Remember March? That was when the coronavirus pandemic forced offices across the country to close and companies told their employees to work from home—if they didn’t fire or furlough them instead. Facing a public health crisis with an unknown trajectory, people prepared for the worst, stripping grocery stores of hand sanitizer and disinfectant, but also of products like flour and yeast and, yes, toilet paper.
There have never been more ways to get fresh produce sent to your home, from basic grocery delivery services; to “misfit” and “ugly” veggie startups; to bespoke, plant-based meal kits. But at the end of the day, what’s in a veggie box? Is it merely a collection of assorted produce, or is it a value system? Do you spend those dollars simply to fill your fridge, or are you also trying to support small farmers and local agriculture? Does it matter if the items are USDA-certified organic, or if some items are grown several states away?
As veggie box delivery companies have proliferated, some small-scale farmers say it has become harder to run traditional community supported agriculture (CSA) operations, in which consumers buy a “share” of a local farm’s harvest at the beginning of the growing season. In return for this investment, share owners get a box of whatever produce was harvested. There’s an inherent gamble, in that the consumer shares the risks associated with farming. If it’s a bad year for tomatoes, they may not get any tomatoes.
The commercial opened on a lone, bearded farmer standing in a dark field. A narrator intoned meaningfully that less than 1 percent of American farmland is organic. But, the female voice continued, we could change that simply by buying Michelob Ultra Pure Gold, the first national, certified-organic beer brand. There was the pop and hiss of a twist-off bottle top, and suddenly we were in the club, only the club was a subway station and a woman carried a six-pack with her onto the train.
Federal agencies and state governments are spending millions on anaerobic digesters to wring renewable energy from animal poop. But critics say “cow power” from factory farms is neither clean nor green.
Imagine for a moment, a possible future, some years ahead: Across the plains, acres that were once plowed up and planted to corn or wheat go back to native grass. Marginal, flood-prone land is left to return to wetlands, improving water quality downstream. Farmers diversify their operations in order to effectively manage risk in a changing climate. Monocropping is a thing of the past.
Or this scenario, not so long from now: Growers adopt practices like no-till and cover cropping, which helps lower their inputs—the money spent on fertilizer, pesticides, seed, and anything else they need to get a crop in the ground. They turn a profit with ease. They may even switch to cheaper, non-GMO seeds and see profit margins swell.
In this future tableau, cattle are turned out to pasture on land that was once intensively farmed. Land managers plant low-cost grasses and other silage, and graze livestock on a portion of the land while the remaining acres are allowed to rest and regenerate. There’s always something growing in the soil, anchoring nitrogen, helping retain rainwater, and sequestering carbon.
This is what American agriculture could one day look like, according to farmers, environmentalists, and economists. But first we’d have to get rid of federally subsidized crop insurance.