By Sean Zigmund
Since the dawn of agriculture, feeding ourselves has driven an increase in a myriad of other highly consumptive processes that boil down to a single equation: food = energy. Energy use will only increase as our population does, yet our primary source of energy, fossil fuel, is steadily decreasing. While renewable energy use in the U.S. is on the rise, its use is a fraction of what we use to live. Perhaps a neighborhood farming model is just what we need to move to a more sustainable future.
To compete with large agri-businesses, small farms find it harder and harder to bear the burden of higher operational costs. A shift in the marketplace is taking place, and innovative small farms are diversifying to make ends meet. However, those that are not willing to change are dropping off the farming map like proverbial flies. A leap backward to the neighborhood farm model is moving the sustainability movement forward like a train, but those folks just waiting at the station are going to find that the cost of a ticket to ride is their own willingness to adapt to change. This is not an easy task for many a small-scale farmer.
Take Richard Dirie of Dirie’s Dairy Farm in Livingston Manor, NY. Their farm has been operational since 1944, but the inconsistency of milk prices has kept him on the brink of closing down for several years. Add the unpredictability of Mother Nature, and it might look like a case of not why the farm will shut down, but when. His two sons are working full time to help make ends meet, but with only the parents left to manage the farm, there’s no time in the day to manage a change of operations.
The Diries sell raw milk off their farm but are still having trouble competing with regional brands, where costs are on the rise, yet the retail price of the milk basically stays flat. Enter the educated consumer.
Most people have the power to make the world what they want it to be, and in my mind that starts with how we spend money. The Dirie’s raw milk is only $4 a gallon, which is about the same price as a gallon of store-bought milk. I’ve decided to buy my milk from the Diries, and though it’s 10 extra miles, the ancillary benefits far outweigh the inconvenience. Would this concept work for every product I consume? Honestly, no, but if farming returns to the area, I know my grocery list will be smaller and my piece of mind will stabilize.
So where are those neighborhood farms? Well, for starters, in my own backyard. My one-acre parcel is now a diversified farm, and as Ghandi said, I’m being the change I want to see in the world. This year, Root n’ Roost Farm is producing mushrooms, produce, herbs, flowers, fruit, eggs and poultry (chickens and ducks), pigs, baked goods and crafts. We’re also going to produce our own biodiesel from waste vegetable oil, and we collect compost and scrap materials from area businesses to decrease our expenses and lighten landfill use. In my mind, these actions are the solutions to our problems and we’re partnering with other farms like the Diries to move farming forward—to the past. Want to get involved? Support a farm near you and maybe even lend a hand once in a while. You might just find you’re a budding future farmer yourself.
[Sean Zigmund (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is the owner of Root and Roost Farm (www.rootnroost.com ) in White Sulphur Springs, NY. He is a full time information technologist, as well as a farmer, educator, musician, alternative energy geek and dumpster driver.]