By Dr. Mercola
While large-scale monocrop farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have overtaken family farms in the U.S., 80 percent of the world’s food supply still comes from small family-operated farms.
These farms also employ about 40 percent of the global workforce. As noted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations:1
“Family farms are also the custodians of about 75 percent of all agricultural resources in the world, and are therefore key to improved ecological and resource sustainability.”
The same sentiment is echoed in the featured documentary “Those Who Sow,” written by members of the agronomy association Agro et Sac à Dos, which notes that our current food supply could actually feed nearly 12 billion people, almost double the current population.
To investigate the diversity, challenges and benefits of family farming around the world, a group of agronomists visited farmers in India, France, Ecuador, Cameroon and Canada.
Farming Is a Means Out of Poverty in India
In India, diversity helps keep a family of 35 well-fed and well-nourished without ever having to buy food from the local market. Showing the agronomist around his farm, the farmer notes the many different foods being grown, including rice, fruits and vegetables.
In addition to allowing the extended family to enjoy a life of self-sufficiency, some of the produce is also sold, providing the family with income. Not all family farms are as diversified. Some, even those in developing nations like India, focus on one main product, such as milk production.
By providing infrastructure, training and financing, Amul, which is the largest dairy cooperative in India, has provided previously poverty-stricken people with a lucrative business option. For many, cow ownership has become a way to rise out of poverty.
Dairy farmer Bhagha Thakor, who owns four cows, makes as much money off their milk each day as he would working as a laborer for five days on someone else’s farm.
Thanks to Amul, more than 3 million farmers now make a decent living selling milk, and the majority of them have less than five cows. Through this cooperative, these millions of small-scale farmers are also able to satisfy India’s demand for dairy products.
Poverty and hunger are still prevalent in India though, and projects that promote access to various means of food production are in high demand. This includes loans, access to land and water, as well as agricultural training.
Family Farming in Developed Countries
Family farms are not relegated to developing nations like India. In France, before World War II, the majority of the country’s food supply came from small family farms. Today, a much smaller yet thriving farmers’ community still exists.
To remain competitive and profitable, farmers have had to expand and specialize. Visiting a family farm in Troume, the team gets an inside view of one of these French food producers.
Specializing in pork production, the Levesque farm quadrupled production between 1978 and 2000. At the same time, three-quarters of the family farms in the area disappeared, unable to stay competitive.
These kinds of expansions and consolidations have allowed French farmers to not only provide food security for the nation, but have also turned France into a major food exporter.
However, expansion, consolidation and specialization have their drawbacks. The Levesque family can only produce one-third of the grains needed to feed their pigs. The rest must be bought. Some staples must even be imported from other countries.
Family farming can also take a toll on the environment. As noted in the film, minerals in soybeans, which are fed to the pigs, eventually end up in soil and water as the pigs’ waste is used as fertilizer. Problems can ensue when these minerals build up, such as the development of green algae.
It bears noting that just because a farm is family run does not mean it adheres to safe, regenerative agricultural methods, although more and more farmers are starting to recognize the need for more sustainable practices.
Farms using regenerative methods are far less likely to have a negative impact on the environment, as they work with nature and ecology rather than against it.
Farmers Can and Will Adapt to Changing Demands, but Need Consumer Support
The Levesque family is working toward producing more antibiotic-free pork, which they recognize is better for consumer health.
But it can be difficult, as efficiency and low cost tend to be two opposing forces that farmers need to weigh. Ultimately, consumers' behavior plays an important role, as they either will or will not pay a particular price for a given product.
“What we need to remember is that family farmers are quite capable of adapting to the changing demands of society, so long as we support them and pay them properly,” the film notes.
When it comes to dairy production, French farmers need a minimum of 25 to 30 cows to remain viable. The cost of land, equipment and livestock prevents most people from taking up farming in the first place.
You need an estimated €1 million just to get started — a hefty investment for most. However, here too there are farm incubator programs that aid young people to get into the field, both literally and figuratively.
Farming Export Products Is Risky Business
In Cameroon, many farmers specialize in the production of coffee and cocoa, which are exported to other countries. However, while national cooperatives like Amul in India help stabilize prices, the export producers in Cameroon and elsewhere face much higher risks due to the fluctuation of global prices.
In the 1990s, when global coffee production increased, income from this commodity dropped sharply. As a result, coffee farmers in Africa faced grave difficulties.
Still to this day, many cannot afford to produce coffee, focusing instead on diversifying their crops and growing foods that can be sold locally. As noted by one former coffee farmer, by focusing on food crops, he can at least feed himself even if no one wants to buy it.
This shift toward diversification and local distribution and sale has helped protect farmers from the risks associated with exports to the global market. Produce from Cameroon has also entered the African regional market, being bought locally by middlemen who then transport and resell it in neighboring countries.
In Cameroon, men traditionally support their families by growing cash crops that are sold, while the women grow food for personal consumption. A group of women visited by the team has developed significant insight and knowledge about gardening, creating complex and diverse crop associations that help defend against pests and limit the risk of crop failure.
A significant problem facing farmers in Cameroon is the conflict between crop farmers and traditional transhumance herders. Broken fences and livestock grazing on cash crops and vegetables cause much strife. To adapt to these changing environmental and human conditions, traditional nomadic herders have been encouraged and in some cases more or less forced to settle in one location.
Some have developed entirely new livestock practices to rear livestock on a small amount of land, while others have abandoned tradition and converted to growing vegetables.
The Rise of Agroecology
Around the world, farmers are waking up to the adverse effects of agriculture. While chemicals and machines have allowed farms to expand and increase production, there’s growing awareness about how these strategies harm the soil, ecology and ultimately, human health.
As a result, a growing number of farmers are transitioning over to more sustainable and regenerative methods that do not rely so heavily on chemical and technological means. While regenerative strategies may appear “novel” to many, especially younger generations, it’s really more of a revival of ancestral knowledge.
This includes strategies such as crop rotation, diversification, cover crops, no-till, agroforestry and integrated herd management. For example, on John Mbah’s cocoa plantation native trees grow interspersed with the cocoa trees, providing much needed shade. Other fruit-bearing trees also grow on his farm. The Frescaline family in France also discusses the benefits of having food crops and livestock together, noting “there are only benefits” to this strategy.
According to the film, “production diversification seems to be an important lever to promote agroecological processes.” However, agroecological processes also tend to be more labor intensive, and in order for farmers to make the transition, they must be properly compensated for the extra work. As noted by American rancher Harry Stoddart, “a sustainable farm must sustain the farmer first before it can sustain society and the environment.”
“If this condition is respected, this type of family agroecological agriculture could generate income in rural areas. By generating more jobs per acre, it has real potential to reduce unemployment in the north and the south. It would also help decrease the rural exodus, and prevent the swelling slums in developing countries where the population continues to grow rapidly,” the film says.
The Importance of Community Supported Agriculture
Community supported agriculture (CSA) programs can make a big difference in how well a family farm can survive and thrive, as discussed by the Canadian farmer featured in this film. While the rules differ from one CSA to another, participating farms typically sign up new members during the winter months for the upcoming growing season.
As a CSA member, you basically buy a “share” of the vegetables the farm produces, and each week during growing season (usually May through October) you receive a weekly delivery of fresh food.
Joining a CSA is a powerful investment not only in your own health, but in that of your local community and economy as well. Thriving CSAs can help revitalize a community and allow residents to form strong bonds with the farmers who grow their food. This helps build a stronger, safer and more sustainable food system. It’s also really helpful for the farmer, who is able to collect money needed to seed, sow and harvest up-front.
Another way to change your diet for the better and promote a more stable and sustainable food system is to grow some of your own food, even if it’s just a few pots on your balcony. During World War II, 40 percent of the produce in the U.S. was grown in people’s backyards in so-called "Victory Gardens,” and this trend has started taking root once again.
If you’re unsure of where to start, I recommend starting out by growing sprouts. Broccoli, watercress and sunflower sprouts are foods that virtually everyone can and would benefit from growing. It's inexpensive, easy, and can radically improve your overall nutrition.
Supporting Your Local Farmers Is an Investment in Your Health and Helps Build Stable, Sustainable Food Systems
As noted by Stoddart:
“The piece I think consumers have to understand is that the agricultural food system is a co-creation of consumers’ choices driving farmers’ choices. The way the system is set up today, there’s a huge wall between consumers and farmers, in the processing, distribution and retailing, where the only real thing that passes through is price. Values really don’t pass back.
So if consumers want ... a different farming system, agricultural food system, then they have to make different choices. And the only real way to do that is through direct connections, whether that’s farmers’ markets, CSA programs, working with a food coop in the city, purchasing from farmers and working with consumers.”
Your best bet for finding healthy food that is fresh and in season is to connect with a local farmer that raises crops and animals according to organic standards, even if they’re not certified organic. If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods:
EatWild.com provides lists of certified organic farmers known to produce safe, wholesome raw dairy products as well as grass-fed beef and other organic produce. Here you can also find information about local farmers markets, as well as local stores and restaurants that sell grass-fed products.
The Weston A. Price Foundation has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.
The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass-fed meats across the U.S.
This website will help you find farmers markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats and many other goodies.
A national listing of farmers markets.
The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs and markets near you.
The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO "organic" production from authentic organic practices.
If you're still unsure of where to find raw milk, check out Raw-Milk-Facts.com and RealMilk.com. They can tell you what the status is for legality in your state, and provide a listing of raw dairy farms in your area. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund2 also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.3 California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.