Size matters

I write quite often about buying locally from small producers. Recently, however, I have been asked whether this is always a good approach. Well, I have to confess that I hadn’t thought much about it before, but having given the subject some consideration, I find that (as with most things in life) it’s complicated…

An early harvest of Colleen

I can grow my own potatoes, but not my own wheat

These days, my preference when buying vegetables that I can’t grow enough of myself, for example, is to go to one of our local farms or to a lovely organic shop that sources lots of the produce locally and has a no-fly policy for all the rest. So, sometimes I’m buying direct from the producer and sometimes there is an intermediary involved. Either way, the supply chain is very short and there are (generally) very few food miles involved. However, there are even smaller producers that I could buy from – people who sell their produce with an honesty box by the gate – and maybe I should try to support this sort of grower too. Or maybe the shop that acts as a market for a whole range of producers is a better option – providing more jobs (the people in the shop and the people on the farm) and possibly being more energy efficient (larger-scale growing operations can, potentially, be more streamlined).

This sort of analysis can be applied to any product and, on consideration, it is clear that different goods and crops are better suited to different scales of production. For example, I can grow enough potatoes in my garden, and store and process them, to supply our needs for well over half the year. Thus, this crop is well suited to tiny-scale production. The remainder I can source locally, thus supporting local growers and keeping food miles down. In contrast, I cannot grow my own wheat, and this seems to be better suited to field-scale production and processing. In addition, west Wales has limited land that is suitable for growing wheat, so what I buy mostly has to come from further afield. Of course, both of these crops can be produced on an industrial scale, with high inputs of energy and chemicals and minimized human activity, but those are definitely production methods I want to avoid.

One of Snuffkin’s goats used for very small-scale milk production (check out her lovely blog here)

Milk is a particular concern to me as regards the scale of production. The scale ranges from people with just a milking cow or a few goats up to the mega-dairies that are starting to appear in the UK. Mega-dairies, with 1000 plus cattle, are based on the idea of economies of scale. The cows in such dairies are kept indoors and fed on concentrates, with a huge associated problem of slurry disposal. The idea is that this is a cheap way to produce milk, but there are issues associated not only with the health and welfare of the animals in the dairy, but also with methane emissions, use of pesticides, fertiliser and fuel for growing the grain that is required for the feed and, of course, all the transportation costs associated with moving feed, stock and the milk. In addition, it has been suggested that, far from buffering food production from challenges, this approach is associated with a high level of risk. Indeed, being completely reliant on the petrochemical industry seems to be highly problematic, and although the milk produced this way might be “cheap” now (especially since the producers and consumers are not paying, financially, to deal with associated pollution), that illusion may be shattered by those who control the prices of fossil fuels (and that’s not you or me). As for what happens to such factory farms when petrochemicals become scarce, well they simply will not be flexible enough to survive. I do not feel comfortable with food production on this scale and certainly try to avoid buying any milk or milk products that may have come from such a facility. However, the milk demands of the country cannot currently be fulfilled by tiny-scale producers, so we have to seek out some sort of sustainable intermediate scale or give up our reliance on dairy products.

We are faced with a multitude of choices about what we buy and who we buy from. Some seem quite straightforward – you have to buy solar panels from a big producer, and you can easily buy an new shawl pin from a small craftsperson – but others are much more complex and there will be pros and cons. We might wish to consider the local economy, energy consumption, transportation, supporting communities, and a multitude of other factors when making choices and clearly there is no ‘right’ answer. Sometimes buying from a larger producer may deliver more of our aims than buying from a small one. One characteristic of human beings is that we trade, but while we are doing so it’s important to think about the implications associated with our choices.


This post was the result of a request from Linda. I have only managed to raise some of the issues and can provide no answers apart from suggesting that we are aware of this subject. I’d love to hear what other people think about appropriate scales.

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  1. Thanks for the thoughtful exposition of what goes into purchasing decisions. I think about many of the same things. The dairy issue is problematic. One thing you didn’t mention is the use of hormones and antibiotics in the large facilities. One thing we’ve come up with in the US, and which I’m sure you also have, is large co-operatives of small farmers whose dairy herds are on grass. Together, they can create quite a market force. That aside, it’s very satisfying growing your own food and then supplementing from folks you know. Thanks for this post!


    • Yes, I did forget the antibiotics issue… same problem with intensively reared chickens. All leading to antibiotic resistance. Bovine growth hormone cannot be legally administered in the UK or the rest of Europe so we are spared that particular problem.
      We buy our milk, usually, from an organic co-operative which, as you say, seems to be the best option currently.


  2. I’d like to see some of the problems become solutions. For example, slurry as a resource, not merely a waste product. If every large scale operation of this source used a methane digester for its power needs, it would become much closer to self sufficient. Not that I’m in favour of the large scale operations, I don’t find cows kept inside for their natural lives humane, since they are fed on foods to which their digestions are not suited and which cause health problems, hence the need for antibiotics. I do like the idea of co-operatives, and wish we had more of them here.


  3. Really interesting take on each crop or product having an optimal scale of production, and and guiding your thoughts and your actions on that awareness.


  4. We are thinking and talking about it! THAT is the beginning of the problem solving. We are moving or perhaps turning would be a better adjective, toward the right direction. The direction that includes survival rather than extinction. It is because of people like you. (warm fuzzie feelings)



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