In Part #1 of this series we discussed the situation where small farmers are trying to succeed in growing veggies for the local market. Many of them are really struggling and facing a bleak future. So in this part we will look at the nature of the issue.
One of my mentors, in a weird sort of way, is Albert Einstein. I am a huge fan of this man as I feel that he had a rational scientific mind, yet recognized the fact that there is an intelligent design in the universe. I enjoy studying his theories and his practical advice. One part of the practical advice he gives says the following; " To understand the solution to a problem one must understand the nature of the problem." So in part 1 we threw out a problem. In part 2 we will understand the nature of the problem and in part 3 we will present some solutions and how to work with with them.
The very first concept that we have toexamine is Rural Flight. This is the name given to the flight of people from the rural areas to the urban areas. As we look at it in an historical sense we see this happening since way back in time. From the 1800's until the present time, that flight was primarily from one area within a region to another. In some cases it was over a greater distance, but more than not it was short distances and was basically a upward but mostly lateral movement. Then in the 1800's we start to see a massive movement from rural areas to the urban areas. This was mostly related to the industrial revolution. People could better themselves, or at least they thought so, by going to town and getting a job. For the most part it worked well for the farmers. Then within this movement we see the industrialization of agriculture. This really was a causation of a massive rural flight. In every major country of the world has this phenom has taken place within their borders. What the industrialization of agriculture did was put a lot of people out of a job. As a result of industrialization, less and less people were needed to tend the land, bring in the crop or just to herd the livestock. As this phenom was evolving the age of the people owning the land or at least controlling the means of production in a rural area kept growing. This all added up to more control over the amount of the means of production by volume. The younger people had less and less opportunity to stake their claim to a start so they packed up and left for the urban areas. Many times these people were not very well educated in the ways of the world but rather wise in areas that had no use in urban settings, and they ended up being a slave of sorts int he new environments. However, many did do well.
We now see the need for food remaining constant with population growth. The food had to be transported in from locations beyond the local neighborhood. This is when we start to see beginnings of and what would eventually become massive industrial agriculture production. With that we also see the production levels of agricultural products being pushed to unheard of levels of production on an per unit of land. This was brought about by chemicals and cross breeding of seeds and eventually the GMO type of offerings. While this is becoming a very emotionally charged issue, with critics on both sides, it has spurred a renewal of interests on the one side, that of small farm production.
There have been many of these types of movements over the years, one may be familiar with the back to the land type of thinking. Many people are wanting to know where their food comes from, they want a personal relationship with the grower of their food. While on the other hand many people could care less, so long as it looks good. As people become motivated to know where their food comes from and participate to varying degrees in the production of that food, we see some challenges surfacing. One challenge is that of labor. The industrialized farming have very large machines to do the work and one machine can do the work of many laborers. This makes it hard to compete against as a small farmer. While a machine may be able to pick and package literally ten tons of carrots per hour, it would take many more than one or two people to pick and package few hundred pounds of carrots in a one hour period. The small farmer is competing on a per unit basis with an economy of scale that he can't compete with. When you look at it with a retail price, the industrial farmer doing ten tons of carrots per hour would be producing close to 14,000 dollars worth of product per hour; Whereas the small farmer is producing about 70.00 dollars per hour basis on his carrots. There is a huge difference in economic activity. I am thinking John Henry complex surfacing and we all know that won't last for long. I think it is safe to assume that the quality if the product isn't going to be very high on the industrial farmed carrots as it would be with the small farm carrots. A quality premium can be added to the small farm produced product but not much more than double the per unit pricing. It boils down to 140.00 per hour of production time units vrs. 14,000.00per unit of production time. Most of these industrial agriculture operations are found in areas of year around production or near year around production. They have 6 to 8 crops during the growing season. The small farmer is usually only able to raise a single or maybe a double crop production per year.
The same principle carries through to many types of crops. The major exception to this rule is the production of meat. Meat can be produced in small farm production with only a small amount of variance in the numbers on a per unit basis. However, the profit margin per unit is a small amount. The small farmer will still need some good numbers to generate enough money to meet expenses for the overall operation. When this can't be done, then an off farm job is not only necessary but required for at least the short term to subsidize the operation.
The nature of the problem is the small farmer is faced with the amount of production that he or she can do and maintain a viable operation from a financial stand point. The one wanting to do a small farm type of operation must first set out on a clear cut path of knowing what he wants to do and a clear path of how to get there. I often say before I do something I would like to have all my ducks lined up in a row. Of course, there are no ducks, but only a figure of speech. I get accused of having the bar too high and I will never get with the program. What I really should say is that you need to have at least 51% of the odds working in your favor before you set out on a venture. What are some of the factors of that 51% of the odds working in your favor? Well I am glad you asked. Here we go and the first part is pretty common across the board no matter what you are doing;
1. The land. Do you own the land or would you have to rent it? I say that you have to own the land. Many times in the past I would rent a piece of land. Of course it had been raped, plundered and pillaged. So I had to suffer though several years of low production as I rebuilt the soil. Then after a few years of good production, someone would come along and rent it out from under me or the land would get sold and I would loose the lease. Then I try again doing the same on a new piece of land. After a while you start rethinking the rationality about this game you are playing. Whereas, if you own the land those worries are not there. You are free to improve the land and grade it to meet the specifications of what your production requires I suggest get your own land and hopefully get it paid off before you even start the project. If you can't own the land, make sure you have a solid long term lease, then start looking for your own land.
2. Next is to access the machinery that you might need to run your operation. Try to keep it to a minimum. I have a huge advantage over most people as I started out early as a mechanic. I was at one time schooled as a diesel mechanic and spent a number of years as a farm machinery mechanic. II can take care of my needs in this area. It might be well for you to take a night course dealing with mechanics and also learn how to weld. It would be a good investment for you if you don't already have those skills Sometimes auctions can be a good source of less costly machinery, if you know how to do some simple repair work.
3. As we move along the course, make sure you have a good understanding of what you want to produce and what the people you will be marketing to will want. At times the two do not match up. Many times you may find that if you chose to grow tomatoes for example, you may want to grow these fancy heirloom varieties that are purple with yellow streaks in them. But your market isn't quite ready for that yet. They may be perfectly happy with that big red juicy one. I think you get the idea, make sure you please your consumers.
4. The next item on the list is are you of the mind set to work the hours that need to be put for this type of an operation. When it comes to agriculture, forget weekends, holidays, the 9 to 5 routine, vacations and on and on. It doesn't matter if you are doing animals or plants. they are one and the same when it comes to their needs. They dictate the times, and you can not no say.
5. Understand the weather. It has no respect for you. You are at it's mercy. Be prepared to work with it. Education of the local weather patterns and how to read the signs as nature gives its clues is helpful.
6. Getting the crop in the ground and to get it growing is the easy part. A big challenge is to keep it growing once you have it there. But before you have it to that point, did you do the necessary soil work? What are you going to do if you have a problem with pests or weeds, for example? Are you going to go conventional with the chemicals to correct a problem? Or are you going the natural way? You will have to go one way or the other. There is no in between. This decision is largely dictated by your market.
7. Now that everything is going well what do you do with the harvest? Do you have a market for it? There has been many situations where people have farmed right up to this point, then they stumble. I have, as a psychologist, counseled and worked with people that have crashed at this point. BTW, I have been there too. One time I ended up driving up and down the streets of where I live and had my kids run up to people's door steps and drop off produce and run back to the truck for more for the next house. I had some pigs, but I couldn't keep up with them. This can be devastating. All that work, all that success, and you crash. Sometimes it is easier, I think, if the crop failed in the field. At least you could blame something for it. As I say, being a victim of your own success can be devastating. Most of the time people will throw in the towel and you will see their machinery at the local spring machinery auctions the next year. A successful rabbit producer that I know claims that most people in the rabbit business will spend 6 months getting in to the business, 6 months doing it and 6 months getting out of it. Those that stay are rewarded well. The reason why I mention this last part is to show that you can be hugely successful and yet fail. So before you even start, make sure you have the last step at least covered.
The first part of this discussion is to understand what has gone on in the past. As we look forward, there is a need to have locally produced food and there is a market for it. You just have to have at least 51% of the odds working in your favor. Knowing what you are up against is a percentage of those odds.
As we move forward in time we will see a major shift in demographics of the economy. We have had a prolonged period of cheap money and a lot of it being available to the big industrialized agriculture sector. The small farmer did not have access to that. That is coming to an end. When that happens and as that happens, which it is already coming, we will see land prices come down, and food prices go up. The small farmer will be able to compete better with the quality factor being a major factor in the whole of the picture
The big industrial farmer won't have cheap money and a lot of it, so he will have to be a little more selective and that opens up the opportunity for the small farmer to get in and make it happen.
If you have some of the things that I have outlined above, working in your favor and if you have a solid plan with the mental frame of mind to be a small farmer, you will succeed. Remember that the big industrialized agriculture producer has every little aspect of this thing down to a perfect point, the science is top notch and that is what you have to compete with. You need to be the best you can be too.
In the next part, part#3, I will outline some of the things that you can consider and what might be involved in that process.
Written by Kent King.