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Small Scale Farming Really Isn’t Small

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Economists sanctify expansion in agriculture as the way farmers survive but in the very act of saying that, they are also pointing out why farmers don’t survive. If all the land is occupied, for every farm that expands, another ceases to exist. So it would be just as accurate to say that expansion is the way farmers don’t survive. And that leaves us in a situation where, according to the statistics, as quoted in a new, soon- to- be- published book, Miraculous Abundance, some 80% of the arable land on the planet used in intensive mechanized agriculture is owned by multinational corporations. Meanwhile, the proponents of big farming continue to flaunt their challenge: “get big or get out.” When all the land is owned by one big corporation and it still doesn’t make enough of a profit to satisfy the stockholders, what then?

As a matter of fact, small commercial farms and so-called hobby farms are on the rise again and whether or not they are profitable by today’s money standards, they are generating a lot of other economic activity which in aggregate becomes quite significant. These farmers are creating a different economic model than that of industrial production. They are successful because they really aren’t about how much money they can make but how much of what they do make they can keep in their pockets while they spend their time doing what they really want to do in life. As they proceed, they generate all sorts of other small businesses and avocations that in turn prompt more small business. The sum total amounts to big business. For example, judging from the exhibits at our county fair, looks like there are more goats on farms now than cows. And who would ever have thought that kale would become a cash crop and soul food of America?

The backyard chicken craze is another good example. It is hardly a scheme for making money or even for saving money but it is generating lots of business. John Emrich, who has 25 years of no nonsense experience in investment and corporate finance, writes in his book, The Local Yolk, about the business he started delivering chicken feed and supplies to backyard hen raisers in Chicago. Hard telling how many little businesses have started up manufacturing and selling cute little chicken coops for the backyarders. I hear you can buy coats for your winter weary hens or diapers if you like them wandering around in the house. Farm supply stores are doing well selling straw and grain to backyarders too. It pays because hen hobbyists are willing to pay more for supplies than commercial growers.

A good way to become convinced of how small scale farming is in aggregate not all that small is to read one or more of the new Edible magazines, of which there are about 80 representing almost every area of the U.S. These magazines themselves are evidence of the way new farms are generating new business. Edible Cleveland (Ohio) lists 18 farm-based artisanal cheese makers in the state. I count 74 ads in just one issue from farms, stores, restaurants and other businesses selling food directly to consumers and 28 CSA farms just in the Cleveland area. There are some 60 farmers’ markets in northeastern Ohio alone (I use this area because I am familiar with it—similar statistics hold for all the more populous areas in the country.)

The explosion of interest in greenhouse agriculture has been a bonanza for all the manufacturers of the new hoop house structures, buildings that essentially are almost all roof made of various fabrics. They might be more susceptible to storm damage but not enough to offset their obvious advantages. I like to do the math on what could happen if a society of backyarders and small farmers got serious about this kind of enclosed farming, especially with global warming looming on the horizon. Check my math here. Think of the fact that the United States has more acreage in lawn than in cultivated crops. Let us say that 50,000,000 homes (in the U.S. population of around 330,000,000 right now) would each grow food on an eighth of an acre undercover. That would add up to some 6,250,000 acres more acres of farmland. With the higher yields possible in enclosed farming, each of these acres might produce three times the yield of an open air acre, or the equivalent of 18,750,000 acres, right? (If that sounds dubious to you, read Eliot Coleman’s books where he describes how to get five crops per year undercover, in Maine.) Total cropland in the United States is right around 442,000,000 acres (and surprisingly the number is falling). If each of those enclosed one-eighth acre “farms” housed six egg-laying and meat producing hens and a couple of pigs to eat the plant parts from the greenhouses that humans can’t consume, we could be looking at a very significant amount of food that did not depend on the gambling whimsy of the Chicago Board of Trade or the weather. Who says we need big factory farms. We just need a whole bunch of little factory farms.

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