Newsletter – 25 July, 2013





The Alleged Farm News – 25 July, 2013

This weeks share: Arugula, Basil, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Garlic, Lettuce, Onions, Pepper, Potatoes, Squash, Tomatoes, Turnips


I heard a report about the American film industry on the radio the other day. The analyst said that studios are increasingly looking to sell movies overseas because of the stagnation in the domestic market. Stagnation sounds pretty dire. I know plenty of people who are happy to continue in their current situation, who consider hanging on to what they have more than good enough, who don’t welcome change. But I don’t know anyone who wants to stagnate. Logs stagnate in swamps. So I wondered just how bad this stagnation is for the film studios. Well, last year they took in something just shy of eleven billion dollars at the box office, a paltry 6.5% increase over 2011. Poor studios. 

But I guess those sorts of numbers count as stagnation in American business. Selling 11 billion dollars of movie tickets may sound good to the average schmo, but  it does not impress savvy investors, not if you have done it or something close to it before. You have to grow. Getting to a size at which you can maintain profits and quality and sticking to it is not worth a thing. The only consistency that counts is consistent growth. If in one year you can make a hundred lovely merganser decoys and sell them all and put away enough money after expenses for a decent retirement then the next year you ought to open a national chain of decoy-themed restaurants and produce a decoy carving reality show and probably buy a couple of bauxite mines and and a reinsurance company just for the hell of it. Otherwise you are just stagnating.

Vegetable Notes: The weather has been decent enough for long enough that I was starting to forget the monsoons. But then I look at certain crops and remember. The peppers, for instance, have yet to recover. Many of them look considerably worse than when we transplanted them seven weeks ago. They do not like wet soil and hang on to their resentment. They are, for instance, far sulkier than the eggplants, which are right next to them and ought to feel much the same way (worse, actually, since they had to deal not just with the weather but also the potato beetles). Even the cucumbers have recovered faster, and cucumbers will usually accept just about any excuse to fall over dead. To give the peppers a chance to grow out of their petulance I picked some of the peppers (they need to concentrate on plant, not fruit, growth). I hope these are not the only peppers we get to hand out this season, but it will take some time for the plants to develop a better humor and anything like a real crop.

The potatoes, fortunately, shrugged of the weather’s insults far more easily. Our potato yield may not merit any prizes, but if the other varieties do as well as these Norlands we will have plenty of tubers to go round. And maybe for some of them we will have figured out how to make the potato digger work. It did not do well with these. We are taking them off of still vibrant plants (which makes them new potatoes, and thus rather more delicate, which is why we did not wash them; the washer just rips off their unset skins and bruises them). The plants just jammed up the digger, so we went back to our old method.

The tomatoes in the greenhouse really have no cause to complain. They have led a sheltered life. And the plants have thrived. It is like a jungle in there. I half expect to find  monkeys swinging from the vines. For some reason, though, the plants have been slow to produce ripe fruit. I hope now that they have started to get the knack of it they will get excited and produce lots, and this week’s allotment will prove just a small sample of what is to come.

Plus, if you don’t expand some other decoy carver, maybe the guy who does decent teals and smews, will make the most of the opportunity you have ignored, and before you know it he will have a factory in Bangladesh cranking out cheap mergansers and you will be begging for a part time job without benefits as a ride operator at the Decoy World theme park and convention center.

Grow, grow, grow, grow, grow. I guess it is no surprise American farmers responded to this imperative. In part, of course, farms have had to grow. Back when half the population farmed we did not need big farms in order to produce enough food. Now, with 1% of the population farming, farmers have to produce on a larger scale. And growing on a large scale has become much easier. Until fairly recently farmers simply did not have the tools to do the work, manage the operation and distribute the produce on the scale that now exists. 

I am not sure, however, that changes in occupation and technology really explain the existence of the 54,000 acre Grimmway Enterprise vegetable operation in California or the 30,000 cow Fair Oaks dairy in Indiana. I am not sure what does explain them other than the modern business belief that you can never get too big.

Perhaps there are economies of scale that make such megafarms reasonable, though surely there are also headaches of scale that do not. Getting larger solves some problems. If I had a much larger farm I could afford all sorts of toys–bean harvesters and mechanical transplanters, computer guided cultivators and GPS controlled sprayers–that would make the work easier, and I would be in a better position to negotiate down the price of propane or fertilizer. But in return getting larger creates new problems. Finding and managing labor for a much larger operation would surely be a headache, and my work in general would become far more like an office job. Just thinking about that gives me a headache.

Working on my farm would almost certainly be worse. The people who advocate endless growth tend not to give much thought to how it affects the lives of those employed by giant enterprises. They are focussed on what growth offers to investors and executives and bankers. If they do give any thought to the workers, it is often to think of how to give them less or just have fewer of them in order to keep those profits growing. And it is a lot easier to think of employees that way when you have lots of them, when they are a human resource rather than individuals, a work force you never meet rather than people you work alongside.

We don’t have any 30,000 cow dairies in Easton, and probably never will. But the big farms have gotten much bigger. When we moved here the largest dairy milked 300 cows, and that seemed quite large. Now it milks well over a thousand cows and there are several other dairies in town with herds well over 300 cows.  They milk three times a day, which keeps the milking parlors, mostly manned with migrant labor, running well into the night, and employ a certain number of the guys to do field work who used to work on their own small farms. And as far as I know all these farms, most of them deep in debt, plan to expand further. At least money is cheap to borrow, and they keep huge numbers of acres tilled rather than developed.

If all this growth has offered significant advantages for these farms or the people of Easton, they are not easily discernible. Ag economists and lenders no doubt have reams of numbers to explain the need for growth. But such numbers are merely tales told to justify the way we do things. They very same people could just as easily produce equally compelling numbers to argue for selling off the cows and taking up decoy carving if that  served the purposes of those who benefit the most from such developments.

Endless growth is no fundamental economic or social (and certainly not ecological) truth. It is just a way of doing business that offers vast rewards to those who can afford to produce all those numbers proving once and for all that we must all act in their interest. And if we keep going along this path stagnation may be the best we can hope for. Far better than we ignore the imperative to keep growing and tend our own gardens–or carve our own decoys.