Lately I have read two articles which both claim that small scale farming is (self)exploitive and that even with direct marketing such as farmers markets, there is no profit, hardly even survival.

What nobody told me about small farming: I can’t make a living, by Jaclyn Moyer published in Salon (it is from 2015, but someone shared it on social media and it came my way) makes the case that it is not possible to make a living from production on a small farm under any normal circumstances. Jaclyn writes that she at first wouldn’t admit having a struggling business as no one wants to climb aboard a sinking ship. She believed “if a business was failing it was because the entrepreneur was not skilled enough, not savvy enough, not hardworking enough. If my farm didn’t turn enough profit, it was my own fault.” But after years of hard work she finally started to admit to herself and to the public how things are:

“When a student asked if my farm was sustainable, I told her that I was certified organic, I managed my soil fertility through crop rotations and compost applications, I didn’t use synthetic pesticides, I conserved water. But no, I’d said, I didn’t think my farm was sustainable. Like all the other farms I knew, my farm relied on uncompensated labor and self-exploitation. My farm was not sustainable because I knew the years my partner and I could continue to work without a viable income were numbered.”

By and large Chris Newman agrees with Jaclyn Moyer in his article Small Family Farms Aren’t the Answer published in Medium.

I totally agree with Jaclyn and Chris and I believe you can find evidence all over the world that small farms are not viable as commercial production entities providing a normal income. I see wave after wave of young people who have read a book or heard a lecture about organic gardening, of double digging, of the market garden, of holistic management or permaculture trying to make a dream come true. Other kinds of small farmer hypes is the idea that you find a unique line of production, such as herbs, truffles or raising rabbits for meat. Regardless of method and product, most will fail. A few may still be commercially viable because they find a particular sweet spot, e.g. being the sole or preferred supplier to a fine dining restaurant, or having an extra-ordinary location for direct marketing to wealthy clients. Others may survive commercially through diversification in services, training, projects etc., where the production is more of an environmental factor than income. Some will combine farming with regular jobs, or contract work. Most will quit. As small farmers have done before them and continue to do, in developed and developing countries.

Economies of scale are just very strong in farming and in marketing. In the long run it applies also to the production of organic herbs or permaculture nut production. Organic being the longest running alternative gives ample evidence of this. Initially, it was a haven for small farmers, often in disadvantaged areas, but today with commodification of organic, there are no such small scale advantages. On the contrary, average size of certified organic farmers is in most countries bigger than national averages. According to the USDA dairy farmers with less than 50 cows have almost three times as high costs of production as farms with more than 500 cows. Research in Sweden shows that growing crops on field of 1 hectare size is 1.5 to 2 times more costly than growing them on fields of 5 hectares. Well, it is just to look at the statistics for almost every country in the world to see this development.

Some claim that new smart digital tools will make small farms more competitive than before. It is true that digitization may make some things easier, e.g, organizing a food assembly or a Community Supported Agriculture. Our farm is a member of a Reko-ring which is similar to a food assembly but with no central organization. Ever increasing globalization and consolidation in the food industry and trade competition is, however, also harder by the day. And we see in other businesses that in the digital world economy of scale is just a strong as in the physical world. The benefits of information technology for small farms are probably not big enough to balance all the increasing comparative disadvantages that are also caused by it.

Others believe that automation and artificial intelligence will take care of most of the toil of the small farmers. But again, I see no indication that economies of scale will be less with automation, rather the contrary. Remember that it is not the absolute efficiency gains that are important in a competitive market but the gains relative to the competition. Automation will most likely totally squeeze out the smaller farmers as they can’t afford the investment and even with almost no salary taken out from the farm, family labor may still be more costly than robots.

Chris Newman makes the case against small farms producing and marketing alone and insisting on independence and competition, e.g. by selling at farmers markets.

“Because of our insistence on independence and our failure to cooperate more closely, we’re being outsold at the grocery store by a factor of 400+. Accounting for on-farm, food hub, restaurant, and other non-market sales does little to affect the scale of this imbalance. Farmers markets and other “local” outlets punch well above their weight in terms of social/cultural value, but this is fooling us into believing we’re making more of an impact than we actually are, and that a rapidly consolidating food system backed by venture capital, entrenched interests, and the world’s wealthiest corporations will somehow be displaced by the romance of neoliberal peasant farming”.

His recipe is that producers should own their own market outlets and that ”all the producers at that market combining their acreage, expertise, supply chains, and financial resources into a co-op committed to producing food regeneratively, responsibly, and ethically.”

Consumers buying local organic produce at the authors farm photo: Ann-Helen Meyer von Bremen

Consumers buying local organic produce at the authors farm
photo: Ann-Helen Meyer von Bremen

I have lived on small farms most of the time since 1977 and been engaged in small scale vegetable production, cheese making and food processing. The farm Torfolk was a collective farm for a handful of people and we started a marketing cooperative for organic vegetables 1983. We brought organic foods to the supermarkets, probably first in Europe to sell organics in normal grocery shops. Currently I am more engaged in various local marketing and direct marketing initiatives. But I have no illusions. In my book Global Eating Disorder I write:

“The economic conditions under which farmers, other actors in the food system and consumers interact is the factor that most strongly shapes the food system, and therefore it will be futile trying to change the contents of the system while leaving the economic conditions, struc­tures and relationships intact. What we have got to today is – somewhat simplistically put – what makes sense under the conditions under which farmers, agribusiness and consumers operate.“

The suggestion by Chris Newman is in that perspective a step in the right direction. But it doesn’t go far enough as it doesn’t challenge the producer-consumer divide and the notion that food is mainly a commodity to be sold. It doesn’t address that farming is about environmental and social stewardship as much as production.

We need to break away from the idea, that there is something like a fair and free market. Some believe that markets where independent farmers can sell their stuff to consumers represent an ideal; that it is by the interference by governments or big corporations that free markets become corrupt. But free markets are never fair, powers are never equal, capital will be accumulated by some and not by others. The forces of competition are by themselves as much a problem as government rules and big corporations´ monopolist tendencies. This doesn’t change by the creation of cooperatives. Exchange of goods is of course unavoidable and not a bad thing per se, but a competitive market is not the only tool for this to take place. There were reasons for why, in earlier times, markets were almost always regulated in supply, quality and prices. For agriculture products this is particularly important.But even more than having a focus on how goods are moved from A to B we need to recognize that farming is humans primary interface with nature and the primary tool we have for managing a planet that, whether we like it or not, is in our custody. No marketing model exist for optimization of this stewardship role, and none ever will.

Therefore, we need to find models for how to organize this stewardship outside of markets. The obsession with private property, often very strong among farmers, needs to yield, at least the notion that privately owned land gives you almost unlimited rights to do what you like with your land. If we want people to take responsibility for their choice of food, they also need to get influence as responsibility and influence should go hand in hand.
In my vision we see farming as landscape management and food is based on the landscape diet, i.e. that you eat food from the landscape you live in. Communities are jointly deciding on major principles of how the landscape is managed and take responsibility for that farmers can do their job in a good way – and eat the stuff from that land. Exact details surely will vary, and should vary as culture and ecological conditions differ, but I am sure there will be room for small-scale farming there. I am well aware of that this vision doesn’t fit well with cities of 20 million people sourcing their food from all continents. But I don’t think that the future will be in such cities.

P.S: I post little these days, it is summer and lots to do on the farm, but even more I am busy writing a new book…..