I am worried about our future food supply, is there any way I can grow my own food and have it be some sort of sustainable agriculture business?

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Answered by: David, An Expert in the Food Savings Category
The Fields, The Sky

The food that fills most stomachs in the United States is a product of an agribusiness system with many well documented problems. Cheap corn and soybeans are the two main products that drive this system, with serious nutritional, energy and environmental consequences. Relatively cheap oil, farm subsidies and a favorable tax structure for the corporations that operate in this sphere, all keep this system in place.



The production of pasture-based locally raised food, using a particular set of very successful techniques is termed polyculture. These methods which have been developed by Polyface Farms and others, have been demonstrated to have numerous advantages over “factory food”. However, lacking comparable corporate and political backing and associated economies of scale, the products of these farms must be priced much higher than most consumers are willing to pay. Since most consumer decisions are made based on price, this limits the ability to meaningfully transform agriculture to this more sustainable model.

The Fields, the Sky (TFTS) provides a sustainable agriculture business structure which will serve to significantly increase the acreage of active polyculture farms, by funding the acquisition of farm land to be leased and eventually purchased by farmers who have been trained to use these improved agricultural methods. This will allow much greater amounts of these locally produced food products to enter the marketplace.



This business plan describes an easily duplicated model, similar to a franchise, for sustainable local food production on relatively small farms throughout the nation which will continue to increase the proportion of healthy food in the national diet, and which reduces the energy/environmental impacts associated with the status quo. Producing food in this way also requires a higher degree of labor input compared with the automated factory farming system, and creation of these jobs is an additional benefit, as is the retention of the circulation of money within local economies.

Background

Much of the focus of TFTS is on the raising of animals for meat and egg production, but using alternative methods which have been developed and optimized over many years. Meat production in its current form is wasteful, energy intensive and subjects animals to a degree of cruel treatment that is completely unnecessary. The current system to bring meat to the table relies on grain feeds to rapidly bring cattle or other livestock up to weight for slaughter. The factory type of farming used to produce these grains requires application of fertilizer, and use of very energy-intensive mechanized planting, tilling, watering and harvesting systems which are not sustainable in the current understanding of that term.

The alternative to this is a return to the traditional method using grazing for the animal’s entire life, with several modern refinements that improve productivity and which allow for production of other products such as poultry, raised rotationally on the same land. The accepted term for this is Management-Intensive Grazing, or MiG, the farmer’s primary role is the efficient continuous growing of grass, legumes and other forbs as the basis for this system, all the while building healthy soils. The farmer is also actively engaged in many other subsidiary daily activities to manage and maximize the growth of all the farm’s products. This general system uses the inherent strengths of interconnected living systems to capture the sun’s energy and convert it to protein with a minimum of other energy input and with no requirement for pesticides or fertilizers. In addition, managing land as perennial pasture serves to sequester carbon at a very efficient rate and greatly reduces water use.

Polyculture has been demonstrated to be very effective in achieving these goals over many years of existence at Polyface Farms in Virginia and by dedicated farmers throughout the United States. Eatwild on Vashon Island, Washington is an example of a current local information resource which links grass fed producers with one another, providing “comprehensive, accurate information about the benefits of raising animals on pasture.”

Model

The ability to meaningfully expand this type of agricultural system to make a difference, simply requires that farmers be allowed access to work tracts of suitable agricultural land which are individually large enough to sustain its residents through product sales and which will in aggregate add up to a significant and ever increasing percentage of agricultural land used in this way. This plan describes a model that has been developed to allow a subscription farmer (SF) to successfully raise food products of their choosing in sufficient quantity and with minimized risk. An inventory of potential farm lands will be maintained by TFTS which is reviewed by interested SFs before entering into a subscription agreement, through consultation with the local TFTS land specialist. These lands will be already owned and in the inventory of possible farms by TFTS and are generally held as pasture or vacant lands until they are slated for more intensive development by individual SFs.

The farmer must pay for his own training, which not only increases the chances for success by following a proven, regionally customized system, but also shows a strong level of commitment to the process. A lease fee is due from the farmer each month, which is pro-rated to start very low during the development phase, then ramps up as his first season’s product reaches harvest time. SFs will have the option to apply lease payments to eventual farm ownership, but will have no substantial down payment requirement other than their training fee.

For farms with no living quarters, outbuildings or other appurtenances, a number of modular designs are available for selection by the SF to be constructed on the site. These designs benefit from current advancements in energy savings, using solar, wind and other methods as well as other locally adapted siting and design features that decrease the energy footprint of the farm. The SF may elect to build his/her own structures or may request help from others within the local group of SFs to reduce costs.

Water management and prevention of ground and surface water pollution are also critical issues on any agricultural operation, even one that does not use chemicals. Manure, compost and other potential sources of water soluble nutrient loads must be managed carefully.

In this system, no one farmer has to “go it alone”, as they become introduced to the people and systems that have been proven to work during their training, and who are involved in a strong support role on an ongoing basis. In addition to the company support, local groups of SFs will form a support network ranging from the casual discussions that have always taken place among those who farm, to more structured functions such as sharing farm equipment and product marketing cooperation similar to a farmer’s cooperative.

TFTS is intended as an “open source” entity with no secrets and with an open attitude toward developing new information from others in the polyculture world and learning from their lessons. An important overall goal is to facilitate the growth of this type of farming to compete with and eventually to surpass factory farming, which will be especially relevant given the pending rise of oil prices in the coming years. Therefore there will be significant outreach to the public through media, schools and other means in order to spread the message about the advantages of polyculture and MiG.

TFTS will become a strong force in transforming a significant amount of farms to those managed with these sustainable methods, and this will continue to allow these types of farms to spread. However, any inherent economies of scale or other factors which allow for lower prices of products sold by TFTS farmers can potentially depress prices in the market, with negative effects on other polyculture farmers who may not enjoy such benefits. The structure of lease payments will be such that a portion of the SFs payments go into the TFTS general fund pool to acquire additional lands. With proper checks and balances, every attempt will be made to keep their market prices in line with existing independent farmers who also provide grass fed products.

TFTS will be based in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, with a later California office to be located in the Sacramento Valley. These two agricultural regions contain many millions of acres of potentially suitable farmlands that can be converted into polyculture farms, and also benefit from the proximity of nearby Agricultural Universities at Corvallis, Oregon and Davis, California.

A demonstration and teaching farm will be located in the Willamette Valley which is used for:

·     training of new SFS,

·     continuous development of improvements in management methods,

·     examples of energy efficient structures, water management facilities, composting systems and other appurtenances,

·     meetings and other events involving SFs as well as interested members of the public who may wish to become SFs,

·     school tours and other outreach programs to increase public awareness of polyculture advantages.

Although most of the learning is through observation and “doing” in the field, the demonstration farm will have a classroom, laboratory facilities, greenhouses, a dormitory and meeting spaces to facilitate all necessary functions.

Project Phasing

Phase One of the schedule calls for hiring of key staff, development of a means of establishing accepted farm management and business practices. Office and teaching facilities will be established near the site of a 200-acre demonstration farm, which will be used to teach current methods and to develop and quantify the effectiveness of farming methods.

Phase Two is primarily research into locally available suitable land and purchase of these farms in anticipation of SFs. An inventory of at least 30 properties will be maintained at all times for interested and qualified SFs. The California office and demonstration farm will also be developed at this time, benefitting from lessons learned at the Oregon facility.

Phase Three is the ongoing operation of TFTS, with farms in production, selling products, and making regular lease payments. At this stage reserve funds are being replenished by SF payments and an equilibrium has been achieved allowing on-going expansion with subsequent benefits to the investors.

This business plan provides a model for a sustainable agriculture business which properly motivated people can use to both grow their own food but earn a good livelihood, while reducing environmental impacts. There is no need to "go it alone" due to the training and franchise like nature which significantly reduces the potential for failure.

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