19 October 2014 10:56AM
Mark Scherzer


I have often written about the economic challenges of small scale agriculture. Every year, the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes reports showing that the vast majority of farmers earn the vast majority of their income from non-farm jobs, and I lament that there is something in the imbalance between the cost of producing food and the revenue it brings in.

Sure, big agribusiness makes money, but you always have to ask whether it does so through economies of scale or a relentless dedication to mindless “efficiency” – the sort of efficiency that substitutes pesticides for more labor intensive pest management, and antibiotics for maintaining healthy animals in a humane environment.

Last week, Peter wrote of the rapid transition to large scale agriculture in Turkey, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the process he described is worldwide and also relentless. The New York Times recently reported on the steps China is taking to encourage large scale agriculture there, in part to address growing income disparities between urban and rural areas: “Once a Symbol of Pwer, Farming Now an Economic Drag. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/13/world/asia/once-a-symbol-of-power-farming-now-an-economic-drag-in-china.html)

The average farm in China is 1.6 acres, compared with 400 acres in the U.S. Although private ownership of land is anathema in China, the government is giving small growers control over the use of the land they have traditionally worked. They can continue to farm if they like, or they can rent out the land for high fees set by the government and move to free apartments in the city. Often they rent to large scale growers who consolidate many small tracts.

Many small farmers are taking the latter option, in part because they simply cannot make money as small scale farmers. The Times noted that small growers of grain could generate only about $500 per acre. According to one farmer, Li Haiwen. “The more grain you plant,” he said, “the poorer you get.” The fees they get from renting out the land for large scale agricultural or industrial use give them higher income and no risk. Who wouldn’t abandon the farm?

Yet, the pull of farming is nevertheless strong. On our recent trip to Turkey, when I should have been reading something maybe called “Life on the Kizilirmak Cay” (Translation: The Red River”, Turkey’s longest river, which we crossed near where it flows into the Black Sea), I was instead reading Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi.” I chose the book on the fly from our library shelf before leaving, because Peter’s 1946 pocket copy was so small and compact. While I enjoyed the intricate description of the river pilot’s craft, I guffawed with delight when I came across the following passage describing Twain’s return to the river after a decades long absence, and finding out what had become of his former pilot friends:

“In the course of the tugboat gossip, it came out that out of every five of my former friends who had quitted the river, four had chosen farming as an occupation. Of course, this was not because they were peculiarly gifted agriculturally, and thus more likely to succeed as farmers than in other industries: the reason for their choice must be traced to some other source. Doubtless they chose farming because that life is private and secluded from irruptions of undesirable strangers – like the pilot-house hermitage. And doubtless they also chose it because on a thousand nights of black storm and danger, they had noted the twinkling lights of solitary farmhouses, as the boat swung by, and pictured to themselves the serenity and security and coziness of such refuges at such times, and so had by and by, come to dream of that retired and peaceful life as the one desirable thing to long for, anticipate, earn, and at last enjoy.

“But I did not learn that any of these pilot-farmers had astonished anybody with their successes. Their farms do not support them: they support their farms. The pilot-farmer disappears from the river annually, about the breaking of spring, and is seen no more till next frost. Then he appears again, in damaged homespun, combs the hayseed out of his hair, and takes a pilot-house berth for the winter. In this way he pays the debts which his farming has achieved during the agricultural season. So his river bondage is but half broken; he is still the river’s slave the hardest half of the year.”

Twain’s description so fully encasulated Peter and my experience as gallery owner/travel consultant/ farmer and lawyer/farmer, that I could only conclude that the attractions and travails of the small scale farmer have always been thus, are thus everywhere, and thus will always be.

In a Times Op-Ed piece in August, “Don’t Let Your Children Grow up to be Farmers,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/10/opinion/sunday/dont-let-your-children-grow-up-to-be-farmers.html,) Bren Smith, a Long Island seaweed and shellfish farmer acutely observed that many of the small scale producers who serve high end food enthusiasts with organic and high quality food, are losing their shirts doing so, sometimes descending into peonage on the land holdings of the rich. The median income of U.S. farms, he noted, is preceded by a minus sign. He advocated that small scale agriculturalists band together to protect themselves, and though he mentioned such strategies as joint distribution systems that would enable them to compete with big agribusiness, the majority of his proposed solutions were in the form of government subsidies: forgiveness of student loans, guaranteed health care, and shifting of subsidy payments from factory farms to family farms.

Smith is absolutely on the right track. Small scale healthful food production is inevitably a high cost endeavor. If we as a society value good health and flavor over “economy” in our food, the only way we can promote its production, without making that food a luxury only the rich can afford, is to subsidize it collectively, with funds generated through a progressive tax system. Europe and Japan have long ago realized this. It’s time for America to do some catching up.

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