Small Farms Create More Jobs


All the talk about creating jobs strikes me as another example of how so many of us sneakily drink one way and piously vote another. Oh how we voice our concern, how much we pretend to support more jobs but we go right on conducting real business on the basis of replacing human workers with machines whenever possible. All the ways being proposed to increase jobs right now are the same old methods that do not face the real cause of the dilemma. The awful truth is that we have created an economy that can’t afford people to do the work and so every year there are fewer meaningful jobs and more pretend jobs. Pretend jobs require pretend money. We are capitalizing costs on money interest not on human interest.

No where is this truer than in farming. We boast about how many people one farmer feeds—155 is the latest number I think— as if that kind of efficiency is a sign of progress. I don’t hear a single business person or government official pointing out that if the whole economy of the common good is considered, one farmer feeding 155 people is not a sign of true profitability but of gross and unsustainable inefficiency. So gross in fact that while the 155 are getting fed, others are going hungry.

It is fairly easy, I think, to demonstrate the inefficiency of one person feeding a hundred and fifty five especially when some of the hundred and fifty five are having a hard time earning enough to buy their food. You can quibble with me on exact numbers, but modern machinery and technology makes it possible for one farmer to grow about 5000 acres of corn with one employee. One almost humorous example of this is how tractors can now guide themselves across unbroken acres of land without human help although a driver is still necessary to turn the tractor at the end of the field. That will soon not be necessary either, I’m told, and so one more “problem” will be avoided: how to stay awake in the tractor. One tractor driver advocates a stack of magazines, not necessarily the kind you leave out on your coffee table.

You can say that manufacturing high tech farm machinery creates jobs, but more and more of the manufacturing is also being done by robotic technology. The robots can even manufacture themselves now with less and less human input.

Let us say that the 5000 acre corn farmer must spend $800 an acre to put that crop out. Again you can quibble over the exact numbers but he has about four million dollars tied up in the crop before he harvests one ear of corn. The cost could be more or less than that depending on what he paid for fertilizer or what he pays his employee or what he pays in rent or interest on investment. But four million is close enough and by the time that corn is dried, stored and transported half way across the country to feed factory hogs and chickens, who knows how much more cost is involved including the attendant pollution and road degradation that the animal factories far out in the country must deal with. And industrial farmers are being subsidized heftily. If the corn is used to make ethanol, which is subsidized to high heaven too, and then fed to cars while poor people go hungry, the true cost to society becomes incalculable.

On the other hand, it is still quite possible for a small traditional farmer to make a living on 300 acres of land, of which about 30 acres will go to corn to feed livestock. A generation or two ago, corn could be planted with rather primitive machinery and harvested mostly by hand. My father did it with family help and we certainly didn’t think we were slaves. Corn on such farms is fed right there to make milk, meat, and eggs. No transportation costs except from the back forty to the barn are involved. Or let the pigs “hog off” the corn for zero harvest and transportation costs.

You get the point even if my figures aren’t perfectly accurate. The 5000 acres of industrial corn, which is employing two people, could be providing jobs and homes for about 17 family farmers and their wives and children. Run all the figures and all the farmland out to a logical mathematical conclusion and the number of new jobs created by restructuring agriculture is unbelievably awesome. There are about 90 million acres in corn this year. That would make 300,000 family farms of 300 acres each. That means 600,000 parents would be fully employed and let us say two teenagers who are trying desperately right now to find part time jobs,— a total of 1,200,000 new jobs. If we take into account industrial soybean, wheat, and cotton acreages as well and divide all that land  into 300 acre family farms, the number of new jobs created rockets to somewhere in the three to five million range.

If you say that a family can’t make a living on 300 acres, I beg to differ. I have lots of friends who do it. Steve and Pat Gamby do it with an organic dairy farm and they are far from Amish. Bob Kidwell does it on 120 acres farming with horses and he’s not Amish either. Andy Reinhart and Jan Dawson do it on about two acres with organic vegetables, fruit and flowers.

Part of the reason, maybe most of the reason, why farmers’ markets and local foods are enjoying such a renaissance is because they are creating new jobs the right way. All government really has to do is provide a level playing field where small intensive farming can compete fairly with large, heavily-subsidized, industrial farming and then stand back. A revolution will take place in new job creation and it will be in the right direction: more good food and a more stable society at a lesser overall cost. Right now, big business and big government like to talk earnestly about more jobs, but oh my, not in areas where new jobs might threaten big industry.


I wonder how Gene expected this to work. Crop land where I come from goes for $8000 and acre so with 300 acres that’s $2,400,000 and that’s not factoring in the interest you would pay. Now that’s just for the land, if there’s any preexisting facilities (house, barn, well, septic) you would have to pay for the value of those too or shell out thousands of dollars more to put in needed facilities if they are not already in place. Seems like a lot of financial risk.

Fantastic David! Thanks so much. We’re very interested in this…will make for good Winter reading.

Chiara, the Amish have sued when they’ve had to since the 1930s, actually — starting when the state said they had to put their kids on a bus and send them to consolidated high schools. (I’m glad to see them standing up against NAID; their reputation helps tremendously in these kinds of battles.) If you’re interested in that history, I wrote a book about it — I’ll link here, with apologies for the self-promotion:

I’ve been thinking a lot about Eric B’s either-or comment. I agree with him that given the natures of the things we are talking about here: GMOs, cross-pollination, soil fertility and characteristics, watersheds, etc….the decision will soon have to come down to either sustainable agriculture or conventional agriculture. We don’t farm in vacuums…chemical farming affects all of us, with its resulting super-pests to name just one effect…that’s why Lennart’s farming on paper doesn’t go.
So, given all that I don’t understand the conclusion to “maybe just lay low”. I see the real necessity to fight, with whatever we are able, however we are able. Fighting is not a socially acceptable practice…”justice” is seen nowadays like a rather archaic term…
but even the Amish are starting to do just that when their rights are being infringed and the either-or reality is knocking at their door- for example, here in Michigan one Amish farmer recently sued the state for the Animal Identification law they have here…he made headlines because his public act was so….un-amish like….or so we all thought.

But the Amish have wedded themselves to home and the land so much that they, above all, have a real reason to fight for it…and more than that, daily practice in doing so with every non-mechanized effort they make in their soil.

Well stated David. When you look at something through “standard of living” lenses the object may appear much different than when seen through “quality of life” lenses. Chiara’s wonderful response states a powerful case for the significance of choosing quality of life for a guiding principle. It is an internal assessment and therefore subjective and nearly impossible to quantify. It is not the stuff of academia. Standard of living is an external measure.It can be useful but it is incapable of accounting for the varied responses of satisfaction by people classified as similar using those measures. It is not unusual to observe quality of life (as indicated by the unmeasurable realities of joy and contentment) seeming to be in inverse relationship to standard of living once it rises above abject poverty.

“If we compare todays society to the 17th-18th century, almost everyone in the western world lives like upper class… We eat high-class food, live in heated houses and have loads of free time. And the sole reason we can do this is the industrial revolution and it’s automation.”

Lennart, I’m not sure this is relevant to the present debate. (Which, everybody, I’m finding to be a lot of fun.) I think you may be missing the point. I say this for two reasons. First, nobody else here is talking about the past. The rest of us are talking about the future — what sort of farms, culture, economy, society we ought to be building now. We’re happy to learn from the recent or the distant past, as it applies. For a long time, “conventional” farmers referred to organic methods as “turning back the clock” in an effort to dismiss them (some still do), but the methods of the past weren’t organic in the modern sense but merely sloppy. The methods of a smart, professional twenty-first century small farmer aren’t those of an English peasant of the 18th century; they’re entirely modern, but that farmer is wise enough not to reject something out of hand merely because it’s old. He or she looks at a range of options, gets advice from all over the world via the 21st-century internet, and learns by practice what’s most effective. Farmers who save seeds and improve varieties to suit local conditions, for example, are going to use scientific understanding of genetics to make their farms more productive. And the sorts of mechanical and technological aids available now to small farmers — drip tape and plastic sheeting, even, for a start — an old peasant couldn’t have dreamed of.

So nobody’s going back to the past. We’re very much living in the twenty-first century. But — and this is my second point — we’re choosing to do it differently. I understand classical economics, Lennart. I think a lot of people in this discussion do. I’ve read Gene’s books; I know he does. I don’t disagree with you that if one wants to maximize total profit and production across a society, classical economics is an excellent guide, at least while key resources hold out. I disagree, rather, that maximizing profit and production ought to be our main priority. I disagree that quality of life is defined by income levels, nor that value can be reduced to cash. This is not to say that we don’t need to produce food or worry about work — don’t turn me into a straw man — but to say that we need to have other priorities. Here are some of mine: Time with my family. Work that is personally meaningful to me, that makes the world in some way a better place, that I can share with people I love or respect. Craft and the skill that comes from experience. A life that is connected to my neighbors and to the natural world.

So don’t assume, when people disagree with you, that they don’t understand your argument. It could be that they understand all too well, and have chosen a different path.

Lennart, when you say “most ecological food is produced by massive farms,” are you saying (1) that ecological value is an all-or-nothing (as opposed to a relative) value, and furthermore that (2) ecological value is perfectly and completely defined by USDA-organic standards? That’s a pretty weak foundation for an argument. (What else am I to make of your comment?)

I’ll spell it out again using the USDA-organic example if that’s helpful. Massive USDA-organic farms can effectively only sell to commodity markets, which means they can only compete on cost (with other USDA-organic farms), which means everything else goes out the window. (You can try to redefine the playing field with legal definitions of organic, but that approach is inevitably narrow-minded (i.e. reductionist), inevitably corrupted by the political process, and the cost of playing the bureaucratic games will inevitably disadvantage small farms that were doing things right to start with, thereby adding to the overall pressure to corrupt the system.) Large USDA-organic farms are practically incapable of choosing any higher cost methods for the sake of ecological or societal goods. If we want farmers that can consider ecological values, etc. and act on them, then customers will have to know farms well enough to pay for those worthwhile intangibles, and the only possibility for that to happen is with farms small (and local) enough for customers to get to know them. Guaranteed!

Lennart, the prosperity of societies does NOT comes from being able to have access to things cheap, but from making enough money to pay for things at the right price.

You say middle class people today live like high class of yester, but do you know the U.S. national debt is almost 15 trillions dollars while the whole 2011 budget for education is just 80 billions. Do you think it’s a sign of prosperity that 45 millions persons are on government food stamps, that over 60% of school lunches are free because that’s how many kids are from poor families, that virtually all manufactured products come from Asia, that there were 1 million foreclosures and 1.5 million bankruptcies last year?

The current so-called prosperity is living on borrowed money, just like any Ponzi scheme, and the cracks are starting to show real bad, so maybe it’s time to give something new a chance.

Besides, you are wrong if you think the junk processed food or CAFO meat is cheap. Agriculture is partly subsidized, and there are also health costs that easily double or triple the real cost. Even if you are too poor to pay for it, someone else in the country does. The U.S. come only #36 for life expectancy per country, at a level other industrialized countries were at 50 years ago. So if life expectancy is already 4 years lower than other countries with a better nutrition and life style, it is probably 6 years lower than what it could be with local organic food from small farms. How do you put a cost on that?

Some more live stats:

Eric B.: Large farms will do what the owner wants. There is no guarantee that the will put profit first, it’s up to the owners. So large farms are just as likely to be green as small farms. In fact, most ecological food is produced by massive farms. And they do that because it’s a profitable niche, because people are willing to pay more.

So it’s patently wrong to claim that “Large farms are practically incapable of choosing any higher cost methods for the sake of ecological or societal goods.”

It hurts the poor by making the food very expensive. The prosperity of societies comes from being able to have access to things cheaply. The more things are cheap the more prosperous society is.

Not only will the poor have to spend a much larger part of their paltry income on food, maybe so much they can’t even afford it, everyone else will have to spend more money on food. This means they have less money to spend on other things, creating a lower demand across the board. This lowers prices of everything else than food, which lowers the profits of companies, which lowers the incomes and makes people even poorer. It also means many companies will actually lose their profitability, and be forced to close, which increases the unemployment.

This is *very* unintuitive, so I understand it may sound weird, but having more people produce something in not creating more jobs, it’s in fact the other way around: The more cheaply you can manufacture stuff, the more money is left over to do *other* things, creating more jobs, and making society richer.

If we compare todays society to the 17th-18th century, almost everyone in the western world lives like upper class. Just one not so serious example: In the 18th century the absolute upper class sent their youth on a tour of Europe to get some culture and meet friends from around the continent. Today large parts of the middle class youth goes backpacking around Europe for exactly the same reason. We eat high-class food, live in heated houses and have loads of free time. And the sole reason we can do this is the industrial revolution and it’s automation.

I like small farms. I believe small farms have a big future. But not to produce food for the world, but as niche producers of expensive specialty products.

Gene, thanks for a great post. On a tangential point, though, I question how realistic the concept of “a level playing field” really is. Food safety seems like one big divide. Big Ag depends on a government guarantee of food safety, but small farms are put out of business by the regulatory burden. I suppose exemptions like the Tester amendment are a kind of solution to that problem, but that’s not so much “a level playing field” as the making of two different playing fields. Maybe that’s good enough where it can be achieved, but it’s certainly tricky.
For another example, there are big farms wanting to grow GMO crops and small farms wanting to save their own non-GMO seeds. That seems like a decision that has to go either-or.
And then there are all the diseases and pests that come with global trade (which we might call the companion of large farms.) It’s an uphill “playing field” for small, organic/pseudo-organic farmers if they’re having to face a rapid succession of ecological shocks from new pests and diseases.
And then government with all its institutional purchases (schools, military, etc.) is inevitably going to give an advantage to the large farms. The bigger and more institutional anything is, the more it’s going to gravitate toward industrialized methods, and those models go beyond just their dollar value to setting societal norms.
Instead of “a level playing field,” I’m more inclined to think our best bet for the time being is just to fly low and try to avoid conflict and controversy (kind of like the Amish do.)

Lennart, you say that the size of the farms does not guarantee anything either way, but that’s really not true. It’s true that small farmers may not farm responsibly (ecologically or otherwise), but the inverse is also true, and that, for practical purposes, is your guarantee: large farms are guaranteed (all except in the most marginal and insignificant of ways) to do whatever maximizes profit. Large farms can effectively only sell to commodity markets, which means they can only compete on cost, which means everything else goes out the window. (You can try to redefine the playing field with regulatory schemes, but that approach is inevitably narrow-minded, inevitably corrupted by the political process, and the cost of playing the bureaucratic games will inevitably disadvantage small farms that were doing things right to start with, thereby adding to the overall pressure on the system.) Large farms are practically incapable of choosing any higher cost methods for the sake of ecological or societal goods. If we want farmers that can consider ecological values, etc. and act on them, then customers will have to know farms well enough to pay for those worthwhile intangibles, and the only possibility for that to happen is with farms small (and local) enough for customers to get to know them. Guaranteed!

Come on, dude! Didn’t you read what Gene wrote? What about reversing the replacement of machines with people? If part of your food dollar is spent on labor instead of diesel, how is that going to hurt the poor? How is a more democratic distribution of food production that produces just as many food calories (and reduces waste) going to starve anyone?

David: Jan did not talk about shortages, he talked about economics and my “world view”. Free market economics deals fine with shortages (in fact, neoclassical economics sees everything as being in short supply all the time) and no shortage can shake my “world view”. What has happened, not only for 30 years, but since Marx, is that various doomsday prophets predict the collapse of liberal economics. It hasn’t happened yet, and all these doomsday prophets, now and then, lack an understanding of the economics they talk about.

I also better mention that a crisis isn’t a change of world view either.

Lennart — it does not follow that someone warning of upcoming shortages today is wrong because someone saying the same thing 30 years ago warned of the same thing. Each claim must be evaluated of its own merits against current data and conditions.

I agree that green is the goal, and not necessarily small. Resilience is also an important goal imho, and in this goal small is invariably more resilient. My 60 acre farm requires no diesel, chemical fertilizer, or chemical inputs of any kind to remain productive. You will not likely find any 5000 acre farms which can say the same. There is a limit to the amount of land which can be worked by a single farmer with draft animals, and I can assure you it’s much less than 5000 acres!

Sure — such farms could subcontract out their work to more people in the event of input disruptions — but they’re not set up to accomodate it. If draft animals were the new best option for tillage (as I believe they will become), small established farms will make this transition much more smoothly than large industrial farms. Why would this be important? People will starve if we cannot make the transition smoothly.

I think you might be surprised…if there were a new homestead act, or a breaking up of these mega farms, how many people would step up to the plate and seize the opportunity to scratch their living from the dirt….
It seems perhaps that you are using your ideologies and “economics” to justify your own choices and explain your own situation to yourself…
if land was opened up significantly, all those dreamers out there (like you) can move out of their conventionaly jobs…and all those “lazy unemployed” whose vision is often narrowed simply because of the stresses and strains of real need…can slide into the vacant positions…I don’t call those conventional jobs the end game, but in the meantime, it’s a temporary solution.
All this said…you don’t need to own land to farm…you can rent….you just need to start to throw all your weight (sometimes literally) into the effort…
There have been times when expired milk from stores and baling twine was pretty much all we had on the farm in terms of resources. I sold my engagement ring, my wedding ring, we sold our car, we sold our furniture…just to keep going, to make the next month’s rent….and then the big trump card: TRUST kept us going…God provides. And sure, at times this was stressful, but not as stressful as the slow and steady loss of soul that comes with the alternative.
We’ve made our living for the last two years on less than 5 acres. No outside jobs.
This last year has been of particular interest to this discussion because our CSA shares were bought NOT by affluent city folks who want to dabble in local agriculture…but by small town low income families who have had to make plenty of sacrifices to see this farm through the season. We’ve thrown ourselves into the labor, and they in turn have supported us financially and emotionally. Some asked to pay in installments, but all recognized that if organically grown food is what is needed for health, then as such, as a need, somehow they’d be able to afford it….I guess it comes down to what do you trust? Your savings account? Your insurance company? Your 401K?
Or how about the source of all life? Your neighbor? The soil?
When you think about it, it is extraordinary that on less than 5 acres we kept 40 families fed for 18+ weeks Last year it was 60 families. Next year it will be 80. And we’re newbies. There are people out there with more knowledge and a heck of a lot more experience who could do better….But as newbies I know that there are alot of average joes out there who can do the same…
And here’s the best part:
Land based enterprise by its very nature gives birth to all kinds of other businesses…
you have grass, you get sheep, sheep have more sheep, you have lamb, you have livestock to sell, you have wool to sell to spinners, or to card yourself, your daughter can knit hats, she can sell them, she can dye wool, sell that…she can stuff pillows, make soap and candles from the tallow, or sell the tallow and someone else can….or give the tallow the the neighbor who gets and idea to go into business….or…you have woods, you get a goat…she has a kid….you have meat, you have milk, you make cheese, you make soap, you start “rent a goat” enterprise to keep invasive buckthorn out of neighbor’s back yards, you start a goat cheese and goat’s milk soap CSA in your neighborhood…etc….
This could go a thousand ways…if you have grass.
Then here’s the bestest part:
everyone (and yes, I mean EVERYONE) is lazy when it comes to physical labor. Kind of like NO ONE (and yes, I mean NO ONE ) is ready for children ever….but the farm, like giving birth, breaks you into the work and ITSELF is the antidote, hardening you slowly, and giving you the Winter to lick your wounds and rejuvenate….when you have children they usually come one at a time…and you grow as they do…
the farm teaches virtue through the means of necessity. I learned to butcher pigs because when my husband slammed a half of a hog on the kitchen counter I realized how hungry I was for meat…because we had been eating rice and beans for an awfully long time. couldn’t afford the butcher, and had a indecent desire for sausage…so I dug in. Grabbed a pocket knife and a saw and did the thing. I could have kissed the feet of the poverty and need that egged me on.
When we allow people to find themselves in REALITY and by that I mean within a system devoid of money growing itself electronically, but rather in the context of a seed that makes a plant, that when weeded, watered, and manured, will produce a fruit with thousands or hundreds of seeds…. (true interest gained) then they will slowly wake up to become better laborers….but we need inspiration too, not just reward…not just a paycheck…..we need something to reach for…I think that’s what David means above when he talks about not being a machine….
and that’s where FREEDOM comes in, as many who frequent this site have spoken of better than I…..
One last thing:
in terms of economic viability, I really think we have to be thinking not in terms of the present generations but the future ones….and that’s one of the best reasons for human scaled farms: they keep future generations on the land.

Agribusiness isn’t fixing prices, they are negatively impacting the marketplace as an oligopoly. The price fixing is occuring from the US Government, who has been determining prices since the New Deal. If the agricultural marketplace in the US was liberalized, there would be more “green” and “sustainable” agriculture. Congress (heavily influenced by the agribusiness oligopoly) determines the policies, and American families have no part in the process. IE: farmers don’t receive positive or negative feedback from the marketplace… This is why our food is ALL processed, and why everything has cornsyrup in it, etc. The US Government dictates policy because it is overly concerned with quantity of food, and stability of the agricultural market, whereas a free-market (liberalized policy) would provide a higher quality and greater diversity of food through a much more dynamic marketplace. Get the government out of agriculture (end farm/agribusiness subsidies), and the “consumer” will benefit, especially those families concerned about the quality of the food.

On the Contrary Roof, I understand the value system very well, it’s one I share. My question is whether or not there are enough people, particularly younger people like myself and younger, who also share those values and have the wherewithal and resources to put them into practice. Like you, I am currently struggling to find a way to farm more, while doing other work for money. Luckily I make enough that my wife is able to stay home, work the tiny .2 acre that we can currently afford, and raise our daughter. Keeping our hopes of the life we would prefer alive.

I certainly hope there are at least 300,000 families willing and able to take this plunge in our culturally beleaguered country, but I have my doubts, particularly if we are talking about pulling those numbers from the unemployed. As I stated above in my experience with unemployed people, many (perhaps most?) of the chronically unemployed are so due to an unwillingness or inability to do real work, not for lack of opportunity. I’m afraid that the majority of the people who would be willing to make this change are already working in some other field, daydreaming of working in a real “field”, like myself.

Speaking of efficiency, several studies have concluded that although big farms produce more food for less human labor and thus — while we have cheap fossil fuels to run the machines — less cash output, small, intensive farms produce more food per acre. Small farms are thus a more efficient use of land.

I’d rather not speak too much of efficiency, though, because it’s the job of a machine to be efficient, and I’m not a machine. Nor is the land. Human beings ought to have higher priorities.

I’ve heard that for 30 years now. It still holds up well. I’m betting 1+1 will still be 2 in 30 years as well.

(And no, classical economics died with Marx. It’s been neoclassical economics for 140 years or so now).

More environmentally friendly farming is a good thing, but the size of the farms does not guarantee anything either way here. For this we need to have have different kinds of ecotaxes etc. This may very well make small farms more profitable, but that is then an effect of the environmental policies, not the other way around.

Basically, just because you can make small farm green, you say there should be more small farms. But not all small farms are green. I say there should be more green farms. If that then means more small farms, then so be it, but the size should not be the aim.

Thank you, Gene, for continuing to tilt at windmills. God bless anyone who continues to challenge the status quo. I hope everyone picked up on the term “level playing field”. I’ve argued for years with farmers about the dangers of low property taxes, and some of the “creative” bookkeeping that modern agribusiness people do. Several years ago I was discussing low property taxes with my garden land lady (whom you have met, Gene), and I pointed out to her that those lower tax rates were going to people who were much wealthier than I was, and I paid higher property tax rates, and lived in a more modest home. She challenged me to name one, and in twenty seconds I had named three places in our neighborhood where “McMansions” had been built on farm fields. She smiled, and said those people hadn’t made their money farming. I smiled, and said that was my point. (One of those “McMansions” has been empty for the last 21 months, as has the business, but fortunately, the bank’s management team did cash rent the farm land: the subsidies live on!)

Qhartman: I don’t believe you’ve farmed because you don’t seem to understand the value system. I grew up in a farm family, but it was a sharecropper family. I worked harder when I was 14 than at any time in my adult life, but it really wasn’t like work. It was something I enjoyed. I spent 15 years of my adulthood trying to figure out a way to farm, even considering moving to a third world country in Central America, before giving up and taking a really good, demanding job in an auto factory. I made money I never dreamed of on the farm. I worked with farmers who were getting more money in farm subsidies than they were making at the factory. I looked it up on the website. They could afford the machinery for the farm: it was a business expense. They needed business expenses to lose money on paper.

My point is: when you say people don’t farm because of the spectre of physical labor, I have to disagree. I would have gladly suffered that labor, for much less money than I made at the factory. I grew up around people who invested themselves in their farm, who put every ounce of pride they had in what they did. If you live in a farming community and are in your sixties, you know someone who killed themselves when they were foreclosed. Farming used to be an art, with the passions of an artist, but because we don’t value labor in our modern culture, it’s turning into a number cruncher’s wet dream. Our culture rewards wealth, not ambition or wisdom, which is why the people who read this blog are contrarians. I’m in my sixties now, but if I was twenty years old, I would follow Gene’s advice: find a niche market, and grow it. Government farming is for people who inherited well, or married well. It’s ironic, but those are the people who avoid labor: they’re managers, or landlords. I apologize if this came off being offensive, it wasn’t meant to be. I just don’t believe that poor people are all lazy or stupid.

Ah, a classical economist! Let’s see how your world-view holds up in ten years… or three.

A few thoughts for Lennart to ponder with regards to what is really efficient. If you look only at dollar input vs. food output, the current system is undoubtedly efficient, but you need to look at the big picture.

Efficiency comes at the cost of reliability. For instance, if I were to design the fastest, most efficient sailboat, it would be very lightweight — and also very fragile. (like an America’s Cup boat which cracked in half like an eggshell a few years back). The same can be said for our current agricultural system.

In order to achieve our “efficiency”, our industrial system relies on chemical inputs, which outsource a number of costs, such as groundwater contamination, cancers, and wildlife degradation. The continued production and availability during a likely upcoming economic crash is by no means assured.

We also rely upon massive inputs of diesel fuel. This only makes sense when the farmer doesn’t have to pay for the damage this fuel will inflict as a result of climate change, oil spills, ocean acidification, and associated air pollution/health problems. Additionally, the supply of fuel is very much in question if you’ve studied energy supplies as I have.

The use of monocropping, combined with the complete separation of animals from farms also comes at a very high cost. The monocropping makes pest problems much worse (and thus creates a greater reliance upon harmful chemical inputs). The idea that animals don’t need pasture also results in greater soil degradation as we eliminate pasture from our farms. Manure has become a waste product (check out any river near a cluster of chicken or hog CAFOs) instead of a valuable farm input. This creates yet another vulnerability in that current farms will be without fertilizer in the event of a break in the chemical fertilizer supply chain (which I can assure you is coming at some point within the next few decades if not the next few years).

When i was a lad there was a line of small trucks stretching around the block at the local grain elevator. There were small farms selling vegetables and city folks regularly made trips out to the country to get fresh vegetables in season.
Now I see more micro-farms and over 1000 acre farms. Not so much in between. The micro-farms don’t really associate much with us tradition farmers and the big guys underbid us selling and over bid on rent and the really good ones can do conservation things that we can’t afford to do.
The whole system is more complicated than one would think. Fuel and labor prices are big issues. As is the distribution system. We have no where to go with a single axle truck full of grain it goes to Portland in a semi-truck. There are no small dairies to sell small amounts of hay or grain and to get manure from.
If you have to borrow money it is pretty hard to farm and not sell cash crops.
On the other hand, if you want to run 1000 acres on borrowed money and you have a little bit of an inside track on getting land it is not that hard to do. If you go broke, so what? You start over with a different bank or you work for someone else for a while.
It is a pretty complicated system. I’ve thought about it a lot but don’t really see much of a solution. Unless I become independantly wealthy and can farm any way I want…

We do it here on just a few acres and have employees too!

I want to make it clear however that the gov’mint need not aid this but indeed keep the hell out! They do nothing but screw things up. Example – I took advantage of an FSA (Farm Service Agency) loan program to build a barn. As part of this program and hypothetically to protect their interest here I must purchase crop insurance on my potatoes. I found out yesterday that the maximum payout should I have a total crop failure is less than the cost of the premium! This is so because I am organic and the value of conventional potatoes is only 8% of mine and that I grow only 1 1/2 acres. This is only one of many examples. Government involvement has corrupted agriculture to the extent that I do not think it possible to reverse the trend.

Got me thinking which is which is why I keep checking in. I agree. I would also agree with the merit in “belling” the cat if I were a mouse. As with many valid and valuable, agreed upon ideas, the issue is the implementation. I also know you have addressed that Gene by the very way you have lived your life aside from all of your wonderful writings empowering the garden farmer. Land prices of prime farmland along with an empty countryside do not bode well for the small scale operators wishing to direct market or value-add their products. It is one thing to make a living off of 40 to 300 acres. It is quite another thing to make a living and pay for the land and capitalize its production, but you already know that. The great idol Capitalism is much like the governmental system of Monarchy which we fought to free ourselves from. It is probably the best and most efficient system when those in power are benevolent and altruistic. It is the most oppressive and dehumanizing when its goals are reduced to consolidation of more power or accumulation of more wealth. True change always happens from the inside out and our society has put itself in such a near catch-22 position that expecting or waiting for favorable governmental action would be foolish. May we never become self-righteous in our actions of change but continue to find joy in the journey.

Gene, as usual you have hit the nail on the head and planted the hoe squarely in the furrow! I must admit that there are days when I think how nice it would be to work in an air-conditioned office again. Then I remember the negative aspects, and having sweat rolling off my entire body isn’t such a bad thing at all. And I really do think that the odds are we better all get used to physically hard work again, because the “cheap” oil economy is unlikely to last.
I really wish I could afford some draft horses, but since I can’t, I’m breeding the good stout old-fashioned quarter horses with superior bone and muscle who will be able to do most of the work we need done on the ranch but can still be easily ridden. There are skills we all need to resurrect or learn — like how to render tallow and lard, which is what I’ve been doing all morning with the 700+ pound beef we butchered a few weeks back, or how to salt hay that’s been rained on to draw out moisture — the list is pretty long, and there are a lot of skills I think we’re going to need badly in the near future that few people have any more. Unfortunately, those skills include farming and food raising.
See you later; I need to go finish the beef, and then the blackberries and apples need picking, and the baby chicks need to be watered and the hogs fed and …

A family near my home place lives on a 2.5 acres (1 hectare) organic farm with a small solar greenhouse, so this one 5,000 acres farm could theoretically support 2,000 families, not just 17! ^-^

Of course, that’s not a very good example of wholesome organic farming, which would require cereal and legume crops, permanent meadows, some woodland and wilderness, but while “traditional farmers” could make do with 300 acres, non-traditional farmers can do the same on ten times less, from non-traditional activities, including products transformed at the farm. I don’t think “traditional” farming is the answer to the future of agriculture. Traditions are good and often based on common sense, but we also need to inject something more progressive that will take these traditions to the new level necessary to feed the increasing population.

It’s a bit utopian though, as you can create only as many small farms as you have customers willing to eat local and healthy food and refuse CAFO meat. On the other hand, these small local farms are a great way to educate consumers about healthy food and living, which in turn will create more small farms. You’ve got to start somewhere, if the government and BigAg lobbies are not willing.

Right on the mark as ever Gene.

It always amazes me that few people recognise the fact the traditional agriculture was such an integral part of economies not just for the reason that it provided all the produce required to feed a nation and enough to export but also because it was the major employer of that same population. That is why agriculture was always so important. As mechanisation was introduced (lets face it, there has always been mechanisation of some kind or other but now there is a drive towards “improving” when there is no real need for it) so did the need to absorb that unemployed workforce somewhere else. The reality has now hit home – there is nowhere else left to go.

A case I guess of as you sow so shall you reap.

Another joyous victory for farmers markets is that they don’t have to compete with the price fixing of the mega-agribusinesses. A dear old friend of mine (and an ex-farmer) always lamented about how the big farms swallowed up the small ones because the small farms couldn’t compete with the lower value of their product. He would always say, “the farmer doesn’t get to sell his product for what he thinks its worth. There’s always someone telling you what you have to sell it for”

right on. Amazing what can be accomplished on a small plot.
Look at the Dervaes at, they produced 6tons of food in 2009 and 7tons last year on 1/10 of an acre, all organic, no pesticides nor fuel-hungry machinery.

Hi Gene – I work for the former Soil Conservation Service now called NRCS as a District Conservationist. One of my farmer friends Dave Owens mentioned he has sheared your sheep. I would love to meet you someday. You’re not far from where I grew up and worked for SCS/NRCS in Ohio. I am in Michigan now. I wish you could send a copy of this article to Debbie Stabenow, chairman of the senate ag committee. I will try to forward it to her.
Your comments are so true although I would differ with you on what I can live on as a farmer. 40 acres would be adequate. I had 100 and now down to 20 acres. I cannot afford land now as all the big agribusinesses in my area purchase it all. I call them agribusinesses as the term farmer is a stretch. To me a farmer typically has livestock and grows something other than 5000 acres of monoculture. USDA refers to them now as agricultural producers. The average producer I work with in my county has between 2000 and 8000 acres now.
Small towns have all but dried up here with employment opportunities with the demise of small farmers. Young adults do not stay around much and move away. There are no more small implement dealers, hardware stores, etc. Rural America has suffered greatly as small farms have had all their fencerows bulldozed and connected to other huge tracts of land to be able to farm with 500 HP tractors. Good wildlife habitat is gone and what we are left with are geese, turkeys and deer. Wildlife diversity is gone. Roundup residue is in everything now just like DDT at one time. I wonder where it will end. I have little time left with my career and have to watch what I say so will close for now. Keep up the great work! I look forward to all your posts and share them on my Facebook sites.

Great piece, Gene. Reminded of Jeffersonian democracy and the so called “yeoman farmer myth” at the heart of freedom/democracy. I’ve facebooked this post to positive response..

Being inefficiency doesn’t create more jobs, it just makes things more expensive, which creates poverty. Instead of having two farmers (and supposedly two families) on those 5000 acres you suggest 17 families. That would make food 8.5 times more expensive, meaning that low income families would starve.

NOT a good idea. Economy doens’t work like that. You don’t create prosperity by being inefficient.

What an awesome article.

I tend to write and think a lot about human-powered machinery and have often wondered what kind of jobs would be created if some of these large farms started employing humans again instead of oil-fed machinery.

(Read with sarcastic tone): But who’d want one of those dirty, sweaty hard jobs? I thought technology was supposed to help us rise above all that? (End sarcasm)

The small farmers I know can teach us a lot about attitudes toward “dirt”; they know they are essential members of their communities. How many of us can say that?

My father-in-law used to have a sign in his auto repair shop: “The future belongs to those of us willing to get our hands dirty.”

As jobs become harder to find, more young people will be moving into agriculture and reaping the benefits. We see it here all the time. And as they begin to farm, with the majority of them locally and not in Big Ag, it sets up community. We don’t have vast tracts of land here, so people got highly creative and are now producing massive quantities of food on 1-3 acres, with net incomes of up to $300,000: and: Curtis Stone –

These are the faces that are changing the world…

Interesting premise, but I have to wonder if there are 300,000 out of work families out there who would be willing to do the real work required to successfully run the family farms you speak of. In my (admittedly somewhat narrow) experience, most people are out of work not for lack of available jobs, but for lack of a willingness to do work that is challenging, unappealing, or “beneath” them. So they choose instead to subsist on the dole for as long as possible.

Thanks for also bringing up “pretend jobs”. In Oregon, we have one of the most irritating forms of pretend jobs I’ve seen. We’re required by law to have a gas attendant fill our cars. I’ve seen all sorts of rationalizations for it ranging from safety to environmental concerns, but when it comes down to it, it’s artificial employment. Legislation that mandates the creation of jobs for (in many cases) otherwise unemployable people which drives up the cost of fuel and essentially forces the rest of us to subsidize what is essentially an underhanded welfare system without accountability. Ugh, a pet peeve of mine…

Great post, Gene. I would like to add that when a family farms a piece of land, and provides for most of their needs, less of an income is needed to get by.

300 acres seems like an awful lot to me. I am pretty sure I could make a living off of much less than that, judging by what I make off of my little one acre market garden. Let’s see: A few (maybe 5) acres of nice bottom land to grow vegetables for market, several more of forest land for a wood source (firewood, lumber), room for an orchard, and some pasture land for grazing. 40 acres would do me fine.

Not only would this create jobs, but expanding the number of small farm families would likely increase the use of draft animals (can’t say I know of any 5,000 acre industrial farmers using horses or mules), making us more likely to survive the major oil shortage looming on the horizon. The cost of efficiency is always a loss of resiliency!

Such wisdom.Sharing this widely. Thank you Gene.

“Pretend jobs require pretend money” Yes indeed…and last I checked money isn’t the sort of thing that grows from seed, or gives birth to baby money…(i.e. rawther unsustainable).
Last year I was agast at a local library that was all tripped out with electronic kiosks, and library card activated hold shelves. It was possible to walk into the building and out again with a stack of books, CDS, and DVDS WITHOUT SPEAKING TO A SINGLE HUMAN BEING. The librarian at the circulation desk bemoaned her son’s fate, he worked in another library and was being layed off. I drew the obvious conclusion, and added that perhaps this over-mechanization wasn’t such a good thing. “Oh no!” she protested “This is state of the art…the finest and most modern technology available to libraries…it’s truly amazing what these things can do. We’re very proud of them.”

Fact is truly stranger than fiction sometimes!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s