Sustainable Economics– Asking the wrong questions about organic food production

The Atlantic brings us an example of industrial agriculture setting the agenda.  It is completely true that you can get higher yields with GMO crops using industrial production methods versus going organic or sustainable with those same crops.  GMO corn, soy and wheat are not the only things humans need for complete nutrition, yet we are expected to embrace industrial production because it is still producing high yields of those crops.  Industrial production doesn’t work so well on potatoes and other root vegetables, or perishable vegetable crops.  Industrial organic is obviously not going to be as good as specially subsidized, cheap-energy fueled industrial non-organic.  And the much-praised industrially produced ‘golden rice’ is not yet proven in its task of supplementing a crucial vitamin.

Genuinely sustainable production is mostly regional, mostly adapted to the climate of the given region, can include organic methods, but it’s not mandatory, and is often more labor intensive. This can be limited to ramp-up with many things, though, and then it can be much less labor-intensive on an ongoing basis.

Energy is already a lot less cheap, and those much-trumpeted industrial yields are not as reliable as they once were believed to be.  And when you account for soil fertility issues, runoff damage, lower nutritional value and a complicated subsidy environment propping up farmer incomes in wealthier countries whether they actually produce or not, those absolute yields look very different.

I can’t figure out why people keep getting suckered into this trap.  It is a trap, because you can’t win if you are playing on the industrial field, with industrial help.  It’s obviously not going to get the same results.  But humans are not corn/soy/wheat machines, we need to eat other stuff, and industrial agriculture is not conclusively better or higher yielding for much of that more essential stuff.  People supportive of organic and sustainable alternative agriculture methods and practices really shouldn’t be allowing the industrial standard to predominate the discussion.  It’s just so insidious.  Diversity is key, not building up an ever more elaborate edifice of one-crop agriculture.

Local Foodshed Spotlight– A Successful Everett Area Pig Farmer

Sustainable farming has many more successful, thriving farms than just Joel Salatin’s.  There are lots of farms making enough profit to keep going and pay down or even pay off infrastructure, and some of them are local to me.  Yes, even in the regulatory nightmare that is Puget Sound, there are farmers making it happen.  One of them is a local pig farmer, Bruce King.  He is on my blogroll, and writes the most fabulously cool posts about the nitty gritty details of farming and navigating the regulatory maze in Snohomish County.  His latest post as of this writing is about wetland regulations and how they have placed local farmers in a Kafkaesque bind.

When he’s not writing about regulations, he’s writing about his very clever methods of squeezing revenue out of the unlikeliest places, like being able to make money off the pallets he uses to feed his pigs grocery store delights such as slightly bruised produce and excess dairy.  That sort of round-the-corner thinking is pretty important for a farmer.  A certain inventiveness tends to separate the successful small farmers from the ones who work hard but ultimately go out of business.  It indicates adaptability, which is absolutely crucial for smaller-scale farming.  By all accounts, his pork is good stuff and I hope to actually succeed in buying a pig from him one of these days.  I tried while pregnant with my latest child, but pregnancy hormones, moving out here to the country and various other stuff conspired to have it not work out.

But dude has a lot of pigs to sell, as his operation has grown and matured over the years into a steady, going concern.  I feel that one will turn up when we’re ready to get a pig or two for the year.

Cool farmer, awesome blog, happy animals.  What more could a locavore need in a regional foodshed?

Sustainable Economics– When farmers fail math

I don’t know how often I will do this, but I’d like to start an occasional series on the nitty gritty economics of sustainable production.  I think a good start is noting some of the problematic aspects of current models of sustainable farming.  Today is looking at a bit of math fail from a sustainable farmer.

This farmer complains about “suits” at banks not advancing financing while admitting they don’t have the cashflow to cover a conventional loan’s terms and that they rely on customers for “loans” which are really gifts or agreements for deep discounts.

There’s some more in the linked article, but the valid points (that farming, being cyclical, needs to have that cyclical nature considered in financing models and lending small sums is sometimes loss leading even in fairly small regional/local banks even if the loan is repaid on schedule) are a bit lost due to the whining and refusal to be professional on the part of some farmers when this issue comes up.

Lending with repayment on a quarterly or trimester schedule is not exactly way out there in terms of business lending, but works pretty well with the cyclical nature of farming and is not quite as overwhelming to the farmer as semiannual repayments would be.  And local banks could band together and create a farm loan pool for all farms in a given region to slash their servicing costs.

But you’ll note neither of these things is in the article, despite it being an article about small farm financing difficulties.  This is altogether too typical when the topics of small farming, sustainability and economics are discussed in the media.  The article also doesn’t discuss the craziness that is borrowing from your customer base.  Here’s a hint– if you have to borrow from your “customer base”, you aren’t charging enough in actual prices to cover your expenses at a minimum, much less enough to cover your expenses and then draw a salary to live upon.

Having said that, it is not beyond the pale to have investors who started out as customers, or to work out some kind of communal-ownership arrangement.  But the article isn’t really dealing with unorthodox, inventive, or alternative business structuring.  It’s trying to argue that sustainable farmers shouldn’t have to worry about crazy things like profits and returns on investments.  But they should, like, be able to get loans on any terms that suit them and customers should both buy their products and give them money, just because.

If you support the “sustainable” in “sustainable agriculture”, it’s important to demand that farmers treat their enterprises as real businesses with real business obligations.  Professionalism matters.  Sloppiness kills, not just animals, but economies too.  We can’t get away from the industrially centered agricultural economic model so long as customers support sloppiness and laziness about the financing details from small, sustainable producers.  It is quite simply not sustainable, lasting, or real.  And more than farming techniques, the economics need to be there for sustainable agriculture to be a feasible alternative to industrial agriculture.  And that means dealing with the hard math and working to turn a profit and cashflow enough to justify financing support.

Why Urban Farming is Stupid and Evil

If you spend any time in the sustainable farming scene, you will inevitably run into people pushing the urban farming thing. Oh my goodness it is such a horrible horrible idea. It’s one thing to grow a few herbs in a window box– it is a whole ‘nother to pretend a city can self-produce significant portions of its own food.  It’s not sustainable or eco-friendly or green or sound.  It’s mostly political, sadly.  The entire point is to build a working proof that city dwellers don’t need those “Rethuglican” farmers in flyover country, they can hydroponic their way to food sufficiency!

Sometimes people will actually come out and admit this, but that doesn’t help much. Urban farming boosters are very good at not specifying percentages so they can fall back on “We just want people to produce a little bit for their own families, maaaannn” to critics while cheerfully hyping “long term food sufficiency”  or “community food sovereignty” to fellow fans. Sustainable agriculture advocates have to choose.  They can’t on the one hand say that there is a thing such as urban farming and it will aid in food security for poor people while on the other hand claiming that it’s just a fun community project to keep urban teens busy.  Continual talk out of both sides of their mouths on this is one of the many reasons real efforts towards a more diversified, decentralized, robust food production system are not happening.

It needs to be hammered home that if urban farming production isn’t meant to be significant on a local or regional level, then the money going into it really is a complete misallocation of cash, time and labor. And if it is meant to be significant, then we’re back to the craziness of trying to do that in an urban environment when we totally don’t have to and could put the money towards better farming techniques and opportunities for actual farmers instead of the current, well, racist and classist money grab that is urban agriculture.

Speaking of technology, that is usually where urban agriculture boosters start yipping about how improved technological advancements and farming techniques suddenly make “urban farming” a sane thing.  But having better tech just changes the tradeoff calculus. In fact, it can just make some things look falsely feasible when they aren’t really sustainable. Needing fewer people (except of course they never really want *less* human labor, but that’s a digression for another time) doesn’t erase the input and maintenance issues.  Where does the organic material come from?  What do you do when it’s not the political flavor of the month and the grants run out?  Is it really likely there will be an infinite supply of overeducated, mostly white young people to administer and intern for these programs?  And so on and so forth.

The real truth is that having better tech means BETTER OPTIMIZED FARMING OUTSIDE THE CITY. It’s still local if it goes four miles to the city, after all. We can have clean, green cityscapes and also much better food produced near, just not in, the cities. Why waste the tech on urban daydreams when it could be used for improving and optimizing small farm production just outside the cities? Vast quantities of time, money and labor are being diverted to this ideological foofery instead of actually getting people into functioning small and medium farm production.   This is a case in point, misrepresenting history to further the dumb urban farming agenda.

In Detroit right now, piles of money are raining from the government and non-profit sky for delusional implementations of urban agriculture, and it’s still an unpleasant commentary on what people with money to burn think Detroit and its black people are really worth, which is not much more than stoop labor. Only with 20% less dignity.

Urban farming is not a solution to any of the problems facing sustainable production of healthy, nourishing plants and animals.  At best, it is a nice way for a community to make use out of an old parking lot or what have you.  At best.  In general, though, it is a way to actively undermine or prevent small to medium local-regional food production operations from blossoming.  This is too bad, as it is a fine hobby.  It’s just stupid and evil as policy.

The Seductive and Misleading Economic Allure of Vegetable Gardening and Small Farming

As someone deeply interested in sustainable farming and gardening, but who also would like a little common sense about the profit motive to be part of the discourse, I used to be baffled by the expectations many small-scale sustainable farmers had about their potential earnings per acre.  Loads of blogs are full of people “farming” as little as 1/4 acre and thinking they can eventually generate a median income off what is no more than a large backyard.

And one of the big reasons they think this way is vegetable farming.  Vegetable farming is seductive because even with a small garden just for family one can garner an immediate savings and often a bit of extra income selling any excess.  Vegetables scale very well.  Additionally, one can leave a vegetable farm for a few days for a trip or break and those scallions won’t get eaten by coyotes (probably).  There are also a number of ways to sustainably, organically grow vegetables with relatively modest labor input.  All these things get people thinking that, say, the right kind of square foot gardening can turn half an acre into enough production that they can live on the income because one can receive dozens of dollars per pound of production and seed is often pretty cheap.

This kind of math fail is absolutely not a part of most sustainable farming conferences or other sustainable networking opportunities.  It is one of the many ways in which genuinely local-regional foodsheds are prevented from being developed because people end up working themselves out on acreage too small to scale up to production levels that would return a median or bigger annual income.  Or they experiment with livestock farming, failing to get the same benefits as if it were vegetables and don’t really understand why it’s not saving money, but losing money.  Farming is hard enough without the pixie dust thinking that people with big vegetable gardens and a produce savings scatter around to earnest folks hoping in a small way to grow a little of their own food.