Is there a “Sweet Spot” in the Middle?
A group of researchers from several UC campuses published a study in October 2021 reporting that mid-scale farms with diversified operations have found a “sweet spot” for managing agroecosystems that promote biodiversity and experience less economic pressure than small, limited resource farms and large, wholesale farms. While the title of their study spotlights farm size, the authors emphasize a complex set of individual and structural factors, including markets and land tenure, that enable these mid-scale farmers to implement diversification practices like cover cropping, compost, hedgerow planting and complex crop rotation.
The paper, called “The “Sweet Spot” in the Middle: Why Do Mid-Scale Farms Adopt Diversification Practices at Higher Rates?”, focuses on case studies of organic lettuce growers in Santa Cruz, San Benito, and Monterey Counties to understand these enabling factors and the barriers faced by other farmers in the study. After analyzing the results from 20 interviews with growers and eight technical assistance providers, the researchers divided the farmers into three different categories (outlined in the table below).
Secure land access can lead to biodiversity
Table 3 in the paper linked here provides more detail on the complex set of factors that shape farmers’ desire and ability to implement diversification practices.
While the mid-scale farmers in the study highlighted the importance of diverse market outlets and ecologically-minded customers to their economic viability, the greatest source of stability for these farmers proved to be long-term land tenure. They shared that having land for at least five years gave them the ability to invest in new practices and to reap the long-term benefits of building biodiversity and prioritizing environmental stewardship.
In contrast, both limited resource and large wholesale farmers reported insecure land tenure as a key barrier to increasing biodiversity. Though there is often economic value to investing in diversification practices, the upfront capital needed and the multi-year return on investments can limit farmers on short-term leases. Wholesale farmers also noted that the requirements of their buyers related to product aesthetics and food safety regulations inhibit them from adopting alternative practices. Small farmers, in general, are also challenged by a lack of access to information, financing and technical assistance as a barrier.
Policy solutions abound
To alleviate these barriers, the article proposes policy solutions specific to each group of farms.
For the limited resource farmers, the article suggests expanding and streamlining existing conservation programs like CDFA’s Healthy Soils Program, increasing program publicity and easing the grant application and implementation process. Scaling up technical assistance and creating opportunities for farmers to share their experiences with government assistance programs may also increase accessibility and participation. Additionally, to promote diversification on these small farms, policies need to strengthen long-term land tenure, water access and market opportunities.
For the wholesale farmers, the authors suggest that both the “pull” of incentives and the “push” of regulatory mandates may be necessary for those farmers to invest in the ecological diversity of their system without losing access to their markets. Public procurement policies that prioritize food grown using climate smart practices can incentivize this shift—especially for wholesale growers pinched by existing market requirements, in which biologically-based systems are at odds with food safety standards.
Additionally, policymakers could incentivize growers to reduce run-off and pollution by using cover crops and hedgerows or could integrate these practices into water quality compliance requirements.
Remove barriers to Climate Smart Agriculture Programs
Many of the policy recommendations addressed in this article echo CalCAN’s ongoing advocacy to improve our state’s Climate Smart Agriculture Programs by removing barriers to participation for small and medium-sized farmers. You can review some of the most important changes we recommend published in our Healthy Soils Program Progress Report one year ago.