F.A. Farm

  (Ferndale, Washington)
Postmodern Agriculture - Food With Full Attention
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Refractometers and the Brix Scale

A recent email from my local resource network contained an interview with a long-time proponent of the Brix scale and the use of refractometers. The interviewee also mentiond the work of Drs. Reams, Albrecht, Andersen and Skow. [You can google those names and get quite a lot of information on their work so I won't summarize.] The Brix scale is a measure of sugar content and what some people are now doing is to use this as a proxy for nutrient-density.

I have been aware of this line of thinking for several years, but it has always seemed too simplistic. The interview I read hasn't changed my mind any. It still smacks of pseudo-science, especially as the Brix reading can be altered by adding sugar to the solution or diluting the solution itself. However, the interview did make a comment about categorizing grapes via the Brix reading while they were green and that was rather astute. These grapes can then be sorted into more valuable wine grapes and less valuable concentrate grapes at harvest. This is similar to what the fieldmen in Washington are doing when they use a refractometer to help time the apple harvest so they will store well in the packing shed.
That said, I have been planning on buying a refractometer for several years, since I should have one for my apples once my trees get more mature and produce more. Then I can test some plants and see for myself whether Brix readings correlate well with taste and nutrition.
This also raises the larger question of subjectivity vs. objectivity. Subjectivity is just fine and people who are doing experiments that work DO NOT have to rise to a quantitative level that appears to be scientific. Simply saying the Brix scale is correlated with taste is quite enough. A researcher doesn't have to postulate that insects see something that we are measuring on an abstract numerical scale. [The example in the interview was that an insect sees weakness in a plant as a measurable wavelength on the electromagnetic spectrum and attacks it. We can see the same thing on the Brix scale. This is laughable.] He just has to say it works. In point of fact, it is better to just say, "I feel better because I feed my soil and the plants feed me." One of the changes that are happening all around us is that the pseudo-scientific method used by economists and bankers who want to enhance their prestige by appearing to be objective is already in the toilet. It then becomes an opportunity to just start talking subjectively like the First Nations elders (or like us dirty hippies used to talk 40 years ago). I am a scientist and I say science is overrated.

[As another sidebar, the creationists used to use the term "scientific creationism." This was a political move to take advantage of the patina of objective scientific method in order to enhance credibility. It didn't take too long for real scientists to point out that there is no way to refute, or test, creationism, so it is not amenable to the scientific method. The creationists are now having more luck getting their message across to high schools across the country since they accepted their basis in subjectivity.]


Economies of Small Scale

Modern agriculture is oriented towards economies of scale. This is usually presented as a one-way street - get big or get out. However, there is a flawed assumption here that needs to be addressed. Economies of scale are based on a price per unit that does not fall, while the cost per unit does fall. Pretty simple. Produce more widgets in your factory and you spread the cost of your rent or mortgage payment over a wider base and the cost of each unit goes down (total cost includes cost to produce plus your overhead). You can also reduce your cost per unit by getting more production out of each worker. If we translate this into a farming scenario, we can get our chickens to produce more eggs or use our acreage to produce more crops and decrease our cost per unit by choosing better breeds, keeping our chickens healthier and happier, feeding the soil so our plants are healthier and happier, etc.The point here is that economies of scale are not based on increasing the size of the operation - building a bigger factory or buying up more land to farm. Economies of scale are based on utilizing what we already have to the fullest extent. I suspect that what is usually touted as the economies of scale is simply a marketing scheme to grow the economy in a somewhat strait-jacketed manner. Build more factories! Sell more products! Export grain to the world! Export the American way of life to everybody in the Third World! It ain't necessarily the same thing. Perhaps real economies of scale do not depend on getting bigger.

Let's look at one of my favorite sound bites: the subjective trumps the objective. Example: Back in 1965 I used to run my hogs so they would be easier to handle in the show ring. On the farm, I would just pick out one of my show animals and run her until she was tired enough that I could touch her. (I did this at twilight after chores, so she wouldn't be exhausted in the heat of the day.) Then I would pat her and scratch her ears and she really didn't have any choice but to tolerate it. This made her more used to me and other humans and easier to load into the truck and more maneuverable in the show ring. My reward was Reserve Champion gilt at the state fair and a higher price when I sold her for breeding stock. Another example: I sell fingerling potatoes at $3.00 per pound and regular potatoes for $1.50 per pound. My labor for growing fingerlings is only a little bit greater than for the larger normal potatoes, and really only in the washing and sorting. I do get more fingerlings per pound of seed planted and yield is comparable to regular potatoes, so the production costs for the two are roughly the same (I save my own seed potatoes, so seed cost is the same.) I can sell the fingerlings for twice what I get for regular potatoes because people love them. So do I and I even made my lefse the last two Christmases with fingerlings instead of regular potatoes. De var bare bra! (They were very good!) So, the subjective taste and cachet of the little fingerlings trumps the higher objective cost to the consumer per pound. Some of the more rigid academic types may quibble that I am misusing the term, but am I really? If we focus on utilization of what we have, rather than building something newer and bigger (or buying more acreage), we may find that we increase our efficiency through economies of scale. Another blogger on this site, Re Rustica, has touched on something similar that they call "efficiencies of small run production" and they made a good point. We don't have to keep increasing the size of our farms. Perhaps we can just be content to stay small and just get better at what we do.

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