The Organic 1%: Sustainable Farming in a Broken System

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A farm worker sprays insecticide on newly planted strawberries, on a farm along the Pacific Coast.

By: Cyndie Hoffman
Local, sustainable food has become a regular part of our everyday culture as demonstrated through the growing interest in school gardens, Community Supported Agriculture, local farmers’ markets, underground dining clubs, and organics in general. This enduring trend in sustainable food reignites a question posed on Triple Pundit two years ago: “Is Sustainable Farming Going Mainstream?” Unfortunately not at all as the sustainable food hypetrumps the numbers.

In 2008 organic cropland represented only 0.7 percent in the United States and, at the current growth rate, it is expected to reach not more than 2.5 percent by 2050.

Much of the momentum and buzz in the organics industry has been sparked by key icons and influential leaders who have driven the conversation through thought-provoking books, films, TV shows, and other media engagements. Storytelling about food issues has changed the way Americans view and think about food. Since Michael Pollan unveiled Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, vivid images of cattle crammed together in CAFOs and swimming in antibiotic-infused manure occupy the minds of many. And, when Jamie Oliver visited schools in 2010 and discovered that kids confuse potatoes with tomatoes and school bureaucrats call french fries a vegetable, education about where food comes from has become increasingly popular.

The work continues as sustainable agriculture advocacy groups like Roots of Change are at the frontline strategically mapping a path to a sustainable food system in California. Yet, major impediments to significantly scaling sustainable farmland beyond the <1% share remain:

  • A significant amount of our nation’s farmland is being turned over for development. For example, 23 million acres in farmland were lost over the period from 1982 to 2007.
  • The average age of a farmer is approaching retiree age, 57 years old, but the  pool of young farmers inspired to step up to the job is lacking experience.
  • The biggest challenge of enthusiastic, aspiring farmers in starting new operations is access to land and the cost of capital.

With less farmland, lack of access, insufficient capital, and limited expertise, how will organic farming gain any traction in the grand scheme of broad scale agriculture? In the face of many challenges, what will it take to propel success and considerable growth in local, sustainable food economies?

Well-respected agriculture research outlets like Rodale Institute and the Agronomy Journal recently published long-term studies, 30 years and 18 years respectively, revealing the benefits and business case for organic farming. The key takeaways from the reports are that organic agriculture outperforms conventional in terms of ecological benefits, resiliency against crop loss, profitability, long-term food production capability, and soil fertility. Important data like this could help make the business case for organic farming to skeptics, including bank loan agents, who may perceive it as a risky, unworthy pursuit. Building awareness about the value of organic farming could help break down these barriers.

Advocating for the young farmers of America, grassroots organizations like non-profit The Greenhorns provide a library of guidance to help recruit, promote, and support this new workforce. The Greenhorns helps build the skill set of the future farmers of America who will take over for the aging farmer workforce. Another solution new to the mix is an investment fund for increasing the amount of sustainable farmland by acquiring and transitioning conventional farmland. This novel tool developed by Farmland LP also helps young farmers lacking capital by providing access to the land and a low-risk opportunity to develop expertise in sustainable farmland stewardship.

Given all the energy, creativity, and passion devoted to building a stronger sustainable food system, what strategies do you think will be most effective? What will carry this movement to the tipping point? The momentum up to this point has been tremendous, but there is still far to go.

[Image Credit: Humbolt State University]


Cyndie Hoffman is an MBA candidate in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School. You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter here.

8 responses

  1. To prove that organic farming’s yields are comparable, many proponents point to the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial which compared three methods: conventional, livestock-based organic, and legume-based organic. According to Rodale, yields for corn and soybean in these trials are “the same across the three systems.” Please note, the organic plots produced the same yield because they used extra land elsewhere for feeding animals to provide manure, or for the legume-based system, took the plot out of corn or soybean production and grew nitrogen-fixing legumes instead. Obviously, organic farming needs more land to grow sustainable yields for the world. Worldwide, crops require 80 million tons of nitrogen to feed our current population. Generating that amount of nitrogen organically would require about six billion head of cattle plus the land to grow feed.

    Fossil fuels allow conventional farming to use less land than organic methods. “By spending not much energy to make fertilizer and run machinery — and trivial amounts of energy to ship the stuff we grow from the places it grows best,” writes Stephen Budiansky, a former editor of the scientific journal, Nature, “we have spared and conserved hundreds of millions of acres of land that otherwise would have had to be brought into agricultural production. That’s land that protects wildlife, that adds scenic beauty.” That means we spare wetlands, grasslands, forests, and rainforests from being cleared for agriculture.

  2. According to a 2001 agricultural economic report, “urban expansion claimed more than 1 million acres per year between 1960 and 1990”  in the United States, and that expansion follows one of two two routes: 1. expansion of urban areas or 2. large-lot development (greater than 1 acre per house). (Heimlich 2001)

    Heimlich says in the report, “[Urban expansion] is not seen as a threat to most farming, although it may reduce production of some high-value or specialty crops. The consequences of continued large–lot development may be less sanguine, since it consumes much more land per unit of housing than the typical suburb.” (Heimlich 2001)

    So, large-lot development in rural areas may be a concern, but expanding urban areas are not yet a concern.

    One reason that declining ag acreage is not too worrisome is that farmers in the U.S. have become more efficient. Jesse Ausubel noted, “For centuries, farmers expanded cropland faster than population grew, and thus cropland per person rose. When we needed more food, we ploughed more land, and fears about running out of arable land grew. But fifty years ago, farmers stopped plowing up more nature per capita. Meanwhile, growth in calories in the world’s food supply has continued to outpace population, especially in poor countries. Per hectare, farmers lifted world grain yields about 2 percent annually since 1960. Two percent sounds small but compounds to large effects: it doubles in 35 years and quadruples in 70.

    “Vast frontiers for even more agricultural improvement remain open. On the same area, the average world farmer grows only about 20% of the corn or beans of the top Iowa farmer, and the average Iowa farmer lags more than 30 years behind the yields of his most productive neighbor. Top producers now grow more than 20 tons of corn per hectare compared with a world average for all crops of about 2. From one hectare, an American farmer in 1900 could provide calories or protein for a year for 3 people. In 1999 the top farmers can feed 80 people for a year from the same area. So farmland again abounds, disappointing sellers who get cheap prices per hectare almost everywhere.” (Ausubel 1999)

    The thought that we have nowhere to turn to for agricultural production to feed the 9 billion that will inhabit our earth sells our species short on ingenuity.


    Ausubel, Jesse. “Resources are Elastic.” Earth Matters pp. 46-47, Winter 1999/2000. 

    Heimlich, Ralph E. and William D. Anderson. Development at the Urban Fringe and Beyond: Impacts on Agriculture and Rural Land. Agricultural Economic Report No. 803, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2001. 

  3. I agree, with less farmland, a lack of access, insufficient capital, and limited expertise, it’s hard to see organic farming gain any traction in mainstream Mega-farms. They just “Green Wash” imported food.

  4. Interesting how when the data comes together we can compare the huge increases in “organic” labeling on everything from food, clothing & beyond as big businesses compete for consumer loyalty and market share of the growing trend; yet the backup data doesn’t suggest its real existence. To prove the trend one only need to look at all the complaints and objections that stack against sustainability’s increasing popularity.
    This is why many believe business models like ‘big agro’ will not ever be able to sufficiently adopt the standards being demanded by the local, sustainable conscious consumers. Over abundance of food production is a cultural problem and it’s because of expectations like we should have a protein rich meal (ie chicken/steak) available for ‘cheap’ prices at every meal that its mass over-production is even justified. Dissenters of the local, sustainable, portioned food movement miss the point when stating that organic food production could never replace “conventional” food production rates, because that is should not be seen as the goal.
    Healthier choices are actually better choices, such as how eating less quantities of nutritionally superior food is indisputably more beneficial than eating more quantities of inferior nutrition. A nutritionist will agree, as the more mass you consume (regardless of the content) the harder it is for your body to both function in breaking it down and serve its other needs like proper brain function.
    For me, the numbers are telling in how many more Americans are growing food in their backyards- a national trend. If only enough for a few auxiliary meals, it is the start at least. Those numbers won’t show up in national farm production rates. Nor will the increased presence and successes of eco-forward grocery and other retailers.
    The revolution WILL be televised (has been for years), but the shift to increased viability of self-sustaining-sufficiency will not. It’s the permaculture- which if you believe it makes you realize what’s permanent doesn’t go away. It’s this other stuff that’s the temporary culture.

  5. Healthier choices, Jason?

    A New Zealand study conducted by Diane Bourn and John Prescott of the
    Department of Food Science at University of Otago, found “With the possible exception of nitrate content, there is no strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients.”

    A UK study of peer reviewed articles found no differences in content of over 15 different nutrients including vitamin C, β-carotene, and calcium. The organically grown meat had slightly higher levels of overall fats, particularly trans fats.

    Joseph D. Rosen, emeritus professor of food toxicology at Rutgers Univervity, says pithily, “Any consumers who buy organic food because they believe that it contains more healthful nutrients than conventional food are wasting their money.”

    I’ll let science reporter Ronald Bailey’s have the last word, “Critics decry modern outbreaks of foodborne illness as the alleged consequence of “factory farming.” However, the demise of small family farms over the past century has coincided with a substantial reduction in foodborne illnesses.”

  6. For those of you that still read books, try Farmers of Forty Centuries by F.H.King. Written in 1911, the writer wanted to know how people could farm the same fields for 4,000 years without destroying the fertilty of the soil or adding any bought fertilizer. It’s an old book, but farming is an old profession and the lessons learned are still relevant..

  7. Forty centuries is a great perspective. Globally over the past forty centuries many civilizations have collapsed due to erosion of their topsoil caused by plowing. ‘Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations’ is another great book for those interested in the long view of agriculture.

    Plowing is not sustainable. Most organic farms rely heavily on plowing. New techniques to avoid or greatly reduce plowing are needed to make organic farming sustainable. The assumption that organic farming as currently practiced is sustainable is based on faith. History does NOT support this.

    Ten years after F.H. King wrote Farmers of Forty Centuries about China and nearby countries, 500,000 Chinese people died of starvation during a drought. Soil erosion casued by plowing contributed greatly, because eroded soil has poor ability to store water and deliver it to crops.

    There are now four times as many people in China as there were when the book was written. Nitrogen fertilizer is a key reason. Although the techniques of forty centuries can continue to be used to grow food, they can’t feed all the people that live there today.

  8. “Sustainability” is a bigger challenge than simply choosing between organic and conventional. Some contemporary practices clearly can’t continue. But the last century’s biggest economic and environmental catastrophe, the Dust Bowl, was triggered in large part by soil management practices which could pass muster with a modern organic certifier. The difficulty of obtaining land and capital is a serious, but separate issue.

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