Thursday, June 12, 2008

Killing me softly with his investments

On Thursday, June 12, 2008, CBC's The Current did a report called Buying Farmland about the trend of financial investment firms to buy up farms worldwide (after they devastated all the other markets available to them). One of the guests was Gary Blumenthal, president and CEO of World Perspectives, an agricultural investment consulting firm. Among other things, Blumenthal claimed that large farms are more productive (any agricultural census will demonstrate that this is false) and that peasant subsistence farming was not conductive to maximising human potential (not that this is the business that World Perspectives engages in, mind you). The following is my response sent to The Current:

Listening to your report on investors buying farmland, I was deeply impressed by Gary Blumenthal's willingness to demonstrate his ignorance of both agriculture and the economy.

He tells us that "half of all production in the U.S. comes from just 34,000 farms." This says nothing about the relative efficiency of farms with respect to size, it only tells us the status quo, as though mere existence is an indicator of efficiency.

Looking at the data from the USDA census, we find that the most productive farms are small farms with production rapidly falling off as acreage increases. And any positive production on large farms is based on fudging the numbers. If you consider that on these farms it takes an average nine calories of energy to produce one calorie of food crop, you quickly realise that the energy intensive, poorly yielding large farm does not have a future.

Furthermore, traditional peasant systems, elements of which I use in the systems I design, normally require little input in terms of time and energy. Assuming there is a tradition of sustainable agriculture in the region, peasant agriculture is not arduous. What is genuinely disastrous is the repeat of England's Enclosure which is currently being played out across the Third World. It does not "maximise human potential" to force people off the land and into shanty towns to become $4-a-day sweatshop workers.

Considering that people like Gary Blumenthal are going to have increasing say over farm administration, my advice to listeners as a designer of sustainable agriculture systems is to start to forgo your flowerbeds and grow as much of your own food as possible.

Douglas Barnes
EcoEdge Design Ltd.


Roxanne Christensen said...

Following on Mr. Barnes comments,what I see every day as co-author of SPIN-Farming is more and more people taking food production, literally, into their own hands. Entrepreneurial first generation farmers from all over the U.S., Canada, Australia, the UK and recently, South Africa are using SPIN’s sub-acre, franchise-ready farming system as an entry point into the profession. They are using front lawns and backyards and neighborhood lots as their land base. Most importantly, it is happening without significant policy changes or government supports. No one on either end of the status quo - large scale or small scale farming - is seeing this coming. This is not subsistence farming a la Cuba. This is recasting farming as a small business in cities and towns, "right sizing" agriculture for an urbanized century and making local food production a viable business proposition once again.

DJEB said...

Thank you for your comments, Roxanne!

Spin farming is also taking hold in Canada as well. I know of a couple in Saskatoon making a very respectable earing in that difficult climate via this method.

It is also interesting to note that many of the most successful farmers are new farmers who have only been in the business for a short while.

DJEB said...

I just want to provide the link to Roxanne's site:

elfael said...

That's an excellent response Douglas.

You've inspired me to learn more about the history of Enclosure. It seems that the myths about land ownership and farming are very pervasive...

Ken Elwood has recently written about how in Japan there is a government-driven move away from family farms and towards (partly) subsidized Farm Management Companies, an "agriculture land-grab". I have made some comments on this on my blog Elfael.

Raj Patel also has an excellent blog on these and other related matters, called Stuffed and Starved.

Freddy Greaves

DJEB said...

Thank you Freddy.

When I was in Japan, I could see a very slow push away from the family farm and, with my in-laws in agriculture, I have been concerned with the trend. I appreciate the links and will read them to get a better sense of what is going on.

DJEB said...

The Current had mail and didn't read my response. While most of the letters disagreed with Blumenthal's claims and arrogant attitude, there was one woman from Alberta who saw fit to repeat the claim that large farms are more productive than small farms.

Perhaps it is the strong sun in Alberta, or some salty dust kicked up from the thousands of acres of land they've managed to salinate in the prairies, but that claim is completely untrue as even a casual perusing of an given year's USDA Agricultural Census will reveal. No doubt this woman would tell us (from a spot on the prairies that is 3 metres lower than when the first Europeans arrived and applied ploughs unnecessarily) that there is no soil erosion problem either.

Mary said...

A recent article in the Economist proposes that chemicals are necessary to do no-till, and that this makes chemical use a greener alternative than organic tillage farming.

Farmer John's production is proof to me that that is not so, but I don't know the hard statistics to refute this. I know Fukuoka's production was measured, and I know Amish production is measured, but I didn't know how to reply to that article. I hope somewhere here can Google to find the article and insist on responding.

Mary Saunders

DJEB said...

The Economist is a (not very good) news rag and not an agricultural journal or agricultural research institute, so take anything they say about anything (especially related to economics, now that I think of it) with a few thousand grains of salt.

Rodale has kept good records of their excellent results with no-till, organic farming. Furthermore, their results show that even when one discounts the premium price for organic products, organic farming is more profitable than farming with chemicals. The only reasons to use chemicals are a desire to waste money or a dogmatic insistence on harmful, expensive practices, evidence be damned.

The "need" for chemicals is actually a need for study. If you are having such problems that you need to turn to a biocide to solve the problem, you are doing something seriously out of accord with nature - and nature will win one way or another in the long run.