Blog post

apples in handIt is perhaps the greatest indication that the "free" market (or at least our U.S. early 21st century version of it) is a failure when those who work very hard to feed other people can't cover their own basic expenses. I bring this up after reading this article from Grist: Dispatches from the Fields: The trouble with small-scale farming.

One item I disagree with is the notion in the article that farming isn't "highly skilled." That really depends. Some jobs are mundane, but overall I have found that advanced management skills and sublimely honed knowledge sets are needed to farm well. Where does the idea that farming is "unskilled" come from?

One hypothesis I have is that the cheap availability of fertilizer inputs masks the actual difficulty of caring for the soil properly and making compost that works.

A second hypothesis is that farming is associated with rural, poor and foreign minorities with low SAT scores.

I would like to get paid to grow food for other people and am going to ask the members of my farm to do so next year. As the article suggests, most farmers don't make it on the food value alone. This is true in my case as well. My wife has a nice salary and I am her "kept man" so to speak.

What the article doesn't delve into is the changing economic environment. In a collapsing economic situation I'd expect more people to grow their own food. And with few high quality fertilizers and fuels available over the long term farming will require greater knowledge, much of which has been lost to the general population.

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Reader Comments


Removing subsidies and improving costing of conventional Ag

From: Noah Scales, Aug 29, 2008 06:14 PM

Government subsidies (the farm bill) affect costs of nonlocal ag that depends on petrochemical fertilizers. One solution for the planet and for US production is remove the subsidies available to large-scale farming operations. Compensatory support (perhaps changing the tax structure and boosting programs like WIC) for lower-income individuals affected by high food costs could mellow out the worst impacts of increased prices on the poor.

Carbon trading could also impact relative prices for conventional and organic produce in favor of locally-farmed organic produce that minimizes petrochemical inputs and maximize s soil carbon capture. Specific farming methods, such as till versus no-till are important here, and I'm not sure how carbon trading schemes would credit carbon capture by farms, but presumably it's doable.

Economies of scale could impact food production costs, just comparing small with large-producers. Farm coops offer one solution, maybe if their mission were to maximize value added and profits captured by each farm member of the coop. I'm no expert, but see the article "The Social Mission of Farm Cooperatives." Other innovative solutions might exist in the marketplace as well.

Another possibility is a regional change toward community credit and a local currency(convertible to dollars), making your farm loans cheaper and increasing local markets for your food products.

There are a number of good comments in the original Grist thread, but Raphael Sperry's short list of the positive externalities of small-scale organic farming is valuable because those externalities could be credits in some schemes of taxation (similar to carbon-trading) that include environmental and social costs in the market price of goods.