Food, Water & Shelter
We humans are highly adaptive and resilient, but we do need food, shelter and water to survive (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). To get those essentials, through recent history we’ve worked in jobs, most of which are located in buildings. But what happens when our built environment interferes with our food and water supply and disrupts diverse ecosystems? I’ll discuss the impacts on watersheds in a future blog post, but for now I’ll focus on food security.

If you journey through any suburb or city, and later travel through a rural area, it’s obvious that impervious surfaces created by roads, buildings, and parking lots make land unsuitable for growing food. Indeed, the clarion call in Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song Big Yellow Taxi is one to heed today:

They paved paradise, put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin’ hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

In 2005, in a study published in the journal of Environmental Health Perspectives, “Paving Paradise: The Peril of Impervious Surfaces,” researchers reported “pavements and other impervious surfaces cover more than 43,000 square miles—an area nearly the size of Ohio.”  (Today, nearly 20 years since that report, I could not find any updated information, but it seems very likely that the number of square miles has grown substantially since 2005).

A little local story, about Littleton
I have seen this tension play out in the town of Littleton, MA, which has a strong agricultural heritage, with several small farms and one apple orchard. To make a long story short, in 2012 some concerned Littleton citizens tried to get the owners of a small farm to sell their land to a land conservation organization instead of a housing developer. That particular deal never succeeded, for various reasons, but in the end that tiny band of citizens (about 16 people in total) did find a way to form the Littleton Community Farm. (Disclosure: I was briefly on the board of directors when it began.) The organization couldn’t save that particular agricultural parcel from being developed, but it has raised awareness about the importance of local agriculture (and how fragile that industry is).

10 years later, I think of it as “the little farm that could.” It is stronger than ever, and quickly found land to farm, on land that the non-profit leases from the New England Forestry Foundation.  More importantly, it turned land that was fallow into a productive farm that employs people, sells organic local produce to CSA members, and donates tons of fresh produce to needy people every year. That’s a win-win for everyone.

Nice to have, or need to have?
Many people want to preserve agricultural land for aesthetic and practical reasons. Besides being nice to look at farms, it’s lovely and convenient to have fresh local produce. We often think of these as “nice to have” features of a community, when actually they are “must have” elements to have a livable, healthy environment.  Why is farmland so important? Below are some reasons:

  1. Improves food security and quality. I love seeing those bumper stickers that say “No Farms, No Food.” We must remember that every time we eat a meal, we rely on farmers. Small farms allow communities to access fresh, nutritious, and diverse food options. Local food is fresher, because it doesn’t spend days in transit or weeks on some store shelf before it reaches your table. Local farms provide healthy, nutritious food not only to the people who live near the farm, but also to people in the region, via farmer’s markets that pop up seasonally to serve suburban and metropolitan communities.
  2. Creates less environmental harm to people and the planet. Small, local farms also fosters less dependence on industrial agriculture. Industrial farming depletes soil and uses chemical fertilizers that are byproducts of the fossil fuel industry and are often harmful to plants, wildlife and humans. Furthermore, growing local food means less dependence on shipping food via trains, planes and trucks that increase greenhouse gas emissions.
  3. Supports biodiversity and watershed protection. Unlike industrial farms, small farms tend to focus on diverse crop production and livestock management practices that promote ecological balance and protect local watersheds and wildlife habitats. Except for fences that can impede some wildlife crossings, farms also serve as wildlife corridors that connect green spaces.
  4. Supports farming as a profession. Let’s not forget that farms are businesses that employ people. Municipalities want revenue, and community members need jobs. As it stands now, there are more would-be farmers out there in the world than farms available; we should give more farmers a chance to start and grow their careers in agriculture.

Farms and climate change
In terms of climate change, it’s important to protect all open space, because meadows, fields and forests store and sequester carbon. Green space protection is one of the best (and easiest) ways to mitigate climate change. When it comes to protecting land, if the funds and opportunities are available, I vote to save as much as possible, whether farms, forests, or fields. But if I had to choose one over another, I would lean towards saving a farm, especially if the farm practices organic and/or regenerative methods. Not all farms are equally good (or bad) in terms of their environmental impact, particularly re climate change. Just because a farm is “small” (a relative term), doesn’t mean it is eco-friendly.  In an upcoming blog I’ll discuss the benefits of regenerative agriculture regarding ecological health and climate change.

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