The future of sustainable food and farming at UMass

Our academic major in Sustainable Food and Farming in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass has grown exponentially over the past 10 years.  There is lots of interest in local farming and marketing in the region and lots of interest among young people in careers that supports this trend such as agricultural education, community development, advocacy and public policy.  Its been fun working with bright, passionate young people committed to changing the food system, literally from the ground up!

I’m asked from time to time if the growth in our sustainable agriculture educational program is  likely to continue!  I agree with Richard Heinberg when he states that if we are to create a truly sustainable food system in the U.S. we need 50 million farmers!  So, yes…. I think “the world needs Stockbridge”!

But predicting the future is a hazardous occupation and the truth is, we don’t know what the future will bring.  Nevertheless I think it is important to stick to our principles and try to offer the best scientific and experiential education possible, and let the future unfold in the lives of these bright young people.  So when asked about the future, I try to shift the conversation toward principles rather than predictions.  The principles upon which we have built our educational program are based on our vision of the future of sustainable food and farming in New England and include at least the following five components:

1.  First, a sustainable agriculture MUST address the multiple integrated objectives of economic vitality, environmental integrity, and social equity or justice.

This claim is understood by most governments, the United Nations, farm and advocacy groups, and universities.  Some corporations and agricultural commodity groups would like to present sustainable agriculture more narrowly (focused primarily on economic sustainability), but this self-serving position is in the minority today.  The sustainability movement grew out of the environmental movement of the 1970’s by adding social equity/justice to the conversation during the 1980’s – creating the so-called triple bottom line.

2. The long-term viability of large-scale, industrial agricultural systems is threatened by rising energy prices and global climate change in the long-term.

Industrial food production and distribution systems are financially efficient in the short-term and have resulted in low food prices.  However this system is highly dependent on chemical and energy subsidies and is vulnerable to collapse or at least gradual decay.  As energy costs go up and government begins to take climate change more seriously, global food prices will continue to rise and we will need to look at more energy-efficient alternatives to the global food system.

3. Although theoretically it is possible to imagine a large-scale industrial agricultural system that is more sustainable, we do not have the political will to develop the necessary government regulations and tax incentives to move corporate farms and major food distributors in this direction.

It would be possible to create a global, corporation-dominated sustainable agricultural system with the appropriate government-imposed constraints and incentives if we had the political willWe don’t – at least not at present.  The structure and purpose of the corporation itself won’t permit even the most progressive and courageous corporate leaders (and there are some) to voluntarily sacrifice profit to become more environmentally responsible and committed to social justice for very long.

Large-scale, corporate sustainable farming such as that proposed by Walmart will continue to maximize profit at the expense of the other two sustainability objectives, regardless of what their advertising campaigns might say.  Current experiments in sustainability by a few food giants are likely to be short lived, as the structure of the global corporation is designed to make money at all (sometimes legal and sometimes not) cost.  We must look to more local alternatives if we want long term environmental protection, equitable access to food and land, and a fair distribution of wealth.

4. A food and farming system with a local focus, managed by families and local community groups rather than corporations, is more likely to address all three of the sustainability objectives.

Addressing environmental and social justice priorities will be more likely when producers and consumers know each other and are part of a shared community.  As long as the negative impacts of doing business impact people “far away”, most of us will overlook these impacts in exchange for maximizing financial return.  However when farmers, distributors and consumers engage within a community, they will be more likely to include environmental and social impact into their decision-making.

Even the “father” of capitalism, Adam Smith, understood the need for a fair distribution of wealth.  His concept that the “invisible hand” of the free market (guided by competition, self-interest, and supply and demand) would result in efficient and fair distribution of resources was in fact based on two assumptions that are no longer true.

The first assumption was a shared sense of ethical behavior.  In the 18th century, there was a sense of “right and wrong” promulgated at least partially by the church.  Even when people and businesses cheated their customers, they were not proud of it (as it seems some CEO’s are today).  The second assumption that is no longer true is that most economic transactions took place between people who knew each other.   It was difficult to cheat a neighbor that you had to see every day.

The global marketplace has lost both a sense of “right and wrong” and any personal connection between producer and consumer.  Transactions are anonymous and the only “wrong” seems to be getting caught.  Under these conditions, the global market no longer generates a fair distribution of wealth.  We must localize the food system if we want it to be sustainable.

5. Local agriculture will be sustainable if and only if they are built on three ecological principles.

The principles are:

A.  Ecological “Rule” Number One – Use Current Solar Income

B. Ecological “Rule” Number Two – Waste Equals Food

C. Ecological “Rule” Number Three – Enhance Diversity

If local farms are modeled after large industrial farms, they too will be as non-sustainable as their larger cousins.  Unlike large monoculture farms however, small farms can be managed as ecological systems.  Progressive farmers are experimenting with new ways to integrate crops and livestock to use energy and nutrients more efficiently and agroecological research at the university must support this effort.

Although quite small, edible forest gardens which mimic late-stage ecological succession, are perhaps the best example of a sustainable food production system.  But even simpler intercropping or polyculture systems are more energy and nutrient efficient than large monocultures.  It is imperative for small, local farms to continue to transition to ecologically managed systems if they are to be competitive and sustainable in the long run.  Consumers can participate in this transition, by supporting these farms and working to make local agriculture thrive in their own community.


The future of  agriculture in New England is local

If we are to stick to the principles espoused above, then the future of sustainable food and farming in New England is local!  I believe we will see a further strengthening of local markets (especially in the inner city) and the development of new integrated crop an livestock farming systems.  Some food items such as grain and dry beans, will be shipped by rail to feed livestock and people and hopefully will be sold through locally owned businesses.  But a recent analysis of local opportunities suggests that in New England, it is possible for us to produce most of our vegetables, half of our fruit, and also provide  for all of our dairy, beef, lamb and chicken needs for a population of about 15 million.  This could be done if we reduce our meat consumption, eat more fruits and vegetables, and increase the amount of farmland in production by about three-fold (similar to what it was in 1945).  For details, see the following report:


The University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture will play an important role in this localization move toward a more sustainable New England.  Our undergraduate teaching program is already doing so as our graduates begin to make a difference on the landscape.  But we also must make a greater investment in agroecological research and more effective outreach working in partnership with progressive family farmers and non-profit community groups to realize the dream.

We have much work to do and as the Stockbridge emblem reminds us, this work will require the full commitment of our “body, heart and soul.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts on sustainable and local farming.


53 thoughts on “The future of sustainable food and farming at UMass”

  1. It is past time to start the world anew. We must regain our democracy, reclaim community sovereignty and restore fundamental values we all hold dear – loving family, caring neighbors, trusted leaders, a good healthy meal from fresh food, and a safe clean natural world. Food is the best place to start. It is primordial.


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