One particularly cold morning in upstate New York, so cold that the coffee in my thermos had lost all warmth by the time I reached campus, my international relations professor lectured on international economics. That day we learned about mono-cropping, soil depletion, and women in Africa who worked hard on their farms but were unable to sell their crops for enough money to make a living. Having spent my high school summers working on a flourishing, sustainable community farm, I was intrigued by the contrast between the bountiful Hudson Valley and the arid poverty of the African subsistence farmers.
The following summer, I declared a major in international economics, took a summer job at one of New Paltz’s six CSA farms, and moved into a house on a small herb farm. After a strenuous and rewarding summer, I spent my senior year focusing on the economic viability of small-scale and sustainable farming in the United States. After graduation, I took over managing the herb farm.
The community farm I had grown up on ran well, like our 1989 dump truck. It was non-commercial and largely self-contained. The herb farm, on the other hand, was a commercial enterprise. Rather than harvesting for a community or for local customers, we drove to NYC to sell at a farmer’s market. The herbs were processed into teas and other value-added products, packaged in plastic.
In this new environment, I began to question the validity of the term ‘sustainable farm.’ The decision not to use harmful chemicals alone does not make an operation sustainable. What about all the resources used to transport our goods to a market 90 miles away, and to produce the plastic that they were packaged in? Or the energy used by our food processors and freezers? Yet, due to the size and nature of the farm, we needed to sell these value-added (i.e. processed) goods in order to turn a profit. And to sell these goods, needed a market larger than the New Paltz area could provide. One of the best things anyone can do to promote sustainability is to shop for local food, particularly from farmer’s markets in your area.
For such a farm, where does sustainability meet profitability? How do we promote local, sustainable production? We have taken small steps towards increasing our sustainability. Our farm kitchen is lit with CFL’s. We have downsized to a smaller vehicle and begun the transition to compostable packaging. In the end, there are only so many steps we can take towards environmental sustainability while remaining economically sustainable. In order that sustainable farming can become a practice rather than an ideology, I believe there will have to be a paradigmatic shift in our consumption habits as a community, a country, and a people.