So Why Care About Little Farms? Pt.II

So modern ag is energy intensive, and we are running out of cheap energy.

But it is also "Soil Intensive".

Of course it is you say, where else can food be grown? That was the question before the discovery of the New World.

Plato's lament is rooted in wheat agriculture, which depleted his country's soil and subsequently caused the series of declines that pushed centers of civilization to Rome, Turkey, and western Europe. By the fifth century, though, wheat's strategy of depleting and moving on ran up against the Atlantic Ocean. Fenced-in wheat agriculture is like rice agriculture. It balances its equations with famine. In the millennium between 500 and 1500, Britain suffered a major “corrective” famine about every ten years; there were seventy-five in France during the same period. The incidence, however, dropped sharply when colonization brought an influx of new food to Europe.
-- Richard Manning (a really great article in Harper's)

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) - Wheat Field with Crows (1890)

That same article goes on to point out that around 1960 the supply of virgin prairie was pretty well used up in the US to but we came up with another little trick:

Souped up genetics in grain to utilize fossil fuel based nitrogen fertilizers and irrigation. It worked great, we added about 3 billion (mostly poor people) to the load.

In all of this blather about modern ag I haven't mentioned it's one completely unique feature. Ag has always been energy intensive, once mostly human, then animal and finally mechanical, and it has always, at least to the grain farmer, been soil intensive, use up the fertility of the soil and move on.

But more than anything, modern ag is about specialization, concentration, control and above all profit.

From genetics, the vast majority of corn for example carries the trait of resistance to a particular herbicide - Roundup Ready corn. I'm sure you may have heard what happened to the Irish when the relied entirely on one crop for sustenance.

To climate, around 80% of the almonds grown in the world are from a few counties in California. Which of course brings us back around to the problem of distributing those crops to all corners of the world with ever more expensive energy.

To culture, many large farms use minimal if any crop rotation or fallowing, which increases the need of ever more chemical inputs and soil degradation.

To control, 40% of ag production is under contract. The Agribusiness conglomerate tells the farmer what when and how to raise the crop and the farmer puts up all the capital and labor. Additionally the conglomerate controls the processing, distribution and marketing of many products from farm gate to cash register.

If most of these points seem negative it's because in the long run they are negative. And though many of the problems associated with large modern farms can be replicated on a small farm it's a lot harder to do. And likewise a lot easier to try something new!

We should care about the future of the small farm because it's very existence is not dependent on the energy intensive, soil-mining, profit-driven, mono-cultural, subsidized, homogenized, globalized model.

If there is going to be a place where the seeds of a new, old agriculture can flourish, it will be the small farm.