The writer is the head farmer at Heifer Ranch, a US agricultural training facility
When I daydream about what the ranch I lead in Arkansas will look like in 10 years, I picture black soil, rich like chocolate cake, full of earthworms and fungi. The sound of song birds and quail is ever-present and livestock graze in pastures full of diverse forage. The streams all run clear. This to me is farming as it should be.
Covid-19 has brought to light the inherent challenges in our global food and agriculture systems. When the pandemic started in the US, food stockpiling paired with restaurant, school and office closures, disrupted supply chains and resulted in an overwhelming shock for industrial farming and meat operations. Inhumane and inexcusable working conditions were exposed in some farms and meatpacking plants, while the financial plight of many small-scale farmers has been exacerbated.
Food security remains a top concern for a growing number of unemployed Americans, many of whom are now focused on nutrition given the threat of Covid-19 comorbidity conditions such as diabetes. The UK has launched a national obesity strategy to try to promote healthy eating and weight loss.
This pandemic has brought a reckoning for how we feed ourselves and where we get our food. We have an opportunity to reimagine our food systems. It is clear that we are overdue a global farming revolution — one that is inspired by how our great-grandparents used to farm, but informed by modern science and systems. What would that look like?
It starts on the farm. We should begin by overhauling the way we treat everything and everyone in the ecosystem, from paying workers a living wage and protecting their health, to ensuring animals have room to roam and healthy food to eat, to caring for our most precious commodity: the dirt. Studies have shown a third of the world’s soil has already been degraded. If this continues, we could have less than 60 years of harvests left. We must start using regenerative agriculture techniques, such as no-till farming, that allow our remaining soil to heal itself, or risk a future where our grandchildren won’t be able to grow food at all.
A regenerative approach also means moving away from industrial, destructive, monoculture farms where thousands of acres grow a single crop. By diversifying crops, farmers can better withstand crises and protect and promote healthy agricultural ecosystems. It is incredibly challenging for small-scale farmers to work this way while also making money. Farmers have to invest in expensive equipment and figure out how to process, package, distribute and sell their products. One small farm can’t do it all, which is why co-operative models are essential for success.
These allow farmers to focus on what they do best while benefiting from shared knowledge and services. One example is the Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative, a small-batch meat company — supported by the Heifer USA ranch that I oversee — that partners with local farms to source high-quality, pasture-raised meat. Grass Roots then sells the meat online, directly and transparently to consumers, providing a consistent market for all its partners. Direct-to-consumer sales are up 400 per cent during the pandemic.
In times of crisis, our customers are our biggest allies. None of these changes will matter if people do not commit to learning about and supporting their local farmers. That could mean buying from a co-operative, shopping at your farmer’s market or using a farm-to-door delivery service.
The pandemic has brought a renewed interest in taking care of ourselves and our communities, and that is tied to how we eat. When we support small-scale farmers, we power a new food system — one that will help us tackle food insecurity, poverty, climate change and public health. It’s all connected, and it starts with a commitment to eat and buy differently.