Does Size Matter? The True Cost of Big Farms
Does farm size affect the true cost of food? The short answer: Yes! The increase in size of U.S. farms has been motivated by the quest for economic efficiency in an effort to reduce the economic costs of food. However, the “true” cost of food also includes economic costs that are not currently reflected in costs of production but are “externalized” or imposed on society and the nature. The external economic costs of farming have risen as farms have grown larger, so it’s reasonable to believe a relationship exists between farm size and external economic costs. Furthermore, the true cost of American food must include the non-economic social and ecological costs that cannot be converted into economic costs or internalized. There are good reasons to believe the non-economic costs of large farms may matter even more than the external economic costs.
While internalizing economic externalities is a step in the right direction, meeting the challenge of agricultural sustainability ultimately will require more than true cost accounting. Sustainable farming will require an approach to farm management that is fundamentally different from the industrial management paradigm that characterizes today’s large farms. As Wendell Berry writes in Solving for Pattern, “A good solution is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns – and this harmony will, I think, be found to have a nature of analogy. A good solution acts within the larger pattern the way a healthy organ acts within the body.”
The pattern of large farms is that of a machine or mechanism – of industry. The natural ecosystems and rural cultures within which farms must function are living systems rather than machines – organisms rather than mechanisms. In fact, a farm itself is an organism – a living systems made up of soil, plants, animal, and people that constitute an integral whole. The ecological and social externalities of large farms are a natural consequence of the inherent disharmony and conflict between the industrial extensive-management paradigm that cause large farms to be large and the ecological and social context within which they must function.
Sustainable farms must be organized and managed to function in harmony with healthy, diverse, dynamic, individualistic, interdependent living systems. Only healthy living systems are capable of balancing the efficiency, resilience, and regenerative capacity essential for sustainability. Thus, sustainable farmers must have the knowledge, understanding, and management skills to work with nature. Sustainable farmers must also understand and appreciate human nature – particularly the value of human relationships. They must see the economy as a means rather than an end – a means of pursuing a social and ethical way of life. They must care about their land to be caretakers of the land. They must care about people if they are to be caretakers of society. Sustainable farms must be both management-intensive and human-intensive, and thus accordingly small.
The lack of sustainability of American agriculture today is a natural consequence of a management paradigm chosen to maximize economic efficiency, which inevitably conflicts with ecological and social integrity. Today’s large farms are perhaps the right size for economic efficiency but are clearly too large for ecological, social, and economic sustainability. Read more
So You Want to be a Farmer?
I recently came across a blog piece on the National Young Farmers Coalition website. It began: “You want to be a farmer? [i] That’s great news because we need a lot more farmers! But there are some things you should know before diving in:” The author is a young farmer who has been farming with her partner in the Pacific Northwest for more than 10 years. She went on to name five things that anyone who wants to be a farmer should understand: 1. Farming is really, really hard. (Let me stress that one more time….) 2. Farmers are not just farmers (They have to do a lot of other things.) 3. Farming can be dangerous. (You can get hurt farming.) 4. It takes money to make money (particularly to get into farming).
She finished with 5. “It’s the best work you’ll ever do.” She went on to explain: “Do you want to feel completely satisfied and fulfilled by your work? Lay your head down at night knowing you are doing something that helps the planet and your fellow humans? There is nothing more satisfying than providing a basic need: food. I love what I do, and wouldn’t trade it for anything—sore muscles, financial risks, and all.”
I hear similar comments from young farmers who attend sustainable agriculture conferences all across the county. These farmers know they have to find some way to make a living economically, but that’s not why they want to be farmers. They feel they were meant to be farmers – that farming gives purpose and meaning to their lives. To help these young farmers, and anyone else who wants to help create a sustainable future for humanity, I have proposed an Ethic of Sustainability: A thing is right when it tends to enhance the quality and integrity of life on earth by honoring the unique responsibilities and rewards of humans as members and caretakers of the earth’s integral community. A thing is wrong when it tends otherwise. Read more
Healthy soils, healthy communities, healthy economies
The critical linkages among health soils, healthy communities, healthy economies, and health societies are firmly rooted not only in history but also in the most fundamental principles of economics and laws of physics. Everything of use to us, including everything of economic value, ultimately comes from the earth – soil, water, minerals, air, energy. There is no other possible source. Beyond self-sufficiency, we must rely on other people – friends, community, or society – to meet needs that we cannot meet directly from nature. To meet needs that we can’t meet through relationships people we know personally, we must rely on the “impersonal markets” – meaning the economy. Regardless of the means, everything that sustains the health of people, communities, societies, and economies ultimately must come from the earth – from nature.
As long as biologically and chemically healthy soils were necessary to produce crops for food, healthy soils obviously had economic value. The economic value of soils was directly related to the economic value of the crops particular soils were capable of producing. Soils that could support an abundance of healthy plants and healthy animals obviously were more economically valuable than “worn out” soils lacking in the natural fertility essential to grow healthy crops or animals. Healthy soils also supported healthy people who were capable of sustaining healthy farm economies, which helped sustain healthy rural communities.
However, the advent of cheap commercial fertilizers decoupled rural economies and communities from the health of their local soils. Production was no longer limited by the biologically available nutrients in the soil but by the quantities of commercial fertilizers crops could metabolize. The economic value of agricultural crops and livestock was and still is determined by quantity or production per acre not by quality, nutrition, or human health per acre. With cheap commercial pesticides, crops didn’t even need to be healthy to resist pests. Antibiotics could keep sick animals alive until they could be killed. Chemically-intensive farming could produce large quantities of salable energy or calories without relying on healthy soils. Farm economies were no longer dependent on healthy soils. Neither could communities depend on the healthy soils to support their local economies. Read More…
U.S. Farm Policy: Past, Present, and Future
Surprisingly, I was asked by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to write the North American policy paper, in recognition of the International Year of the Family Farm in 2014. I questioned whether the FAO actually wanted me to write the paper because of my non-conventional views of American agriculture. In the process of writing the paper, however, I discovered that much of the rest of the world is awakening to the failure of so-called modern agriculture. They see the values of the “traditional family farm” as being essential for the sustainability of agriculture. The United States, Canada, and Australia have found few allies in their efforts to promote industrial agriculture as the only means of avoiding massive global starvation. Some time ago, I came to the conclusion that revolutionary changes in US farm policies will be absolutely essential if there is to be a future for family farms in the US.
Farm policies of both the past and today are routinely defended politically as being necessary to ensure that everyone has access to enough good food to support a healthy, active lifestyle: the official definition of “food security.” The historic strategy for food security in the US was to keep enough farm families on the land to produce enough food for everyone in the nation. Family farmers historically were committed to caring for their land and their communities. Government farm programs in the US were established during the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s – while the US was still an agrarian nation. These early farm programs were but one aspect of the so-called New Deal of the 1930s, instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt. The New Deal included a wide range of government programs to address growing economic and social inequities. Government subsidies for farm families at that time also provided badly needed income to people in rural areas, helping to preserve a way of life for farm families, as well as providing economic stability and food security for the nation.
The focus of US farm policy shifted over time, particularly during the 1960s and early 1970s, from preserving family farms to promoting agricultural productivity. Mechanical and chemical technologies emerging from World War II fundamentally changed American agriculture. Farms powered by horses and solar energy gave way to farms powered by tractors and fossil energy. Cheap nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides encouraged farmers to abandon crop rotations and diversified crop and livestock farming as the means of managing pests and maintaining soil fertility. Farms were being transformed into factories without roofs and fields and feedlots into biological assembly lines. Read More….
Toward an Ethic of Sustainability
I believe we need a clearly defined Ethic of Sustainability to guide the modern sustainability movement in the way that Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic guided the conservation movement. Leopold’s Land Ethic is credited with defining a new relationship between people and nature, setting the stage for the modern conservation movement.[i] In the words of Leopold, “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the [human] community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”[ii] A similar sustainability ethic would enlarge the boundaries of nature to include humans and would extend the boundaries to include those of future as well as present generations. The ethic also would need to focus on the unique responsibilities and rewards of humans as caretakers or stewards of the integral community of the earth, since its purpose would be to guide the decisions and actions of humans.
Perhaps somewhere in all of the literature related to ethics and sustainability there is a concise treatment the ethics of sustainability similar to Leopold’s Land Ethic. So, “Why try and reinvent the wheel?” As I responded in a recent article proposing a food ethic, “I suspect the person who invented the wheel was criticized for trying to reinvent the sled.”[v] I believe a straightforward ethical statement such as Leopold’s Land Ethic, meaning one that is readily understandable and makes sense to people in general, is needed to guide the sustainability movement.
Leopold’s Land Ethic mostly simply stated is: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” [vi] I propose the following maxim for an ethic of sustainability: A thing is right when it tends to enhance the quality and integrity of all life on earth by means that honor the unique responsibilities and rewards of humans as members and caretakers of the earth’s integral community. A thing is wrong when it tends otherwise.” I believe it is important that we begin to guide the sustainability movements by questioning what is right and wrong. Read More…
Food Sovereignty: A Revolution in US Farm Policy
As people around the world have learned, or are learning, market economies simply will not ensure food security, and thus, virtually every nation has some form of farm policy. Markets only provide enough food for those who have enough money to buy enough food. Food security requires that all have enough good food to support healthy, active lifestyles, regardless of whether they have enough money.
For at least the past 50 years, farm policies in the US have promoted industrial agriculture as a means of providing food security by reducing costs of agricultural production and making food affordable for everyone. Every major farm program in the US since the New Deal era, in one way or another, has facilitated, supported, or promoted agricultural industrialization – promoting consolidation of agricultural production into fewer and larger farms. For example, price supports, deficiency payments, crop insurance, and disaster payments, all reduce risks associated with specializing in producing one or a few basic commodities. Grades and standards facilitate standardization and routinization of production for mass markets. Subsidized credit, investment tax credits, and accelerated depreciation of buildings and equipment encourage mechanization and consolidation into larger production units. US farmers are told they should either “get big or get out” of farming.
Agricultural industrialization reduced production costs and reduced the percentage of Americans’ incomes spent for food, but it did not provide food security for the poor. A larger percentage of Americans are classified as food insecure today than in the 1960s. As US agricultural production continued to expand well beyond domestic demand, the focus of farm policy shifted from production for domestic markets to producing for export markets. US agriculture would continue to provide domestic food security by maintaining an agricultural trade surplus in global markets. The official US position on agricultural trade has been to push for “free markets” – through the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and other bilateral and regional trade agreements.The latest regional trade negotiations, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), focuses on the Asian-Pacific, linking the US and Canada with countries of South America and the Asian Pacific.
However, many countries of the world continue to resist leaving their food security vulnerable to global markets. Small farmers and peasants have joined in protesting the anticipated impacts of GATT, WTO, and various bilateral and regional trade agreements because of their negative impacts on local food markets, rural livelihoods and cultures, and the environment. The global food sovereignty movement emerged as an explicit rejection of the industrial agriculture polices that were being forced upon lesser-developed nations under the guise of promoting global food security. The “poster child” for these policies, the Green Revolution, is still heralded as a great success in the US but is despised by many in the parts of the world most directly affected. The term, “food sovereignty” was coined in 1996 by Via Campesina, which is an alliance of 148 international organizations advocating family-farm-based, sustainable agriculture. A basic premise of the movement is that to achieve authentic food security, people of the world must have food sovereignty. The core principle of food sovereignty is that everyone has a basic human “right to good food,” regardless of whether they can afford it. Read More…….
Small Farms Are Real Farms: A Question of Function
Are small farms real farms? I have addressed this question on various occasions over the years, and of course, in my book, Small Farms Are Real Farms. I keep returning to this theme because I become more convinced over time that only small farms are real farms. Only small farms have the characteristics that have been associated with farming in the past and will be associated with farming in the future. I believe the large farm businesses of today eventually will be seen as a short-lived aberration in farming history because they were not real farms. Farms of the future will be smaller because large farms are not sustainable. Many people in the organic and sustainable agriculture movements claim that sustainability is not a matter of size; that any size farm can be managed either sustainably or unsustainably. I agree many small farms are not managed sustainably. However, I believe the things farmers would need to do to make today’s large farms sustainable would end up making them far smaller.
First, what is a small farm? How large is large and how small is small? A small beef cattle ranch obviously requires more acres than a large poultry operation and a large vegetable farm needs fewer acres than a small wheat farm. The USDA defines farm size in terms of value of production. They call any farm with less than $250,000 in annual sales a small farm; others draw the line at $50,000 a year. I think large and small exists mainly in the mind of the farmer rather than actual size of the farm. The farmer who needs more land and more capital to be successful is a large farmer, no matter how small his or her farm. The farmer who finds ways to make a better living on less land with less capital is a small farmer, no matter how large his or her farm. That said, I believe there is some absolute size beyond which a cattle ranch, poultry operation, vegetable farm, or wheat farm simply becomes too large to be managed sustainably – although the critical size obviously will be different for different types of farms.
Second, what is a real farm? Historically, a farmer has always been defined as one who cultivates land, cares for livestock, or otherwise operates a farm. The English word farmer has varied origins: from Middle English, fermer, fermour (“steward,”), from Old French fermier (“husbandman”), and from Medieval Latin firmarius (“one who rents land”). [ii] The English word farm comes from Middle English word, ferme, farme (“rent, revenue, produce, stewardship, meal, feast”), from Old English feorm, fearm, farm (“meaning provisions, food, supplies, possessions, stores, feast, entertainment, haven”), from Proto-Germanic fermō (“means of living, subsistence”), and from Proto-Indo-European perkw– (“life, strength, force”). It is related also to Old English words such as feormian (“to provision, sustain”), and feorh (“life, spirit”), and Icelandic word fjör (“life, vitality, vigour, animation”).…..READ MORE
Top 10 Reasons to read Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Care of our Common Home
Pope Francis has provided us with what could be one of the most important documents of this century: his “Encyclical Letter for Care of our Common Home.” Let me first make it clear that I do not make this statement as a Catholic or even a “church-going” Christian, although I am a “spiritual Christian.”
The Letter is frequently referred to as the “Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change.” However, as he purposefully pointed out, “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all” (Sec. 23). “Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone” (Sec 93). Thus, he expanded the subject to “Care for Our Common Home.” There is no way I can do justice to his document in a piece of reasonable length for a blog. So, I will limit my comments to my “Top Ten Reason” for recommending reading Pope Francis’ Encyclical.
My first four reasons relate to ways of thinking about human relationships with the rest of the world, or worldview, that he suggests are essential for responsible care of our common home:
- Integral Ecology: Everything and everyone on earth, living and non-living, is integrally interconnected and interdependent with everything else.
When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it (Sec 139). Read more…
The Facts about Factory Farms
A variety of controversies have seriously eroded public trust in American agriculture. Genetically modified crops (GMOs), agricultural chemicals, and concentrated animals feeding operations (CAFOs) or “factory farms” are among the most prominent on a growing list of public concerns. With respect to GMOs, more than 30 states are considering legislation requiring labeling of food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients. Maine and Connecticut already have labeling laws that are pending implementation. The world’s most popular weed-killer, Roundup, has just been identified by the World Health Organization as a “probable carcinogen.” The most commonly used herbicide on U.S. farms, Atrazine, has long been identified as a probably endocrine disruptor linked to a host of potential adverse health impacts.
Nowhere are the public concerns and controversies about agriculture more prominent than for CAFOs –frequently called “factory farms.” CAFOs actually are far more like factories than farms. Nine states have banned the use of gestation crates in CAFOs, which continuously confine breeding hogs is spaces so small they can’t even turn around. Only a veto by Governor Christie prevented New Jersey from become the tenth, and bans are under active consideration in several other states. McDonalds has been joined by a growing list of restaurant chains demanding “cage-free” eggs for their customers. Legislation that has been persistently proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives would ban the routine feeding of antibiotics to animals – a common practice in factory farms. The legislation has been blocked thus far by the large drug companies. Under growing pressure for action, the FDA reluctantly adopted “voluntary guidelines,” for antibiotic use in CAFOs, which…… Cont. to full story
The Good Food Revolution
In Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical on Global Climate Change he challenged claims that having “dominion over the earth” gives humans the right to use the other living and non-living things of the earth as we choose. The Bible teaches human beings to “till and keep” the garden of the world, he said: “‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, plowing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.”
His most stinging criticism was his condemnation of our preoccupation with economic self-interests and our unwise reliance on technology to solve our problems. He acknowledged the achievements in medicine, science and engineering made possible by economic growth and technology. However, he added, “Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.” He rejects the belief that technology and “current economics” will solve current environmental problems or “that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.” He also cited the undue influence on corporations and wealthy individuals on politics and calls for government action, international regulation, and most important, a spiritual and cultural awakening to “recover depth in life.”
Nowhere is the Pope’s call for deep, fundamental, lasting change more essential than in the American Food system. A recent Fortune Magazine “Special Report: The war on big food” begins, “Major packaged-food companies lost $4 billion in market share alone last year, as shoppers swerved to fresh and organic alternatives. Can the supermarket giants win you back?” The Fortune article describes how a wide range of consumer concerns is eroding the market power of the large corporate food companies. The report names artificial colors and flavors, pesticides, preservatives, high-fructose corn syrup, growth hormones, antibiotics, gluten, and genetically modified organisms. All of these concerns stem directly or indirect from the industrial paradigm of food production and distribution, including industrial agriculture. cont. to full story
The Challenge of Global Hunger
Time for a New Agenda for Public Research and Education
Publicly funded research and educational programs obviously are meant to serve public interests – not the interests of individual constituents or corporations. To better serve the public interests through agriculture, Abraham Lincoln established the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862. Lincoln called it the “people’s department.” Most of the people in America lived on farms at the time and farming was a “way of life,” not just another bottom-line business. The Land Grant University (LGU) system was established by the Morrill Act of 1862 to focus on teaching the “practical arts,” including agriculture, science, and engineering – but not to the exclusion of the liberal arts. LGUs were the working people’s universities, and agriculture was and still is an important part of the work of the nation.
The historic justification for government programs related specifically to agriculture, including agricultural research and education, was to ensure domestic food security. In the U.S., food security has been defined as access to adequate quantities of wholesome foods to support healthy active lifestyles, although the precise terminology has changed from time to time. The historic strategy for food security in the U.S. was to keep enough family farmers on the land to produce enough food for everyone in the nation. Family farmers traditionally were held in high esteem as stewards of the land and the pillars of democratic society.[i] Publicly funded research and education was a means of allowing such family farmers to increase productivity as needed to meet the food needs of a growing nation. Contemporary government farm programs in the U.S. have their roots in the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. Early price supports and farm subsidies were as much about supporting the incomes of farm families as supporting agricultural production. Publicly funded agricultural research and extension programs became and have remained components of ongoing U.S. government farm policy.
Changes in American agriculture following World War II led to fundamental changes in U.S. farm policies, including publicly-funded research and education. Farms powered by horses gave way to farms powered by tractors. Cheap nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides encouraged farmers to abandon crop rotations and diversified crop and livestock farming as the means of managing pests and maintaining soil fertility. Many farms were being transformed into factories without roofs and fields and feedlots into biological assembly lines.
The focus of U.S. farm policy shifted from preserving family farms to promoting agricultural productivity, regardless of the consequences for farm families. A more efficient agriculture would lead to lower food prices, making adequate quantities of wholesome and nutritious food affordable for everyone – without regard to who produced it. Read More ….