. The future of farming in fact looks a lot like the past of a couple generations ago; local growers providing the majority of food to an appreciative local community. Groovy!
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