“Gardens and Micro Farms are Cost Inefficient and Fail to Feed Society”


Photo © Craig Mackintosh

People keep telling me that gardens and micro farms are cost inefficient and fail to feed society. Sometimes this information is delivered loudly and firmly with great emphasis on profit, and great personal attachment to the idea of its being true. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about how modern chemical agriculture feeds the world. This is to be expected because so few people are even beginning to understand the complexity of the relationships between bacteria, fungi, and plants that create living soil. Less than 1% of the organisms in living soil have been identified and named let alone given any study for us to begin to grasp their roles. This frontier is just opening up in science right now. The reason it wasn’t studied earlier was the myth that NPK — Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium — were all that was needed to grow plants. Modern agriculture is based entirely on this myth. You can grow plants that way for a number of years, so long as you can afford the fossil fuels to do it and you don’t mind the lack of nutrients in your food, however, there are two catches.

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The first catch is that the N, P, and K are stabilized in salt and watered into the soil. A normal plant in healthy soil chooses which nutrients it needs from a long, long list and does starch exchanges at the hair root level with the bacteria and fungi who are dealing in that necessary nutrient. Plants have no choice but to drink water. So, when NPK based fertilizers are applied to the big mono crops, the plants are force fed those fertilizers through salt and watering until they become so bloated (more pounds = more money) that they are like beacons for pests, fungus, and weeds.

Then comes the second catch. The farmers must throw on massive amounts of insecticide, fungicide, and herbicide to try and help their very weak but large crops survive what would have been their natural demise. Think about that for a minute…. The companies that are creating and profiting from crops that attract pests, fungus and weeds, are also profiting from the sale of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides to manage those problems that they exacerbate. All of these poisons kill the living organisms in the soil. Those living organisms were there ready to not only feed current plants, but also to continue doing the exchanges that would create the food for future plants. (Not to mention all that living soil does for us in carbon sequestration.) Nutrients in the soil are finite when the soil is dying/dead. In fact even with nutrient rich soil, if you don’t have the right pH and combination of living organisms to do the exchanges with the plants, those nutrients are as unavailable to the plants as if they were locked away in a safe. So, eventually, the only way to yield a crop is by moving to new ecosystems and fresh living soil somewhere else that hasn’t yet been depleted and killed. Well, that is the only way other than growing your crops in ways that encourage rather than kill that soil life, in ways that help plants grow strong, healthy, and nutrient dense year upon year.

Fossil fuel issues aside, modern farming can only move over to the next field so long before all the soil is dead. Game over. Big chemical agriculture and GMOs can only continue so long as more and more cash is thrown in and more and more soil is killed. So the problem is not that chemical agriculture is just unsustainable from an eco-friendly perspective, it is literally unsustainable, and leaves us with soil unable to grow food without high inputs. It is magical thinking to assume that science even has the time to solve this collapse of billions upon billions of different living relationships in the soil that have barely begun to be studied.

When Cuba lost access to fossil fuels in the early 1990s people began to starve. In desperation, everyone, everywhere began growing food. They survived precisely because of the emergence of gardens and small farms. This story is detailed in the documentary film, "The Power of Community, How Cuba Survived Peak Oil," directed by Faith Morgan. The reality is that gardening and small farms which build living soil are the only way humanity will be able to continue to feed themselves and the sooner we switch over, the more likely more people will survive when modern chemical agriculture reaches its end game.

The idea that third world people need the innovations of modern agriculture in order to eat is also a myth. First, there is more than enough food in the world, made unavailable by markets and profits, not scarcity. For more info on this read, "Hope’s Edge, the Next Diet for a Small Planet,” by Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe. Second, a lot of those starving poor became so as western chemical agriculture and corporate interests colonized and pushed people off of their land where they were previously feeding themselves just fine from living soil ecosystems and home gardens. This shift was graphically documented in the book, "Ancient Futures, Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World,” by Helena Norberg-Hodge. Also, it is impossible to ignore the tens of thousands of third world farmers who have committed suicide because of the high costs and subsequent failures of GMO crops and other farming practices based on killing the soil. They often commit suicide by drinking the same poisons that killed their soil and destroyed their family’s ability to grow a diverse and nutritious diet. On the heels of these sort of tragedies, and deficiencies in access to nutrients, 1st world solutions like Golden Rice are an offensive and blind gesture. If their soil was still alive they could grow crops that were far more nutrient dense and available locally. But then that would cut out the corporate middle man, and point out that “The Green Revolution” of chemical agriculture and depleted soil is actually what is depriving people of nutrients in their food supply. But Westerners keep making themselves feel better offering poor people modified rice. Kind of like offering a crippled person a flimsy cane while continuing to kick them downhill.

Gardening and micro farming are only inefficient when your priority is profits for the few big agri corporations, rather than many local family farmers making profit off of many separate smaller acreages. Micro farms can make well over $1,000 per acre, while big chemical agriculture makes about $25 per acre. If you start to look at the pounds of food per square foot, and nutrient density in food grown in living soil, industrial agriculture comes up shamefully inefficient. Not only are big agribusiness and GMO farming inefficient at the amount of nutrient produced per acre, they are also the most inefficient at creating the soil life that will guarantee that we can eat next year and the year after that, etc. So, the question is which matters more, deficiency in profits for a few, or deficiency in life?

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Lichen June is the Director of the Northwest Permaculture Institute in Oregon, USA

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17 thoughts on ““Gardens and Micro Farms are Cost Inefficient and Fail to Feed Society”

  1. I’ve been working on demonstrating affordable sustainable living with solar and rammed earth building and now encouraging people to become more food independent for the economic and health benefits. Liked this article and will post it so others can know the benefits of sustainable small agriculture.

  2. “Micro farms can make well over $1,000 per acre, while big chemical agriculture makes about $25 per acre. ”

    That is an extraordinary claim. $25/acre is absurdly low and a basic Google search can counter that. (http://igrow.org/agronomy/wheat/a-look-at-2014-crop-costs/)

    Corn/Soybean Rotation = $675/acre
    Corn = $600/acre
    Soybeans = $517/acre
    Winter Wheat = $390/acre

    I support permaculture for many reasons, but this article minimizes a very legitimite challenge facing farmers willing to embrace Permaculture farming techniques. Small Scale Permaculture techniques are FAR more labor intensive. The shift to mechanization minimizes the labor costs.

    I agree that Permaculture Techniques can open the door to profitable backyard/small-scale farming. SPIN farming is one such technique, but it can NOT compare with conventional farming economic efficiencies. Conventional farmers can turn a profit selling to distributors for small fractions of retail price. SPIN farming and other Permaculture techniques REQUIRE retail in order to pay for the higher labor costs.

    This isn’t an unsolvable problem, but denying it will not make it go away.

    1. Scott people are starting to realise that these figures are all propped up by fossil fuels plus a real energy audit would include the environmental costs, including soil loss and nutritional quality of the crop.
      The information is now the currency of change which is happening on all fronts from the over developed over subsidised farm to the never to be developed world of day to day survival.
      Both these worlds can only exist into a future with hope as unified gardening cultures.

      South Dakota crop budgets are showing lower returns for 2014. Projected prices used in the budgets are lower than 2013 projections. Projected prices (per bushel) are corn at $4.50, soybeans at $11.50, and wheat at $6.50.
      Direct costs estimates (per acre) are corn at $385, soybeans at $195, and wheat at $195. Direct costs as a percent of revenue are 57.6% for corn, 37.8% for soybeans, and 50% for wheat. The two key costs for each crop are seed and fertilizer. Seed and fertilizer expense as a percent of revenue are at 36% for corn, 20% for soybeans, and 29% for wheat. As seed and fertilizer costs are a high percentage of revenue, management focus on these two items will pay good dividends. Land and machinery costs are also key cost items in each of the crops.

      Corn
      Corn/Soybean
      Rotation
      Continuous
      Corn on Corn
      Loss
      Soybeans
      Winter
      Wheat

      10%

      Gross Return
      90%

      Estimated Yield 150 135 45 60
      Estimated Selling Price
      (New Crop) $4.50 $4.50 $11.50 $6.50
      Value Per Acre $675.00 $607.50 $517.50 $390.00
      Other Income Per Acre




      Gross Return Per Acre $675.00 $607.50 $517.50 $390.00

      Direct Costs Per Acre
      Seed $113.90 $113.90 $60.80 $21.60
      Fertilizer $125.00 $125.00 $40.95 $90.00
      Herbicide $24.50 $24.50 $12.18 $9.94
      Insecticide – – $9.52 –
      Fungicide – – – –
      Crop Insurance $25.00 $25.00 $18.60 $19.80
      Machinery Costs (Operating) $57.00 $57.00 $47.00 $47.00
      Custom Hire – – – –
      Drying $30.00 $27.00 – –
      Operating Interest $13.14 $13.03 $6.62 $6.59
      Other Variable Costs – – – –

      Total Direct Costs Per Acre $388.54 $385.43 $195.67 $194.93
      Return Over Direct Cost
      Per Acre $288.46 $222.07 $321.83 $195.07
      Total Direct Costs Per Bushel $2.59 $2.86 $4.35 $3.25

      Machinery (Ownership Costs) $67.00 $67.00 $67.00 $67.00
      Land Charge $160.00 $160.00 $160.00 $160.00

      Total Costs Per Acre $615.54 $612.43 $422.67 $421.93
      Total Cost (Breakeven)
      Per Bushel $4.10 $4.54 $9.39 $7.03
      Return to Management
      & Labor Per Acre $59.46 $(4.93) $94.83 $(31.93)
      Breakeven Yield 137 136 37 65 – See more at: http://igrow.org/agronomy/wheat/a-look-at-2014-crop-costs/#sthash.OusghtyW.dpuf

  3. Scott, the figures you cite are “Gross Return Per Acre”. Once all the costs are factored in 2 of the 4 examples actually show negative profit margins (i.e. they are loosing money!).

  4. Jean-Martin Fortier and his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches, of Les Jardins de la Grelinette in Quebec, Canada grossed $140,000 off 1.5 acres growing vegetables.

    JM’s book is the best resource for small scale organic vegetable growing I have seen, and could be applied to smaller plot sizes; they use 100 foot by 30 inch beds.

    http://www.themarketgardener.com/

    Totally inspiring.

  5. Timing is everything! I just came in from letting the chickens out and watering the garden. Stumbled upon this article while having my morning cup of tea, and felt compelled to respond. I am fortunate enough to have a couple of acres of land that I can work in a suburb of Denver. The thought of my garden being cost inefficient and failing to feed society probably crossed my mind for a nanosecond at some point. I feel that what these people are failing to keep in mind is that gardens provide an opportunity for you to de-stress and work your worries and troubles away. Some people choose to de-stress in ways that are much more destructive to their bodies, minds and wallets.
    I’m sorry, but I believe that you cannot associate a price tag with the joy & comfort that I receive by growing & nurturing my land. I honestly believe this will be one key in my life being long and healthy. I would also like to point out that while yes I am not feeding society I am supplementing several families with the fruits of my labor. I would urge these people to try to step back observe the world around them. Be still. Be one with nature. Step into my shoes take a look at the bigger picture and try to understand how great what we are doing is for the earth. I honestly believe that I am making the world a better place by doing what I am doing on my little plot of land and if anything this article makes me want to continue to do it even stronger! So thank you people for the push in the right direction!

  6. Geoff and Shiela. Thank you for taking the time to respond. Your points are accurate and strong.

    One of the things that I most appreciate about permaculturenews.org is how there are regular articles and techniques which make an effort to bridge the gap between modern industrial agriculture and culture toward Permaculture ideals. While visionaries find a way to live their ideals and break new ground, statements like “I believe that you cannot associate a price tag with the joy & comfort that I receive by growing & nurturing my land” alienate persons who do not share the depth of faith in the vision.

    I would be shocked if everyone here was not conscious of environmental costs and nutritional value as factors for choosing our food sources. Unfortunately government policies (subsidies) and most consumer buying habits clearly do NOT factor these issues in. While “getting the word out” is a great start, adjusting both will take a willingness to understand the current motivations and apply pressure to the leverage points (where the smallest effort will create the largest change).

    There is a large fraction of the population which will NOT respond to permaculture ideals. Many of these people feel they are barely surviving and the lifestyle adjustment would just seem too large. They are not ready to make adjustments and sacrifices in the now for a vision of a better tomorrow UNLESS they feel that it will benefit them today (or at least not hurt them).

    I honor and celebrate those people with the courage and vision to lead the way. My request here is simply to be mindful that what motivates you is not what motivates the rest of the world. If we truly seek to bring about a Permanent Culture it would be wise for us to study the motivations of people who currently do NOT agree with us in order to learn where to apply efforts to change. To me the final paragraph of this otherwise well written article was a flippant oversimplification of the financial factors in farming which resulted in a false premise that small scale agriculture is fundamentally more profitable.

    Due to higher labor costs, the economics of small scale agriculture ONLY make sense in niche markets, a strictly retail environment or in a direct wholesale environment where buyers agree to pay premiums. This means that small scale agriculture will be lucky to exceed 8-15% market share. Those numbers are already evidenced in current market shares of early adopting regions.

    I believe we WILL change into a culture which is sustainable. The only question is how much environmental repair and loss of life will be involved along the way? If the visionaries are wise enough to study the motivations of unsustainable practices in order to find and apply pressure on the leverage points for change, we will reach sustainability sooner rather than later.

    1. Thanks Scott, unfortunately in the position I am in and the the events in planning and early action which I am involved in, I cannot expose publicly right now answer your doubts.
      Stay tune to http://www.geofflawtononline.com as we start releasing a new video every week from October 1st and we will be revealing many things over 14 weeks,
      Check http://www.organicfarmshare.com a I have been involved in from the beginning, a system of great financial success about to go viral as http://www.PRIorganicfarmshare.com.
      Also be prepared to be shocked by what is about to happen in Saudi Arabia.

  7. In fact it has even been shown that enough earth worms per cubic foot achieve the same, and better, result as using a plow and tractor and till the land. The problem is that people don’t see these micro organisms. I always begin with telling children that THEY THEMSELVES consist of 90% (!) “foreign” organisms. Though not by weight, but by cell count: we are not “us” but we are 90% microbes and only 10% human cells. If that is true for us how much more for symbiotic systems such as plants and soils!

  8. Dermot. I agree with your point of view, but I just realized that I don’t know my source material on that perception. Thus is it with a guilty heart that I make a wikipedia joke to your point:

    “Citation Needed”

    I’ll see if I can find some too. ;-)

  9. How many permacculture farms survive only by offering courses, with all the fossil fuel costs involved. How many are actually sustainable? Most “sustainable” projects import tons of mulch, this is an input just as fertiliser is on a conventional farm. Anybody can have high yields with high inputs. How many farms are utilising fertility from the local area without using fossil fuels?
    All that considered your optimism is endearing :-)

  10. “Also be prepared to be shocked by what is about to happen in Saudi Arabia.” This sounds intriguing! Any hints Geoff???

  11. Scott, you can find citation for this facts with a Google search for “human microbiome”:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Microbiome_Project
    “Total microbial cells found in association with humans may exceed the total number of cells making up the human body by a factor of ten-to-one. The total number of genes associated with the human microbiome could exceed the total number of human genes by a factor of 100-to-one”

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