Chuck Jolley recently wrote an opinion piece on modern agriculture for Drovers Cattle Network, defending the large-scale farming model we have in most of America today. His basic point? Farming has become BIG, BIG, BIG, and has to remain BIG to supply food for the nation and the world. He defends the bigger-is-better mentality as a necessity. For instance, he describes the high costs of farming as a reason farms must be big.
Equipment is as expensive as those high dollar Italian supercars. A new tractor? Think a Ferrari-like $300,000. A combine? Think a Rolls-Royce Maharaja Phantom Drophead Coupe at $400,000. And the cash to pay the monthlies? It comes once a year if the weather holds and the farmer made all the right choices along the way. Like every other worthwhile business pursuit, farming is a ‘pay-to-play’ corporate pursuit which means it has to be big to generate the income needed to play another day. Small farms tend to be hobby farms; few generate the cash needed to be self-sustaining without outside income. People who operate them often live hand-to-mouth and are called ‘richer in other ways,’ a polite old phrase meaning they’re going broke but it still feels good. Regardless, banks still say ‘show me the money’ at the end of the month.
What Mr. Jolley fails to point out, however, is that a large reason for high equipment costs is the profitability of farming at large scales that has driven these costs through the roof. Also, government subsidies have helped these farms grow to such a high level and produce food at a much lower cost. This has certainly made us more productive, but at what cost? Many can argue our food is less healthy and nutritious, more difficult to trace, and heavily subsidized by the taxpayer – so how cheap is it, really?
For better or worse, we’ve created a situation in agriculture where one has to be BIG to be profitable. But is that really the case? While one can argue that high production agriculture is a good thing, I would argue that Mr. Jolley’s presentation of modern farming is NOT the only way to be profitable in agriculture. A small but rapidly growing movement of small scale, local farmers have found a way, working with nature and keeping costs down, to provide healthy, wholesome locally raised food at a generous profit. Here’s how Jolley describes today’s small farm:
The nostalgia surrounding small farms certainly plucks at the heart strings of an urban America without an even distant memory of what life was like way back when. Returning to an imaginary era of a more sustainable time when fresh eggs could be plucked still warm from the nest, chickens for a family Sunday dinner were scurrying around the back yard, a hog was slaughtered in the fall, and fresh-picked and canned vegetables were kept in the cellar? That nostalgic image of carrying the family through the harsh but Norman Rockwellian, cover-of-the-Saturday Evening Post winter puts a smile on everyone’s face but it ain’t real life, folks. It’s a pleasant, back-to-a-simpler-life fantasy created early in the twentieth century by Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney to sell magazines and movies. Large corporate but still family-owned farms using the latest technology are what feeds America and the world today. Owners of most of those idealized small farms can only feed themselves and a few friends. They’re the people you see at farmers’ markets in the summer, selling their excess produce during the height of the picking season. The very small profit they hope to make helps tide them over until next year. Year around ‘in town’ jobs help them pay the monthly utility bills and cover expensive necessities like health insurance.
While Jolley’s description is accurate in some ways, he fails to mention the success stories that are providing a model for how small scale farming can be both efficient and profitable.
Joel Salatin works with nature on his beyond-organic Polyface Farm in Virginia to produce enough annual calories on 10 acres to feed 9 people. (for perspective, the Farmland Information Center shows over 900 million acres of farmland in production in the U.S.) Salatin’s farm takes no government subsidies and produces, if I remember right, about $100,000 of product per salary employed by the farm. The farm produces poultry, eggs, pork and beef, among many other products. They operate with almost no mechanized equipment and no chemical inputs.
Gabe Brown’s ranch in North Dakota produces sustainable grain, among other products. He uses holistic management, 100% no-till, no chemical fertilizers and non-GMO grains. And he makes money doing it.
Countless others are making the small-scale, holistic farms work and produce a profit. Can small-to-moderate scale holistic agriculture feed the world? I’m not sure. It’s a small and growing movement that hasn’t yet reached anywhere near its potential, and is being suppressed by many aspects of conventional agriculture.
Chuck Jolley might be right. Large scale industrial farming might be what we need to feed the world. Or it might be an unsustainable practice that drives future generations to destruction and poverty. How do we know which model is best?
I propose a test. Let’s take away all of the government subsidies for all agriculture. Let the little guys and the big guys compete on a level playing field. Let’s get an understanding of the real cost of food in America. Let’s work together, but compete.
Okay, I’ll admit that’s fantasy land. In reality, most things farming will continue as they are. But, Mr. Jolley, it would do us all good to recognize the fact that large-scale production agriculture isn’t the only way to survive, profit, and thrive as a farmer in America.