The U.S. needs 50 million farmers – including local gardeners


One of the readings I share with the students in the UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences  program is Fifty Million Farmers by Richard Heinberg.  This reading is an abbreviated version of an address he presented to the E. F. Schumacher Society in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 2006.  It is a powerful declaration that in a world in which climate change, diminishing supplies of easily accessible fossil fuel, and increasing economic stress – our food supply is not guaranteed.  We need lots more farmers in lots more places!

I first heard of this outlandish idea in Sharon Astyk’s book, A Nation of Farmers.  She makes the additional claim that we not only need more farmers but our understanding of “farming” must include individual efforts to feed ourselves.  That is, even those of us who have gardens and perhaps domestic livestock to feed ourselves and our neighbors should be included in this call for more farming.

I like this idea……

I realize that some families who depend entirely on farming for their livelihood look askance at part-timers and gardeners, but my experience is that “hobbyists” are among the best customers at the local farmers market.  We need to be a bit more broadminded as we think about farming in the future.  So, while I work to support full time farmers in my region, I also encourage individuals to begin to take more responsibility for a portion of their food.   We need lots more farmers of all types! 

Think Globally and Farm Locally

I live in the northeastern U.S., in the region we think of as New England.  At times I play the “thought experiment” asking how would my region eat if the ships and planes stopped and all of the bridges on the Hudson River went away.  New England south of Canada would (almost) be an island – a big one, but still cut off from much of our current source of food.  Now I’m not proposing this as a likelihood….. but still?  Think about it.


My friend, Dr. Brian Donahue, a faculty member at Tufts University did a rough evaluation of what we could grow in New England if we had the political will to do so.  He suggested that we could grow:

  • Most of our vegetables on 250,000 acres
  • Most of our dry beans on 500,000 acres
  • Half of our fruit on 250,000 acres
  • All of our dairy and most of our beef and lamb on grass on 4,000,000 acres with 3,000,000 in pasture)
  • All of our pastured pork, poultry and eggs but mostly using imported grain on acreage already in large animal pasture or in woodlots
  • Some portion of our grain for specialty products and perhaps feed and vegetable oil on 1,000,000 acres

The major constraints are:

  • lack of vision and will
  • lack of training/education
  • failure to invest

Well, one of the ways to develop the political will would be for more individuals to care about the source of their food – and gardeners care!   We could grow more food in New England and some of that food could be grown in our own backyards.

Grow Food Amherst

A local initiative got off the ground this past month, in which residents of my hometown, Amherst, MA, decided to “roll up their sleeves” and get to work to help our town become more food self-sufficient (trying to “keep up with our neighbors” Grow Food Northampton).

The first project was a “gleaning and cooking together” community effort in which food that would have gone to waste was collected by volunteers and delivered to the Not Bread Alone soup kitchen and food distribution center, as well as a local church.


Organized by the town’s Sustainabilty Coordinator in cooperation with a new organization, Grow Food Amherst, and Transition Amherst, this work attracted about 20 volunteers who collected sweet potatoes, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower (that was too small for market).

A few days later another community event was organized as part of the national Food Day celebration of local and sustainable food for residents to learn to preserve and make soup from the food that was gleaned from local fields.

In addition to these efforts organized by volunteers, the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture and the UMass Permaculture Initiative partnered with the Amherst Public Schools to plant fruit trees at three elementary schools and are making plans for vegetable gardens in the spring.  Following the lead of Todmorden, England, permaculturists at UMass are committed to growing food in pubic spaces such as local schools.

NOTE: Anyone who wants to be added to the mailing list for Grow Food Amherst should contact John Gerber or add yourself to our mailing list at GrowFoodAmherst.

We can grow much more locally!

This is not to say that we should rely on gardening or even backyard homesteading to feed the American population but – I believe if we each took more responsibility for some portion of our own food – individually and as a community – we would also create more market demand for food grown by local farmers.  In the U.S., about one-percent of the food is sold directly from farmers to consumers.  We can do better!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming.


One thought on “The U.S. needs 50 million farmers – including local gardeners

  1. Pingback: The U.S. needs 50 million farmers – including local gardeners | John Gerber « Tiny Forest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *