by Evan Graham Arango*
Our modern food system prioritizes efficiency and scalability over all other considerations. The result is a highly mechanized and centralized system capable of producing and distributing staggering amounts of food at low cost to consumers. The majority of food is packaged and handled by a small number of very large processing plants. Most of this food is produced, controlled and distributed by an even smaller number of giant corporations. This preference for efficiency, which has shaped the landscape of our modern food system just as it has the physical landscape of our country, comes with tradeoffs that have been largely ignored by our law and policymakers for far too long. Specifically, the relaxed enforcement of antitrust regulations in the food sector has caused intensive centralization of our food cultivation and distribution system. Small-scale organic and regenerative farms can significantly impact local food systems in a more robust and sustainable manner.
Degradation of farmland, food contamination, worker safety, climate change, and even intentional attack are some of the primary risks that derive from having such a highly centralized food system. From an environmental perspective, our soil, water and ecosystems have paid a heavy and easily overlooked price from the agglomeration of power in the food industry. Moreover, the pandemic has exposed some of these risks and has highlighted both the immediate and long-term need to build into our food system qualities like adaptability, diversification and sustainability. While the pandemic forcefully brought issues like worker safety, food waste, and food security to the front page headlines, these issues ultimately stem from deeply rooted legal and policy decisions that have invariably favored centralization and efficiency over sustainability and security. The pandemic has not caused these problems, it has simply revealed just how vulnerable the system is on a national and global scale. This system will only continue to be tested as the Earth’s climate becomes less predictable, soils less fertile, and the number of people to feed increases. I see new technologies and production techniques, along with more small-scale food producers, as promising solutions to many of the risks our food system faces.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Steadfast Farm in Mesa, Arizona, which provides a great example of how farmers, developers and local governments can work together to create robust and flourishing local food production systems. Here, farmer Erich Shultz partnered with developers to create a profitable one-acre vegetable farm in the heart of a suburban development community. The farm is beautifully landscaped into the community and serves as an attraction for new residents while securing a place for Erich to run his operation.
Models such as this can also help overcome the common problem of land acquisition which serves as a major barrier of entry for beginning farmers. The problem of affordable farmland acquisition is especially apparent in urban and suburban settings where land values are often prohibitively expensive to farm despite the high demand for hyperlocal fresh produce. Steadfast Farm sells fresh organic vegetables to the local community via an on-farm store, a vegetable box subscription program, farmers markets, and to local restaurants. Small, well managed farms like Steadfast Farm have the potential to be far more profitable per acre than larger-scale farms and have a serious impact on their local food systems. Many small farms have also been nimble enough to sustain themselves, or even increase business during the pandemic as the demand for healthy local food surged and the threat to the national food supply became apparent.
How productive can a small-scale regenerative farm be? This is the most common question I have received since I started Ojai Roots, a quarter-acre vegetable farm in Ojai, CA, where I focus on experimenting with organic production techniques that maximize the productivity and revenue potential of very small farms without compromising on environmental care. While I devote my work on the farm to answering the question of how productive a small farm can be, I have come to understand that the real power may lie in increasing the number of small farms, and their potential to succeed as profitable businesses. Research, innovation and information sharing will be key in the development and proliferation of these farms and local food production business models.
The success of these types of diverse local food systems depends on entrepreneurial creativity and supportive laws and policies that rethink issues like zoning, urban/ag divide, business associations, water use, food safety, and environmental protection. The incoming administration has the opportunity, and hopefully the political will, to support these kinds of changes. Efficiency, while important, cannot be all that counts in making food policy decisions. It is time to reimagine the possibilities for local food production and get creative in building a more resilient and just food system.
*Evan Graham Arango is the owner, founder and farmer at Ojai Roots Farm in Ojai, CA. He graduated UCLA Law in 2020 specializing in environmental law and taking courses in food and agricultural law and policy. He supports the small-scale regenerative farming movement currently underway and advocates for policies that help build a more resilient and sustainable food system.
Evan is currently a Research Affiliate with the Resnick Center for Food Law & Policy at UCLA Law. Research Affiliates are recent law school graduates working to better the food system who consult and assist on various Resnick Center research projects.