Gene Logsdon and Friends

Maybe Farming Isn’t Supposed To Make Money

In Gene's Weekly Posts on October 29, 2009 at 12:41 pm

From Gene Logsdon

Talk about heresy. What if food production should not be part of either a capitalistic or a socialistic economy. The first commandment of agriculture states that you must put back into the soil the fertility you take out of it. That being so, the only real profit from food production is how good the food  tastes and how well it sustains health and well-being. Any actual money profit beyond that might simply be a sign that the farming is flawed. Failed civilization on top of failed civilization suggests that idea, but every new civilization that flourishes for awhile believes it can beat the system.

Farming has to be subsidized in modern economies because nature  can’t compete with money interest. An ear of corn, even the record-shattering 15-inch ear I found in my field yesterday,  has never heard of six percent interest. An ear of corn grows at its own sweet pace, come recession or inflation, which is the modern version of hell or high water. Every attempt to make it grow at a pace that matches the way we can manipulate paper money growth, results in some downside. (Eventually it happens with money too.) GMO scientists crow about their new seeds but there is little significant increase in yield from them, in fact in some cases, documented decreases. When an increase does occur it usually comes from lack of weed competition not an actual genetic increase in yield. Most above average increases in crop yields  come from  good weather. Monsanto and Dupont are trying to take the credit for the big corn crop this year when their very same seeds that produce a good crop on one farm result in only half a crop  two miles down the road where timely rains did not fall.

Every time a new variety of corn is hailed as producing higher yields, it takes a higher amount of inputs to get it. Increased yields invariably mean decreased food  nutrients in the crop too. Increases in food nutrient value in a new variety, especially protein, invariably result in yield decreases. That’s why high protein corn varieties haven’t yet been largely accepted. They mean less yield. The increases in total crop production that we have gotten over the past fifty years come more from getting all farmers to follow the good management practices of the best farmers. There is irony in that too. The “good” practices of the “best” farmers are often the worst practices in terms of extracting wealth from the soil and not returning enough of it.  Some of those “poor” farmers, by their very ineptness, could be rated as the best farmers environmentally because they are mining the soil the least. True story: One of my neighbors, gone now, made a living working in a factory and farming on the side. His crops were so poor that he could rarely be accused of mining the soil. One year his tractor quit on him while he was cultivating corn. He just left it set there and walked away. In the fall, the farmer who harvested the scraggly crop for him was surprised to find the abandoned tractor rusting away among the giant ragweeds.

Last week I wrote about how I made, by my own goofy way of calculating, $550 an acre on the measly little bit of corn I grew while the big producers were in danger of barely breaking even on their thousands of acres. Obviously, if there were a hundred million people raising gardens of corn the way I do, there would be plenty of corn for everyone but no one would make any cash profit on it to speak of. So? How’s that any different from what’s happening right now.  And if cash profit is made today, how much of that is canceled out by the social costs of a hundred million people unable to grow their own food?

When I brag about my 15-inch ear of record-breaking yellow dent corn, I am no different than Monsanto bragging about how it will feed the world with GMO crops. Nature rules not Monsanto nor I. The only reason a stalk of my corn grew such a gigantic ear is that there was not another stalk closer than 20 inches on either side of it. Had there been stalks closer, that ear would have been more like eight to ten inches long.  Decreasing plant population to get fewer but bigger ears does not increase total yield any more than increasing plant population with resultant shorter ears.

That’s a reflection of the second law of the land: There is a limit on how much food an acre will produce.  No civilization has learned how to get around that law so far. Trying to do so leads to a constant round of environmental collapse and starting over again.

Let us contemplate an awesomely scary thought. Humans seem to be genetically incapable of limiting their desires to fit the laws of nature. So can farming ever be  truly sustainable?  I have been studying the rise and fall of civilizations on the American continent over the past 12,000 years or so, (an awesome book, “1491” by Charles C. Mann) and what archaeologists have learned so far is that the answer is no.
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  1. So true, Gene. when 50 percent of farm income comes from the government in America, and it’s higher elsewhere in the world, you know this is true. Hmmmm . . . maybe farming and health care are a lot alike?

  2. You are so right, growing and gathering ones own food is meant to feed our family and neighbors not as a means for obtaining wealth. It is really to bad that most are so very far removed from this most rewarding endeavor.

    “Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize that we can’t eat money.”

    - Cree Proverb

  3. Love what you’ve done with the place:)

  4. “Obviously, if there were a hundred million people raising gardens of corn the way I do, there would be plenty of corn for everyone but no one would make any cash profit on it to speak of. So? How’s that any different from what’s happening right now.”

    But of course, Monsanto is making a profit; given what my cousin paid for his huge new combine, John Deere or whoever is presumably making a profit. The banks that loan to farmers may or may not be making a profit overall, but they probably are on their farmers. It’s just another example of how we get socialism for big business, as farm subsidies ultimately give farmers just enough while making sure businesses make a killing.

  5. Yes, modern farming is a lot like owing the Company Store, you never really get ahead.

    I liked the Cree Proverb, Mike….it sums up Gene’s article nicely.

  6. It is so gratifying to write for so a lively group of people. Yes, Richard, farming and health care are a lot a like. Gene

  7. Mr Logsdon, when I interviewed you a few years ago, I found you wise and articulate. You are still. We need to cooperate with nature or she will find a way to make us do so. Thanks for never being afraid to speak up.

  8. Very good as a thought-provoking article, Gene. However, you are falling into the same trap as the mainstream economists and policy-makers. Thinking in terms of competing with the growth of paper money will of course lead you to question whether farming is sustainable. However, if you think in terms of energy inputs measured in kilocalories, joules, BTUs, or KWHs, you can indeed construct a continuum of sustainability. On this continuum, some farmers are “more” sustainable than others. For example, I use tillers and plentiful hand labor and I calculate how many kilocalories (or just calories, following the lead of the nutritionists who really mean kilocalories when they say calories) I produce. Right now, with only partial harvest results, I am producing 3.1 million kilocalories with an energy input (gas and human labor) of 1.1 million kilocalories. Since a 2500 kilocalorie diet translates out to .9 million kilocalories per year, I am already producing at a ratio of 3.4:1. This is on 1.5 acres of tilled ground. When I finish threshing my spelt and shelling the rest of my dry beans, I hope to get up to a ratio of 5:1. By the way, love your “Small-Scale Grain Raising” book. Keep up the good work.

  9. Farming make money? In the same sentence? We farm on a small scale with out govt subsidies, and profit ok (120 acres +/-, we only own 23 acres). We are diversified, pastured Dexter cattle (seed stock), pastured beef, pastured/ natural pork (all meat direct marketed to individuals), Hay and vegetables. Living mostly sustainably, gardening, heating with wood (from our wood lot). This is a part time thing for us, we both work off the farm also. Gene makes many great points I am reading a fourth book written by him currently. Did I mention, we’re 22 years old? Keep up the writing Gene! Thanks. Jamie

  10. Walter and Jamie, way to go guys. Now all we have to do to keep the world sustainable is to convince 6.5 billion other poeple to do it too. Gene

  11. Great post. Could there be some room for actual profit in farming if biological transmutation is real? Not sure if it is but thanks

  12. Aaron, good question. I think there is a kind of “profit” in, say, breeding a cow that gives more milk. Herd improvement does not require much out of pocket cost the way increasing acres does. But that biological improvement leads to more milk and more milk often leads to less price and there you go again. Gene

  13. The United States enjoys the cheapest food in the world. We spend a smaller portion of our income on food than every other nation in the world. Why shouldn’t farming be profitable, or at least a means to preserve some land and raise a family comfortably.

    Monocropping and corn subsides are the real problem! If it wasn’t for corn subsidies we wouldn’t produce or need nearly as much corn as we do. We feed grazers corn because there is so much of it when instead we should be growing grass, which requires much less input, and letting them eat their natural diet. If it wasn’t for corn subsidies sugar would be a viable source of sweetening every thing in the supermarket again instead of high fructose corn syrup. What a difference a few pennies makes.

    When you go out for breakfast do you get maple syrup with your pancakes and waffles or HFCS that’s labeled “syrup”?

    Thought provoking article, thank you, but I disagree.

  14. Hort Student: It may be true that on average, Americans spend less of their income on food but this does not mean that our food is cheaper than elsewhere. Poor Americans spend a great deal more of their income on food than the rich and the rich, using percent of income as the measure of food cost, practically get theirs for free. Food cost as percentage of income is a meaningless measure and is an insulting myth for people with below average incomes. People in poorer countries pay far less for their food than we do in cash but have far less income per capita. But even if I were to agree with the mythic notion that food is “cheaper” in America, “you gets what you pays for.” Gene Logsdon

  15. Good points Gene but our food is still relatively cheap. Even for our poor. Not that this is any consolation for people trying to make ends meet but we are lucky to have the infrastructure to make so many foods so widely available at such affordable prices.

    I was hoping you’d address my other comments. I’m not entirely opposed to social programs but I think corporate farming is having a significantly negative impact on the industry and I have a hard time imagining more government involvement is the answer.

    What I think is a good compromise between our two views is the CSA model. Community supported agriculture. It supports small local farms and allows people to buy shares before the season so that the small farmer isn’t the only one taking a risk. In some communities they offer share holders the option of buying in via a work exchange.

    For the most part small farmers aren’t becoming multimillionaires working the land. It is the corporate farmers that are selling to large buyers that are distributing all over the nation and world. Cut out that middle man and the farmer gets a bigger cut and the consumer gets a bigger break.

  16. Hort student: corn subsidies are surely part of the problem. And monoculture or as I say duoculture– corn and soybeans. The notion that we could cut out the middleman so the farmer gets a bigger cut has been suggested for a century. Doesn’t work because there is almost always a real reason for the so-called middleman. If the farmer tries to take on middleman work, he kills himself with overwork or neglects either his farming or his selling or both. Gene

  17. Hort Student. Our “cheap food” comes with an even higher price, health issues. Eating cheap food leads to disease, birth effects and adolescence learning disabilities. Of course these are my theories amd youll never see a government or Con Agra study done on this sort of thing because it could bare some merit. We recently had ANOTHER recall of meat in the Northeast, how safe is our “cheap food”? Not very. We pay a HIGH price for our cheap food, with our health.

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