Monday, October 27, 2008

The Value of Small

We've been harvesting peanuts lately, digging the vines and then hand-picking the nuts off. We gained a little efficiency by cajoling Eric's parents into helping while they were visiting last week, but what took us several man-hours would be accomplished in a matter of seconds by a conventional farmer. Of course, the conventional farmer has to finance hundreds of thousands of dollars of special machinery, along with paying for fuel, whereas all we have invested in harvesting is labor, but more than enough cost advantage remains to have all but eliminated small-scale peanut growers. So why do we hand-harvest peanuts, hand-milk a cow, or hand-pick feed corn? What's wrong with labor-saving machinery? In theory, there's very little wrong with labor-saving machinery, and we use plenty of machines on our farm: a honey extractor, a grist mill, an old tractor, an electric butter churn, etc. -- but where machines have displaced small family farms tremendous harm has been done. We could stand up for the small family farm on many, many fronts, but where we want to focus our attention now is the question of consumer choice. How many other changes have accompanied the shift from diverse family farms to industrial-scale monoculture? If the connection between people and the source of their food hadn't been severed by labor-saving machinery, if communities had retained direct control of how their food was grown, would you have chosen to give artificial hormones to milk cows for a marginal production boost? Would you have chosen genetically engineered corn? Would you have chosen high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener? Would you have chosen to feed chicken litter to your cows? Would you have chosen the fruits and vegetables with the better shipping quality over the ones with better flavor? Would you have chosen to offer the kind of employment fit only for an immigrant underclass? Would you have chosen routine antibiotics for your livestock? Would you have chosen Chinese concentrate for your apple juice? Whether or not you object to these choices that the system made no longer matters, because you're not given any choice. And that's one very big reason to value small, locally controlled farms.

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