F.A. Farm

  (Ferndale, Washington)
Postmodern Agriculture - Food With Full Attention
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Comment on Amanda Little’s Article “Making Every Calorie Count”

The following is an email I just sent to Amanda Little, who had a very good article in the New York Times today, March 9, 2011. It's about time that someone else got on board with a metric that crosses all platforms. I have been quite disappointed over the years at the lack of comprehension and intellectual dishonesty of mainstream economists, who should be doing the heavy lifting on this subject. They leave it up to a farmer to do the grunt work - as usual! At least we now have a journalist who gets it. Here is a link to the article if you want to read it:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/09/opinion/09Little.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha212

Amanda - I read your article in today's New York Times (March 9, 2011) with some pleasure. It's about time this idea gets a wider audience! I have been flogging this very idea for several years now and I am writing to give you the nuts and bolts so you can take it to the next level.

I am a sustainable farmer up here in the farthest northwest corner of the continental United States. I have been working on what I call thedual-track sustainable model for the last six years. Several years ago I developed input/output analysis to measure how sustainable I really am. If you want to do science and you want to convince people, you have be able to quantify sustainability and you need a metric that crosses all platforms. The calorie is ideal because we can compare energy in gas, diesel, human labor, even horse labor inputs versus the output in food produced. [Sidebar: We really mean kilocalorie orCalorie when we say "calorie" but everyone gets this by now.] The calorie is something we all know about and is easily convertible from joules, kilowatts, horsepower, or BTUs. As you say in your article, we are used to seeing it on food anyway. Nerdboy questions about the small difference in relative heat needed to raise a kilo of water 1 degree centigrade from 15 degrees to 16 degrees versus 16 degrees to 17 degrees are easily swept away in the rounding factor when doing conversions. More difficult are questions about kilowatts vs. kilowatt hours, but this is not really a problem either, since we are talking about absolute amounts of thermodynamic energy and it makes little difference whether my gas use is done in an hour or two hours when I am tilling a field. The variance is just my time, which I account for separately.

Currently I use human labor and a small amount of gasoline in my tillers to produce quite a bit of food on small acreage (1-2 acres). I have tested my model for several years and I also corroborated it on the food bank farm I manage in Lynden, Washington last year. Here is an article on the food bank farm, community gardens and our new farmers market:http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2011/03/07/1896937/lynden-blooming-with-community.html (By the way, this is the third farmers market I have helped start since 2006 - another key to sustainability.)

Here is how it works.
 I keep track of all the gas used for my tillers (I don't have a tractor as tractors are unsustainable.) Each gallon of gas is equivalent to 31,000 calories (checkable on the web). By the way, each gallon of diesel is equivalent to 35,000 calories. I calculate my labor at 125 calories per hour. This is a compromise figure based on a 2500 calorie a day diet. Even though men need 2500 to thrive (not just survive) and women need 2000 on average, I default to 2500 to be conservative in my calculations. Since a human expends about 500 calories in an 8-hour sleep period, that leaves 16 hours per day of activity. Now as you well know, most people don't grunt and strain and spend a lot of calories on their work in bursts of speed and then engage in down times of exhaustion. Most people, including farmers, are busy doing things all day long at their workplace. This leaves them with energy to do things after work, whether it is just cooking supper and watching TV until bedtime or going out dancing or visiting or what have you. People also spend as much energy on their days off as they do during their workweek. All in all, dividing the 2000 calories left over after subtracting 500 from 2500 and apportioning it over the 16 hours of activity makes good sense. This means that we can average our labor use in farming at 125 calories per hour (2000 / 16 = 125).

Now we can compute our inputs. In 2010, I put in 2000 hours on my farm for a total of 250,000 calories (this does not include 1000 hours on the food bank farm and other community-oriented activities). I used 17.25 gallons of gas for growing food, which calculates to 534,750 calories. There were no other inputs. My input total for 2010 was thus 784,750 calories. With this quantity of gasoline and human energy Iproduced 1,705,537 calories on 1.12 acres. This is a positive ratio of 2.17. In other words, I produced 2.17 calories of food for every calorie of energy I used to grow that food in 2010. If you accept the metric that industrial agriculture uses 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of food (a negative ratio since more energy goes into production than is actually produced), this means I am over20 times more efficient than industrial agriculture. Obviously, this type of small-scale agriculture is truly sustainable.

In 2009, my best year for production, I used 1,064,750 calories to produce 3,789,138 calories of food. The inputs came from 22.25 gallons of gasoline and 3000 hours of labor. The ratio of 2009 was thus 3.56 calories of food for every calorie of energy I used to grow that food. This was over 35 times more efficient than industrial agriculture. The difference between 2009 and 2010 was the crappy weather, something we need to take into account and prepare for, by the way.

As for measuring outputs, this requires rigorous weighing and measuring of yields. This is not difficult - you just have to do it with every pound of potatoes, green beans, kale, etc. To calculate calories per pound (or pints in the case of raspberries and cherry tomatoes) I use http://caloriecount.about.com/. Using the same source for all your food calorie values is important and this site is the best one I have found. If you want to check it, you don't have to sign in - just type in a food in the search box on the first webpage. You will get a plethora of choices and I usually go to the whole food selection. The amounts used vary, so you will have to convert from grams to pounds. Just remember there are 454 grams in a pound. After all this calculation, I can total up my calories produced based on yield and the calories per pound. This also gives me surprising results, such as an average calorie per pound for diversified small-scale agriculture, with over 80 varieties of produce, grain and dry beans, of 230-242 calories per pound. These kinds of metrics also allow you to calculate a calorie-based price for your produce, which I have done. For example, if you paid a small-scale sustainable farmer only 1 cent per calorie and he/she produced 15,000 pounds of food at 230 calories per pound, the farmer would make $34,500 for his/her work. This would be a living wage for most farmers, given the capital costs of production at around $3-4,000 for this amount of food. There are plenty of ways to go with this kind of calculation and using the calorie method. You can even incorporate horse labor at 12,000 calories a day needed to maintain a draft horse and 15,000 calories a day if you are working the horse hard.

One last calculation: If we accept that most food in the US travels 1500 miles from farm to table on a semi that gets 5 miles per gallon of diesel fuel, we can compare the calorie load - just for transport - to buying direct from a farmer at a farmers market. We can also put a cork in the intellectually dishonest economists who say transport on a large truck from California is more energy efficient than buying at a local farmers market. So . . . if you have 40,000 pounds on your semi that travels 1500 miles and uses 300 gallons of diesel at 35,000 calories per gallon, your carbon load is 263 calories per pound. If you overload the truck and put 50,000 pounds on it, the calorie load is 210. This compares unfavorably with me going to my closest farmers markets in Ferndale (6 miles roundtrip) or Bellingham (25 miles roundtrip). My little truck carries 500 pounds of produce (at least!) and gets 18 miles to the gallon. At 31,000 calories per gallon of gasoline, my calorie load to the Ferndale Farmers Market is 21 calories per pound and to the Bellingham Farmers Market it is 86 calories per pound. So . . . 210-263 transport calories per pound for food at your local supermarket vs. 21-86 transport calories per pound at a local farmers market. Quite a difference and it is important to note that the closer the farmers market, the more energy efficient the produce is. If the farmer is using truly sustainable methods (i.e. no tractor and lots of hand labor) in production, the difference in energy footprint is staggering.

When we calculate calories per pound for local vs. long-haul transport, we can also see where the cutoff point is where selling to a far-off farmers market becomes as energy intensive as long-haul transport on overloaded semi-trailers. For instance, there is a local organic farm here in Whatcom County that sells most of their produce to metro farmers markets in Seattle. Their truck gets 15 miles to the gallon of gasoline and carries 3,000 pounds of food. Their roundtrip distance is 300 miles to the markets and back, so 20 gallons of gasoline are used. If we use calorie calculation, we can see that this farm has a calorie load of 207 transport calories per pound. In other words, if you are selling to a farmers market 150 miles away, the energy footprint of your food is the same as the national average of food hauled 1500 miles on a semi. There will certainly be differences in the energy used to produce the food, which may offset the transport calorie load, but this would depend on how much fuel you use for tractors. Without hard data on fuel use from farms using tractors, I cannot make that calculation, but I suspect that even organic farms using tractors have high enough fuel usage that they are not sustainable. In other words, they are still benefiting from cheap oil, just like industrial agriculture.

I hope this has not been too dense for you, but I have been doing this for several years now, as well as blogging on my results, and I feel everyone has a responsibility to get up to speed on matter such as these, so I don't talk down to my audience. If you wish to contact me for further info, feel free. You can also read my blogs on Local Harvest at http://www.localharvest.org/blog/15945/ or on Blogspot at http://fullattention.blogspot.com/. Keep up the good work and all the best to you.


Fertilizer Question

Recently, I received a question about using soymeal in my fertilizer mix. As I mentioned, there are pluses and minuses. Since 95% of soybeans grown in this country are GMO's, it is likely any soymeal you buy for your nitrogen source will be GMO soymeal. That's the minus. The plus is that there is likely to be less pesticide residue in feedgrade soymeal than in cottonseed meal, which is not even listed as feed for animals and so has fewer restrictions on pesticide use. If you still don't like the idea of using soymeal, here is your basic alternative - grow your own nitrogen.

The average soybean yield in the US is 50 bushels per acre and a bushel of soybeans weighs 60 pounds. This calculates to 3,000 pounds per acre. Since soymeal is generally 7% nitrogen, each acre of soybeans grown yields approximately 210 pounds of nitrogen per acre. This is enough for two years worth of corn, which needs around 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre - and even more for other, less demanding crops. By the way, 100 pounds per acre for corn is a compromise figure, as corn silage needs about 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre BUT you are not returning the stalks to the soil - unlike sweet corn or ear corn. On the other hand, some extension services say you need 1.5 pounds of nitrogen for each bushel of corn produced. For 200 bushels per acre (a maximum number and not likely for small-scale production) you would need 300 pounds per acre. However, the extension services are in thrall to the chemical companies so we should be wary of anything they recommend. We also know there is WAY too much fertilizer put on industrial ag fields and it flows down into the ocean, resulting in algae blooms the size of Delaware in the Gulf of Mexico, for instance. There is also nitrogen available in the soil. Even though 98% is in the organic form (and unavailable), the 2% that is available is still considerable. About 50 pounds available nitrogen per acre is not unreasonable. [By the way, I just used "organic" in the organic chemistry usage. I assume you can keep the two uses of "organic" straight.] All in all, shooting for 100 pounds of nitrogen added to your soil each year is a good compromise to both ensure soil fertility and do so in a non-wasteful manner (i.e. growing biomass is much preferable to pouring on chemicals or seed meal).

So, you can indeed grow your own nitrogen and then you won't have to worry about pesticides and GMO's from your supplier who may be halfway across the country or the world. The next trick is to make it part of your rotation. My rotation is a six-year rotation:
1) grain - barley, wheat, rye, spelt, triticale
2) soybeans or favas
3) root - potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, etc.
4) fruit - corn, tomatoes, squash, etc.
5) pea - peas, beans, soybeans, favas
6) leaf - salad mix, cabbage, greens, etc.

Notice that in my rotation, there is one year for growing a legume and then two years for other crops. I don't put any fertilizer on my legume crops during that rotation and I depend on residual levels of phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, calcium, trace minerals, etc. to carryover. This fits in well with my overall scheme and gives me good yields. There are other advantages to this system, too. For example, growing grain conditions the soil. I can even grow a winter cover crop where I just had legumes, too, as this helps to "capture" the nitrogen produced during the legume crop (rather than being chewed up by microbes and contributing to methane in the atmosphere). I then go back to my rotation in the spring.

The upshot here is that you can grow your own nitrogen and this is one of my ongoing experiments. So far it works great.

Where Will I Get My Food?

This is the second part of a series. The first part was "What Will I Eat?" and focused on food available locally and in-season, even at the end of winter. The idea is there are plentiful resources right in front of you that you may not have considered. Now I would like to focus on where you (and I) will get our food once normal supply infrastructure has broken down.

Let's ask a simple question, "Where will I get my food?" The simple answer is usually something along the lines of, "I will go to the grocery store and buy food with money." This is what we are used to and most people don't even think about what might happen once war hits close to home, or we have to deal with famine or pestilence. Nevertheless, it is wise to deconstruct the usual answer. There are four parts to this answer: 1) go to the 2) store and 3) buy food with 4) money. All four components assume a functioning infrastructure - something that might not exist in the future.

1) Normally we go somewhere to get our food. We get in our cars or ride a bus or use our bicycle or sometimes even walk. For most people in the US, the mode of transportation is the automobile. Very few of us do our shopping via public transport or bicycling or walking. This is a problem as gas prices increase, and we will either have to reduce our automobile trips or make accommodations such as carpooling and loop transport. It is unlikely mass transit will be able to take up the slack in the US, simply because of the incompetence of government and the sheer scale of getting buses or trams to every nook and cranny of where we live. In short, there is no good substitute for getting in our cars and going to a store to buy food.

What we will have to do is either get our food within walking or cycling distance. For most fit people, a travel distance of 25 miles one way by bicycle (50 roundtrip) is about the limit for buying food. This makes the concept of local more restrictive than previously thought. In essence, local would be 25 miles from your home, rather than 100 miles or within the county or within the state borders.

2) Most people buy their food from a store that is specifically designated for this purpose. Whether it is a convenience store, a mom-and-pop, a co-op, or a supermarket, the store has overhead, a payroll to meet, and a need for profit for the owners. If the store cannot turn a profit, it is unlikely the store will stay open. This bodes ill for stores in a time of uncertain oil supplies and higher prices at the gas pump. When people have to make house payments and get to work in their cars, they will try to skimp wherever they can and food is one of the first places people try to cut costs. This translates into greater pressure on a store's bottom line from the customer. Add this pressure to the greater costs associated with a rise in oil prices that percolates through the whole supply/distribution chain and stores will have a tighter profit margin. The inefficient stores will go out of business, leaving fewer places to buy food.

Unlike a grocery store, the farmer is well used to operating at below minimum wage levels and often at a loss. In the future, buying direct from a farmer is likely to remain a viable alternative for just this reason.

3) Nowadays, most people buy their food. Although there are a few people who garden, less than 1% of the US population grows food as a business. This will be a problem when higher gas prices start interrupting supply/distribution chains. People may then be unable to buy food. It will likely be sporadic at first, like the gas stations sporadically out of gas during the fuel crisis of the early 1970's. However, a little bit of supply disruption goes a long way and people are likely to panic and hoard food when they can get it. This will exacerbate the problem, as it did in the 1970's.

The obvious solution here is to grow your own food and store staples in your own storage facilities. You can also contract with your neighbors to grow certain items and trade with each other. You can even contract directly with a farmer and pay him/her ahead of time to provide food for you.

4) Right now, people buy their food with money, but this may have to change. Unemployment is still high in this country and there are a lot of people who could be working growing food for each other. The reasons this is not being done are several: high-priced land, land locked up by selfish or deluded bureaucracies (like vacant lots), corporations and even so-called "sustainable" business organizations protecting their niches, laziness, and just plain-old inertia. People don't question the system they grew up in, even when it becomes clear the system itself is killing them. Thus they continue to focus on getting money somehow and then exchanging that money for something to eat.

The solution here is to exchange labor directly for food. This can be very simple, but it requires a commitment to work. If you want to learn how to farm or even how to garden, there are plenty of people who can show you the way. However, you have to be on-time and reliable, which is hard for most people to do. Another solution is barter or alternative currencies. These solutions are part of an overall change in business that will become increasingly necessary, but many people are reluctant to jump on a new bandwagon. Simply working for food is readily available to anyone.

The bottom line in this post is that we can take our usual response to a question and break it down into its component parts. This makes it easier to formulate solutions to our basic question as we reassemble the component parts along with their simple solutions. 


What Will I Eat?

As I write this, crude oil is up over $117 a barrel and the stock market is reeling. Gas pump prices are approaching $4.00 a gallon and people are clearly worried. Although the Libyan crisis is driving the short-term price swings, there is a fundamental problem in world markets, unnoticed by most media. This problem is the coming downturn in the supply of cereal grains.

Flooding in Australia, drought in China, drought last year in Russia, reneging on export contracts by Russia and India, political pressure to reduce exports in Argentina, diversion of corn to ethanol in the US, poor harvests elsewhere in the world and the overall lack of sufficient grain reserves, all contribute to a vexing scenario. Sometime this summer, it is likely we will be seeing some gaps in supermarket shelves right here in the US. Although there will still be food, it will become more and more expensive, so people will have to actually think about eating local. Up to now, eating local has been more about "cachet" than an urgent driver in householder economics. That is likely to change dramatically, as rising transportation costs drive up the price of food in the supermarket. Here is a sample of what the informed consumer can eat locally, right here in NW Washington state and right now at the end of winter - typically the time of fewer sources of fresh local food.

Let's take a tour of our house and I will list the choices I have to eat today, sorted by the major food groups of fruit, vegetables, grain & beans, and animal products. Unless noted otherwise, these were all grown and processed by either Toni or I.

1) Apples  - our Spartans are a little soft but quite good after storage in a refrigerator bin for the last 3 months and stored in the cellar for 2 months before that – up until Christmas we also had Jonagolds and Golden Delicious
2) Frozen blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries  - the blueberries and strawberries I bought locally and then froze
3) Dried prunes, apples and pears - some apples from previous years
4) Canned pears and prunes
5) Gooseberry, currant and medlar preserves

VEGETABLES in storage:
1) Onions, garlic and shallots
2) Potatoes
3) Sunchokes
4) Squash, including Delicatas
5) Pumpkins
6) Celery
7) Canned tomatoes and chutney
8) Pickled beets and peppers
9) Beets in a refrigerator from last fall
10) Sauerkraut in a refrigerator from last fall (non-pasteurized to preserve the raw enzymes)
11) Frozen broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, green beans, leek tops (for soup), squash and pumpkin
12) Peppers dried and frozen

Vegetables stored in the field:
1) Potatoes – just about done now
2) Beets
3) Carrots
4) Leeks
5) Shallots
6) Parsnips
7) Kale – good nearly all winter
8) Chard – freezes out in December but will come back from the roots this month

Grains and dry beans:
1) Wheat – both spring and winter wheat
2) Barley
3) Spelt
4) Kidney, cannelini, navy and other dry beans
5) Favas
6) Bread in freezer made from our own grain

Animal products:
1) Beef in freezer bought by the quarter from a local farmer
2) Milk – bought at the supermarket but available locally
3) Eggs from a neighbor – several sources within a mile or two

1) Rosemary, dried and fresh in a pot
2) Thyme, marjoram, oregano, coriander, celery seed and tops – all dried

There you have it. There is an abundance of local food available, even now at the end of winter.



Requiring Carbon Emission Data From the Supply Chain

I came across a very interesting article from The National Hog Farmer, online date Feb. 18, 2011. Here is the link: http://license.icopyright.net/user/viewContent.act?clipid=605476612&mode=cnc&tag=3.5492?icx_id%3Dnationalhogfarmer.com/environmental-stewardship/consumers-demand-environmental-data-0215/index.html

In this article, a new trend is reported of shifting accountability down the supply chain to primary producers. Even though consumers are said to be driving this trend, the real driver is Wal-Mart, which controls 29% of the retail food market in the United States (Kroger - parent company of Fred Meyer - is #2 at 8% and the rest carve up the remaining market share). Since Wal-Mart is the largest customer for the major food companies (like Kraft, Pepsico, etc.), anytime Wal-Mart institutes a program, these companies have to respond.

In a June 2010 shareholders' meeting, Wal-Mart's president and CEO Mike Duke, committed to a reduction of 20 million metric tons (22 million tons) of greenhouse gas emissions by 2015. However, he said this would come from the supply chain. For anyone who knows how Wal-Mart works, this should come as no surprise. Since Wal-Mart has tremendous sales and marketing "muscle," it can dictate how products are palletized, presented and even manufactured. By demanding reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from its suppliers, Wal-Mart can effectively control how food is produced.

The first step in this process is tracking emissions and Wal-Mart has successfully co-opted the word "transparency" for this program. Major food companies are balking (no surprise here!), but Wal-Mart is effectively showing them how to do it by instituting the tracking in their private brands. Once the Wal-Mart private brands have this information on their packaging, there will be no excuse for the major food companies not to follow suit. It should also be noted that, just as the invention of Lotus 1-2-3 set the template for other accounting spreadsheets like Excel, so too the way Wal-Mart institutes greenhouse gas emissions tracking will become the default method. This is a game-changer, by the way, just as Lotus 1-2-3 changed the way accounting is done in the United States (and probably worldwide too, for all I know!).

The economic effect this will have on producers is painfully obvious. As Eric Jackson, one of the sources in the article says, "Eventually, participation in the market is going to be limited by whether or not you are willing to provide information to your downstream markets. . . . Right now, it is all about measurement." Later in the article, Jackson comments on the nonvoluntary nature of providing this information, "The consumer will eventually start making data-driven choices; that's probably only 5-10 years away. If there are any gaps the industry is not covering, the regulators will fill in the gaps." For those of you cognizant of the Food Modernization Act passed last November (usually referred to as SB 510 in the discussions previous to its passage), this sweeping reform of food production regulations fits in well with supply chain regulation by Wal-Mart and other food retailers. It all fits together quite nicely, doesn't it? Almost as if it was planned that way. (!)

Finally, Jackson has a word of advice for producers, "Watch for the metrics being set for measuring and categorizing greenhouse gas emissions and have the tools necessary to respond to these metrics." This sounds a bit like my use of calories to measure energy inputs and outputs doesn't it? Is it possible that our corporate masters actually understand what is really going on in our post-peak oil world? It is not only possible, it is likely they not only understand what is really going on, but also how to co-opt it for their own nefarious ends.

Focusing on greenhouse gas emissions allows corporations, governments, and academia to use a very cumbersome method of cost accounting that has value in the aggregate, but is near impossible to utilize on a small-scale, individualized basis. Not only does it take a lot of infrastructure to keep track of many industries, but the sheer scale of measurement adds its own problems. For example, in Sweden, kilograms of carbon needed to produce a food item is prominently displayed on the food packaging. This is touted as leading edge transparency. However, the numbers are based on overall industry averages, so they do not take into account differing production methods; for instance tractor agriculture versus hand labor methods, or packing for a farmers market versus packing to be sent across country on trucks. In addition, focusing on a waste stream - greenhouse gas emissions - is a "second-order" measurement, versus the "primary-order" measurement of energy used in actual production; e.g. calories used to power the tractor, not just a measurement of the smoke coming from the tractor. Indeed, it is likely that focusing on greenhouse gas emissions distorts the true environmental cost of what is produced. Thus, for all you conspiracy buffs out there, there seems to be a "channeling effect" in using greenhouse gas emissions as a measure of environmental cost, one that understates the damage done.

There are two main points to my review of this article. First, Wal-Mart is driving a move among retailers to shift accountability onto producers, which can then be regulated by their federal government cronies. Secondly, we don't really have to buy into this if we don't buy from food retailers. This last point was not explicitly stated in my review, but I assume you could recognize it as the "elephant in the argument."


Video on Maine's Own Organic Milk

I just watched a video on the problems of small-scale organic milk production in Maine. Here is the weblink: http://video.nytimes.com/video/2011/02/18/us/1248069613774/moomilk.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=thab1

The video focuses on small-scale dairy producers who had grown up on their own farms and had been milking cows for as long as 40 years. These were true family farms, where the farmers are doing the milking themselves, unlike so many large dairies here in Washington state where the "farmer" does the managing and then hires illegal aliens (or undocumented workers for the politically correct) to actually do the milking. The Maine farmers turned to organic milk production several years ago to increase their profit margin. [Emphasis on niche marketing.] They had quite lucrative contracts with a "large conglomerate," as they say in the video, and were actually making a living. [The power of corporate marketing and distribution.] However, in February of 2009, the corporate conglomerate dropped them because of market conditions. This put the farmers in a deep hole. Their response was to take out a massive loan and form a co-operative to market their milk under the Maine's Own Organic Milk brand (MOO Milk). [Using corporate-style branding, as well as succumbing to capital requirements from the corporate banking industry.] Even with a brand, a quality product, and distribution to all the local markets (including supermarket chains), the MOO Milk brand did not "take off." The farmers were faced with either going back to mainstream nonorganic production (making $20,000 a year on $750,000 worth of sales for example, as mentioned in the video) or trying to somehow weather the storm. One farmer went back to mainstream production, but the others held on. In June 2010, they lucked out. Somehow, they convinced Whole Foods in Massachusetts to pick up their brand and now have a bright future. (The power of corporate marketing buying power.

So what is wrong with this picture? Several things obviously.

1) There is no doubt that these people were real farmers, born and bred on the land, and doing their own hard work. There is absolutely no doubt that these people cannot do any better at managing their production.

2) The real problem was that the local populace did NOT buy their product. As one frame in the video indicates, the price for their milk was $3.99 per half gallon. This is a good price, a fair price, and comparable to the price paid for organic milk in supermarkets right here in Whatcom County and across the country (I pay this price for milk myself). Yet the Maine consumers would not support family farms right in their own county.

3) The farmers quoted in the video mentioned time and again that demand for local food was growing, yet they could not sell enough of their product locally. As right here in Whatcom County, there is a significant disconnect between what the marketeers told them via their brochures and poorly-designed survey results. For example, in a recent survey by a business marketing organization right here in Whatcom County, people were surveyed and said they would buy local food. The survey designers then took this to mean that there is unmet demand for local food. Of course, saying you buy local food does not mean that you actually do so, just as saying you support local farmers does not mean you actually do so. This is an example of poor survey design, as well as poor analysis. It is similar to the difference between sociology and anthropology. The sociologist asks people if they recycle cans and bottles or throw them out. The anthropologist goes through people's garbage and actually collects evidence whether they recycle cans and bottles or throw them out.

4) The farmers in the video were using corporate marketing, like branding, and tapping into corporate capital acquisition, like loans for infrastructure and distribution. They used the modern business model and tried to compete on the same level as large corporations, but without the marketing muscle corporations have. Setting their own price was a good tactic, but they could not control the price of their inputs, nor the price of their outputs. Thus they were buffeted from both sides of the input/output continuum.

5) The salvation of the farmers who hung on was determined by Whole Foods, a large corporate conglomerate two states away. The customers for MOO Milk were urban yuppies who buy from a large, nonunion corporate entity often called "Whole Paycheck," and which has come under fire from many progressives. In real terms, it would have made little difference if the salvation contract had been Wal-Mart. The real problem is that it took a corporate bailout to save MOO Milk, because the local people right in Maine would not buy local milk.

So what is the lesson from this video? If you are a local farmer and local consumers are not willing to buy your product, you cannot survive unless you get lucky. Is catering to a large corporation the salvation of small-scale agriculture? What a chilling thought! Yet you hear this propaganda stream all the time. "If only we can get Haggens or Safeway to buy out product. If only we can market it more effectively." It is all bosh.

Local demand is 1-3% right here in Whatcom County. That is the percentage of food that is consumed locally from Whatcom County farms, the percentage dependent on which marketing organization you talk to. These same marketing organizations tout the growth of local demand all the time and a 20% growth rate year to year is often the figure quoted. Well, a 20% growth rate of 3% is still only .6%. So . . . if local demand goes up this year by 20%, local consumers will still only consume 3.6% of the produce grown in Whatcom County! In terms of significance levels in statistical modeling, the amount of local food consumed in Whatcom County is essentially random. Think on that for a second. If you are producing food for a local market, your sales are essentially based on random events. The rest of the food consumed in Whatcom County comes from outside the county, outside the state, and outside the country.

It is not marketing that is the problem. Everyone knows a farmer growing local food and buying food from that farmer is just a phone call away. Driving to the farm to pick up food is similar to driving to the store. Prices are very often cheaper at the farm than at the supermarket. The produce, meat, milk and eggs are fresher and often more nutritious than the same items bought in the supermarket. The real problem is the mindset of the local populace. Just as the Maine consumers would not support local farmers producing a quality product, even when presented in exactly the same way as other supermarket items, so Whatcom County consumers do not support local farmers. Local sales are essentially random events. This is not a recipe for survival in the post-peak oil world.


Translating Hog Marketing Talk Redux

Due to a request, here is a republication of one of my more ironic posts from 2 years ago.

Yesterday I got some high profile pork sausage at the local co-op. The pork came with its own brochure, which I read to my wife this morning over coffee. We had such a good time yukking it up, I thought I would share it with you. DISCLAIMER: I raised purebred Hampshire hogs back in 1965, so I know about pork. I am also quite peeved about the rise of branding. Anyways, here are some of the brochure claims with my translations.

[Their pork has a brand name] "Our pork is given that name because every pig on our farms is free to go outside to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine!" TRANSLATION: Our pigs live in sheds and they root around outside in their pen.

"[The brand name] houses are specifically designed to provide comfort and pleasure for our pigs. TRANSLATION: They have dirt floors.

"All pigs have free access to food and water courts, are free to lounge in the spacious deep-bedded areas, or bask in the sunshine at their leisure." TRANSLATION: The pigs are fed with self-feeders so we don't have to slop them twice a day. The pig sheds have straw bedding. I used to do the same.

"[The brand name] houses are also designed to 'breathe' freely and naturally with open sides." TRANSLATION: Our hog sheds have had the windows knocked out. As my ag instructor used to say, "You can throw a cat through."

"Translucent curtains provide protection from harsh weather while still allowing fresh air and sunlight in at all times." TRANSLATION: We have plastic up over the windows, but it has torn off in places.

Well, after my little exercise in marketing translation, I just want to wish these people well. The pork was actually okay and I will probably buy more. We don't eat much pork anymore, but I do like sausage once a month or two. What Toni and I found hilarious was the gentrification of pig farming. I am surprised they didn't mention their "pig spa." TRANSLATION: We run a hose out into the dirt and turn it on once in awhile so the pigs can lay in the mud.


Comment on Andrew Curry’s Energy Bulletin Article (1 of 2)

Andrew Curry’s article, “The Future of Food (1 of 2),” reviews the British government’s Foresight report, The Future of Food and Farming. Here is the weblink: 

The first part of his review is largely descriptive, but he promises a more critical look in Part 2. What I find interesting is that he cuts right to the heart of the matter, asking “So what is to be done?” He then lists the 12 priority areas from the report and then asks another question, “Is this enough?” This is followed by the usual answer, “Perhaps not.” However, Curry is astute enough to hoist the report on its own petard. His words bear repeating.

The report states boldly right at the beginning that “Nothing less is required than a redesign of the whole food system to bring sustainability to the fore”, but nowhere starts to develop the tools which would help people develop a vision of what such a re-design might look like, as if it doesn’t want to say ‘boo’ to power. It seems to take a relatively uncritical view of global and open markets; indeed, whenever the politics of food threatens to break the surface, the report seems to move swiftly on. I’ll come back to this in the next post.

Since Andrew Curry and I are on the same page in regards to the impotence of government (any government!) to do anything quickly enough to effect significant change, I look forward to reading the second part of his critique, to see if he has any solutions. Until that time however, allow me to address the 12 priority areas from the report myself. The report talking points are in bold face and my comments follow each point. If you want to download the whole 211-page report you can do here: http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/bispartners/foresight/docs/food-and-farming/11-546-future-of-food-and-farming-report.pdf
  1. Spread best practice. - This has to be done by actually getting your hands dirty. Going to meetings doesn’t cut it.
  2. Invest in new knowledge. – Those of you with money will have to pay those who are actually working on solutions. The time for the true believers to give, give, and give some more while they scratch out a living is now past.
  3. Make sustainable food production central in development. – This is a no-brainer, but we have to decide what is sustainable. Input/output analysis based on measurable energy use is the key to deciding what is actually sustainable.
  4. Work on the assumption that there is little new land for agriculture. – This is false. Both Albert Bates and I (and probably others) have been quoted as saying, “I can make soil.” Making soil is a relatively simple process, but it does take time and labor. Other techniques, such as hay bale culture and chinampas are useful tools.
  5. Ensure long-term sustainability of fish stocks. – This is not my area of expertise, but there are other people working on this.
  6. Promote sustainable intensification. – There are three keys to intensive agriculture: water, fertility and labor. These are certainly doable, but in the past, slavery and serfdom have fulfilled the labor needs. With petroleum-based agriculture, cheap oil served as the “energy slave” and allowed the labor component to decrease significantly. This will have to be turned around in the future. However, slavery and serfdom will NOT work this time around. The choices in a post-peak oil future are quite restrictive. Either pay farmers and farmworkers a living wage (not being done now) or starve.
  7. Include the environment in food system economics. – Duh! This also means most economists will become redundant.
  8. Reduce waste – both in high- and low-income countries. – Another Duh! There are a huge amount of “frozen” calories lying about in hard consumer goods that can be reused in either their original forms or recycled into new products. For those of you involved in so-called “deep green” entrepreneurship, you know all about the money to be made here.
  9. Improve the evidence base upon which decisions are made and develop metrics to assess progress. – This is where input/output analysis based on calories has its greatest value. Calories are an easy metric to calculate, are known by everyone, and cross multiple platforms. The greatest value of this metric is its ability to get people on board.
  10. Anticipate major issues with water availability for food production. – Another Duh!!! Utilizing soil moisture from rainfall has the added value of decreased levels of salinization over time. Real sustainability has to move towards dry farming and away from irrigation. Some irrigation is still needed, even on the west side of the Cascades, but there is not enough research being done by small-scale farmers on planting patterns and working with properties of plant root systems to utilize inherent soil moisture. This is my current research focus, but I am just getting started. We need more work on this (and I don’t mean some sort of government study! – I mean real down-to-earth work that addresses the small-scale perspective).
  11. Work to change consumption patterns. – This is another no-brainer. The first step is to reduce meat consumption, but this very simple, moderate idea usually runs into opposition from people who have one or two cattle but make the mistake of adopting the arguments of the industrial cattle industry. Using meat for flavoring and increasing your intake of fresh vegetables and fruits is NOT some sort of communist plot.
  12. Empower citizens. – This point reveals the inherent bias of a government-sponsored report. Empowering citizens is NOT something that comes from the top down. It is not something that we GIVE people. It is a bottom-up process that requires the citizen to take advantage of the power they already have. Back in the 1970’s I heard a good quote from a semi-underground journal called The North Country Anvil, “Most hippies wouldn’t recognize power if it was laying on the street in front of them.” This is still true today, except it is not just the hippies who aren’t using the power they already have. Now it is most Americans.

There you have it. I am looking forward to reading the second part of Curry’s review. Meanwhile, there are vegetable starts to get going, seeds to order, ground to till and inspiration to be had around every corner. There are, however, NO meetings that you have to attend.


Socialism by Calculator

The reason we have relatively clean food processing plants (some say not clean enough) is the public furor created after publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair in 1906. The reason we have relatively humane prisons (some say not humane enough) is the public furor created after publication of The Star Rover by Jack London in 1915. Both these men were socialists and used their literary gifts for reform. Perhaps we need some more socialistic reform. [Disclaimer: I am not a socialist.] This is not likely to happen from the top down, even though many of the rightwing nutjobs are blasting Obama as a “socialist.” Any work done trying to “contribute according to your abilities and take according to your needs” is going to have to come from the ground up. How could this be accomplished? Here is one scenario.

Let’s use “potato” thinking. The staple food for Whatcom County that is easy to grow, well-suited to the climate, and calorie dense is the potato. If we were to provide a little land for someone to grow some food and then pay them for doing so, what would be a fair exchange? I suggest that a person should be able to grow enough calories for their yearly needs. At 2500 calories per person per day times 365 days, that calculates to 912,500 calories per year. Note that I am using 2500 calories per person, even though an adult female only needs 2000 per day on average. The higher number is used to be conservative in calculating energy needs and to build in a cushion. We also need to think in terms of thriving, not just surviving, so I feel a higher number for the overall population is warranted. Now, if we think in terms of potatoes, which have a calorie value of 351 per pound, we would then need to produce 2600 pounds of potatoes per year to provide the calorie value of what a person needs for a whole year. NOTE: I am not suggesting someone live just on potatoes. This is for calculation purposes. 

So, let’s postulate a bunch of us are willing to provide some funds to someone who is committed to grow 2600 pounds of potatoes. How much ground would he/she need and how much should we pay them? An internet search yields a standard of 3-4 million calories per acre for wheat but 6-8 million calories per acre for potatoes. On my own farm, I grew potatoes at a rate of 8.9 million calories per acre in 2009 with good weather conditions and 4.0 million calories per acre in 2010 under poor weather conditions. At the food bank farm I manage in Lynden, we grew potatoes at a rate of 14.2 million calories per acre in 2010. These varying amounts depend on the distance between rows, fertilization, and available labor, as well as weather in any given year. A good approximation for yield in a good year would likely be 7 million calories per year. If a person needs 912,500 calories per year, then a person could grow that amount of calories of potatoes on .13 acre or 5,678 square feet. This is a garden plot of 75 feet by 75 feet. 

So, how much should we pay a person to grow food on a 75 x 75 foot plot? We know, from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2010 that the average family spends 13% of its income for food. If we factor in a median income of $46,188 for Whatcom County, we can calculate a value of growing food for one person of $6,004 ($46,188 X .13 = $6,004). 

Now we have a value for someone’s labor to grow food for themselves. The ultimate question, however, is whether we are willing to give a person this much money to do this for us or for himself/herself. We can calculate the cost of taking care of each other, either using my model or some other model. That is not the problem. The question is whether we are willing to cough up the dough for our daily bread. If you have a good job, are you willing to share your wealth with those less fortunate? Are you willing to share your wealth with those who grow your food for you? The market is not doing it. The government is not doing it. Are we willing to do it for each other? Are you willing to pay a farmer $6,000 for growing enough food to feed you (whether it is potatoes or a mix of 60-80 items)? Simply going to a supermarket or a co-op is not getting the job done. There are not enough farmers growing food sustainably to even survive into the future. Unless farmers get more money for their food, we will never be able to generate enough farmers to feed ourselves, much less export to other countries. At some point we may have to pay people upfront to grow food. It would be smart to think on this now.


Comment on Jason Bradford's Article "Oil and Food Prices"

Jason Bradford’s article, “Oil and Food Prices,” in the Energy Bulletin http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-01-29/oil-and-food-prices, uses the same reasoning I have been proposing in public forums for the last three years and other authors have been proposing for much longer. Simply put, you can calculate energy inputs and outputs to provide a quantifiable measure of sustainability. If your energy output is smaller than your energy input, you are not sustainable. 

Bradford’s example is the high energy cost of beef and calculates 26 units of energy to produce 1 unit of beef. The energy units can be gigajoules, as Bradford uses, or calories, as I favor. Either way, the 26:1 input/output ratio confirms what scientists and observers from outside the scientific disciplines have long known; that beef is not only a nutrient dense food, but also an energy dense food. All animal products are nutrient dense in comparison to plant foods. This is no surprise (and probably what accounts for our grotesquely enlarged brains over the last 2 million years!). What should cause concern, however, is how the animal products get energy dense. 

If you eat "mainstream" corn-fed beef, there is a high energy cost because of the means of production and feeding grain to an animal adapted to grazing. If you eat grass-fed beef though, the farmer is likely raising the animal on ground that is only marginal for crop production. Perhaps it is too wet too late, or has an inordinate amount of clay or sand, or maybe it is just an elevation problem that doesn’t lend itself to terracing, or any of a host of other problems. In addition to raising animals on ground not well-suited to crop production, the farmer is also building up the soil through grazing management and animal manures. In the future, this category of “marginal” land may not be relevant, as we start to utilize even very small plots of ground and put plentiful human labor inputs (which we will have in abundance because of structural unemployment) into building soil and farming intensively on very small plots. However, the category is still relevant in 2011. 

If you are raising grass-fed beef, your energy inputs come from your human labor caring for the animal. There are also energy cost of fencing, housing and other necessary improvements, but this cost can be depreciated over a number of years. To make things simpler, you can just calculate your own hours and the energy value of your time caring for your animals. If your time is worth essentially nothing, as in the case of over 60% of US farmers who get less than $10,000 in farm sales and therefore a net farm income well below the poverty level, then your energy outputs are essentially a wash (i.e. outside of objective reckoning). In other words, your time spent caring for your animals comes out of the time you spend just living. If your leisure and recreation and all-around day-to-day living revolves around your family and your animals, you are also getting a subjective return on your time (quality of life) that negates the objective energy costs. This is a hidden advantage that farm families enjoy, by the way, that is usually not considered in input/output analysis. Of course, you have to have a farming mindset and lifestyle to enjoy this hidden advantage of the subjective trumping the objective. 

So, raising beef is not sustainable UNLESS you are raising beef on so-called “marginal” land that you would not be cropping. If you are using your labor caring for your animals as your family time or for some other subjective multi-use purpose, you are actually gaining something that cannot be quantified by objective energy measures. However, it is still giving you a benefit. If you are gaining quality of life at the expense of hours of your labor, you are gaining nonetheless. This is another reason for working by the sweat of your brow.


Check Your Garlic

I checked my garlic today out on the south side of the barn. It is about 4-6" tall and looks quite good. I didn't even get my garlic planted until November 12th (!), but this may have been a blessing in disguise, as it was not above the ground for the two hard freezes we had out here. I did put some leaves down, but I neglected to put them down right before a rainstorm so they would stay in place. Consequently, the leaves blew onto the rest of the garden and my garlic is all by its lonesome. However, it is doing quite well now. I find garlic to be quite a forgiving crop.

On another note, I planted some shallot seeds last April that I had saved from an Ambition F1 (hybrid) shallot that I let go to seed in 2009. These shallots were slow to take, but they have survived the winter very nicely and are now thriving as multiplier onions. Some people regard shallots and multiplier onions as the same thing, while others say the red skinned ones and/or those with a more distinctive, delicate flavor are shallots. Taxonomically they are the same. it will be interesting to see what they do in the spring as the soil starts drying out.


Food Security from an Anthropological Perspective

We have been humans, in other words in the genus Homo, for about 2 million years. We have only been using agriculture as a way to gather food resources from the environment for the last 10,000 years. Agriculture has only been important to our species for less than 1% of our time on earth. Obviously, agriculture was not necessary to make us what we are. The way we made our living for most of our history was by hunting and gathering, often abbreviated as hunter-gathering. There is plenty of crossover. If you are gathering camas bulbs and you see a nice fat rabbit and you knock it down with a rock, you have meat for the pot. Likewise, you may find a trove of berries while out hunting deer. 

Hunter-gathering is based on harvesting only. You just go out and take what is available in the environment. Of course there will be lean times and human physiology consequently has adapted to food shortages in our long history. This explains why your body changes modes (glycogen-burning to fat-burning) when you have a temporary downturn in your food intake, whether by choice (such as fasting) or by necessity (such as famine). Traditional cultures know this and even utilize this physiological shift to achieve changes in consciousness in shamanic or religious practices where fasting is common. 

If you look with an observant eye or read case histories of traditional hunter-gatherer cultures, it quickly becomes apparent the environment is like a vast supermarket to hunter-gatherers, with many more kinds of food available than we have at our disposal now. As an example, we don’t eat small rodents like mice or rats because we have a cultural disdain. Other cultures use them as a matter of course, and they still provide a reservoir if times get tough. In the Seige of Leningrad during World War II, rats were regarded as a tasty morsel as food stocks diminished. In a more humorous vein, I have a post-apocalyptic survival manual in my library which goes to great lengths to encourage grilled rat on a bed of lettuce, mouse on a stick, and grasshopper ke-babs – with photos! Yum! 

So, if you live in a vast supermarket and you just have to go out and get something to eat when you need it, do you have food security? Hell, yes! So why don’t we just go out and get food as we need it ourselves? Simply because there are too many of us. If I go out and get a duck or goose to eat every day or two, I would quickly deplete the reservoir of winged fowl in my immediate area, leaving none for my neighbors. It is the same all over the world now. There are a few pockets of the globe where hunter-gathering is still possible, but they are usually in protected reserves, like the Kalahari in South Africa. There are just too many of us for hunter-gathering to be viable for any significant number of us in the population. Since agriculture has allowed us to increase our population beyond the normal carrying capacity of our environment, we are locked into agriculture. 

Not only are we locked into agriculture, we are locked into petroleum-based agriculture. In the last 50 years we have seen a steep growth curve in industrial agriculture. This is based not only on increased use of machinery manufactured with and powered by liquid petroleum fuels, but also an increased use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides/pesticides which use fossil fuels as feedstocks. Because we can feed more people converting fossil fuels into food through industrial agriculture, the worldwide population has increased from 3 billion in 1961 to over 7 billion sometime in 2011. The estimated carrying capacity of the earth varies based on your criteria, but if everyone were dependent on hunter-gathering it would be about .5 billion. With some sort of farming that is sustainable over the long term, estimates fall in the 1-2 billion range. Right now, we can feed all the people on the planet using industrial agriculture and unsustainable levels of fossil fuel consumption, but we don’t achieve this because of poor distribution – usually due to greed and/or graft – rather than lack of production. At the same time, corporations and governments are actively discouraging local agriculture around the globe in favor of agriculture based on commodities for market. The idea is to allow efficiencies in production world-wide through each country or geographical area growing the crop which provides the maximum amount of currency, which is then used to buy food on the world market. The practical application of this, however, relies on cheap oil for transportation, so globalization is doomed by increased prices for petroleum of all kinds as we draw down a finite resource. It is also unrealistic (some say criminal!) to focus on cash crops when what is really needed is food to eat. 

The upshot is that modern industrial agriculture results in food insecurity. Even if there were better distribution and all the wheat and rice sent around the world actually got to the starving people who need it, there would still be a problem with unsustainable agriculture built upon cheap fossil fuels. In essence, even if we solved the greed/graft problem, we would still not have food security comparable to what hunter-gatherers enjoyed in the past.


Food Security - Alternative Pricing Models

In a previous post about Food Riots in Tunisia, Food Pricing and Food Security, I talked about how most of us are price-takers, while corporations use their market muscle to become price-makers. Consequently, if we want to be able to survive in a world ruled by corporations, it is to our advantage to become price-makers as well. Otherwise we have to just take whatever price we can get and are at the mercy of market volatility. In the process of becoming price-makers, the obvious first question is, “How do we go about becoming price-makers?” It does no good to just pull prices out of thin air. There has to be some sort of logic to your pricing model. Here are four alternative pricing models.

Market-basket triangulation model – In this model, you make a list of the products you offer and go to the competition’s stores and jot down their prices. For example, I have a sheet with 68 different kinds of produce that I track. I go to Haggens, Cost Cutter (2 local food chains), the Bellingham Co-op and the Bellingham Farmers Market and mark down their prices. The co-op staffers sometimes give me a funny look, as if I am doing something wrong, but the supermarkets are not bothered by someone comparing prices. The methodology is to find the lowest bulk price – irregardless of whether it is organic or not. [Disclaimer: As with any data collection, you have to make some adjustment decisions on the spot. I also price my organic produce in relation to industrial produce rather than supermarket organic produce. I always beat organic prices hands down.] If an item is measured by the piece or in bunches, I just weigh a representative amount and convert to pounds, which is my standard measure. Some items, like cherry tomatoes and raspberries, are quantified by pints in my sales model, so there are a few exceptions, but most items I sell are measured in pounds.

Once I have the data, I enter it into a spreadsheet and then crunch it as much as I want. I can use my own sales amounts to get a weighting for each item (I sell more pounds of tomatoes than leeks for example.) and I can also calculate a percentage above the store price for my pricing model. For example, my prices were 30% above Haggens prices, on average, in 2009 but only 5% above Haggens prices in 2010. The reason for this change was that even though I held my prices steady last year, Haggens increased their produce prices. I also averaged 25% below produce prices at the Bellingham Farmers Market both years. [Sidebar: Based on anecdotal evidence from other farmers, this is fairly common. In other words, if you buy a lot from a farmers market, you can probably save at least 25% by going directly out to the farm.]

To add more price data to my model, I can even get some wholesale prices, such as from the co-op wholesale price list or from the New Farm Organic Price Report at http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/Organic-Price-Report. (I usually use the San Francisco and Seattle indexes.) Then I can actually triangulate between multiple retail and wholesale outlets. This can become a complicated exercise, but the key here is that you have the data, so you can crunch it as you wish. As you do this more and more you will discover that you have a “feel” for the market that is not only accurate, but robust. In statistics, robusticity means you can throw all kinds of bad data at your model and still get valid results. Over the years, my model has proven to be quite robust.

Median income model – This model is based on the median income for Whatcom County of $46,188 from the Washington State Office of Financial Management. I use the median income instead of the mean because of the “Bill Gates phenomenon.” If a bunch of us are sitting in a room and we average our incomes we will likely get a statistical mean that is valid. However, if Bill Gates, one of the richest men on the planet, walks in and we take a new average, we will get a statistical mean that is invalid, simply because of the scale of his income. Using the median income gets rid of this potential problem. [Sidebar: This is why non-parametric statistical measures, such as the median, are so valuable for corroborating statistical tests.]

If we look at how many people a full-time farmer can feed, we should be able to figure out what he/she should make for an annual income and then divide this by the amount of food. In addition, we can use our sales figures to get an idea of a price for each item. For how many people we can feed, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association says a farmer can feed 129 people now versus 25 in 1960 and this increase is due to technology. (There are other sources on the Web which are comparable to these numbers if you wish to fact-check.) However, in case anyone has forgotten, one of our implicit assumptions in this discussion is that we are looking at feeding people using low fossil fuel inputs. Even in 1960, most farmers were using tractors rather than horses. Labor was still a large component of farm life but fossil fuel inputs were a significant part of a farm’s total energy usage. In a post-peak oil world, we will have to rely on mostly human labor and very low fossil fuel inputs. Consequently, a much lower number of people fed per farmer is realistic. Since there is a dearth of research on this problem, I will use my dual-track sustainable model and the numbers I see on my own farm and on the food bank farm I manage in Lynden. These numbers are 3.0 people fed per acre and an average full-time farmer output of 1.5 acres tilled per full-time farmer at 3000 hours per year. This is with a mix of vegetables, fruit, dry beans and grain. Nuts could probably be included in this model as well, since nut production is comparable to tree fruit production, which is included.

Using my research numbers and the median income of $46,188, we would expect a post-peak oil farmer, what I call the postmodern farmer, to feed 5 people, including himself/herself. This calculates to $9,238 per person (rounded) paid to the farmer from each person and a farmer income of $36,952 ($9,238 accounted for by food grown for consumption on the farm). If we want to compare this calculated number to present conditions, we will be stymied by several facts. According to the USDA, we still have 60% of US farmers under $10,000 in gross sales and 40% of US farmers get some sort of subsidy (however small). This means that, as in the 129 people an industrial farmer feeds, we cannot really make a valid comparison between modern industrial agriculture and postmodern agriculture. We have to instead look to the robusticity of our model. Since the numbers at my farm were corroborated by my work at the Lynden food bank farm I manage, I am confident that the dual-track sustainable model is robust and we really can count on a postmodern farmer feeding 3 people per acre.

If we instead want to calculate price per pound, of potatoes for example, we can use our production and sales data to see what we actually should be getting per pound using this model. Potatoes generally yield 15,000 to 40,000 pounds per acre and the US average in 2010 was 41,000 pounds per acre. However, this is with plentiful irrigation and lots of chemicals in the modern industrial agricultural model. Using organic methods and saving as much water as possible, a good average is 20,000 pounds per acre. In comparison, we got the equivalent of the national average (41,000) at the Lynden food bank farm in 2010 using 2-foot row spacing and human labor only for planting, cultivation and harvesting. If we use the 20,000 pound figure times 1.5 acres and a median income of $46,188, we can calculate the price per pound for potatoes of $1.54. This has proven to be a robust price, by the way, since I have been selling potatoes for $1.50 per pound since 2006 with no problems moving them.

Calorie model – In this model, the price is based on calories produced per acre and how many calories a human needs. The main assumption in this model is a  2500 calorie-per-day diet needed to thrive (not just survive!). Even though an adult woman is usually listed as 2000 calories needed per day, using the 2500 calorie number for both sexes gives us a nice cushion in our margin of error and makes our final numbers more conservative. Based on my farm and the Lynden food bank farm, a postmodern farmer can produce 2.5-3.0 million calories per acre and this is how I originally calculated 3.0 people fed per acre. Now if we calculate the value of the vegetables, fruit, grain and beans produced on one acre as valued at $9,238 per person fed (from the median income above and 5 people fed per farmer) times 3 people per acre and divided by 2.75 million calories, we get a calorie price of $.01 per calorie. In other words, this model values food at 1 cent per calorie. This means potatoes, at 351 calories per pound would be priced at $3.51 per pound. Tomatoes, at 80 calories per pound, would be valued at $.80 per pound. Dry beans, at 1530 calories per pound, would be priced at the staggering value of $15.30 per pound! The fault with this model is obvious. Even though there may be a logical consistency to charging high prices for beans from the postmodern farmer because of all the time it takes to shell them by hand, this model is not going to fly in the real world anytime soon. On my own farm, I do not sell dry beans for just this reason, nor grain for that matter. Since I cannot get compensated for my time with these crops, I just grow for my own consumption.

Fair hourly wage model – This is an intriguing model and one that people sometimes refer to in passing, saying things like, “I have to charge $3.00 per pound for my tomatoes because of all the time it takes to care for them.” To work with this model, we first have to arrive at a fair wage for farmwork. I am sure most people would agree that farm work is worth $15.00 per hour, especially since it is skilled work. Some might even argue for $20.00 per hour, especially if you calculate in the lack of vacations, health insurance and other benefits, as well as paying the full cost of social security and medicare contributions (not just half like other jobs). So, if a farmer works 3000 hours per year (the real amount) or even 4000 hours for a dairy farmer (again, this is the real number), the wage a farmer should make comes out to $45,000 to $60,000 a year at 3000 hours per year. If you add in the $4,000 per acre cost of fertilizer, seeds, insurance, taxes, etc. (these are my numbers again), you should add $6,000 of costs for 1.5 acres on top of the farmer’s income. The spread then becomes $51,000 - $66,000 for a farmers income working 3000 hours per year.

There are several ways to calculate prices per pound once you have reached your yearly income figure. You can use calories, with enough calories to feed 5 people calculating to 1.1 cents per calorie (using $51,000) to 1.4 cents per calorie (using $66,000). You can calculate an overall price per pound, since we know from my farm, the Lynden food bank farm, and the Bellingham food bank farm, that you can produce about 10,000 pounds of food per acre over a broad range of vegetables, fruit, grain and beans. Again using 1.5 acres tilled per farmer, the value per pound ranges from $3.40 per pound (using $51,000) to $4.40 per pound (using $66,000). This seems quite steep as a value overall for the amount produced on a postmodern small farm. To put it into perspective, consider that over the years, the overall value of the food I have grown on my farm has ranged from $1.77 in 2007, to $2.00 in 2010. This is a 13% rise in prices over 3 years and my pricing is based on the market triangulation model above. [Sidebar: This is another indication of the robusticity of that model, by the way.] In Lynden in 2010, the value of the food grown was $2.25 per pound. I used the prices from my Ferndale farm to value all the produce and the greater value per pound came from more high-value crops – more tomatoes, less potatoes, etc.

This last model seems a little unwieldy, as well as pricing food so high that it is currently unworkable in our transition times. However, it is helpful in thinking about what food is worth overall. For those of you who have contributed to the Ferndale Food Bank, you know that you get a form for your taxes that values your food contribution at $1.50 per pound. Since this is acceptable to the IRS, I think we can safely assume that the overall value of a postmodern farm’s output is at least $1.50 per pound. Once this baseline is established, $2.00 a pound for fresh, organic, sustainably-grown produce starts to look like good value. However, this would mean only $30,000 in gross sales for 15,000 pounds on 1.5 acres. With expenses of $6,000 on that 1.5 acres, this would leave only $24,000 for the farmer for 3000 hours of work, or $8.00 per hour. This is not even the minimum wage in Washington!

Now that I have presented four different pricing models, it should be clear that they all have one or more flaws. The value of looking at these models is not in picking one, but rather in getting you the consumer to think about food pricing differently.


Time to Buy Your Fertilizer

I was browsing in the Whatcom Farmers Co-op in Bellingham today and checked on fertilizer prices. Whitney Farms complete organic fertilizer 5-5-5 (i.e.  5% Nitrogen, 5% Phosporous, 5% Potassium) was still at a low price. We had bought some bags for the Lynden food bank farm last year at $26.03, or $.65 a pound. Today's price was $29.28 or $.73 per pound. Now in comparison, the fertilizer I make up costs about $.65 per pound once it is indexed to a 5-5-5 level. (It is about $.38 per pound but is equivalent to a 4-3-3 blend.) It is likely that fertilizer prices will go up in the next few months, so I suggest getting a few bags NOW for spring planting. At 5 Loaves, the Lynden food bank farm I manage, we used 8 bags (320 pounds) for 8500 square feet last year, so if you have a 1000 square foot garden, 1 - 40 pound bag should do the trick. This is very good fertilizer and performs well. Remember, if you are rotating on a 4-6 year rotation, you don't have to fertilize your beans and peas and can just hit everything else with fertilizer. The beans and peas will contribute nitrogen to the soil and there will be residual fertilizer levels from the other crops in that spot that you fertilized last year. Since you are feeding the soil, instead of feeding the plant, you can use your crop rotation to your advantage and cut your fertilizer needs by 25% (4-year rotation) or 17% (6-year rotation).

I also bought dolopril lime at $5.41 for 25 pounds and sul-po-mag (langbeinite) at $21.69 for 50 pounds. Both of these are very good prices and are likely to go up in the coming months. Dolopril is dolomite lime (half magnesium, half calcium) that is "prilled" or made into little balls like hailstones that is easy to handle and apply consistently. Sul-po-mag is sulfur, potassium and magnesium that is mined from old seabeds in Utah and prilled by a mechanical, not chemical, process. It is a good source of potassium, being 0-0-22, so I use it in conjunction with greensand (mined from old seabeds in New Jersey) in my fertilizer mix. Both greensand and sul-po-mag are also sources of trace minerals (because they come from old sea beds), which your soil needs and YOU need as well. Let me say right here that I can tell by my physical well-being I am getting much better trace minerals in my diet since I started adding greensand and sul-po-mag to my fertilizer mix several years ago. [I feed the soil, the soil feeds the plants, and the plants feed me.] In point of fact, my vegetables don't really need salt at all in cooking, since they already have adequate levels of essential trace minerals (including salt) from the ground they are grown in.

Bottom line: Get your fertilizer now and store it in your garage or some other dry place. It will likely go up in price and it is always good to buy staple items when they are off-peak in demand.


Food Riots in Tunisia, Food Pricing, and Food Security

[NOTE: It has been many months since I blogged on this site and I think it is time I get back to it. I have a lot of back-logged writings that I will post here.]

It has been clear for some time that the Tunisian riots have a strong food price component. Here is an interesting link from the Washington Post. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/political-economy/2011/01/spike_in... The article's headline is, "Spike In Global Food Prices Contributes to Tunisian Violence," and a key sentence is, "An FAO report noted that 'recent bouts of extreme price volatility in global agricultural markets portend rising and more frequent threats to world food security.' "

Economists like to emphasize price. Price is usually thought of as resulting from the interaction of supply and demand. Reductions in supply increase price. Reductions in demand lower price. Some economists still hold onto the fiction that ALL of us are "price-takers." In other words, we have to take whatever price we can get from the "invisible hand of the market" for the goods and services and labor we trade for the money we need to buy food and other items and services. [Sidebar: Note how price requires money.] However, the universal price-taker idea does not square with the reality of corporate muscle in the marketplace, especially when a corporation controls both the costs of its inputs as well as its outputs. These corporations are effectively price-makers, not price-takers.

For example, Wal-Mart can bargain for extremely low prices for its inputs because of its sheer size and buying power. It can also bargain for pallets of goods to be packed in a certain way that expedite its stores' logistics. Because of the efficiencies of its control of its inputs, the money that Wal-Mart takes in for retails sales is already in the stores' tills BEFORE they have to pay their suppliers. This amounts to the customers paying the capital costs of the stores. If other stores have to get bank lines of credit to pay suppliers before they sell the item (the usual process), then Wal-Mart is essentially getting a free line of credit from their customers. If the cost of credit is 6%, Wal-Mart is already ahead of its competitors by 6%. In a category where a 3% profit margin (as in grocery megastores) is common, Wal-Mart has already kinked the game from the start. It is no surprise that 2 of the Walton family members are on the list of the top 15 richest people in the world. What IS surprising is why Wal-Mart isn't bigger than it is already! There are likely inefficiencies of scale at work here that most economists cannot calculate or even comprehend.

What does this mean for food prices and food security? We can see in Tunisia that volatility in food prices can have deleterious effects on internal security within a country. We also know that a price rise alone can trigger riots, as the high price of wheat did in 2008 in several countries around the world. We might also surmise that the low food prices in the US also contribute to the relatively peaceful conditions we enjoy. So, high food prices and even volatility in food prices contributes to domestic unease. Low food prices contributes to domestic security. Therefore, the greatest contribution to food security would seem to be to keep food prices low - and this is exactly the logic of the US government and most corporate, government and academic thinkers.

However, in order to keep food prices low to ensure domestic tranquility, the food will still have to be grown somewhere. If it cannot be grown in-country, it will have to be shipped in from someplace else. If there is plenty to go around AND the food is reasonably priced AND the food can be shipped to the countries that need it at a low cost AND there is only a limited amount of graft in the transactions, there is no problem. Up until now, the problem of world hunger has been a problem of distribution. Francis Moore Lappe said as much in 1970 and she is still right. We have the food but it is not getting to the people who need it around the world because of greed and/or graft.

However, where is the tipping point where distribution ceases to be the problem and actual production becomes the problem? I suggest to you that we will reach that point sometime in 2011. The reasons are because of a shortage of wheat due to Russian drought last year, Canadian rains last year, a hard winter lowering yields on winter wheat in the US, and floods in Australia destroying the wheat harvest. Argentina is likely to have a good wheat year but inflationary pressures could negatively impact their exports.

Another factor that is being willfully ignored is the amount of fossil fuels available to farmers worldwide. As oil goes up in price, food becomes more expensive, simply because most food produced in the developed countries requires tremendous amounts of fossil fuels to produce, process and transport them. In addition, higher prices for corn (Corn prices are also going up, as well soybeans and other food crops!) reduces demand for ethanol and this deficit must be made up with liquid petroleum fuels.

So what is the point of all this? 1) Food prices are rising worldwide due to several factors. 2) Supply is decreasing because of weather-related events. 3)These two factors reinforce each other and argue for a nasty period of food riots in the next few months. 4) Distribution of food to quell the food riots will not be possible because of costs of transportation and lack of production. 5) Thus, the coming food riots will receive plenty of feedback which will keep them simmering.

Food security will likely become more important than either Iraq or Afghanistan in the coming months. Russia and India thought so last year when they both banned grain exports.

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