Why Local Part II: Utilizing New England’s land

We recently came across a brilliant report published in 2014 by Food Solutions New England: A New England Food Vision.  The authors present a future vision for our region to produce a larger portion of our diet, and the resulting land use implications. We wanted to share some of the reports most intriguing findings:

New England today is home to about 14.5 million people. About 90% of our food is grown or produced outside of our region, and only about 5% of the region (2 million acres) is actively producing food. This is down from about 15%, or 6 million acres in 1945.

This report envisions returning to 6 million total acres in active production, with 4.5 million of these converted to productive perennial pastures and hay production, consistent with pre-World War II levels. If this could be accomplished, New England could provide for virtually all the meat the region needs.

Why focus this acreage on pastures for meat production, as opposed to monoculture crops like corn and soy?

It will never make sense to produce some products (bananas, cocoa, pineapples…) here, given our harsh winters, heavy rainfall, and rocky, hilly soils. Donahue et al. write that “New England’s soils are often too steep and too stony for row crops, but they are rich in minerals and well suited for grass.” Rotational grazing – the movement of animals regularly across ‘paddocks’ contained by electronic net fencing reinforces soil fertility, promotes animal health and wellbeing, reduces bacterial counts and dramatically improves the nutritional profile of the resulting meat.  In our view this is a defining feature of a sustainable farm.

Note that there is nothing inherently sustainable about local production. It is made so by the demands of conscientious consumers, combined with a new wave of committed producers who share a commitment to holistic methods that value soil fertility, closed loop processes and animal well-being. We are lucky to have an abundance on both sides of the equation in New England. In our case, generally speaking local production has meant sustainable production: most small New England farms do not use gestational crates for mother sows, feed animals antibiotics, or confine their poultry indoors in cages.

And we are already making progress: after several decades of “get big or get out” in industrial agriculture, small farms are coming back in New England. Vermont in particular is bucking the national trend: the five years between 2007-2012 saw the opening of 354 new small farms. Total agricultural production went from $670 million to $775 million over the same period.

We’re well on our way!