Small Farmers and Environmental Benefits

Many of today’s young farmers (and a good number of older, thoughtful small operators) are committed to farming in a manner that creates minimal environmental harm (I think any human land use, by definition, creates environmental and ecological change to the landscape)…and produces substantial environmental benefits.

Unfortunately, most communities do not provide financial support for these new, small farm environmental benefits. Already in a financially stressed situation, small farmers could realize real improvements in their economy if communities began to 1) value the environmental benefits provided by sustainable small farms, and 2) pay small farmers for the community assets they are creating year after year.

USDA, through its NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service), provides incentive payments to farmers. The payments, however, are to address resource concerns…correct an environmental harm or environmental problem (the farmer allows his livestock to pasture in a stream area…NRCS pays for fencing and stream restoration).

With two partner organizations (New Urban Farmers in Pawtucket, RI and the African Alliance Growers Collaborative in Providence, RI) we’ve been working to 1) determine the agro-ecological areas where small farmers are creating environmental benefits, 2) analyze if any of the eco-benefits fit into the structure of USDA NRCS conservation practices and practice payments, 3) if appropriate, expand the payments USDA NRCS is making to small farmers to better align their incentives with the work of small, organic, and urban growers, and 4) examine how other community based agricultural organizations (primarily state conservation districts) might create funds to ‘invest’ in small farm environmental asset building.

From our research, there are six areas where small farmers are creating substantial environmental benefits:

1) Improving the physical, chemical, and biological conditions of soil through compost, mulch, manure, and remineralization practices.

2) Managing nutrients to protect from runoff, improve air quality, and improve production characteristics.

3) Managing weeds and pests with natural methods that improve plant communities/wildlife habitat, enhance the quality of forage, and control pests.

4) Managing water for water control, irrigation, runoff, and water harvesting.

5) Managing farm infrastructure for conservation improvements – tree and shrub establishment, vegetative barriers, etc.

6) Managing farm energy uses to reduce energy use, and improve energy efficiency.

Small farmers are utilizing both novel methods (those developed in the last 30 to 50 years through biodynamic -realizing its’ non-scientific aspects – and permaculture practices utilizing new ecological science) – as well as revisiting old, natural farming processes – to realize their sustainability goals.

These benefits not only increase their farm productivity, they also improve environmental qualities in their communities. They are becoming an increasingly responsible ‘underground’ community of economic asset builders related to those environmental improvements.