An advocate of this transition in the 1970s, former US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz said farmers had to “get big or get out”. Since then, the average size of US farms has increased.
As the graph shows, these gains are the result of the disappearance of the medium-sized farm; small family farms have remained relatively constant. Today, 1% of US land is dedicated to organic farming and ranching. But because of the perceived health benefits, organic outperforms its weight class. Its purported benefits to the earth, particularly for soil quality and the provision of “ecosystem services” (fertilization, pollination, weed and pest control), are captured in the USDA’s National Organic Program.
The current study surveyed 542 organic fruit and vegetable growers, examining eight agroecological practices, categorizing adherence to these practices by farm size. These services included
- Application of compost or manure instead of synthetic fertilizers
- Intercropping – the simultaneous cultivation of two crops in the same rows to obtain the increased benefits of each. Examples include garlic and tomatoes.
- Planting insects to promote the presence of beneficial insects
- Reduced tillage to maintain composition and integrity
- Diversified crop rotation (3 or more) to guard against yield declines and crop losses
- Planting “out of season” cover crops to moisten weeds and reinfuse the soil with nitrogen. Mustard makes a great cover crop that blooms in early spring in Napa vineyards.
- Border planting to provide food for these beneficial insects increasing pollination and improving pest control
- Riparian buffers that serve to contain runoff, providing boundaries between crops
As the graph shows, smaller farms used more agroecological practices, but a larger gap was found as farm size increased.
Due to the scale of large farms, the use of border and insectary planting was inefficient; attracted insects did not penetrate the center of the fields. On the other hand, large farms had the capital to invest in machinery to reduce tillage, which meant more manual labor for small farmers. 54% of small farms used little mechanization, and only 3% of large farms were not mechanized.
The researchers also describe four characteristics of conventional agriculture, “low crop diversity, high mechanization, wholesale marketing and non-local market access”. As expected, larger organic farms used more of these practices.
The scale makes the difference
The ability to scale results in fewer agroecological practices being followed, but in return there is a larger market and the ability to achieve the various organic certifications (as Dr. Caldwell wrote). The small farmer does not have access to larger markets and is destined to sell primarily within his community. Plus, they don’t have the margins to complete the organic regulatory paperwork, while ironically being more “organic” than those big farms. As in many industries, the biggest enemy of small business is big business.
 Organic product sales soar in 2020 to over $61 billion
Source: Farm size affects the use of agroecological practices on organic farms in the United States. Natural plants DOI: 10.1038/s41477-022-01191-1
Dr. Charles Dinerstein, MD, MBA, FACS is the Medical Director of the American Council on Science and Health.
He has over 25 years of experience as a vascular surgeon. He earned his MBA with honors from George Washington University’s MBA in Healthcare program and has consulted for hospitals.
A version of this article was originally published on the American Council on Science and Health and is used here with permission. The American Council on Science and Health can be found on Twitter @ACSHorg