Because industrial agriculture is in trouble, creative approaches are needed to respond to threats to food security that we face. While industrial agriculture gets some of its efficiency from a centralized production model that provides economies of scale, centralized systems are notably poor at adapting to change. To adapt to change, decentralized and small systems are much better, because many small and different approaches provide more chances to find better approaches to new conditions. When something isn’t working, they also respond much more quickly; it’s much easier to turn around my small kayak than it is a big oil tanker. This ability to adapt is why much more innovation in technology takes place in small firms than large firms.

This website and blog promote urban agriculture. One reason I’m a fan of urban agriculture is that it is local, small and decentralized. So, urban agriculture offers a good laboratory for trying new approaches to agriculture. But, it isn’t the only way. Local agriculture is generally defined as anything within 100 miles. Using this yardstick, another approach can take place in non-urban areas, but still using the small and decentralized principal. An article in today’s New York Times, “Cutting Out the Middlemen, Shoppers Buy Slices of Farms“, discusses one such experiment. Spinning out of an older idea of Community-Supported Agriculture, in which people typically subscribe to a farm for a regular supply of produce, the new twist is that people actually buy shares in a farm. This provides an even greater level of involvement in food production and greater food security.

This idea could be reflected back into the urban environment. One problem of urban agriculture is access to land. One way of dealing with that is to buy an empty lot or to lease a plot of land. Given the higher land costs associated with urban real estate, it makes sense for people to share the cost of buying or leasing land, then to cultivate the land very intensively. Whether the food is produced collectively and shared or produced in individual plots would be up to the people buying or leasing the land.

I saw a place where this could be done a few evenings ago. I visited another cohousing community, in part because it sits right next to a plot of land that potentially could be used to grow a significant amount of the community’s food. In this case, the land is owned by the local school district (there is an adjacent school). The district has shown no inclination to sell, but one way to address this would be to propose to the school district that the cohousing group be allowed to farm the land and use it as a teaching location for the school district. Students could get some hands-on experience with food production and share in the farm’s output. What an educational opportunity–wouldn’t it be great to tie all those studies about math and biology to the real world?

I see this sort of creative thinking and exploring opportunities for food production as something that will help agriculture adapt to changing circumstances. Not all such experiments and efforts will succeed, but those that do can provide models for others. It’s how big changes happen.