The Future

Circular Microfarms | What They Can Teach Us

Many modern-day farms are huge, covering hundreds or even thousands of acres. But can a one-acre "microfarm" be a success? The trick is not just in what you farm, but also in how you farm it.

Dr Emma Naluyima is a Ugandan farmer with a one-acre microfarm. In one year, she farms not only fruit and vegetables, but also pigs, cows, chickens, and fish, and makes an annual income of USD 100,000. In 2019, she was awarded the Africa Food Prize for her remarkable small farm.1 So, what does her microfarm look like, and what makes it so successful and sustainable? 

Circular Farming Methods & Principles

Graphic by Jamie Burton

Dr Naluyima’s farm follows ‘closed loop’ or ‘circular’ farming principles. She strategically divides her farm into different sections for her livestock, fish and crops. But unlike conventional farms, the separate sections are intentionally linked together so that each area helps the other. For example, Dr Naluyima collects the dung from her pigs, who live on one-quarter acre of her farm. The dung is then used to grow housefly maggots, saying, “I would be grateful to any scientist who could make me diapers for pigs—because I don’t want to lose a speck of pig dung!”2 

The maggots help feed her chickens and catfish, which are kept on another section of the microfarm. She then pipes the water from the fish tank through aquaponic vegetables in a third quarter, which absorbs the nitrates from the fish waste and returns the water oxygenated and cleaned. 

The pigs also produce urine, which she uses to make fertiliser for crops and animal fodder. Eventually, the dung is mixed with earthworms to produce compost soil and more worms, which become fish food. She keeps 5 cows in the final quarter of her acre, putting some of their dung into a biogas fermenter and using the remainder as fertiliser for more vegetables and fruit. 

This system of circulating waste and products to other farm areas keeps her costs low as she doesn’t need to buy large quantities of fertiliser or animal feed, while her crops and animals thrive. But such profitable microfarms like Dr Naluyima’s are rare in sub-Saharan Africa, where most farms typically yield anything from USD 193 to USD 1047 per acre.3 

Why Circular Farming Methods Are Often Overlooked In Larger Farms

In 20 years, the small and medium farms of the USA have gone from producing half of all agricultural production to contributing less than a quarter.4 And in the EU, even though the amount of land used for farming hasn’t changed, the number of farms has sharply declined - a statistic that reflects the growth of larger farms.5 

Typically, these larger farms aim to intensify, cultivating just one or two crops or animal breeds to streamline production for profit. Heavy machinery replaces hand labour, and the narrow approach means circular practices in farming are forgotten or no longer regarded as efficient. 

Instead, many large farmers buy fertilizer - an annual 15.5 billion euros in Europe alone - to replace nutrients in the soil, pesticides to kill weeds, and grain feed to fatten animal livestock quickly. Along with these additional costs come issues such as environmental pollution and soil degradation. 

Larger farms have a far-reaching impact beyond their own acreage, as they are also reliant on imported resources, particularly for animal feed - which accounts for 55% of EU cereal and 98% of global soybean meal produced specifically for animal feed.6 

On top of reliance on imported resources, non-circular practices also create waste where circular methods see value. While Dr Naluyima regards pig dung as incredibly valuable to her farm, conventional livestock practice would commonly disregard it of any recycled value. Yet, each year in Europe, cows and pigs generate some 1.2 billion tonnes of manure, which researchers of the EU-funded ManureEcoMine project say could be made into ‘green fertiliser’ worth an annual 4.5 billion euros.7

But Can Circular Micro Farming Be Scaled Up?

We know it can work, but is circular farming scalable? After all, small-scale farm advantages, like being able to tend and till by hand, are lost as farm size grows. And can circular farming also be commercially competitive? 

Closed-loop farming isn’t a new concept. It’s just an approach that has been pushed aside by modern farming practices, as monoculture and intensive practices favour profit over ethics or the environment. Today, large-scale circular farming would need supportive incentives, new technology, recycling infrastructures, and more research into its potential productivity and efficiency.

The European Space Agency is currently researching closed-loop farming as a way to grow food on Mars - but so are others looking to the future of the Earth.8 And a team from Wageningen University, the Netherlands, is one of 10 finalists for the Food System Vision Prize, developing a futuristic vision for the year 2050 of country-wide circular farming systems.9 Carola Scouten, Minister of Agriculture for the Netherlands, says the future of food production in the country is moving towards circular agriculture “to farm with nature, rather than against it.”10 

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