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Ironic Capitalism

August 10, 2009

The other day a friend and I had a quick email discussion of the Blake Hurst piece that I pointed out in my last posting. His position was in line with Hurst’s, that organic food is crap, and that modern conventional farming practices are the optimal use of agricultural resources. That has been the steady chorus from most of the commentary I’ve seen on the article, from Reason to radio host Neal Boortz. The irony in that is that modern farming is notably not a libertarian venture. Few other industries rely on, and are effected by government policy as much as commodity agriculture.
This has become more and more evident to me within the last year or more as I have gotten very interested in the trendy foodie movement, most notably grass fed meats. Yeah, Michael Pollan may be a stereotypical Berkley liberal, but underneath the movement he has helped inspire is a libertarian mindset, motivated not so much by philosophy as it is the almighty dollar. The proponents and practitioners of alternative agriculture and grassfed livestock are true capitalists in comparison to their conventional subsidy chasing brethren.
Nowhere has this been more evident than at two seminars I attended recently. Last April I attended the Stockman Grass Farmer’s Grassfed conference in Dallas. The group was a diverse meeting of farmer/ranchers, mostly from the surrounding region. And I mean diverse, represented were Canadians, tweed jacketed Jewish cowboys, and even a heart surgeon. But to a man most of the participants in the discussions were not interested in subsidies or programs. They were a lot more concerned about production, direct marketing, and if they had concerns about government it was regarding any hurdles that would be put in their way by well meaning bureaucrats.
Contrast that to the tone of a small no till farming seminar I attended just last Thursday. At this meeting was a group of conventional farmers interested in adopting chemically intensive no till methods. Now if I had called the people present welfare whores, I doubt I would have made it out with my life. But to hear them talk, government money was the be all and end all of farming. As payment structures switch away from outright production, and towards a more European conservation mentality, it will be no till methods that will be promoted via policy. Twenty dollars an acre for no till, and the promise of more on the way made quite an impression. Couple this with new revenue assurance programs like ACRE, and we’ll insure that production of basic commodities stays strong, no matter what food fads and policy pop up along the way.
This benefits more than farmers, it keeps subsidy money flowing to all of those necessary parts of the chain. Chemical companies, fertilizer sellers, and equipment manufacturers, on one end, and the users of cheap grain on the other end, like ethanol distillers, animal feeders, meat processors, and sweetener manufacturers on the other end. All of those parties need to keep the production going, and they lobby Washington policy makers accordingly.
Admittedly that’s what draws me to alternative agriculture, grassfed and the like is that most of it seems in line with my politics. Because organic and grassfed don’t rely on as many inputs, you can literally create production out of sunshine and rain. Yes, that production may cost more to the end user, but isn’t charging more my right as a producer? Conventional ag folks will tell you that they’re ‘feeding the world!’ as if failure to subsidize their over production of commodities will leave the world to starve. Does that sound like an extortion racket to anyone else? I wonder what Mr. Hurst would say, if I accused him of holding starving children hostage in order to justify his lifestyle?
In the interests of full disclosure, I’m still a pretty conventional farmer, growing wheat and cattle for the commodity market. I’m looking to use no till to free up my time for more lucrative, read capitalist, ventures. But as my wife and I look more and more into direct marketing, I find myself veering away from a mindest that talks a good capitalist game, but still has it’s hand out at the end of the day.

  1. Jim permalink

    Great stuff! I think that we’re more or less on the same page.

    It pains me to see conservatives and libertarians jump all over organic/low input or grassfed meat because many the vocal proponents tend to be kooky collectivists. Most of these city-dwellers (e.g. Jonah Goldberg — one of my favorites) fail to realize that the conventional, down-to-earth “plain business” farmer is all to often a rent-seeking, influence-peddling proponent of the corporatist state. As I try to get my farm set up, some of the first advice from one of my neighbors is about how to get the “free” money from Soil & Water or subsidized loans/insurance from the FSA. And, he’s a Republican.

    Obviously, the leftists foodies should be resisted because they only seem to understand implementation of ideals by government mandate/regulation instead of by living them to see if they actually work (i.e. make a profit) in the real world among consenting adults.

    Paraphrasing a principle I heard a while back: “True charity is giving away your own money, not giving away another guy’s money.” Decisions about food & ag should keep that dynamic in mind.

  2. Frank permalink

    Interesting take. I don’t object to organic/grassfed food/beef on because granola eating, birkenstock wearing, hirsute latter day hippies gush about it. I find it objectionable that we are fed (pun intended) a load of bull regarding the superior nutritional value of the stuff. NO scientific study has found any nutritional advantage to organic food. Nor do the trace chemicals or hormones pose any danger. It is the junk science come on the I find objectionable.

  3. Vines & Cattle, informative and well-written as always. Obviously I defer to your experise, just as you should defer to mine when it comes to, say, masculinity.

    Just to clarify, my disdain for organic farming and embrace of commercial farming in no way is an endorsement of the socialized farming system we have.

    As always, I would tear it all down and let the chips fall where they may based on market forces and unfettered competition.

  4. ken hargesheimer permalink

    There is proof that organic food is more nutritious if one reads in the right places. It is well documented.

    USA: TX, MS, FL, CA, AR, WA; Mexico, Rep. Dominicana, Côté d’Ivoire, Nigeria,Nicaragua, Honduras, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Haiti, England, India, Uzbekistan

    Organic, No-Till Farming

    These are based on the internet, US & international agriculture magazines, experiences teaching agriculture in many countries, research and farmer experiences in those countries and a demonstration garden. They are ecologically sustainable, environmentally responsible, socially just and economically viable. There is unlimited, documented proof. On mini-farms the following can double the yields and reduce the labor by half compared to traditional methods. There are 200,000,000 no-till acres and 85,000,000 acres organic worldwide. As of 2008, 4,000,000 acres [USA] organic farm land. ¡It works!

    Organic, no-till, whether gardening or mini-farming by hand and/or using hand power tools or with equipment, is the proven way to produce food. [] It can feed the world’s population regardless of how high it goes.

    Mini-farms: Fukaoka Farm, Japan, has been no-till [rice, small grains, vegetables] for 70 years []. At the time of my visit, an Indian farmer has been no-till [vegetables] for 5 years; a Malawi farmer has been no-till [vegetables] on permanent beds for 25 years; a Honduras farmer has been no-till [vegetables & fruit] on permanent beds on the contour (73° slope] for 10 years; a PA farmer [corn, vegetables] for 30 years. In 2006 a Cal urban mini-farm of 1/10 acre produced 6,000# of vegetables [not organic; not no-till]. OSU/OARDC: gross $90,000 acre [Not organic; not no-till].

    No technique yet devised by mankind has been anywhere near as effective at halting soil erosion
    and making food production truly sustainable as No-till (Baker)

    1. Willing to make changes [in the mind; in the field]
    2. Financial: Little funds are needed. No tractor, no equipment, no fertilizers, no chemicals.
    3. Restore the soil to its natural health. Contaminations: inorganic pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers
    4. Maintain healthy soil: Healthy soil produces healthy plants, to have healthy people.
    5. Feed the soil; not the crop: Inorganics feed the plants and poisons the soil. Organics feed the soil which feeds the plants.
    6. Increase soil organic matter every year
    7. Soil always covered.
    8. Use mulch/green manure/cover crops.
    9. Little or no external inputs. Not necessary to buy anything, from anybody. Certain things are recommended [seed?]
    10. Manage for highest profit per acre [not the highest yield per acre].
    11. Leave all crop residues on top of the soil
    12. No-till – no digging, no plowing, no cultivating: Saves fuel, labor, no weeds, no erosion, high yields, highest profits. Nature will till the soil using roots and worms.
    13. Permanent beds with permanent paths
    14. Hand tools, power-hand tools and pedal-power.
    15. All year production: DIY hoophouses, high tunnels, shade cloth, row covers, stakes, etc.
    16. Organic fertilizers [16-18 probably not needed after the soil is healthy]
    17. Organic disease control
    18. Organic herbicides & pesticides
    19. Biological pest control.
    20. Organic matter [Free? Delivered free? When economically feasible, transport to the mini-farm. Use as mulch]
    21. Compost [Do not make; requires too much time and labor except for special use. Pile surplus OM to use later as mulch.
    22. Vermiculture [Worms will be in the beds]
    23. Muscovies and Guineas should be on every minifarm
    24. Maintain crop diversity
    25. Crop rotation
    26. Inter-cropping
    27. Feed the soil through the mulch.
    28. Drip irrigation [Purchase or DIY drip lines]
    29. Orchards, vineyards, etc
    30. Labor: students interested in mini-farming [Future Organic Farmers of America is in planning stage for high schools and youth gardening groups. One TX chapter is already formed.]
    31. Organic certification [Selling locally? Not needed]
    32. Transportation–bicycle and bicycle trailer [DIY] with various units for harvesting, selling, cargo and/or a small pickup/trailer.
    33. Protect nature and the environment
    34. Imitate nature. Most farmers fight nature. ¡Nature always wins!

    Ken Hargesheimer

    When Soil is Plowed
    Dr. Elaine Ingham, describes an undisturbed grassland—where a wide diversity of plants grow, their roots mingling with a wide diversity of soil organisms—and how it changes when it is plowed.

    A typical teaspoon of native grassland soil contains between 600 million and 800 million individual bacteria that are members of perhaps 10,000 species. Several miles of fungi are in that teaspoon of soil, as well as 10,000 individual protozoa. There are 20 to 30 beneficial nematodes from as many as 100 species. Root-feeding nematodes are quite scarce in truly healthy soils. They are present, but in numbers so low that it is rare to find them.

    After only one plowing, a few species of bacteria and fungi disappear because the food they need is no longer put back in the system. But for the most part, all the suppressive organisms, all the nutrient cyclers, all the decomposers, all the soil organisms that rebuild good soil structure are still present and trying to do their jobs.

    But tillage continues to deplete soil organic matter and kill fungi. The larger predators are crushed, their homes destroyed. The bacteria go through a bloom and blow off huge amounts of that savings-account organic matter. With continued tillage, the “policemen” (organisms) that compete with and inhibit disease are lost. The “architects” that build soil aggregates are lost. So are the “engineers”—the larger organisms that design and form the larger pores in soil. The predators that keep bacteria, fungi, and root-feeding organisms in check are lost. Disease suppression declines, soil structure erodes, and water infiltration decreases because mineral crusts form. Dr. Elaine Ingham, BioCycle, December 1998. (From ATTRA News, July 06)

    Tue, Dec 30, 2008

    Dear Ken,

    Thank you for all the info. I am applying it in my own vegetable patch. It is working. Got half a pocket of potatoes off a square metre. So would imagine about 10 pounds per square yard. This off previously dead low, carbon soil. Sure next crop will be better. Got yams coming up on same spot already. Want to plant herbs and spices. I will send photos.

    Your advise is so simple. People do not believe me when I tell them. I am so excited about growing things now. This coming from a commercial plum farmer. May you be blessed this holy season a thousand times more than you blessed me with you help. Jeremy Karsen,

    Project room: Kyomya, Uganda
    We have been working on improving farming techniques for almost a year. Unfortunately, the farmers are planting small plots of land that only feed their family. There is no other choice but to try new techniques to improve the output of their plot. Ken Hargesheimer suggested the “no till” farming techniques as well as the “drip system”. Both have proven effective at increasing produc-tion by at least 5 fold. The time is now for Kyomya to become a model agricultural village. []

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