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Maybe Farming Isn't Supposed To Make Money

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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