>An organic farm is so much more diverse and
>therefore productive, ecologically speaking, than a single-crop
>chemicalized farm. However, the latter might produce more of that
>single crop than the former and thus appear more "economically
Please don't make the assumption that an "organic" farm is by nature
diverse. It is a common error to believe that organic farming is the
pinnacle of sustainability. "It ain't necessarily so..." A
*well-designed* organic farm is diverse, but most organic farms are not
well designed, and unfortunately too many organic certification
programs look the other way. There are certified organic farms (note
the plural) that produce absolutely nothing but wheat.
I inspect organic farms for a living, and have inspected something in
excess of 600,000 acres in the last seven years. The majority of the
farms I have inspected are probably not sustainable (almost certianly
not agronomically sustainable, and probably not financially
sustainable). I have worked with some absolutely inspiring organic
farms, but a lot of them--especially cash croppers--are quite
This isn't going to sit well with the advocates of the 'poor, noble,
oppressed farmer' school of thought, but far too many farmers coming
over to organics are just plain lousy farmers in the first place, and
think that the premiums will save their farm. They have cut back
chemicals in an effort to save money, and they compare $16 organic
specialty beans with $5 conventional dark-hilum beans and get on the
phone to the certification program. If they have land coming out of
CRP, so much the better. Then they ship a weedy crop with dirty seed
coats and 15% splits, yet blame the buyer when they get docked for
their own mis-handling of the crop.
>Furthermore, under conditions of competition (instead of cooperation),
>a farm ran "more like a business" would be tend to externalize more
>and more of its costs to remain competitive.
A good business doesn't *externalize* its costs to become competitive,
it finds creative ways to ELIMINATE them. For example, when I was
producing organic vegetables on a commercial scale (organically), the
costs for keeping things weeded were substantial, and the revenue from
those vegetables was several months down the road.
First task, reduce the expense --- we cut it by over 70% by including
forages in the rotation, abandoning early crops (more time for
mechanical control in the spring), by bringing cattle into the system,
and by standardizing our row system so that an $800 tool could take
care of most early-season weeding.
Second task, make sure we didn't have to pay interest on the money for
the expenses we still did have --- so the end of July every year I
would sell some of the cows. Cow prices are always good (relatively) in
late July because people eat a lot of hamburgers, and most hamburgers
are out on pasture until fall. I knew in advance how many I had to
sell, and found reasons to cull that many.
Come fall, when the vegetable money was in and cattle are cheap, I
bought at least the same number of cows, and always of better quality
than those I had sold. We weren't afraid to grade the vegetables
tightly (good for marketing) because they were excellent feed for
cattle. Vegetables improved the cattle (culling and better nutrition)
and the cattle improved the vegetables (better weeding, good compost,
and well-timed cash flow).
And if you aren't asking it, you should be, so I'll tell you .... this
guy isn't in the vegetable business right now because the only land he
could afford in the 1970s was too stoney for really good vegetable
production, and after three bad weather years in the late 80s I got out
whille I still had some equity. I'm still looking for the right land --
at a price that will cash flow even when organic premiums are slim.
>Because they are so economically and politically powerful, the big
>corporations can externalize their costs more easily and thus appear
>"more economically viable."
I guess that's why Premium Standard is in and out of bankruptcy, in
spite of abundant government assistance ??
>Under a context of a competitive market system therefore, the stacks
>are heavily loaded against the organic/ecological farmer, who will
>tend to appear more economically inefficient and unsustainable than
>the chemical/industrial farmer.
You folks that are discussing entire economic systems ... just don't
get it. Sustainability happens *one farm at a time.* Research in Iowa
has shown that continuous alfalfa has a higher *net* return per acre
than any other rotation. Number 2 isn't even close. Alfalfa is
agronomically and economically more sustainable than #2 yellow corn.
There are Iowa farms (both conventional and organic) that have included
a lot of alfalfa -- they're doing well. There are plenty of others
(both conventional and organic) that have not, and many of those are
struggling because their land system is hurting. Same climate. Same
economic system. You can't blame either the climate or the economic
system for those that are having trouble.
I wish I had $100 for every organic farm that has bought equipment
and/or land assuming that $16 beans are going to last forever. For
every dairy farmer (organic or otherwise) that bought a new pick-up
based on $16 milk. For every cash cropper that bought more land based
on $4 corn and $8 beans. These are all *individual* decisions, and are
generally quite poor allocations of scarce capital.
As long as we persist in confusing association and *causality* in
regard to free markets---assuming that because failing farms are
associated with free markets they are *caused* by them---we will not be
particularly useful to anyone. What we need to do is make sound (read
sustainably oriented) agronomic and economic advice available to those
*individual* farmers who want it. I'll repeat what I said in an
earlier post --- the *well-managed* medium sized family farm (organic
or conventional) can be an extremely successful competitor in the free
market --- we need to develop and share tools for improving those
management skills. Sustainability is built one farm at a time.
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