While visiting friends in Toronto I spotted a small poster tacked behind their toaster. It read, “Bacon is like a little hug from God.”
So true, I thought, smiling at how much I love those little hugs. But for so many reasons—encompassing cardiac health, the environment and humane farming practices—eating bacon often seems more like making out with the devil.
But I’ve found one way to wrest bacon away from the dark side and restore it to its rightful place as divine embrace: I mostly eat bacon that comes from pigs that I can visit. Pigs that lounge happily in sun-dappled mud puddles. Pigs that forage for acorns and hickory nuts and stand proudly on the edge of a meadow like some porcine version of Elsa (the lion from Born Free).
I’ve directly witnessed all of these piggish pursuits during annual visits to “our” farm in Wayne County, Ohio. My family and I are part of a dairy co-op and, along with the milk, we get much of our yogurt, beef, pork, poultry, eggs and various other products (e.g., maple syrup) from this one family farm.
We belong to the co-op for a lot of reasons, including a preference for supporting local family farms, access to fresh, healthy food and, as described above, the psychic comfort of knowing that our carnivorous tendencies are sustained by animals that live like, well, animals and not as cogs in some brutal industrial machine.
There’s another reason for supporting farms like our co-op: lower impacts on lakes and rivers. Agriculture is one of the major sources for water pollution in the United States. I do not mean to demonize agriculture — we can’t live without it, of course. Global agriculture is what feeds 6 billion people…which means it’s the most fundamentally important activity on the planet. It can also never be free of environmental impacts.
But agriculture can always strive to reduce those impacts.
Take bacon as an example: Most of the bacon consumed in the United States comes from hog “factory farms” where the animals are raised in staggeringly crowded conditions. Often more than 10,000 animals are packed into a single production facility, producing a tremendous amount of concentrated waste that can pollute rivers, groundwater and drinking water supplies.
Catastrophic failures of “manure lagoons” have lead to massive fish kills in nearby rivers, such as a spill from a hog-waste lagoon in North Carolina in 1995 that killed 10 million fish in the New River and halted shellfish harvests from hundreds of thousands of coastal wetlands.
On the other side of the spectrum is our co-op farm, a diverse patchwork of fields and forests with a small stream running through it that’s shaded by a wide buffer of trees (see aerial photo below). While not certified organic, the farmer is culturally predisposed to low-input farm practices. His animals have plenty of room and, simply due to dramatically different densities, do not produce the concentrated wastes that can be so harmful to clean water.
I sometimes worry that buying local, low-input farm products is the privilege of the American middle and upper class and that feeding the world’s growing population will require truly intensified agriculture. The grim business of ensuring that the projected 9 billion people in 2050 have enough to eat will have no patience for the kumbaya preferences of “locavores.”
But wait. This Mark Bittman essay suggests that low-input agriculture shows great promise—not just in reducing impacts but in actually meeting global food demands. To explore this further, I did a very simple, back-of-the envelope calculation* for how many people could be supported in the Cleveland area with farms similar to our co-op.
The answer was surprising: Nearly 2.8 million people — almost the size of the greater Cleveland metropolitan area — could get much of their meat and dairy from local, low-input farms.
The numbers are approximate but serious. And while small family farms alone likely can’t meet all future food demands, this example shows the potential for relatively low-impact agriculture to provide food for many people. Beyond small farms, all forms of agriculture can work to improve their practices and reduce impacts, and The Nature Conservancy is working with a broad range of agricultural interests to find these solutions.
So I’ll bite into some crisp, local bacon and feel a hug that’s not just luxuriously sustainable, but realistically sustainable.
(First image: Happy pig in Wayne County, Ohio. Image credit: Jeff Opperman. Second image: A portion of the farm described in this post, with a mix of fields and forests. The yellow rectangle in the lower left of the image is an old school bus which serves as home for some truly free-range chickens. Image credit: Google Earth.)
Our co-op farm is 130 acres of which 70 is pasture and the farmer leases another 100 acres of hayfields for a total of 230 acres. Even though approximately 25% of this total is forest (see photo above), I’ll use it as the total acreage because my overall point is about farms that have this patchwork of natural and agricultural land. Approximately 500 people are supported from this 230 acres (not all their calories, obviously, but a high proportion of their meat and dairy). I estimated the agricultural acres of Wayne and six other predominantly rural counties that form a ring around greater Cleveland (Portage, Erie, Huron, Ashland, Geauga and Lake). Collectively these counties are over 1.8 million acres. To account for towns, cities, parks, etc., I assumed 70% of that acreage could be in farms leaving just under 1.3 million acres. With the ratio provided by my farmer (500 people for 233 acres) this acreage of similarly managed farms could provide meat, dairy and other products to almost 2.8 million people. Green City Blue Lake points out that a surprising amount of production could also come from urban farms, an innovative use for abandoned acres in urban cores that have lost population.
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