Putting the life back in science fiction

The Gordian Knot of 21st Century Small Farms
December 16, 2016, 3:55 am
Filed under: organic gardening, Worldbuilding | Tags:

This is something I’ve been thinking about since November.  One of the big political cries in the US, on both ends of the political spectrum, was some form of increased isolationism, framed mostly as getting the US out of various entanglements in various countries, and investing in the many, many places that have been left behind by globalization.

Admittedly, I’ve been part of that, because I think global consumerism has been one of the driving forces for climate change, so I’ve been one of the activists yelling for the US to get out of [wherever] for [some perfectly good reason].  There’s this romantic logic that if we all just consume less, go live semi-rural lives where we grow part or all of our food in carbon-capturing oversized gardens (no-till, of course) and are total locavores, that it will all just work out.

Of course, when you look around the world, you see exactly the opposite, that people are leaving the land, because it can no longer support them, so they either to move to a nearby city for work or to join the stream of immigrants looking for work around the world.

There are a variety of reasons for moving.  In places like Senegal (per Years of Living Dangerously), climate change on the edge of the Sahel has made farming impossible, so husbands go to the city, to Libya, or even Europe, to earn wages to support their families.  In places like the California Central Valley, its aquifer depletion.  In other rural places, it’s the shut down of the local factory, competition with neighboring industrial farms, and the like.

This is not to say that the urge to small farming is entirely wrong.  In a collapse, such as currently in Kinshasa, or in 1990s Russia, local gardening is critically important to keeping people fed.  There are simply two profound problems with it.

The first is that I don’t think you can feed 10 billion people by making them all peasants.  According to the ol’ Wikipedia (link to article on arable land), there are between 0 (Singapore) and 2 (Australia) hectares of arable land per country per person, in 2013, and the average is 0.2 hectares.  Just in general, it’s not easy to support a person even on two acres of arable land, and it takes real skill to feed yourself reliably on 0.2 hectares.  Of course, fishing and ranching make some use of non-arable land, and the FAO, source of those figures, doesn’t count tree and shrub crops (orchards and vineyards) as arable land.  Still, the math is against feeding 10 billion on tiny farms. Indeed, it says something about our system that we can actually feed people with the amount of arable land we have.

This leads to the second problem: small farms are unstable.  Through simple bad luck, even the best farmer can have a bad year and go into debt.  Over time, through simple luck, there tends to be a cycle where the luckiest people get huge farms, while the worst farmers (and the unluckiest ones) lose their land and possibly their families.  Yes, there’s a lot of skill involved in farming, but the point is that even simple luck will, over time, produce winners and losers.  This is an ancient problem.  When people are stuck with their land (meaning they can’t go off and clear another plot elsewhere), it leads to growing inequality that ultimately ends in either revolution or redistribution, if you believe Piketty and Graeber.  So even if we put everybody out on the land, some people would fail, and we’d need some provision for them if we don’t want them starving.

So small farming is out?  Not really.  We need to preserve this way of life and the associated cultivars and domestic species, because it’s the life boat for when things go bad.  Cuba and Russia survived in part because they got serious about gardening, and we should think about doing that too.

The other loop of the Gordian knot, though, is the system we have, where most people live in cities, and a lot of rural people feel like the forgotten discards of progress as they watch their communities fall apart around them.  This is efficient in some ways, but inefficient in others.

The benefits of putting most people in cities and turning food production over to skilled specialists include:

  • Allowing food to move to people.  Food is mostly water.  When you ship food, you grow it where there is (at the moment) a surplus of water, (presumably) to a place where water is in short supply.  Grain especially takes a lot of water, not because each grain is full of water, but because they are such tiny parts of the plants that produced them.  For every pound of grain, there are many pounds of water-soaked biomass either left on the farm or going somewhere else.  The upshot is that it’s often more effective to move food to people than it is to move water to people for them to grow their own food.
  • Economies of scale and supply chains.  These are the classic economic arguments, and there’s a bit of truth to them.  Supply chains, in particular, make it possible to plan food, as do futures markets that pay people to produce and take out the uncertainties.

But there are problems with these approaches.  Take growing plants on groundwater in California or Texas.  We’re mining a limited supply of non-renewable water and shipping it back east where water falls from the sky.  This doesn’t make sense, except for a web of government regulations and subsidies that suppress certain kinds of farming in the east and subsidize them in the western US (this per Cadillac Desert) .  It’s a short-term solution to feeding people, and there will likely be food shortages and political unrest in the poorer parts of the world as farms fed by the Ogallala aquifer run dry in about 20 years.  This isn’t just a problem for the US, either.  It’s a problem, to my knowledge, in Australia and the Middle East off the top of my head, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t double the number in the comments.

Economies of scale may be financially efficient, but I’ve heard evidence (and I’d like to see the study) that suggests that small farming is resource efficient, because you have more expertise per acre to maximize yield either over the short or long term.  Whether such fine scale artisanal skill is profitable depends on a variety of things, including living standards, aspirations, taxes, input costs, net revenues, and so forth.  Still, this is the expertise we need to keep if we are forced to transition away from industrial farming and go to subsistence agriculture.

Supply chains are part of the problem, environmentally.  There is a need for a particular amount of a particular product at a particular place and a particular time.  That’s the essence of a futures contract.  The problem is that nature doesn’t run on those kinds of futures.  A sustainable system doesn’t produce an entirely predictable yield, especially if many species are involved.  This is what you see in a CSA (community supported agriculture) box, where what comes off the farm varies widely from week to week, year to year, depending on the weather.  You can feed a family this way, if the family is flexible in what they’re willing to eat.  However, if your business is baking bread for thousands of people, you need tons of bread wheat on a predictable schedule.  Getting soft wheat that’s suitable for tortillas or durum wheat for pasta might be a better fit for the climate in a particular growing season, but as a baker, you can’t readily switch to making tortillas or pasta.  This is one reason why our diet is getting simpler if we depend on supermarket foods.  We’re eating what fits into a complex supply chain, not what works sustainably in a changing climate.  As a result, farmers feeding huge supply chains have to subsidize their crops with things like fertilizers, pesticides, and extra water, all of which have their non-sustainable aspects.

And that’s the Gordian knot: we’ve got one set of complex, intractable problems if we try to force everybody back onto the land (as the Communist found out), but we’ve got a different set of intractable problems if we try to house everybody densely in cities.  There’s not an easy answer to any of this, especially in a blog post.   But that’s not all. The problem with the two loops of this Gordian knot is that a lot of fairly conservative people, stuck out in the boonies, would like support for their small farms or (if they’re in the West), their welfare ranches.  And a bunch of liberals, myself sometimes included, would like to see more people making a living in rural areas.  Unfortunately, putting more people out to farm less land could make it harder to feed the teeming hordes in the growing cities by increasing the costs of food and decreasing its predictability, especially if the farmer is trying to farm sustainably rather than to keep a supply chain full.  What do you do if you’re a politician?  It is, perhaps, the third loop in the Gordian Knot.  Rural economies are still shrinking and suffering, but, as in the US and Britain, they have the political clout to make their voices heard and to cause real trouble for the internationalists who are trying to keep everything working.  But if you give them what they want, there might be problems in the inner cities due to rising food prices.   Still, it’s worth casting a jaundiced eye at simple articles that talk about “the future of food” as if a small group of technologies will save us all.  The solution is going to be complex, vary over time and space, and probably be ad hoc in more places than we’d like to admit.  Still, keeping things going beats starving.


7 Comments so far
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I agree with your analysis of the predicament we are in. I come from the perspective of a rural area that is water rich and poor in many other ways. We have a large sustainable movement in our area located in northern Wisconsin. We have over 63 hoop houses and about 125 sustainably managed farms in an area about the size of the Big Island in Hawaii. Also a small prosperous fishing industry. Local production is sold in many stores and shipped up to 200 miles away. Here the problem is capitalization. When adequate financing is available we can solve our local problems with soils and energy.
Large factory farms are well capitalized and subsidized in many ways that mask the inefficiencies, including off putting the environmental costs into the general environment. The problem of equalizing the value of our products might be solved in great measure by taxing carbon inputs in farm products or at least taking into consideration when considering supports. Higher carbon taxes would favor smaller more efficient operations.

Large scale operations like hog and cattle confinements would have to buy credits from small scale farmers thus equalizing food costs at the market level. In this way people could make a legitimate choice between which product is the best food, not just the cheapest.

It’s hard to imagine what set of circumstances could engage a system like this, given today’s political and social environment, but it is something to think about in terms of all possible solutions – short of famine and population control.

Comment by baconaiken

Good ideas! The one issue I’d point to is that cheap food is political. If the people in the inner cities are hungry, there’s civil unrest, and that doesn’t work politically. This goes all the way back to the Roman bread and circuses thing. I won’t disagree that it would be good for food to pay a living wage, but I’d simply add that we need more equality throughout the system, so that most people can afford to buy food at prices that sustain you.

Where in Wisconsin are you? I went to school in Madison.

Comment by Heteromeles

Yeah, the notion of everybody becoming a peasant farmer after industrial farming bites the dust due to insufficient petro fuel has some problems attached to it. First of all, how would you divvy out the land? Under the current legal arrangements, all the arable land is already owned by someone. I suppose the government could institute some sort of feudal system that keeps existing land ownership in place and parcels people in cities out to land owners as land-less serfs. Boy, that would be popular with people in the cities. But it might beat starving. Of course we already have an existing feudal structure in cities where individuals attach themselves to various overlords in return for a paycheck. The only difference would be that people would now be doing hard physical labor in return for a paycheck. And they would be living in labor barracks or shipping containers or tents or starve or succumb to drug overdoses. But wait, that’s already happening.
A lot of the younger generation are already trying to figure out how to live out of an RV or truck with a camper and move around and take temporary jobs as they become available.
My wife mentioned to one of her nephews that the social security system calculates payouts on the basis of a life expectancy of 83 years. The nephew said, no way do people live that long. Everybody he knows expects to be dead by their late fifties.
I suspect that as global warming ramps up and disrupts existing agricultural regimes, and as the economy has an ever shrinking supply of jobs, people improvising new living arrangements will take the lead away from government planners who will be at a loss for what to do or will implement ineffective programs to try to remedy the social problems.
We’ll see what Trump does. His cabinet candidates so far point in the direction of taking care of the feudal overlords.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Putting everyone back on the land was tried by Mao with the Cultural Revolution. How did work out for them?

Mechanized food production is going to be a requirement to feed the planet’s billions unless we are prepared to accept mass starvation. Who’s willing to go first?

I am not so sure this is a Gordian knot, even if it is a tricky problem to resolve. We can combine mixed culture/multiple crop and monoculture farming by the use of AI and robotics. As long as power is renewable for all phases of the production and delivery cycle, that should be an acceptable approach.

Backyard gardening (allotments in the UK) are useful adjuncts to be sure. Perhaps less for nutrients than for flavor and freshness. That is how I have planned my backyard garden. I want fresh vegetables and fruit, sufficient for storage where appropriate and enough flowering plants to attract pollinators, increase insects and attract birds.

Vertical farms in cities will be another leg for local food production. Expensive to be sure, but perhaps better than living with black markets if food gets scarce. Just look at Venezuela.

Finally there is factory food production using cell culture. My guess the biggest impact here will be various meat substitutes, primarily cultured muscle cells. Not only will it provide protein directly, but it will eliminate ag areas devoted to animal feed. Milk production by factory production would be a good idea too.

One advantage of backyard gardens is that they would provide a useful source of employment for those displaced from other jobs. At my age, working a lot outside is not my cup of tea, but the state could pay younger people to manage community and neighborhood gardens, at least until robots can do it more cheaply in a few decades.

Eventually population will have to decline, at least on planet Earth. It would be good if we don’t keep playing the Malthusian playbook and do this voluntarily. There is far too much wild habitat destruction still going on, and we need to allow the planet to rewild. E O Wilson wants 50%. That might be a good target to aim for.

Comment by alexandertolley

While I love mixed cropping, it has two problems: it’s not so good for some types of grain cropping, and while it provides a better yield for the farmer, it’s hell on supply chains.

Wheat and rice don’t lend themselves to large-scale mixed cropping. Sequential cropping yes, but not mixed. You can polycrop corn if you’re working in something like the Three Sisters system (or a milpa) and have the right cultivars of corn, beans, and squash, but these work best for humans, because they are structurally irregular and complex (mounds with corn, climbing beans using the corn as a lattice, and squash keeping the weeds down between the mounds), and a machine sent in to harvest corn will crunch the squash and shred the beans, and vice versa.

The second problem with mixed cropping is that you get different yields every season. A milpa may produce a lot of corn one year, a lot of beans the next, and a lot of squash the third. This is fine for the farmer, so long as he can sell it all. It’s more difficult if the farmer depends on futures contracts, because these three crops aren’t substitutable. You can’t make corn tortillas out of squash, for example. This is why optimizing a farm as part of a large scale industrial process makes it harder to optimize the farm for ecological sustainability. Predictability and sustainability are conflicting constraints, especially in a changing climate.

Comment by Heteromeles

In which case, only do mixed cropping where appropriate. The point is to improve farming practices by any metric you desire, but use smart machines instead of dumb ones to reduce human labor and allow mechanization to be used. Putting people back on the land to do backbreaking work is highly undesirable IMO.

As for stability of yields for supply chains, is that really the benefit of large, mechanized farms, or just the the portfolio effect of being able to source globally via markets? Small holdings would still be protected if farmers were paid a guaranteed income and farmed as best they could (although how to create incentives is another problem). Large farms can fail too. In CA, it is access to groundwater and political clout to access surface water that keeps large farms in business. If that was removed, they would likely fail too, wouldn’t they?

I tend to think moving forward with technology and further reducing farm labor is a better solution that going back to small holdings. Farming as a gardening hobby is fine as a niche market/activity, but I don’t see it as a good way forward to ensure ample food production. The US is very lucky to have such a low density of people to support, so that it could be nutritionally independent. That is not possible for dense populations (Singapore, Hong Kong), or even most of Northern Europe. As long as farming is primarily a low tech, surface activity, land area is going to be an issue. With technology, moving to volume rather than surface farming is going to be a solution. Enclosing farms in environmentally controlled spaces, supplied by power that may be sourced anywhere, is going to be part of the solution. Today that is still expensive. But tomorrow…?

Comment by alexandertolley

[…] was prompted by a comment by Wolfgang Brinck on the last post, that we’re going into a feudal society, with the capitalists in the place of the feudal […]

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