Very Small-Scale Agriculture

SUBHEAD: In the long term, Small and local wins. In the short term... Not so much. By Sharon Astyk on 01 September 2009 in Casaubon's Book - image above: Photo of a backyard farm in San Francisico. From

Several people have noted that in A Nation of Farmers we spend a lot of time talking about very small-scale agriculture - home gardening, farms spread across multiple yards, very small home farms - and less time talking about farming for a living - and this isn’t an accident.

One of my standing bits of advice to people who want to become farmers is this - do it. But make sure someone in your household keeps a job with a paycheck.

This, of course, limits the scale on which anyone can do this work - if you have to farm around your night-shift at Walmart or substitute teaching, or driving deliveries, this cuts into your time for the farm. If you have to watch the kids and farm at the same time, because your partner is off earning the health insurance and mortgage, you are going to spend a lot more time taking people potty and getting snacks than you would if you could farm full time without kids. So why aren’t I advising more people to farm full time?

Don’t get me wrong - I want to see more full-time farmers. But while in the longer term, I think that small scale agriculture is going to win, in the shorter term, Walmart and the economy are going to devour a lot of small farmers.

The trick, as you are planning your course of adaptation, is to learn the skills now, maybe obtain the land if you can get it, but hold in reserve for the time when you can make a living doing the work. Don’t get me wrong - if you are already trying it, or called to do the work, I encourage you. But have a backup plan - we need you, but you need to make a living.

With less than 1% of the US population involved in agriculture, the average age of farmers at 59 years old and the average age of small farmers at 65, we need, waiting in the wings, a relief force. But we can’t pay them yet.

Had oil prices continued to rise without affecting the economy, we might have seen the gradual evolution of a local farm economy as local providers were increasingly able to compete with industrial ones. But that, as we all know, didn’t happen.

Instead, volatility is the name of the game - and that means that most Americans will never know, from year to year, how much basic needs like their utility bills and groceries are going to cost them. And when price rise and jobs are lost - people stop paying premiums for their food.

That $7 gallon raw milk stops being a necessity for your family’s health and starts being a luxury, easily replaced by $4 gallon milk at WalMart. The CSA share cost seems more and more onerous. The grassfed meat may taste better, and be better for you, but, well….

We’re already seeing this - organic and raw milk dairy farmers are struggling just like everyone else - organic milk sales are expected to drop by 15%. Organic food sales slowed to a 6% year over year growth last year, up from 26% the year before - still growing as of January, but expected to decline overall this year.

The truth is that people are committed to organic and local - but only so far. And small and niche producers just plain can’t compete with larger farms with contracts. They depend on affluent consumers who care about good food to keep going - they need people to be able to afford their food, and to care enough to buy it.

Meanwhile Target and WalMart and the rest of the industrial producers are pulling out all the stops to convince us that their organics, their faux-local food is just about the same at half the price. Never mind that for this food we pay twice - in agricultural and corporate subsidies, in health costs, in welfare and food stamp payments for the farmers and the WalMart employees. The vast majority of people will, for a while, probably go back to WalMart for the milk and vegetables because they are trying desperately to get by.

In the very long term - local food is likely to win this battle - the larger scale industrial middlemen can’t succeed in an era of high energy prices in proportion to buying power. Their margins are tight, and higher energy costs and other factors are likely to drive them out of business - eventually. But we’re not there yet, and their death throes are likely to be long and painful, as they devour market shares of small farmers.

In the longer term, there will be a shift to paying more of our limited incomes for food - we’ve never paid less. Toby Hemenway and I once discussed this, and despite some differences, we both agree we’re headed rapidly (over the next decade or so) to a life where people in the US and other rich nations spend 30% of their income on food. But that’s a long and painful shift - one in which other costs decline proportionally, and in which a lot of people are ground between the stones of declining budgets, not enough food to go to the end of the month, and their desire for decent health and good food.

This is why I don’t spend more time exhorting people to take up full time agriculture for a living - I wish I could, since it is so desperately needed. But my own view of the future is that a lot of farmers will be driven from their land and run out of business - we are down to less than 1% of our population farming - but my own estimate is that the crash in farmers is going to come down further still - and that believe it or no, we’ve got a ways to go.

I suspect we’ll lose as many as a half million farmers in the next few years - and I say this with great sorrow and fear. The combination of one more economic straw on the camel’s back, aging and foolish agricultural policies are going to bring us to the brink of disaster - without the people we need most to pull us back.

So please, grow that garden, start that little farm as a side income, begin your retirement agricultural venture, and please, if you can, buy local, buy from the good guys, not the huge industrial organic farmer, but the little guy who still raising grains in your neighborhood. Train your kids to grow food. Learn as much as you can. Talk to the old farmers, get to know them, help them out if you can. Because in the end, we will need you all. The time is coming, but it isn’t yet, and there’s hard stuff in the middle.

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