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farm income strategy vs. "what if everybody ..."  RSS feed

 
steward
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Another thread touched on a topic that I've been meaning to bring up ....

About a year ago I was at the front of a big room and somebody asked me about how to make permaculture economically viable.  So I pointed out that how you have more people, but you eliminate fertilizers, pest control, irrigation and nearly all big equipment. 

Then came a question that always bugs me:  so if all farms switched to doing it this way then wouldn't they fail because of so much demand for labor?

So far I've been really good at resisting my first impulse to slap the tar out of somebody asking this. 

What I have managed to do is to break it into two pieces:

1)  I really don't give a damn.  I'm focusing on one farm right now.  Or maybe a few dozen.  And there is just great big gobs of labor out there and I don't see a rush for doing things this way, although you would think there would be.  So, really, considering this question is just an exercise in mental masturbation and has no practical value. 

2)  Oh what the hell.  Let's suppose that somebody has a thousand acres of corn and two people that work the land rather directly.    As a part time job.  And now that person is bit by the permaculture bug and gets rid of most of the equipment.    They would probably bring in about 50 people to get the land started down permaculture road.  It would be mostly seasonal.  And then as things started to produce, there would be less focus on planting and more focus on harvesting.  By hand.  If everybody did it, then wouldn't there be a big drop in demand for combines, tractors, plowing equipment, pest control products, pesticides, fertilizing prodcuts, fertilizer, irrigation equipment, etc., etc., etc.  ---  and all of those industries - don't they hire big gobs of people to bring all that stuff together?  Where do they now work? 

Granted, this isn't a 1-to-1 thing - but it does help to paint a picture that it isn't going to lead to some sort of weird economic collapse.

 
                          
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You could also point out that too many jobs and not enough workers is not exactly a problem for the US economy right now.
 
paul wheaton
steward
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The thing that popped up in a different thread was about:  if we all start doing really great and we start getting the big bucks for our awesome permaculture food, then doesn't that also mean that people wanting good food are gonna be stuck deciding between parting with the big bucks or with eating the chem food?

Well, I think part of the answer starts off with "hell, yes!"

I think there are so many facets to this discussion that it could easily fill three books and still be incomplete.

Let's factor in "hey, grow a garden whydonthchya?" and then 70% reply "I don't wanna.  I want awesome polyculture food for less money than oreos" and my response to that is "well, it's good to want things.  You just want that all day long.  Good luck with that."

Another angle on all this:  if a farmer nets $14,000 a year raising a thousand acres of corn, but 50 people can earn $24,000 working that land with the farmer who then nets $100,000 a year ... well, my math says that oreos are gonna end up more expensive than polyculture food. 

Another angle:  what if lots of folks figure out that eating polyculture food cures cancer and 20 other horid diseases.  I think a lot of folks do a bit of math and think that polyculture food might be way cheaper than $4000 per month in healthcare + oreos. 

I'm sure we can sit here and think of a hundred more wacky aspects to all this.  My general impression is that "if everybody does it" then the price of food will be pretty cheap and people will make good money doing permaculture and the overall health of the nation will be way better.

 
steward
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I believe the traditional macroeconomic answer would point to supply and demand.  if everybody switched, there wouldn't be much food without much labor.  food prices would rise dramatically and farm wages would, too.  that would draw labor away from other industries until equilibrium was reached.

but you're right: it's a red herring.  if such a transition happens at all, it won't be overnight.  but even if it was, I don't think it would lead to disaster.

my slightly educated guess is that one person working pretty hard could handle maybe three acres of conventionally arranged organic farm with only hand equipment.  shift the focus to perennial crops, and the land that one person can handle gets bigger.  shift further toward permaculture and that area gets larger still while producing more food.  include animals and maybe the area gets a little smaller, but the productivity increases again.  it's certainly a whole lot more folks/acre than on a mechanized commodity farm, but a few people can make an awful lot of food this way.
 
tel jetson
steward
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The thing that popped up in a different thread was about:  if we all start doing really great and we start getting the big bucks for our awesome permaculture food, then doesn't that also mean that people wanting good food are gonna be stuck deciding between parting with the big bucks or with eating the chem food?



macroeconomics again: agricultural workers aren't presently paid very well.  increase the number of workers and increase their salary and you've got a lot more wealth circulating.  cost to produce the food may be higher, but real wages have gone up, too.

historical spending on food is interesting to look at as well.  I believe the current number in the US is 10%.  folks spend an average of 10% of their income on food.  a generation ago, that number was closer to 20%.  a generation before that, it was around a third of income.*  real wages were higher then, but we're talking about percentages of income.  folks are accustomed to the cheap food, now, but that doesn't mean the trend can't head the other direction.
 
steward
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If you took the combines and tractors and harvesters out of the giant monocropping fields, there is no fuel energy savings.  These vast amber waves of grain do not have the housing and infrastructure to support the substitute labor force.  The labor would be driving in from miles around.  Drive to work and home every day.  How many people does a combine replace? 

The future of agriculture will see a return to the land for certain.  Housing and infrastructure will need to be built to make it possible. 
 
paul wheaton
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kpeavey wrote:
If you took the combines and tractors and harvesters out of the giant monocropping fields, there is no fuel energy savings.  These vast amber waves of grain do not have the housing and infrastructure to support the substitute labor force.  The labor would be driving in from miles around.  Drive to work and home every day.  How many people does a combine replace? 

The future of agriculture will see a return to the land for certain.  Housing and infrastructure will need to be built to make it possible. 



Have you seen my wofati article?

 
Ken Peavey
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Just read it.  assimilation in progress, stand by
 
                    
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my original  "if everybody" statement was meant mostly as a joke, you know.  to quote myself:

if our new food system becomes a bunch of people trying to sell each other expensive things that aren't full of nutritionally dense calories, I have a feeling we'll all be kinda skinny.

 
Ken Peavey
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When you phrase something with [what] if, you open the door to imagination.  Thought experiments can lead to tremendous ideas as people propose concepts, knock them down, build them back up.  Kinda fun to see where it leads.

Someone once said "What if we put a man on the moon?"  As a result we have microwave ovens, transistor radios and kids shoes that close with velcro.

---

I'm still frigged up from the Wofati article.  All sorts of possibilities there when coupled with a certain opportunity in front of me.
 
paul wheaton
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marinajade wrote:
my original  "if everybody" statement was meant mostly as a joke, you know. 



And, in my permaculture travels I have encountered people that have asked the same question.  And they are serious. 

I feel there is a lot to be done, and there are a lot of people caught up in cyclic arguments in their head or thrashing (lots of effort expended with zero progress) with too many questions.  If we can nail a few of these sorts of things down, maybe some folks can get better forward traction.



 
tel jetson
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seems to me that asking "what if everybody did this?" is a good guideline for testing decisions.
 
gardener
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Maybe this is simplistic and naive of me but I think that there wouldn't be a shortage of labour, especially if you look to casual volunteers as a significan portion of that labour force.

Granted there can micromanaging headaches dealing with untrained souls in the garden but in my experience it's still worth it. Look to local colleges, universities and highschools, welfare or employment insurance recipients or others who need volunteer hours for program completions. I've worked with at risk youth at a community garden and it was painful at first but I saw amazing transformation in some of the kids who acted hard at the beginning.

If there were government programs to get the unemployed and underemployed into the agricultural workforce, this could curb any shortage that might occur in the wage earning work force, and could get us out of this recession.
 
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People are lazy they aren't getting off there duff to do this , I't easer to work in there office taking advantage of other poor souls.
 
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You could just ask back "what if everybody continues farming like they are now?". Oil production has already peaked, so prices can only continue upwards, especially with all the "modernisation" of non-western economies. Something's gotta give.

What if everybody continues farming like they are now?
 
pollinator
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What are our priorities?  Do we want fancy cars? Half Million Dollar homes that are expensive to heat and cool?

My thoughts on this subject may be off topic but here goes:

What if we were not a slave to the dollars that we ‘need’ to live comfortably?  What if we did not have debt – personally, locally, or on a massive government scale?  What if our economy were based on goods and services vs. ‘floating paper’ (trading my debt for her debt for more debt).

It is my personal belief that becoming debt free, producing my own food, learning to create, build, grow and cooperate with my like minded neighbors would solve many of the problems we face today.  Yes, the very smart economists would say that is too simplistic an answer to a very complicated problem.  Listening to them has worked out well for us hasn’t it?

If I learn to produce my own food, keep my home comfortable, and create my own ‘toys’ and entertainment without going into debt then what else do I need?  If we each do these things then there are no notes for small banks to sell to bigger banks so they can sell them to mega-firms who can trade this floating paper on the stock market.

Imagine going back to the post Depression days when we thought we had learned our lesson:  Save money to buy your first small house/used car/ go to college.  Reinvest your business profits to grow your business.  Banks and business worth the amount of actual money/ assets that they owned instead of speculated future income.

So Paul, I am with you about slapping the dude that made that comment – as far as I can tell if you want the millions why are you interested in this?  In my mind permaculture is not about how much money you have in the bank or how many resource sucking toys you have – it is about how much real property/food/resources that you manage in a way that is permanent and sustainable.
The SUV, the Wii, and the cell phone will deteriorate and fade into obscurity but the apple tree, the spring fed pond, and the turkeys in the back yard, if properly managed will provide sustainment for generations to come.
 
steward
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Today, labor is still a problem.  In a few years, I predict that problem will vanish.
A local fruit orchard has been advertising for seasonal labor for the past 3 years.
Bear in mind, we have a local unemployment rate of +/- 10%.
Each year he gets hundreds of job applicants, many of which he has to turn down because their papers are "not quite right".
In the three years he has been hiring, he has yet to see a US citizen walk in and ask for an application.
 
tel jetson
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does this orchardist pay a reasonable wage?
 
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What if everybody embraced permaculture and we had to work out the economic implications of that?

The short answer is that as problems go, that would be a wonderful one to have.
 
paul wheaton
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This must be how George Washington Carver felt. 

He massively improves peanut production and everybody hates him because the price of peanuts goes down. 
 
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Good point Paul,
But I think that happens a lot whenever somebody comes in with something new that works better, makes more $$$$, is cheaper, whatever.
It pisses you off when somebody shows you that you have been doing it wrong your whole life. In fact, you might prefer to go broke than to admit that you were wrong. Unless, of course, you are willing to contemplate that perhaps buggy whips isn't the future you thought you were going to have.
Which brings me to the subjects of pride, ego, resistance, ignorance, and pride. If we have to be "RIGHT" because we have been doing it this way for a dozen years, then we have stopped learning, and we have stopped adapting and we have reached the pinnacle of our success. Only someone that is open to doing things a different way, by admitting that they are not always right, is capable of real progress. The beauty of "permaculture" is that it is adaptive.
If you plant 100 different tree & crop species, but 20% of them all die, then you have discovered which ones "don't work", but you don't care because 80% are successful. So you do more of those instead.
Some people would fight nature and try to grow that almond anyway, over and over again...We must all learn to adapt, and to do that, we must constantly be willing to scrap what isn't working as well as investigate and experiment with other things.
Ironically, most conventional folks aren't interested in adapting, they are more interested in being "right".
 
R Hasting
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If every farmer were doing permiculture, you would see a significant difference in a number of thingsSome fact, some opinion)

1. 15% reduction (at least) in US oil usage
2. More people actually working in food production
3. More food produced.
4. cheaper ethanol production
5. No HFCS
6. no GMOs
7. no pesticides
8. The rivers and oceans would not be so green and algae ridden.
9. Much less soil loss
10. Soil creation
11. Fewer vegans (For those who are opposed to the industrial food complex)
12. better paid farmers
13. significantly reduce water issues.
14. better air quality
15. Better US trade imbalance numbers.
16. lower CO2 both on less oil usage and on carbon sequestation on permie farms.
17. greater wildlife diversity
18. greater food system diverstiy
19. greater food resiliance system nationwide
20. Less corporate commoditization of food products.
21. Smaller need for large tractors and farm vehicles.
22. When everything is permiculture, then it will no longer bring a premium price, but will still be far higher than current wholesale prices.
23. no more govt. subsidies.
24. healthier population.
25. 50% drop in diabetes cases in US.
26. Monsanto  Cargill, Tyson, and others will have a tough time staying in business.
 
master steward
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Permaculture food production will take more labor.  A lot more labor. 

At the same time, automation and artificial intelligence (self-driving trucks, anyone?) will be putting thousands and thousands of people out of work in the next several years.

I think this could work.  We need to have dozens of excellent successful farms, demonstrating what can be done, for when people start looking for good solutions.
 
steward
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I am definitely working toward setting our property up to be an example of what can be done. We have 27 acres, and I am doing a market garden to start with. Food forests are being planned; ponds and earthworks and a big root cellar are also on the drafting table. I think it's important to create the kind of farm that will produce lots and lots of food in a smallish area, and be a good example of how an efficient sustainable growing system can work. I'm pretty excited about the whole dang thing.
 
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