This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Economics Of Small Scale Farming

Many believe that the reason the Amish don’t use tractors is a religious one or that they are simply luddites. The truth is actually much more rooted in the economy of their society. A tractor is a tool that allows a single farmer to increase the amount of acreage they can farm. In a typical Amish neighborhood you have many small farmers doing their plowing, planting and harvesting with horses. They live within a buggy ride of the church (the heart of their community), contribute financially to it, and the church in turn provides healthcare, social services and social security to its members. Now let’s say one member of the community buys a big modern tractor and combine on credit. He’s got bills to pay and the only way to pay those loans is to increase the amount of acreage he’s farming. He has the tractor and the combine to do it but the only way to get access to the acreage is to take land away from his fellow church members. You can imagine the effect this would have on the community, the church and the local economy.

You actually don’t have to imagine the effects, you can simply travel to any number of rural areas in America. The availability of ever larger tractors and combines combined with declining prices of agricultural commodities has led us to where we are now. Most small farms were forced out. As profits per bushel declined so did profits per acre. Eventually small farms simply didn’t control enough acreage to make a living any more. They had a simple choice which became a mantra of the agricultural great depression: get big or get out. Most got out. The few that got big got huge. We are left with a system where a handful of huge farms control the acreage of the countryside. And everyone else who lives here does…. what, exactly?

In the sixties and seventies the American manufacturing economy was strong. When people left the farm to get a better paying manufacturing job in the city it was seen as progress. Now manufacturing has mostly moved to China. When I was a kid the next big thing was the tech economy. We were told that we should learn programming skills and everything would be great. Now most programming is done by relatively low income programmers in India and China.

The net result is a rural America with declining small towns. Fewer agricultural jobs means fewer people in the restaurants, hardware stores, grocery stores and coffee shops that are the staples of small town life. This means a lowered tax base for the town, county and state which in most cases means more subsidies from the federal government to keep rural areas alive.

The other touted benefits of big agriculture are that it reduces the cost of food and increases food security. The first argument is true as far as it goes, but to what end? The population is increasingly obese and diabetic and the increasing cost of healthcare threatens to undermine the economy. To be clear, I think the health issues we face have more to do with the quality than the quantity of the food available to us, but this is two sides of the same coin. Industrially produced food is as lacking in quality as it is prodigious in quantity. According to the US Department of Labor 7 of the ten fastest growing jobs are involved in healthcare. None are in manufacturing, technology or agriculture. How long does an economy work when the only job growth is in healthcare?

As to food security, I don’t see any benefit from big ag. Consider that 100 years ago small farms used a long-term rotation of crops to bolster soil fertility, provide a wide array of crops and bring food security. Wheat is (in my part of the world) planted in the fall, makes much of it’s growth in early spring while the soil is moist and is harvested by July or August. Hay is a perennial crop that can make two to three cuttings per year depending on the weather. Corn and soybeans are summer crops – planted in May and June for a harvest in the fall. Corn and soybeans are the most susceptible crops to being lost in a summer drought. But corn is the highest yielding grain crop we have (most revenue per acre) and the only way to get a complete protein feed based on corn is to also grow soybeans. Which means that as time goes on the best acreage is more and more dominated by only two crops – corn and soy. In a warming world do we really have better food security if the two main crops we grow are the two that are most susceptible to being lost in a summer drought? We got a little taste of that during the drought of 2012 when corn prices shot to a record high of over eight dollars a bushel.

Controversy erupted that summer over the proper use of corn. The pork industry thought they should have first access to it since they were providing food for people. The ethanol industry, which only exists because of the flood of cheap corn caused by big ag, argued that it had a mandate to produce a certain amount of ethanol for fuel and that market prices were market prices. That’s a snapshot of future food security. Large industries with vested interests battling over a key resource in drought times. Personally, I would rather leave my trust in a nation of small farmers.

All of which brings me back to the economic argument for pastured pork. Pastured pork farms are, by their very nature, small farms. The “pastured” part has a similar effect to the Amish not using tractors. There are a lot of factors that limit the number of hogs that can be run on a pastured pork farm – parasite loads, labor, topograhpy. The largest pastured pork farm I know of is producing 6,000 hogs per year. Most are substantially smaller and I think 1,000 hogs per year is a good size to shoot for if you want a family scale pastured hog operation that supplies a full income. This is very much in line with the size of historical family scale hog farms. Instead of huge, automated warehouses of pigs you have people doing jobs, taking care of pigs. These people are likely to want to create a high quality product, which means a varied diet for the pigs, likely including a substantial amount of barley, wheat and hay, crops that are less affected by summer drought. These people are likely to frequent other local businesses, including hardware stores, grocery stores, restaurants and cafes, bars and coffee shops, all of which leads to a healthy local tax base and a place you’d want your children to grow up in. It’s a virtuous cycle of meaningful work leading to pride in one’s community leading to future generations wanting to continue the cycle.

From a consumer perspective the benefits might be even larger. If we switched to barley finished, pastured pork from pigs raised in sunshine and grass, we would receive a big bump in vitamin D and vitamin K2 consumption, lower dietary levels of pro-inflammatory omega 6 linoleic acid and arachidonic acids, higher consumption of CLA and probably lots of beneficial effects that we don’t even know about. What would be the annual savings in health care costs? It’s unknowable but likely substantial.

What would it take to transform America from a nation of huge hog factories to a nation of small pasture-based hog farms? It would take buy in from consumers that pastured hogs are a product that was worth paying a small premium for and maybe an extra 40 or 50 cents per pound back to the pastured pork farms for their products. That’s it! If we could replicate the processing and distribution systems of the seventies, pastured pork now would still be cheaper than commodity pork was then. Can we do it? Can we afford not to do it? These are the questions The Piggery is grappling with. Read on!

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