I finally finished Farming in Nature’s Image, an academic and dry bit of writing that describes, in intimate detail, the studies of the Land Institute to 1992. As an added bonus, it includes some fundamental ecological basics that I had read before, but the concepts were so well-explained that I had several epiphanies of understanding while reading. Perhaps my favourite was the nitrogen cycle, but there were several wonderfully-stated truisms that really brought home the understanding of ecology from a whole-systems perspective. It is also yet another book that brings me back to a solitary idea that never seems to be far from any of my reading:
Farmers are getting economically gang raped, and they have been for decades. This is true because of five vicious cycles in the economy of farming: the Trade cycle, the Bank cycle, the Chemical cycle, the Seed cycle, and the Land cycle.
The Trade Cycle
Farmers compete globally for markets for their products, and therefore the concept of supply and demand is global. Even if there is a drought here, there may be a bumper crop there. The commoditization of crops means that crops will always be sold for the lowest possible price based on global supply. The fact that the farmer may have had a terrible crop this year doesn’t matter: when your market is the world, your competition is the world. The only way to secure a living is to make sure you have enough crop to sell (even if it’s at a low price). That requires industrial farming, which requires a heavy financial outlay.
The Bank Cycle
Most farmers therefore begin their productive lives hideously deep in debt. Combines, trucks, land, outbuildings, seed drills, silos… all these things cost money. So much money, in fact, that huge corporate megafarms are starting to be more the rule than the exception. Individual farmers are becoming incapable of buying into industrial farming. Those who do are deep in debt. That means that they must use every trick imaginable to secure a steady yield from their fields.
The Chemical Cycle
Pesticides, herbicides, and Fertilisers are able to push yields up – temporarily. Problematically, pesticides and herbicides kill (and fertilisers chase off) beneficial soil bacteria which would assist in the fixation of nitrogen, tilling and chemicals destroy mycorrhizae which would help in the uptake of minerals. Pesticides create pest resistance, and must be rotated or used in combination – or even replaced entirely. Greater applications of chemicals are required to control pest populations growing in chemical resistance, and in order to protect desired plants from being affected by chemical application, they mus be bred with a degree of chemical resistance themselves. The ongoing chemical warfare against pests and weeds is a self-perpetuating arms race that only the agro-chemical industry wins… but not by defeating pests. Big ag wins by keeping farmers in hock for newer, better chemicals.
The Seed Cycle
It also keeps them buying new seeds to make certain their crops have resistance to the chemicals being sprayed on them. These are the same companies introducing terminator genes, along with contracts that force farmers to buy seed year after year and not keep any of their own for replanting. New chemicals mean new crops with new genetically-engineered chemical resistances, and the seed cycle is pushed ever onward by the chemical cycle.
The Land Cycle
After paying the loan interest, the chemical bill, the seed bill, and selling this year’s crop for a pittance, the farmer has adequate take-home money to live a reasonable existence. He doesn’t have much money (if any) to invest, but for retirement, he has his land to fall back on. Many people have only their land to fall back on. Sadly, that means the land will be valuated after thirty or so productive years of soil erosion, chemical application, and the resultant salinization. There is no such thing as an industrial farmer’s field that does not lose fertility year on year due to intensive industrial farming methods. The only way to recover fertility in the industrial model is to lay a field fallow, which means it is taken out of production in order to rebuild its natural fertility, and this fertility is once again mined when cropping begins anew. There is a catch-22 here: the value of the agricultural land is based on its soil properties, its fertility. The farmer’s entire retirement therefore rests on the sale of something that he has, year on year, forcibly depreciated in value. What’s more, he will then propagate the cycle by selling his land to a new farmer who then begins his productive life in debt…
There’s a solution.
Sadly, famers are so trapped by the industrial farming cycle that they simply can’t break out of it. Once you’re paying off debt monthly, cashflow becomes more important than your future. Then again, I guess that’s the vicious circle we all seem to get caught up in. It’s about time to cash out.