Sustainability at the Agricultural, Economic and Community Level
When farmers and buyers interact, a bond is formed that links one to the other. A bond of trust and dependency develops that promotes an interest in the welfare of each other. This is the basis of a strong community – one in which various groups provide for each other. My own family depends on two main growers in the community: one provides us with seasonal organic vegetables throughout the growing season, allowing me the option to buy in bulk and preserve for the winter. The other provides us with frozen meat, year round, from humanely-raised animals that are free of hormones and medicines. In addition, many other producers stock our pantry with basic essentials such as fruit, honey, maple syrup, and grains.
Over the years, in exchange for trust in their growing practices and a belief that our food is healthy and nutritious, we will have provided some of the means required for each grower to continue his/her desired occupation. The people who grow the food are the same people who sell it, which means more dollars in their pockets at the end of the day. A small community forms between my family and the grower, while a larger community binds the grower and all of his or her customers to each other. Not only have has my family come to rely on the availability of these food products, but together we and other consumers have created a secure food system that supports a number of families in our community. This support for local food can almost be seen as an ethical trade barrier that promotes local farmers over all others.
Without a strong local farming community to supply basic vegetables, meat, and fruit, food must be imported, ultimately leading to local food scarcity. Consumers become prone to the ebb and flow of international economic conditions beyond their control and could be put into a difficult position if global food supplies were interrupted. Similarly, by creating local demand for their products, growers and producers reduce their dependency on the vagaries of international trade agreements or market demands. Although it seems all too obvious – there will always be a local market for any food grown to feed the surrounding community.
The term food sovereignty has been coined to refer to the consumers’ right to healthy and desirable local food and the producers’ right to grow food of their choosing and make a profit. In 1931, 32% of Canadians lived on farms, but today that number has dropped to less than 3%. Farmers are becoming a vanishing breed and no wonder with commodity prices at historic lows, often below the cost of production. In the past, farmers have been the bearers of traditional knowledge regarding the best adapted crops and animals for their area, and the loss of this information will only contribute further to the decline of local agriculture if we lose more family farms.
What is it that makes small scale farming a more sustainable type of farming? A farmer produces food but also stewards his/her land in such a way that the land can support farming year after year. Farmers may be more willing to grow vegetables they’ve never heard of if there appears to be a big enough local market, leading to increased diversification of crops and animals. On a smaller farm, a grower is more likely to plant a winter cover crop, intercrop plants to keep away pests, and rotate crops to discourage disease. On smaller holdings, one is likely to see a mix of animals and plants, which ensures organic fertilizer is available to nourish the plants and fodder is grown right where the animals best use it....right under their feet.
All of these practices encourage biodiversity on the farm, which ultimately maintains a healthy ecosystem for all who live on the land and even for society at large since the preservation of agricultural land around our cities preserves wildlife habitats and keeps our environment healthy. A healthy and sustainable agricultural system is a pre-condition for food security, and this system is dependent upon regional crop diversity.
On a larger scale, buying local food reinvigorates local economies by keeping money re-circulating through the rural communities, creating new jobs and boosting farmers’ incomes. Rural Canada provides a community and a way of life for not just farmers, but also for an increasing number of urban commuters. A strong economic base provides adequate social, medical, security, and retail services to this population, which again keeps incomes circulating through the rural economy.