Unsustainable, Sustainable

Modern farming is unsustainable. It costs more to raise corn and soy that a farmer can get at market prices. If it were not for the welfare of the Federal government, farmers would all go broke the first year.

2 farmers’ stories: The fall and rise of the mid-size farm

“You know, the soil is alive,” Brown said. “It’s just that our management, over the last 60, 70 years, has turned it into a sterile petri dish, more or less. All I’m trying to do is mimic nature. I’m not doing anything that hasn’t been done for eons of time.”

Because Brown doesn’t buy fertilizer or pesticides, his costs are low — it only costs him $1.44 to produce a bushel of corn. And how does that compare to the industry standard?

“Nationally, the cost to produce a bushel of corn is close to $5 a bushel,” Brown said.

That’s how much it costs to grow the stuff. But the price of corn is now around $4 a bushel. Which means most farmers are losing money on every kernel they sell.

You know, the soil is alive when you farm without chemicals. That life is passed on to the plant, both soil and plant benefit from their interaction. The life of the soil is passed up the food chain to the plant, who then passes it on up the chain to the animal. Mostly it is cattle and hogs that eat the corn and soy. When the soil is dead, none of those nutrients are being passed up. It is unknown at the present time just how much we miss the nutrients that our beef and hogs would be getting from real forage that is growing on living soil. I can only imagine that a lot of the health problems in the modern American are from our fractured relationship to the soil.

They are only farming that way because of the subsidies. If it were not for the Federal welfare program for farmers they could not grow corn at such a cheap price, it wouldn’t then be cost effective for ranchers to finish the cattle at the feed lot. That is only practical because the corn costs next to nothing. Corn that costs next to nothing is only possible because the government is paying the living expenses of the farmer. Only gigantic corporations can actually make any money farming. These mid level farms are being driven out of business, and out of farming entirely.

It is possible to grow food the right way and not go broke doing it. It is possible to sell products for more than the competition and make money (see Apple Computer). It is possible to not damage your farm and still make healthy food.

There are two important innovations that Gabe Brown has made. First there’s the technical innovation: figuring out this no-till holistic grazing system. The second is a business innovation: figuring out how to appeal directly to final customers and convince them that his product is worth a premium. Now, the thing about technical innovations is that they can always be scaled up. Lots of other farms, and bigger farms, can do the same thing. So this won’t be a panacea for mid-sized farms forever.

But his second innovation, the business innovation, could be the answer. There’s little future for mid-sized farms in the mass market. But, as a farmer, if you can convince eaters that you do an especially good job as a steward of the land and of their health, they’ll be happy to pay you for that.

I am convinced. I pay more. I go to a lot of trouble to find real food, produced on real soil, sold by real farmers. I won’t live forever, but while I live I will be happy, healthy and guilt free.

About dcarmack

I am an instrument technician at the electric utility servicing the Kansas City Missouri metropolitan area. I am in the IBEW, Local 412. I was trained to be a nuclear power plant operator in the USN and served on submarines. I am a Democrat, even more so than those serving in Congress or the White House.
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