Bob Neal: The Countryman: always more efficient
As Maine and America pulled out of pandemic restrictions this week, we read that our economy has started to recover, but we have too few workers – too few of the kind of jobs workers want. , and too few salary dollars.
The proposed solution for these too few is that the workers who are at work must become more efficient. But efficiency comes in many forms, and the pursuit of one type of efficiency may come at the expense of another.
Let’s look at breeding, the activity I know best, because I have been raising turkeys for 30 years.
To grow food, farmers use their own labor, land and machinery and those of others. A balanced farm finds efficiency gains in all three.
Almost since its inception in 1906, the Department of Agriculture has pushed only one type of efficiency: work. The most common measure of labor efficiency is income per farmer, so the USDA has pushed industrial agriculture to produce more income per farmer. But this comes at the expense of efficient use of land and machinery. Not to mention the quality of the food.
Big ag boasts that the number of farmers has been declining for two centuries, with each farmer producing food for more and more people. Writer Wendell Berry, on the other hand, laments that it now takes 129 people to buy food to feed a farmer. I agree with Berry.
To achieve the astonishing production figures that conventional farmers achieve, they have to purchase inputs. Huge tractors, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides from non-renewable sources and often land use that sacrifices production per acre for production per human hour.
Look at the earth first. John Vivian, an author of back to earth homesteads, showed that a farmer with few machinery could grow, for example, broccoli worth $ 20,000 (in 1970 dollars) per acre. Conventional broccoli growers could grow less than half of it.
Australian / British agricultural economist Colin Clark has calculated that the world could feed 12 billion people if all the land plowed in 1955 was worked the way Danish farmers, who use machines but work on smaller farms and use more. of labor per acre than factory farms.
Some comparisons. Farmer Barbara Damrosch and her husband, of Four Season Farm in Brooksville, grew vegetables in 2012 worth $ 140,000 on 1.5 acres, or about $ 93,000 per acre.
At the U.S. average of 172 bushels of corn per acre and Wednesday’s price of $ 6.83 per bushel, corn growers would bring in $ 1,175 an acre, so a corn farmer with 850 acres can make $ 1 million. per year. In my best year, using seven cleared acres and another 40 woodlot (for fence posts, lumber, etc.), I made about $ 200,000. It’s $ 28,000 an acre if you count just cleared land, about $ 4,250 an acre if you include woodlot.
Who is the most efficient? Yeah, I know. Comparing vegetables to corn to turkeys is like comparing apples to oranges to pears, but all are food and all are in dollars.
Large farmers are very efficient in the use of time, and all of these machines allow rapid work on level ground. But the weight of the machines can limit the time they spend working the land, as they wait for it to dry in the spring and rush to harvest before the fall rains.
I saw Amish farmers in Pennsylvania tilling the land in March behind horse teams, while tractor farmers waited for drier soil. And I ran my little tractor every day.
Large farmers cannot plant such close rows or crops so closely together in a row as small farmers. Large cultivating and spraying machines need more room to maneuver. It helps explain how small farmers can get more crops from an acre.
My farm had been a dairy farm. Henry Parlin has milked seven cows for most of his life, my late neighbor told me. Parlin sent his cows to graze in the woods, and they produced enough milk to support the family. But today, the cost of inputs would be too high.
It is often said that Americans will not work on farms. But, have you ever heard a young woman say how much she would like to cultivate, “if only.” . .? “I claim there are a lot of aspiring farmers. Many learn the trade as apprentices on farms in Maine.
At the Skowhegan Farmers Market last week, I bought chicken from a farmer who apprenticed on a farm in Pittsfield and now has a farm in Troy, and bought squash from a farmer who made his apprenticeship on a farm in Dresden and who now operates a farm in southern China.
Ten years ago, at a farmers market in Columbia, Missouri, I met a farmer who had interned on a farm in Brunswick. He had come to Maine to learn how to cultivate, then returned to Missouri to apply what he had learned. A lot of people want a path to agriculture.
Bob Neal wouldn’t be surprised if efficiency quests also conflict in economic activities other than farming. Neal can be reached at [email protected]