This is the case for Brent Preston, who used to spend his days in front of a computer cooped up in an office cubicle. Now he looks after an organic farm in Caledon, Ontario, which he bought when life in the city started to feel like a rat race that wasn’t worth the long sprint. Farm life means Preston’s days start earlier than they used to: he is up by 6:30 a.m., managing a crew of employees who begin work at seven in the morning. The rest of his 12-hour shifts go by in a satisfying blur, stitched together with the routine cycle of planting, watering, weeding, harvesting and loading trucks ready to take shipments to the city in the afternoon.
Despite developing a cult following among some of Toronto’s best chefs with his produce, Preston’s ambition was never merely to grow more flavourful vegetables. It was to create a self-sustaining agriculture system. “The farm is meant to be environmentally sustainable,” he says. “Not just in avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but in building soil health to create conditions that allow the kind of agriculture we’re doing here to go on in perpetuity.”
Well-managed, nutrient-dense soils are the guiding light to finding success in self-sustaining, organic agriculture. “It’s not just something that can be done for 10 years or 100 years until the soil is exhausted,” says Preston. “The goal is every year your soil is better than it was the year before.”
To accomplish this, half of the land on Preston’s farm is used to grow crops he will never eat, sell or even feed livestock. Instead, he’ll use it to cultivate the soil. These are called cover crops. They are part of what allow Preston and organic farmers like him to continue improving their farming outputs with naturally added nutrients that counteract the soil depletion that comes with harvesting.
For millenniums, crop rotation – the practice of moving crops and livestock around to ensure too much of one nutrient is never depleted – was the go-to method for maintaining soil health. During the Middle Ages, three-field rotation – a system where one field is allowed to rest every crop cycle – took over. This was the standard method of farming until less than a century ago, when increased food production became the goal. This meant that all available farmland would be put to use to grow crops. In order to increase output, conventional farms stopped employing crop and field rotation, and started growing in monocultures – the practice of growing and harvesting a single crop continuously from the land.
The idea that organic farming produces more nutritious food isn’t likely to surprise many. If anything, it reminds us of a hemp-clad stereotype droning on about their healthier way of life. Yet, organic farming isn’t just about producing more nutritious food from healthy soils, or about omitting the use of pesticides, fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics or growth hormones. At its core, it is a system of agriculture that addresses a range of environmental and economic issues that go beyond the personal health of whomever brought the smug look and organic kale salad for lunch.
Organic farms generate more money per acre than their conventional counterparts. Even though they are not as big, they are usually far more profitable. “The amount of money we generate per acre on the farm is many multiples per acre of what our neighbours produce growing cash crops,” says Preston. A well-run small-scale organic farm will generate somewhere in the neighbourhood of $40,000 gross sales per acre. Corn and soy, known as “cash-crops” generate an average of $300 per acre, according to a 2016 paper published by the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois.
Although organic farms are much smaller than conventional cash crop farms, the price discrepancy alone might make it seem like everyone should farm organically. Yet, making the switch is difficult for those already in the conventional system. Many farmers take over a family business, and organic practices require completely different equipment than conventional agriculture, which is expensive to buy.
Additionally, in Canada it takes 36 months to convert a conventional farm to certified organic. During that window, farmers can’t raise prices to reflect increasing costs because – although they have begun employing organic practices – they have to wait for the 36-month window to pass before their efforts are recognized. Federal subsidies also favour cash crop producers over organic. In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture dispenses upwards of USD $25 billion a year to farm business, with a preference for major cash crop producers. According to an analysis from the Environmental Working Group, a not-for-profit environmental research organization, approximately three-quarters of all agricultural subsidies go to just 10 per cent of the nation’s largest farms.