Brian Donahue on the future of New England farming

Professor Brian Donahue knew from a relatively young age that he wanted to have an impact on the world and he was gonna to do it his way.

Having left school after sophomore year to pursue a life more “interesting,” he started making it on his own. From logging to starting a non-profit to teaching and writing, Mr. Donahue has become well versed in the art of raison d’être, finding his “reason to be.”

One of Mr. Donahue’s more important involvements comes from a 2005 report titled, Wildlands and Woodlands . In this is an outlined vision pertaining to New England’s forest lands that calls for 70% of it to be put aside for conservation within the next 50 years. The report also summarizes a plan for New England growing a large chunk of its food supply.

In his latest pursuit of happiness him and a few friends are working on a start-up pasture based family farm in Gill, Ma called Bascom Hollow Farm.

According to a recent article in the Hampshire Gazette…

Brian Donahue has done the talk, he’s done the walk, and now he’s doing the math. And for him, it all adds up:

  • his work as an associate professor at Brandeis University,
  • his three decades of working on a community farm in Weston and now,
  • the 170-acre farm he recently bought off Bascom Road (in Gill, MA) where he’s begun putting down roots with friends.

To read the article, go to Gill professor-farmer sees food as more than academic.

Professor Donahue spoke to a group of local citizens in the Amherst Town Hall last winter on the future of farming in New England.  It was an inspiring and thoughtful presentation.

Here is a synopsis of his presentation on “Leading a New England Home-Grown Food Revolution”

Lets look fifty years into the future and ask, if New England were to do about as well as we can imagine at providing its own food through sustainable farming, what might we best grow here? Let us say that we were to triple the amount of farmland in New England to 6 million acres—close to where it stood in 1945. That would return about 15% of New England to agriculture. If we assume ‘smart growth,’ that could be done while leaving 70% of New England still covered in sustainably harvested woodlands and wild reserves. Given 15 or 16 million New Englanders to feed (and presuming they were eating more healthily), we could envision five major building blocks of a sustainable New England food system:

  1. New England could produce the great bulk of its own vegetables and a substantial part of its fruit, and from that fruit a significant portion of its own beverages. This might require on the order of 1 million acres: about 250,000 acres devoted to fresh and storage vegetables; 250,000 acres devoted to fruit (notably apples, cranberries, blueberries, and grapes); and 500,000 acres devoted to dry beans, which would replace some meat in the diet. While much of this produce might be intensively grown on small acreages near cities, some vegetable crops such as potatoes and other root crops, winter squash, and beans might be grown in rotation with hay and grain on more diversified rural farms.
  2. New England could once again produce the great bulk of its own dairy products, and alongside that most of its own beef, almost entirely on grass (with some supplemental grain). This assumes dairy consumption about as it is today, but red meat consumption cut in half. Most of the farmland reclaimed from New England forest would be devoted to pasture and hay, for which our soils and climate are well suited. This defining element of our pastoral landscape might require as much as 4 million acres: about 1.5 million for dairy cows and 2.5 million for beef, along with some sheep and goats.
  3. That would leave on the order of 1 million acres of cropland that could be devoted to some combination of grain for direct human consumption, grain for livestock feed, or oil crops (such as canola, sunflower, or soy) which could provide protein meal for stock feed as well. If most of that million acres were to grow grain for human consumption (flour, pasta, beer, and so forth), for example, we could about cover those needs; but that would not leave much for feed or oil. Grain and oil crops could be grown mostly in rotation with hay.
  4. New England could produce the great bulk of its own pork, chicken, turkey, and eggs. These animals could be integrated into grazing systems without requiring much additional pasture acreage, as most of their feed doesn’t really come from grass. However, their feed grain requirements would amount to more than a million additional acres, which is probably far more than New England could supply. But importing grain is not a bad thing (presuming the grain were to come from sustainable farms elsewhere)—it is one very effective way to import fertility into intensive grazing systems.
  5. A restored and thriving regional fishery would be another crucial building

We wish Brian well and are delighted to have him joining the local food movement in Western Massachusetts.  To stay linked to some of the activities and thinking on local food in this region, please join the Facebook Group – Just Food Now in Western Massachusetts.

And for resources on sustainable food and farming, go to Just Food Now.

Written by Steven Cognac and John Gerber, January 2012.