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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.

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. We’re 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.

These reasons, and others, attract a range of people to the co-op and I’ve learned that my values overlap in some interesting Venn diagrams with people across a broad political and religious spectrum. At the annual farm picnic and tour it’s fascinating to see a guy in dreads chatting away with an Amish carpenter.

But there’s another reason for supporting farms like our co-op: greater environmental sustainability and lower impacts on lakes and rivers. Let’s go back to bacon.

Most of the bacon consumed in the U.S. comes from hog “factory farms” where the animals are raised in staggeringly crowded conditions. You do not need to be a PETA member to be shocked by the typical conditions experienced by the 100 million hogs in the U.S. 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.

Agriculture is one of the major sources for water pollution in the U.S. I do not mean to demonize agriculture with a broad brush. Global agriculture is what feeds six billion people and is thus the most fundamentally important activity on the planet and one that can never be free of impacts.

But agriculture can strive to reduce its impacts.

Our co-op farm is a diverse patchwork of fields and forests and the small stream that runs through it is 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.

A portion of the farm described in this post, with a mix of fields and forests.

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. (Photo: Google Earth)

But 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 “localvores.”

But wait. Mark Bittman’s recent essay suggests that low-input agriculture shows great promise—not just reducing impacts but actually meeting global food demand. 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.

I asked our farmer for some basic numbers and he told me that approximately 500 people are supported from his 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 (*see calculations below). Based on our farmer’s numbers, these approximately 1.3 million acres could allow 2.8 million people to eat much of their meat and dairy from local sources grown on low-input farms that are comprised of patchworks of fields and forests. Interestingly, this is almost exactly the population of the greater Cleveland metropolitan area (2.9 million).

Though approximate, those are some serious numbers. 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 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. 

*Calculations: 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 mix of natural and agricultural land. Six counties around Cleveland are mostly rural: Portage, Wayne, 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.

— Text by Jeff Opperman, Cool Green Science Blog