Small is Beautiful: The Value of Small-Scale, Regenerative Farming
Updated: Mar 25, 2021
We’ve all heard it before – bigger is better. But is it really?
As a first generation female farmer I'm less interested in growing our roughly 14-acre operation bigger. I definitely want our farm to grow, I'm just more interested in growing better and more diverse.
Small is not only beautiful, it is can also be more sustainable especially when it comes to farming practices that value biodiversity and soil health. As a regenerative farmer, I aim to leave the land better than we found it when we started Apple Acres Farm.
Keeping things human-scale in terms of acreage and equipment also reduced our startup and operational costs – a typical barrier to entry for new farmers.
Revitalizing Rural Communities
Transitioning away from large, monoculture industrial operations to small, diverse family farms would greatly benefit rural America.
In my own rural community (Houghton County), my husband and I are not alone in our desire to “work the land” in some fashion. Despite the short growing season and long winters in our northern climate, there is a small but growing group of farmers and homesteaders that are working to bring healthy, local, and delicious products to various parts of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
As is typical in rural farming communities, many have put up successful farm stands offering a variety of products in locations that may not have a grocery store nearby. A nice perk for locals and tourists!
Unlike large industrial operations that are comprised of hundreds if not thousands of acres of one or two commodity crops, small-scale farmers and homesteaders can make a comfortable living intensively cultivating less than 2 acres of land - all without the dependence on expensive tractors and other specialized equipment typical for larger operations.
At Apple Acres Farm we intensively cultivate less than 0.1 acres in annual vegetables and herbs but rely on our other 13+ acres of land for foraging activities and free-ranging our livestock. Our foraging activities are equally as important to our farm and include collecting sap to make maple syrup, harvesting wild and medicinal mushrooms, herbs, and fruit, and supplying firewood to heat our house and power our sap evaporator.
Keeping our farm startup costs relatively small was by design so that I could leave my engineering job and pursue farming full-time.
Aside from the financial sustainability achieved by gradually building a small-scale and diversified operation, our farm is more resilient because it spreads out the workload with multiple harvests throughout the year while at the same time minimizing the risk of experiencing a complete crop failure.
For areas struggling with job losses or the gray wave of farmers looking to retire, supporting small-scale farming operations – especially enthusiastic and often younger people interested in farming – is one way to keep and/or bring jobs back to our hard hit rural communities.
Turning Wastes into Farm Resources
Prior to the repurposing of nitrogen for bombs into ammonia for fertilizer post World War II, farmers previously sought out a variety of nutrient sources in order to maintain and build healthy soils that in turn produced healthy and nutritious crops. This balanced cycling of nutrients was severed when we began to remove livestock from the land and isolate agricultural practices into their own silos.
With the now near complete reliance on chemical inputs, industrial agricultural operations now primarily mine what’s left of their topsoil (via plowing) while livestock and their vital manure are confined in feedlots turning this otherwise valuable resource into a pollutant that needs to be carefully managed.
Effectively our modern industrial agriculture system's one-way linear resource flow is fragile and the exact opposite of a resilient natural system that cycles nutrients in a closed loop. In nature there is no such thing as "waste" - there are only outputs that become inputs to feed another part of the system.
Fortunately, many small-scale farmers continue to be resourceful and innovative because we have to be. We look for beneficial local waste streams we can tap into to return valuable (and free) nutrients to our soils. This is particularly true if we are starting with degraded soils and need large quantities of organic material to jump start the soil ecosystem.
Our interest in building topsoil here at Apple Acres Farm, for example, has led us to partner with local families, college students, and businesses to recycle their organic wastes. This reduces their trash, saves the county from landfilling methane-producing organic materials, and feeds our livestock (mostly those living in the soil but also offer treats for our above-ground livestock).
We also look forward to the spring and fall when people bag up their valuable leaves, which we turn into leaf mold for our gardens, apply as bedding material in the chicken coop, and use to improve areas of degraded soils via sheet mulching.
One person's trash is another person's treasure!
Find and Get to Know Your Local Farmer!
Supporting small family farms is an effective and rewarding way to enact positive change that can initiate other wide reaching ripple effects. Changing where and how we spend our food dollars can deliver faster change than any government policy or mandate.
Finding as well as buying from small and local farms is getting easier thanks to a renewed interest in eating healthy, local, and seasonal foods that have led to increased access via farmer's market, farm stands, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and even in some local grocery stores that partner with local producers.
Here at Apple Acres Farm, we are excited to launch our small market garden for the 2021 growing season. As we navigate this newest addition to our farm operations we will offer fresh produce at our farm stand.