Thursday, July 20, 2017


  That's a grandiose question, but implicit in the big question is whether farms like ours are frivolously inefficient or whether they're a model worth supporting because of their better care of people, communities, and ecosystems.
  Certainly big, industrialized farms free up/displace lots of workers. Lots of small, family farms would require lots of farmers and that means fewer people doing other jobs. A shift to small family farms might come about in part by farmers replacing workers in pesticide manufacturing plants or global food transport workers or food marketing specialists or treadmill salesmen, but that would only be a part of the shift; small farms can really only become mainstream in America to the extent that mainstream Americans become farmers again.
  Relearning how to farm well (especially growing more than just the most profitable niche products) would take a lot of time even if the whole world were convicted of the value of small family farms overnight, and, of course, small family farms aren't compatible with the kind of consolidation of land ownership that we have now, but what if the workers were willing and able and could buy back their ancestors' family farms? How much food could such farms even produce? To try to answer that question, we first have to confront the reality of synthetic fertilizers. In the case of garden crops, which take up very little land, there are reasonable alternatives to synthetic fertilizers, particularly in the presence of all the organic waste materials that our current economy generates. On the other hand, the yields of the crops that take up a lot of land -- the crops that ultimately really feed the world (and lead to the organic wastes that make it seem so easy to organically fertilize calorie- and acreage-marginal crops like vegetables) -- depend much more heavily on synthetic fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers allow for supplying practically unlimited nutrients to crops, at least so long as the fossil fuels and other mined nutrient sources required to synthesize the fertilizers are plentiful. (Of course, we're ignoring, meanwhile, all the ways in which industrialized agriculture relies on non-renewable and unsustainable inputs, the permanent damage that industrialized agriculture is doing to the productive capacity of the earth, and all the different sorts of risks that come with industrialized agriculture.) Growing crops organically means the only nutrients available to the crop are what can be recycled (through manures, kitchen scraps, animal bones, mulches, etc.) When it comes to the crops that produce the calories that feed people, crops like corn and wheat and oats and forages for livestock, synthetic fertilizers make a huge difference, perhaps doubling potential yields per acre or even more.
  Does that mean small, organic, family farms could only produce half or less of the food of big, industrialized farms (and would be at least twice as expensive)? Some of big ag's proponents might suggest that, but for one thing that ignores the great efficiency with which small, diversified farms can make use of land, land that is too sloping, too varied, or divided into plots too small to suit big machines and extensive management. Even vacant lots in large cities have proven fertile ground for small, organic farms and gardens. Our own farm was long ago abandoned by mainstream agriculture as too marginal; yet to us it offers overwhelming potential production. The biggest difference may be that small farms are so much more flexible in terms of how they can convert sunlight into food. For example, instead of growing (and devoting land solely to) genetically modified, herbicide-resistant soybeans for chicken feed, free range chickens on small farms can scavenge the worms and grubs they need for protein, along with much of their energy needs, all from land devoted primarily to other uses. Hogs, similarly, are wonderful at utilizing what would otherwise be waste: crop residues from the field, acorns and beechnuts from forests, leftover whey from cheesemaking, etc. Goats can potentially thrive year round on nothing but invasive exotic plants and other unwanted weeds and forages that would otherwise just be mowed or sprayed with herbicides. In contrast, industrialized agriculture devotes a majority of America's most productive cropland strictly to growing animal feed (and fuel ethanol.) How uneconomical!
  Here's a good perspective on the actual, real-world inefficiency of modern industrialized agriculture:
Some might argue that how inefficiently the products of industrialized agriculture are used and how much waste goes along with industrialized agriculture are separate issues from the question of industrial agriculture's productivity, but we believe these issues are deeply and inseparably interconnected.  The history of the world's worst famines provides exceedingly strong evidence that precisely these kinds of issues that we see with our current industrialized agriculture are the worst causes of famine: over-reliance on monocropping systems (e.g. 1.5 million dead in the Irish potato famine, 7 million dead in the Bengal famine of 1943 when a fungus infected the rice crop), forfeiting local economic sovereignty (especially food sovereignty) to outside power centers and the exploitation and political corruption that those centralized systems foster (e.g. 2.5-3 million dead in the North Korean famine of the 1990s, 5 million dead in the Russian famine of 1921, 10 million dead in the Soviet famine of 1932-3, 15-43 million dead in the Great Chinese Famine between 1959 and 1961), and replacing crops for local consumption with non-food and export crops, which has a lot of overlap with forfeiting local food sovereignty and exploitation by non-local power centers (e.g. , 2 million dead in the Vietnamese famine of 1945 when Vietnam was heavily focused on rubber production, 10 million dead in the Bengal famine of 1770 when Bengali agriculture focused especially on indigo and opium production.)
  Even if a predominantly industrialized agriculture can currently feed much of the world (with an emphasis on the wealthiest and least food-insecure parts of the world), one must ask whether current practices can be sustained. What will industrialized agriculture do without cheap and abundant fossil fuels for its machines and for synthesizing its fertilizers? What will industrialized agriculture do when the weeds and insects and disease organisms develop resistance to the current array of synthetic poisons? Of course, the only answer is blind faith in the prospect of newer and higher-tech poisons and machines, meanwhile assuming that the pollution and side effects of yesterdays poisons will prove negligible.
  As for us, we maintain hope in a different kind of agriculture, a culture of small, local-organic, family farms.  There's lots more we'd like to say on this topic if we had time.  For a look at what it would mean to eat almost entirely from a small, local-organic, family farm, see this post on our blog.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

After a rough week dealing with Eric's sprained ankle, this reminder of the rewards of the farm life: