Eliot Coleman's What If Hypothesis

I’ve personally been engaged in urban farming for eight years now. One thing is for certain. Things in this line of work come and go. This holds true for the farmers, the farms themselves, techniques, tools, markets, volunteers, and inspirations. However, one concept has resonated with me through the years since my beginnings in 2010.

That one concept is actually a hypothesis put forward by Eliot Coleman in his modern day classic, The New Organic Grower from 1989. It’s in a section where he is questioning modern day industrial agriculture. Eventually, Coleman gets to the hypothesis, which goes like this, “what if the USDA over the last 60 years had invested their billions of dollars into small-scale agriculture, instead of this Henry Ford industrial model that has become the norm in present day?”

Over the years, my brain often wandered back to this hypothesis. It often happened when driving I-71 from Cleveland to Cincinnati, while being inundated with cornfield after cornfield ad nauseam over the entire stretch of Ohio’s landscape. Oh what an engineering marvel these giant tractors are! A half a million dollar investment gives one the tool to grow 1,000 acres.

These machines are so efficient that in today’s America only two percent of Americans grow the food for 100% of Americans. Agriculturally productively speaking, this is an amazing feat. Henry Ford would be proud. However, there is a terrifying flipside to this reality. It is not necessary to have a business degree to understand that concentrating a basic necessity (food) to just two percent of the population (aging nonetheless) is a risky proposition. In business school, there is even a model called Porter’s Five Forces that describe this force as the “bargaining power of suppliers.” In all reality, it’s a wonder that our food is so cheap considering just how concentrated the suppliers are.

In my position for Cuyahoga Soil & Water, I work with some folks at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS). In fact, the NRCS funds my position. In general, the NRCS assists farmers in protecting the environment while promoting agricultural production through specific “funding categories.” Several years ago, the USDA caught wind of all the urban ag in Cleveland and particularly the zoning laws that allowed for urban ag. Eventually, the USDA responded and created the “Cleveland High Tunnel Initiative” as its own separate funding category. Yes, “High Tunnel Systems” is already its own funding category, but now there is an entirely separate “Cleveland High Tunnel Initiative.”

This is significant for two reasons. One, it means that the USDA is taking urban agriculture seriously. And two, by virtue of taking urban ag seriously, the USDA is taking small-scale farming seriously. Though I’ve been aware of the “Cleveland High Tunnel Initiative” for five years, it took me six months of working this job to realize this significance. From this realization, it further became apparent that all the urban ag entrepreneurs around the world are pushing this frontier of small-scale farming with and without USDA help.

We’re about one decade into this urban ag movement, and we are already seeing some version of sustainable models developing. There’s a Canadian out of British Columbia named Curtis Stone, who’s taken SPIN (small plot intensive) farming to the next level and is boasting absurd wealth creation for his land base. There are giant rooftop farms that utilize special light weight soil mixes like NYC’s Brooklyn Grange. There’s the ultra-expensive hydroponic buildouts that can manipulate all growing factors (temperature, light, humidity, nutrients) for year round growing like Cleveland’s Green City Growers.

The point is entrepreneurs everywhere are giving small-scale farming their best shot. At this point, sustainable models are developing in contrast to the Henry Ford model. In addition, the consumer is more educated than ever and demands a tomato-tasting tomato. To me, it’s exciting to be on the forefront of the new small-scale farming movement. Urban farming nestles itself right into population centers and is showing the public what can be done. I’ve never met Eliot Coleman, but I imagine he’s excited as well to see these inroads being made and for small-scale farming to be getting support from the USDA.

Blog Author: Justin Husher, Horticulture Specialist

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