Gene Logsdon: Small Farms Create More Jobs

The Contrary Farmer

All the talk about creating jobs strikes me as another example of how so many of us sneakily drink one way and piously vote another. Oh how we voice our concern, how much we pretend to support more jobs but we go right on conducting real business on the basis of replacing human workers with machines whenever possible. All the ways being proposed to increase jobs right now are the same old methods that do not face the real cause of the dilemma. The awful truth is that we have created an economy that can’t afford people to do the work and so every year there are fewer meaningful jobs and more pretend jobs. Pretend jobs require pretend money. We are capitalizing costs on money interest not on human interest.

No where is this truer than in farming. We boast about how many people one farmer feeds—155 is the latest number I think— as if that kind of efficiency is a sign of progress. I don’t hear a single business person or government official pointing out that if the whole economy of the common good is considered, one farmer feeding 155 people is not a sign of true profitability but of gross and unsustainable inefficiency. So gross in fact that while the 155 are getting fed, others are going hungry.

It is fairly easy, I think, to demonstrate the inefficiency of one person feeding a hundred and fifty five especially when some of the hundred and fifty five are having a hard time earning enough to buy their food. You can quibble with me on exact numbers, but modern machinery and technology makes it possible for one farmer to grow about 5000 acres of corn with one employee. One almost humorous example of this is how tractors can now guide themselves across unbroken acres of land without human help although a driver is still necessary to turn the tractor at the end of the field. That will soon not be necessary either, I’m told, and so one more “problem” will be avoided: how to stay awake in the tractor. One tractor driver advocates a stack of magazines, not necessarily the kind you leave out on your coffee table.

You can say that manufacturing high tech farm machinery creates jobs, but more and more of the manufacturing is also being done by robotic technology. The robots can even manufacture themselves now with less and less human input.

Let us say that the 5000 acre corn farmer must spend $800 an acre to put that crop out. Again you can quibble over the exact numbers but he has about four million dollars tied up in the crop before he harvests one ear of corn. The cost could be more or less than that depending on what he paid for fertilizer or what he pays his employee or what he pays in rent or interest on investment. But four million is close enough and by the time that corn is dried, stored and transported half way across the country to feed factory hogs and chickens, who knows how much more cost is involved including the attendant pollution and road degradation that the animal factories far out in the country must deal with. And industrial farmers are being subsidized heftily. If the corn is used to make ethanol, which is subsidized to high heaven too, and then fed to cars while poor people go hungry, the true cost to society becomes incalculable.

On the other hand, it is still quite possible for a small traditional farmer to make a living on 300 acres of land, of which about 30 acres will go to corn to feed livestock. A generation or two ago, corn could be planted with rather primitive machinery and harvested mostly by hand. My father did it with family help and we certainly didn’t think we were slaves. Corn on such farms is fed right there to make milk, meat, and eggs. No transportation costs except from the back forty to the barn are involved. Or let the pigs “hog off” the corn for zero harvest and transportation costs.

You get the point even if my figures aren’t perfectly accurate. The 5000 acres of industrial corn, which is employing two people, could be providing jobs and homes for about 17 family farmers and their wives and children. Run all the figures and all the farmland out to a logical mathematical conclusion and the number of new jobs created by restructuring agriculture is unbelievably awesome. There are about 90 million acres in corn this year. That would make 300,000 family farms of 300 acres each. That means 600,000 parents would be fully employed and let us say two teenagers who are trying desperately right now to find part time jobs,— a total of 1,200,000 new jobs. If we take into account industrial soybean, wheat, and cotton acreages as well and divide all that land into 300 acre family farms, the number of new jobs created rockets to somewhere in the three to five million range.

If you say that a family can’t make a living on 300 acres, I beg to differ. I have lots of friends who do it. Steve and Pat Gamby do it with an organic dairy farm and they are far from Amish. Bob Kidwell does it on 120 acres farming with horses and he’s not Amish either. Andy Reinhart and Jan Dawson do it on about two acres with organic vegetables, fruit and flowers.

Part of the reason, maybe most of the reason, why farmers’ markets and local foods are enjoying such a renaissance is because they are creating new jobs the right way. All government really has to do is provide a level playing field where small intensive farming can compete fairly with large, heavily-subsidized, industrial farming and then stand back. A revolution will take place in new job creation and it will be in the right direction: more good food and a more stable society at a lesser overall cost. Right now, big business and big government like to talk earnestly about more jobs, but oh my, not in areas where new jobs might threaten big industry.