Can Rebulding Local Food Systems Help Promote Renewable Energy?

April 29, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

This is part 2 of our serialization of Chapter 4 (Energy) from the latest Resilience guide, "Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable & Secure Food Systems". This excerpt looks at some areas where small to mid scale farming might have the edge. 

Read Part 1, Read Part 3

Image RemovedFarming is about energy flows. “Food production” is about a terminal point in the act of agriculture.

As soon as we begin using the word “farming” again, all of the implicit associations with farming begin to reemerge in our shared thoughts and language—planting and harvesting seasons, the cumulative wealth of generations, the farmscape, the role of farms within the community. Suddenly, place, time, and the stewardship of inherited traditions all start to become important again. We can quantify production, but we can qualify farming. That is to say, we can instill it with values, not just interpret it through metrics.
These days, when we attribute values that we think define good ecological farming practices, we generally tend to speak of “sustainable farming.” Sustainable farming is the careful management of energy flows, not just to get to one final product at the end of a season but to ensure that those energy flows allow for a regenerative use of the land far into the future. What better way to think about food and farming than through a pie chart? Figure 4-4 clearly depicts the sticky fingers in the energy pie at this point in time. It’s obvious: we are overly dependent upon photosynthesis that occurred millions of years ago to fuel the growth of our modern farms through fossil fuels. It’s also worth noting that fertilizer and pesticide production is heavily dependent upon fossil fuels, not just for powering the manufacturing process but as primary components for many of those products.
These on-farm energy consumption figures are staggering in their enormity. Sadly, renewable energy sources do not even appear in the data, although there is a small renewable energy component in the electricity sector. Trying to envision how little ol’ local can begin to confront the farming sector’s entrenched dependence on fossil fuels is challenging even for the best of optimists.
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It’s worth considering the growing vulnerabilities in the current system (although this is more an exploration of potential opportunity than an exercise in optimism). Most farmers in the United States are “price takers.” In other words, these farmers cannot quickly change their asking price for their products when energy prices surge. Rather, they are all too often in the position of taking the going market price, perhaps with consternation but ultimately little recourse. This is particularly true in national and international wholesale and commodity markets in which individual farmers have almost no leverage; the smooth and invisible hands of supply and demand almost always trump the calloused hands of any farmers in those expansive markets. Farmers selling in direct local markets still have some control in aligning asking price with energy costs (sometimes by way of face-to-face dialogue with buyers). Local markets, therefore, can give farmers an economic edge amid volatile energy prices. Nonetheless, the energy consumption problem remains largely unaddressed. The burning question lingers: Can the rebuilding of local food systems help minimize on-farm energy usage as well as promote renewable energy sources?
In this case, “perhaps” may be a better answer than a definitive “yes.” Typically, local food systems can better nurture smaller-scale agriculture than can national and global systems. And much of the energy use on farms is a direct result of scale and farming methods. Small-scale agriculture tends to require fewer fossil-fuel inputs than large-scale agriculture. When biointensive methods are utilized, small-scale agriculture also tends to be more productive on a per-acre basis.8 Of course, any such change in shifting toward human-powered systems means that we need a dramatic increase in the number of farmers, as well as supporting infrastructure in each sector of the food system—appropriately scaled infrastructure that is economically viable.
However, before we risk becoming utterly small-minded and completely lose focus on the bigger picture, we have to think bigger about ways to maintain and rebuild what sustainable agriculture expert Fred Kirschenmann and colleagues call the “agriculture of the middle.” Without it, local supply and demand for most agricultural products in virtually all regions of the country will remain out of balance. For Kirschenmann and his colleagues, agriculture of the middle “encompasses a spectrum of farms and ranches that are declining because they are too small to be served well by commodity markets and too large to be served well by direct markets.
Most Agriculture of the Middle farms are characterized by: (1) their size; (2) their business organization; and (3) the production and marketing strategies they adopt to remain viable.”9 In other words, these midscale farms are concentrating on producing significant amounts of food—too much to direct-market but too little to sell as commodities—utilizing farming methods that demonstrate a sensitivity to ecological concerns, animal welfare, and community well-being. Imagine a grass-fed beef farm with several hundred cattle, an organic grain operation of several hundred acres, or a farm raising three hundred heritage-breed pigs. Each of these operations is not only midscale but also focused on certain explicit values related to its farming practices—values that have traction in the marketplace.
But can midscale agriculture help mitigate energy demands in the on-farm sector? Perhaps. Kirschenmann and his colleagues feel the primary economic solution for midsize farms is to participate in “values-based food supply chains.” In other words, their marketing should be based in large part on the methods they use to produce their goods, organically and otherwise. Organic farming methods are almost always more energy efficient than conventional methods, regardless of scale, simply due to reduced fertilizer and pesticide use. The elimination of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides would shave off about one-third of American farming’s energy inputs.
There can be energy trade-offs in going organic, however. Vegetable, grain, and fruit operations may eliminate many or all of their off-farm fertilizer and pesticide inputs, but a portion of those energy savings is sometimes partially compromised by the necessity of replacing these field applications of inputs with increased fieldwork. Not using herbicides often means that a farmer must cultivate the soil frequently in order to keep aggressive weeds at bay. Giving up the spraying of particularly potent fungicides and pesticides in an orchard can require the farmer to spray organically approved substances such as copper and sulfur-based sprays with increased frequency, since the protective effects from these less harmful substances often don’t last as long as their conventional counterparts. Using a tractor for additional cultivation, mowing, or spraying can diminish the anticipated energy savings, but there are also obvious resilience-building benefits with shifting to organic management strategies.10
What a farmer does to decrease his or her energy consumption is often quite hidden from the ordinary consumer. However, within a local market, energy-conservation efforts and investments on behalf of the farmer can be highlighted. The hallmark of the current local food push in the United States is undeniably awareness: awareness of the food we eat, the farms we support, the communities we inhabit, the investments we make. A farmer focused on energy conservation has some serious bragging rights. While the farmer may not have a bully pulpit in the national marketplace to convey his or her energy-conscious advances, local marketing does allow the farmer the opportunity to demonstrate forward-thinking commitments by means of farmers’ market displays, farm tours, school presentations, and other such venues.
It can be a challenge to inform consumers just what measures a farm is taking to reduce its own energy consumption. Sound bites, labels, and certifications simply don’t tell the tale. Part of the farmer’s task is to convince consumers to invest not just in the farm but in its decision making. If consumers are willing to patronize a farm based in part on its approach to energy use, they can help support the farmer’s transition to less energy-intensive farming methods. In most cases, energy-conservation efforts on the farm represent cost savings over the long term. As one farmer makes the change and can demonstrate the benefits, that decision will reverberate throughout the local farming community, encouraging other farmers to take similar measures.
The other approach to this energy and agriculture question is perhaps the simplest: the YIMBY (yes, in my backyard!) approach. There’s little wasted fossil-fuel energy in home gardens, balcony vegetables, backyard livestock, community gardens, and tightly designed homesteads. While it may require some energy investment on an individual basis, it’s a good reminder: the more balanced our lives, the more balanced our diets.
8. John C. Jeavons, “Biointensive Mini-Farming,” Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 19, no. 2 (2001): 81–83.
9. “Characterizing Ag of the Middle and Values-Based Food Supply Chains,” Agriculture of the Middle website, January 2012,
10. It is not commonly understood that organic vegetable production can require increased field cultivation to reduce weed pressures and that organic fruit production often utilizes more frequent sprayings of less potent materials than in conventional fruit production. These energy tradeoffs can be mitigated to some degree with other management practices that do not require fossil fuels, but it is important to bear in mind that virtually every agricultural practice has its tradeoffs. Having a clear end goal can help a farmer determine which practices to adopt and reject.
‘Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable & Secure Food Systems’ is book three from Post Carbon Institute’s ongoing series of Resilience Guides.
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Vegetables image via shutterstock.

Philip Ackerman-Leist

Philip Ackerman-Leist, author of Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems (2013) and Up Tunket Road: The Education of Modern Homesteader (2009), is a professor at Green Mountain College. There he established the farm and sustainable agriculture curriculum,  is director of the Green Mountain College Farm & Food Project and also founded and directs a Masters in Sustainable Food Systems (MSFS) — the nation's first online graduate program in food systems, featuring applied comparative research of students' home bioregions. His latest book is A Precautionary Tale: How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved Its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement  He and his wife, Erin, farmed in the South Tirol region of the Alps and North Carolina before beginning their sixteen-year homesteading and farming venture in Pawlet, Vermont. With more than two decades of "field experience" working on farms, in the classroom, and with regional food systems collaborators, Philip's work is focused on examining and reshaping local and regional food systems from the ground up. View Philip's CV Request an interview Request as a speaker

Tags: agriculture, food production, Renewable Energy