Farm-to-table agriculture has gone mainstream, but does it work as a sustainable model? Some local farmers and restaurateurs aren’t sure, even as they persist in trying.
“Any good farming system has all the components of an actual ecosystem,” says Sunil Patel, who runs Urban Patchwork Farms, a progressive farming venture that seeks to develop inner-city permaculture farms via land sharing with owners of unutilized property. “You’re just mimicking a natural system when you make a healthy farm,” he says.
Patel partners with local restaurants like Bull & Beggar, Table and Storm, to generate enough profit to sustain Patchwork, as well as working with community supported agriculture producers within local communities. “It’s not just [about] farm-to-table. It’s [about matching] the desires of everyone from the grocery stores to restaurants to home kitchens. People want certain products, and they want them year-round, which doesn’t allow good farming to happen. So, I can feel constricted by that kind of demand.”
Therein lies the problem, according to chef and author Dan Barber, who delves into farm-to-table concepts and challenges in his new book, The Third Plate, which was released earlier this year.
Farm-to-table food has “gone from a fringe idea to a mainstream social movement,” he writes. “Its success comes with mounting evidence that our country’s indomitable and abundant food system, for so long the envy of the world, is unstable, if not broken. Eroding soils, falling water tables for irrigation, collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests and deteriorating grasslands represent only a handful of the environmental problems wrought by our food system — problems that will continue to multiply with rising temperatures.”
For centuries, American farming has been driven to produce more and more food, with the demand that it be increasingly cheap, with larger agriculture firms roping in farmers with promises of higher profits, persuading them to grow cash crops like corn or wheat in massive quantities, Barber writes. The practice creates what ecologists call a monoculture, which strips the soil of its nutrients, slowly reducing yields and ruining the land.
Barber proposes that despite practitioners’ best intentions, however, the farm-to-table movement still has not solved the basic problems, including monoculture farming. “The larger problem,” he says, “is that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow.” Market forces drive many farmers to regularly grow tomatoes, corn and other demanding produce rather than having the opportunity to rotate in other restorative plants, vegetables and legumes.
“The farmer ends up servicing the table, not the other way around,” says Barber.
Asheville’s William Dissen, chef of Market Place, agrees. “Is the farm to table system broken? Oh yes, 110 percent. … The way our government subsidizes agriculture is completely backwards,” he says. “You have these major, conventional commodity farms in the Midwest that get these huge tax incentives and government subsidies. I’d like to see a system where they flip-flop that, because the way it is now, the people that are raping the land and are treating animals inhumanely, [yet] they get tax breaks because they produce more.”
Having worked closely with farmers since taking over Market Place in 2009, Dissen has sought to end the cherry-picking habits so common with many farm-to-table chefs, but he says it isn’t easy. “I always like to talk to [farmers] at the beginning of the year, when they are perusing their Johnny Seed catalogs and figuring out what they are going to grow. But at the end of the day, for farms and restaurants, it’s retail. They’ve got goods that they are trying to sell, and we’ve all got to be able to make money.”
Anna Jane Joyner, campaign director for environmental advocacy organization the Western North Carolina Alliance, adds, “Big agriculture is subsidized at a ridiculous amount of money, which inherently stacks the cards against smaller, more innovative farmers.” She continues, “I think there is a systematic change that has to take place. Farmers at our local farmers markets struggle because of the way that our tax systems are set up, because they prioritize traditional, large-scale, monoculture farms, and not the smaller, innovative ones.”
Farmers like Patel focus on developing these small farms in a patchwork across the city and region to provide small harvests of a great variety of vegetables and meats. But can they produce enough to really have an impact?
“A lot of us in the permaculture world are creating these really beautiful systems that, as far as yields go, are lacking quite a bit,” Patel says. “So one of my main missions is to develop systems that generate significant yields, and since I am a landless farmer who just makes partnerships with landowners, and I’m making individual partnerships with people from all over the city, my strategy is to move it to a place where I can start to talk to not just single property owners, but multiple property owners at the same time.”
By doing so, he could conceivably turn an entire block of residential property in a single neighborhood like Montford into an apple orchard or paw paw grove, generating higher yields from less land. “By being able to utilize more land like that, and if the patches like this keep multiplying for the farm, and other farms take on a similar model, I really feel like we can provide so much of the demand for fresh vegetables, herbs, fruits and berries, right here, within the city limits. If we were to start shifting our views of property lines and dropped our notions of what’s mine and theirs, then we’ll be able to zoom out on the city and see that their property can be used for something much bigger.”
“When I think about it,” says Joyner, “when I was growing up, I was fed terribly —lots of processed food, lots of meat and potatoes.” These were all foods that are increasingly being proven to be unsustainable to produce. “But when my mother was growing up, it wasn’t that way. Her parents had a garden. They grew their own food. They ate fresh food.
“But I feel like our society went quickly toward food with poor nutrition and processed food for the sake of convenience. But maybe we could just as quickly come away from that.” She reminds us that we really are getting to a point where we have to make that change, “Big agriculture just isn’t as cheap as what we pay for a strawberry.”