Monday, November 10, 2014

No Farms, No Food, No Logic

I don’t know about where you live, but here in the Garden State, I see this misleading bumper sticker everywhere: No Farms, No Food.

For the purpose of this discussion let’s define a farm an enterprise in which one or more human beings plants, cultivates and harvests food crops primarily for consumption by others beyond his household, friends and family.

On the face of it, the bumper sticker is true enough.  If no one grew food for others, most people in post-industrial America would starve.  The question is are these human beings who produce food crops for others going to vanish from American society?  They won’t.  However, their numbers have diminished and may continue to do so.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.

The flaw in the bumper sticker’s logic is that it treats farmers, that is, human beings, as a fixed single purpose resource.  I would accept the logic of saying “no apple trees, no apples” or “no pigs, no bacon”.  If blight were to wipe out all apple trees, there would be no apples as nothing but an apple tree can produce apples.  Likewise a world without pigs must by definition be a world without bacon.  And not a world worth living in, by the way.

Human beings, on the other hand, are most flexible of economic resources.  Chances are that the guy playing guitar at your Friday watering hole night is a CPA or computer programmer during the workday.  He may get up the next morning and coach his kids’ ball teams, then go home to refinish his basement.  Being a modern guy, he might also help cook dinner and clean up afterwards.

The point is that humans can do a lot of things.  They can repurpose themselves to different occupations if the spirit so moves them.  The spirit will so move them if food is scarce, other people are willing pay to have something to eat and a reasonable living can be made by farming, which it can.

Agricultural science and technology have progressed exponentially since this nation was founded.  As of 1790 the U.S. population was only 5% Urban with all others classified as Rural.  This aligned with the Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian nation comprised of largely self-sufficient and self-governing freeholders.  Improvements in agricultural technology and distribution have made it unnecessary for the preponderance of people to produce their own food. 

As you can see from the chart below, a single acre of ground could produce nearly 8X more corn by the year 2000 than when our constitution was ratified.

Globally crop yields throughout the world, measured in kilograms per hectare*, continue to improve at a steady rate.

Improved efficiency in food production fires up the division of labor and exchange.   This frees up the majority of workers to produce the cornucopia of consumer goods that modern civilization takes for granted.  Although few if any middle class Americans self-produce enough to food to live on, the wealth of devices and conveniences in their homes and on their persons was unimaginable in Jefferson’s agrarian utopia.

Stepping aside from mere increased production efficiency, culinary trends are driving a new generation of Americans back to the soil.  The Farm to Table and Locally Grown movements have enticed professional urbanites to try their hands at growing fruits, vegetables and livestock in an earth-friendly way for local green grocers, farmers’ markets and restaurateurs  Theirs is an entrepreneurial and Free enterprise ethic that Jefferson would surely love.   The explosion of local vineyards and wineries in my home state is visible evidence of this trend.

A good number of existing farmers are also catching onto this trend.  They are turning away from “commodity farming”, that is corn, wheat, soybeans, etc. for industry.  They are turning to boutique crops – fresh vegetables and fruits – for local table tops.

Responding to this sea change, cities such as Seattle are beginning to set aside urban agricultural zones.  Forward thinkers are designing urban farm towers and other structures that will redefine “farming”.

The reality is that food is always priority #1 for human beings.  No matter what technical gizmos, luxury items or fashions we may crave, we will need to feed ourselves before we can enjoy any of the other frills of 21st Century living.  Consciously or unconsciously, rational people will make food procurement the top item on their value list.  In turn, market forces will profitably satisfy this need.

“No Farms, No Food” is propaganda on behalf of sustained and increased government intervention on behalf of agriculture.  Intervention distorts markets and leads to malinvestment.   It stifles innovation and is a slush bucket for political cronyism.  Agricultural price supports helped to accelerate, aggravate and prolong America’s Great Depression.  Federal agricultural spending is an annual $156 billion income transfer from taxpayers to agribusiness, farmers and welfare recipients.   This includes Food Stamps which are an indirect subsidy to farmers by helping lower income people meet artificially inflated food prices.  This must stop now!
*10,000 square meters

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Green Takers
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