Thoughts on the Farm Economy, Farmer Training, and Future Harvest
One may, at times, be justifiably ambivalent about training people for a job at which they may not make a living. Consider these facts from the national agricultural economy: 50% of farms have sales below $10,000, making essentially no contribution to household income. If we add to these units anointed farms only by UDSA’s statistical grace those with sales all the way up to $350,000, we have included 90% of all farms. Even within this preponderance, the average contribution to household income of farm sales is less than 10%. Now among those with sales up to $350,000, there will be some operations making all or more than half of their income farming. But the average shows what a marginal sector it remains.
It is impressive that this 90% contributes 22% of total agricultural production, a significant slice of food, flowers, and fiber in the huge US economy. One point rarely mentioned when contemplating the contribution of the mostly part-time farming sector is that its production, its 22%, is subsidized by non-farm income sources. As honest and precise as an accountant might be on Schedule F on Seeds and Repairs, few producers are paying all support costs in a sector from which, to repeat, on average only 10% of income derives. Some other source is needed for car insurance, tuition, domestic utilities, the broad “cost of living” beyond the narrow “cost of farming”. It's not only the single-minded efficiencies of factory farming that keep commodity prices low. It's also the contribution of non-farm income to the production of the agricultural output that allows 22% of items to be sold below true cost.
Ergo, MOST farming is ALREADY “a hobby, a life-style, a subsidized economic undertaking”, we could unkindly say. (And this is not to even take up the question of government programs that artificially support and distort the structure of farming.)
Now look for a moment at the total US economy. Seventy percent of all business establishments, mostly either with no payroll or less than 20 employees, huff and puff and contribute 12% of total sales. Should all these establishments disappear, give General Motors and Walmart, General Electric and Costco, a year or two and they could replace them, bringing the world ever closer to the Capitalist’s ideal binary mix of Robotized Factories & Big Box stores, people working in the one to pay for needs from the other. The strict material standard of living would, however, be little affected.
But it would be a dreary visual landscape. And a deadening social order, with no vacuum cleaner repair man or corner-store tropical fish dealer to chat up anymore.
Our job is to create for the agricultural sector the equivalent of the myriad (actually 5.3 million!) small businesses that comprise the 70% that give us 12% of sales. It is those units that still give us the warp and woof of a society rightly scaled. We have scarcely begun to create the farms for the product niches and the geographical spaces that Big Ag ignores.
We can do this by helping aspirant farmers allocate their labor and capital efficiently but with benign environmental effect. Some of them will become full-time, not ever Feeding the World, but at least Feeding Themselves, as do the maniacally self-employed the world over. Some will mix farming in some economically necessary or vocationally preferred degree with other jobs. That mix is for the producer to determine, not the program officer.
We must get past holding up the single criterion “full-time farmer”. It is at once a fine ideal and at the same time a Jeffersonian shibboleth, rarely achieved in either this country or others. Consider our reaction when a couple in the non-farm economy begins a business, say a pizza parlor, the wife for the moment keeping one gig, the husband another. We simply wish them success, and our trade association offers assistance. We do not carp, “Yeah, but can you feed the whole city?” Who knows, they may well someday grow to feed the city. Who knows, they may someday teach Big Pizza a thing or two, and it’ll buy ‘em up.
Two great consequences will come of the work of Future Harvest CASA.
Beyond the better food they produce, our farmers will be the self-motivated stewards of natural resources that government programs can’t easily engender. And their farms will be laboratories, beacons, for how to stop the depredations the current Rachel Carsons sound the alarm about. Influence comes from outside in, not inside out. (For one version of this old principle, see Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.)
—Chip Planck, 3/12/18