Full Belly Farms and "Are we there yet?" in Sustainable Agriculture

by Victoria Pilbeam, Australia, ELP 2014
Written on July 26, 2014.

About 2 hours north of San Francisco lies Full Belly Farms, a certified organic farm that aims to promote a sustainable model of food production. Full Belly Farms appears to be well-known among urban farmers in the bay area and when we met with some later in the course, they were well aware of the work being done there. So one might wonder: is Full Belly the holy grail of agricultural sustainability that the world has been looking for? The answer is probably mixed when you take into account social, economic and environmental concerns (the so-called three pillars of sustainability).
Image iconvictoria-1_2.png ELP participants explore the Full Belly Farms property in the Capay Valley.

Economic Sustainability: Can they pay the bills?
Through a direct loan from the previous owner of the property, the land that Full Belly stands on today was bought without a mortgage. Furthermore, through the Full Belly membership program, whereby members pay in advance for a full year of produce boxes, Full Belly has ready access to capital without having to borrow from a bank. These financial aspects free Full Belly Farms from the credit issues that many other farmers face. This, combined with the diversity of foods grown on the farm and the focus on farm only inputs, provides Full Belly with a lot of financial resilience to market shocks. This helps Full Belly fund its social and environmental commitments.

Social Sustainability: What do they do for the community?
Full Belly pays its workers a living wage and plants a series of different crops in order to provide year-round work to its staff. This means that Full Belly has excellent staff retention and many of its workers have been there since its inception in 1983. In this way, Full Belly not only adds to the professional capacity of the farm, but also directly contributes to the social sustainability of the surrounding community. In terms of widening this impact, Full Belly also runs summer camps and school trips to provide nutritional and agricultural education. The name "Full Belly," according to owner Judith Redmond, represents a hope that one day all people will go to bed with a full belly. However, the premium price that Full Belly produce commands may make its food inaccessible to the people who are in the greatest need of higher nutrition. Often it is cheaper to not buy organic and although conventional agriculture costs society much more, this is not reflected in its comparative price.

Environmental Sustainability: The million-dollar question
Because Full Belly is an organic farm, it excludes petrochemical fertilizers and harsh chemical pesticides and herbicides from its production models. Therefore, it relies primarily on agro-ecology techniques to maximize beneficial species, promote agricultural diversity and improve the fertility of the soil. By doing things like planting flowers that attract pollinators between the field or providing bat-boxes for insect eating bats, Full Belly helps to both restore the natural processes of the area and minimize the use of dangerous chemicals. However, one major point for improvement is Full Belly's use of water. Given that California is in a drought and Full Belly's wide scale use of drip irrigation, ELP participants were surprised to see sprinklers operating in the middle of the day in full sun. However, on a deeper level, the biggest issue that we identified at Full Belly and indeed every other farm we visited is that they rely primarily on aquifers. These aquifers are unmonitored and unregulated by any higher authority than individual farmers and in past, when the water table has dropped, they have simply lowered the depth of the wells. Overreliance on aquifers and a changing climate are a recipe for water scarcity and Full Belly will have to confront this in the near future.

Agricultural Sustainability: Are we there yet?
Our experience at Full Belly provided us with an entry point into some of the complexities associated with farming in California, into the function of the modern farming system and into sustainability more broadly. So can the thousands of academics and agriculturists working towards a sustainable method of food production lay down tools and focus on recreating the Full Belly model? In this context, it may be useful to re-conceptualize sustainability as a process rather than a destination. Full Belly is not fully sustainable but it is engaged in many sustainable practices, certainly more so than most conventional agriculture. Much of this unsustainability is associated with the wider societal structures that it occupies such as the lack of aquifer regulation in California or the negative externalities, which artificially lowers the price of nonorganic produce. However, farms like Full Belly could play a central role in solving these institutional issues.
Image iconvictoria-2_2.png A truck picks up a shipment of organic food from the farm.