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1% of farms operate 70% of world's farmland (theguardian.com)
366 points by jelliclesfarm 62 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 214 comments



This article is the future for me. I’m a small farmer - I grow marijuana in Colorado. Federal laws have so far sheltered us and allowed us to grow (no pun) by keeping BigAg and Bank money outside. Now it’s an industry of small partnerships and family farmers and I am very happy. But it won’t last.

When marijuana is finally legalized nationally there will be an immediate tidal wave of money and consolidating. Those that remain independent will eventually become big corporate farms themselves or perish.

I have been blessed by my god with a wonderful family and the land my ancestors tended to, so while the business landscape will change and this boom will bust my small American family farm will remain.

I am also optimistic that BigAg will continue to look towards YOU for the tools I need to reduce labor and pests. Collectively, you guys are amazing and I get literally giddy thinking of the things you keep inventing


We have a lot of this (Big Ag) in Germany. But we also have many small-ish farms being able to provide for their owners. What I find from looking at agriculture is, that regional partnerships (from field to table) esp. in the organic sector help a lot stabilizing the situation.

Also forms like Community-supported agriculture seem to be working for some.

But - they are not focused and do not produce a specific crop. So not sure how this could work for a marijuana farm like yours.

None the less - being a proponent of localized farming and seasonal living, I would love to see some things working out for the likes of you and ensuring a free form of ownership and the ability to provide for you and your family.

Others proposed, that "winner takes it all" is a natural law. This would lead me to slavery is a natural law, as the winner would dictate the living conditions of the rest.

Absolut freedom (leading to winner takes it all situations) in the beginning (at least for me) necessarily leads to un-freedom for most in the end. This is actually what prompted me to think about different forms of freedom (individual freedom vs. collective freedom, positive freedom (freedom to ...) vs. negative freedom (freedom from ...)).

For me this leads to some form of democratic end of freedom. The idea that my freedom ends were yours begins. Something like this. I did a longer post on this - but sadly in German, so it probably does not make too much sense here:

https://schriftrolle.de/freiheit-versuch-einer-begriffsklaer...


I feel for you and you have my sincere sympathy. I come from a family that has done nothing but agriculture to pay bills (despite being highly educated and skilled in many areas, I am not a farmer).

The problem with farming is that the total money you will make is fixed the moment land ownership is fixed. If you own X acres, you can make at max $$$ per year. Someone like my father is fine with that and lives his entire life on the farm. As time goes by other people sell their farms to larger farms and economy of scale makes the larger farms simply more efficient. They can get more $$$ from same acres for factors that someone like my father can not control.

Efficiency is a good thing that means less resources are used in producing per pound of the product which saves consumers more money and hence create more wealth. I still think it is possible for many of us to survive by doing things like co-operative farming. Basically many small farmers pool resources and land to act like a large company but while keeping the control of company and land still in your hands. These will not be billion dollar companies but still can survive the test of time.

Also, smaller farmers can survive by catering to different niches. For example there are lot of Hindus in bay area for whom cow is a holy animal and they like it to be treated well. A lot of them buy Strauss family farm's milk because the belief (I do not know it for a fact) among them that this farm treats cows much better than others. This milk is expensive. (Ancient Organics is a brand dependant on Strauss milk to produce some other times that Hindus in bay area seem to love like the Indian Ghee, which I am told is just as good as the home made one in India).


I live in Texas and anxiously await legalization because I’d love to start farming it.

However I know how things in this state work, and the economics of Ag. If and when Texas legalizes there will be immense amounts of private equity involved (lots of money here) and it will go ConAgra-ADM-Monsanto overnight.

People here do business, and Ag, really big. Fuck even one of the grocery chains is vertically integrated. They own everything from farms to shrimp boats.

My chances of doing anything are shot, except maybe high-end boutique low-yield stuff with lots of marketing.


Which grocery store? HEB?


Yes


I imagine there will be a market for growers like you the same ways there's a market for craft beer or organic foods despite giant breweries and consolidated farms.


Do you think it’s still worth going into the “recently legalized” business? May I ask how you got started and got the correct licensure?


Farms have continued to grow, echoing Earl Butz' (Nixon's Secretary of Ag) "get big or get out" philosophy. However, there are several studies out there showing that a greater portion of the world's population is fed by small farms:

- https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5... - https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/12/1... - http://www.fao.org/family-farming/detail/en/c/284666/

Small farmers need support, it's worth learning about local arms of organisations such as https://viacampesina.org/en/, for example https://landworkersalliance.org.uk


I'd like to see more people do small scale farming anyways, mainly to support themselves, not in the first place as a business to get rich from.

Big farms tend to focus on a few crops (cash crops). Small farms that are meant to support a family would do better by having a great variety of crops. It's also nice to support a local community this way, by selling some extra produce to local markets or people in the local community.

My girlfriend has a small 3 rai (~5000 m2) farm. Originally she only grew rice ... or rather some Myanmar people grew rice on her farm for a small amount of money. In the past 1.5 year my girlfriend transformed the farm to support our family. Now about 1 rai is used for rice (enough for our family) and the remainder is used for growing fish, fruits (bananas, coconuts, mangos, ...) and vegetables (Thai aubergines, long beans, cauliflower, spring unions, ...).

Having a greater variety of crops also protects a bit from bad harvests or bad market prices. It makes one more anti-fragile.

In the future we should probably buy some land to grow the farm to about 5 rai and from then on we should be able to fully support ourselves with fish, fruit and veggies.

I think Jon Jandai has some nice ideas on setting up a small scale farm [0].

---

[0]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2eoQyYoUww


Isn’t the solution to increase these farms’ economies of scale? So the same civilisation-enhancing forces that drove development 10,000 years ago can show their force more broadly?


My old boss operates a 1,000 acre farm as a hobby due to that efficiency. Sure it was a “family farm” but it was a trivial portion of their income and involved 10-15 hours of work a week. It’s hard to argue that’s a bad thing.


Had an old teammate who would talk about his "family's farm" back in Kentucky. Got the impression he meant some 500 acre plot of land they were just getting by on.

Oh no, it's 8,000 acres or so and they have a staff of workers to maintain it.


When you say operate do you mean do all the work? Or manage the farm and hire people to do that?

If the former, would you say what kind of farm it is, 1000 acre farm that’s easy enough to spend 15 hours a week seems interesting to me.


Operate as in he and his wife did 95+% of the work so it was more like 20h/week total. As to the type of farm, they had some beef cattle and mostly grew corn.

The time spent is kind of an interesting question because they could spend either time or more money to solve many issues. It was enough time to break even, but not enough profit to live on. However, a pure corn farm would taken less work, so they chose to spend more time than needed to make it more interesting.


> It was enough time to break even, but not enough profit to live on.

AFAIK this describes most small-scale farmers. They're only doing it because of inertia (eg. they inherited the farm and they don't want to sell it), not because it's actually profitable.


Probably the latter, but that said, a modern cash crop monoculture farm involves just a few high intensity bursts of activity a year.

During most of the growing season it's just sitting there without intervention. And all winter. A huge burst of activity in the spring with tillage / planting and/or seed drilling & spraying / fertilizing etc. Maybe a couple passes over for herbicide application. And then combine harvesting in the fall and maybe some tillage and planting of winter rye, etc. Then some machine maintenance, outbuilding maintenance, accounting / bookkeeping, seed and other inputs purchasing thrown in here and there throughout the year.

I can see it being as little as 15 hours a week if you averaged it over the whole year. But it would have moments of intensity.

But the reality is that most of these farmers around in my area are contracting out portions of this work, because owning the equipment ends up being a huge capital investment that only makes sense for very large plots of land.


There's definitely lots of low effort options for farming. Look at permaculture farming for example, key ideas behind it involve no-tilling, sculpting the landscape with various shapes like berms, which create microclimates, arranging rows of trees to retain moisture, etc. There's a lot of ways to make the land work for you, but can take a few years to get it to a highly productive state.


Just for reference, I've lived on our current place for 20 years or so, and it has taken absolutely every one of those years to get to a point that our 'permaculture' farm is anywhere near running efficiently.

The amount of work involved in that process is simply staggering. There are principals that can be effectively integrated to a backyard garden. But, to have as close to a self-sustaining cycle as you can, you're going to invest thousands and thousands of hours. Honestly, I have never figured up how many hours we've spent on this, just because it's a hobby and quantifying it would spoil part of it for me.


We have a great permaculture farm near us, they run classes, tours etc. (Apparently a popular joke in the permaculture world is that the only way to make money off permaculture is to run permaculture courses).

Everything I've seen there echos your sentiments. An incredible amount of work - and knowledge - to achieve a rather peasant-level existence.

That said it's amazing seeing anyone live a genuinely sustainable lifestyle. I always think that if everyone lived and thought like these guys, our environment would be recovering nicely.


>I always think that if everyone lived and thought like these guys, our environment would be recovering nicely.

That's the problem.

>to achieve a rather peasant-level existence.

Without massive, massive disruption to the way people live, this is not a thing that will happen.

This is why I'm very negative about the prospects of climate change and the future. I don't think there will be a stomach to change to a lifestyle that supports climate improvements until such time as we're already fighting world wars over land, water, and food.

We also run tours, but in conjunction with the local state university extension office, for free. We could charge, but that defeats the purpose of getting the principals we believe in out to the world.

That is not a moral judgment on the people running the one near you. My partner and I have full-time jobs that support our lifestyle - the 'farmette' is just a hobby.


Let's say you had the same piece of land, but you put a hard limit on how much time you'll spend working on it every year.

No time for make work. Bring in machines to quickly shape the land. Borrow some pigs or chickens to root through the ground and then sprinkle random seeds all over. Spend your time on observation, avoid working on the land for a couple of years, etc. See what comes up and where.


You would end up with a weed patch. There is a very natural progression of plants that happens when a piece of land is left unattended. Small grasses, then brambles and bushes, then fast growing trees, then slower growing trees.

There is not really a way to create a space for growing food and/or cultivating anything that doesn't require time. The weather, weeds, pests. These things do not care for the calendars of men.

>No time for make work.

This is the main difference between farm life and work life. Most of my work life, in the office, is spent finding work, or creating work. New initiatives, better processes, etc. These are all things to either improve what already works, or fix what doesn't work that well. Either way, it's make work.

On a farm, the tasks you engage in (outside of hunting or fishing or other fun endeavors) exist solely because the need to exist. I have to create a dead furrow or swale (sp?) or berm, because otherwise the soil will furrow and wash in the next spring rains. I have to build fence on the back 15, because otherwise I cannot pasture that ground in the spring and cannot have cattle. 'I have to' guides the daily/weekly/monthly plans; there is no strategic planning process to keep middle managers busy.


Right. I had given a few examples of quite successful long-running permaculture / regenerative agriculture operations here - people like Gabe Brown (Brown's Ranch, ND, US, ~5000 acres), Richard Perkins (Ridgedale Permaculture, Varmland, Sweden, 25 hectares?), Geoff Lawton (NSW, AU, well-known permaculture pioneer, 66 hectares/acres - countries consult him, even):

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24827234

Most of them have YouTube channels with a number of videos each, so you can see that they are actually walking (or plowing or no-tilling :) the talk. They also do invited talks and run internships. Gabe, Richard, Geoff and many others also use conventional or adapted machines (traditional heavy machinery or lower-cost appropriate technology), too, so it can be a hybrid what-makes-sense-as-well-as-is-sustainable approach; it is not a totally back-to-nature hippie kind of thing. In fact all those I mentioned are highly educated (whether college- or self-taught), and well aware of critical modern scientific discoveries and development in ag-related sciences (plural) and use them as appropriate in their operations. One big such example is Elaine Ingham's work (a Ph.D. soil biology scientist, founder of Soil Food Web, Inc.), which I also commented on in the same thread as the one I linked to above (it is very significant, and they all quote her and apply her results):

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24828524

There are many more, doing their thing successfully and quietly, although there certainly are talks, books, videos, conferences, associations, courses, etc.

And some of them claim that their approach is lower effort and / or lower cost than so-called "conventional" farming. In fact, Gabe says that it is their approach (permaculture / regen ag) which is closer to "conventional", since it mimics nature, as much as feasible, and nature has been at it for millenia before we even walked the earth. And in a holistic sense, it is actually more efficient.

Edited for typos.


There's also Ernst Götsch down in Brazil and Joel Salatin in the Eastern Seaboard.


Thanks, will check them out.


“Permaculture” is opposite of low effort. No tilling is not going to save me much effort, given that I can till 200 acres a day with a tractor. Sculpting the landscape of the same 200 acres will take incomparably more effort.

Permaculture is well suited for home gardens, where you want to maximize land use and fun involved. It is not going to feed the population.


Any monocrop or one sufficiently subsidized is my guess. I grow a lot of food for myself and my family on less than an acre using hand tools. I don't focus on single crop because that would yeild a feast-or-famon phenomenon.

Grow what grows well in your context and locality, part time. Additionally, a focus on perennials will significantly chop the work hours needed to just reaping the harvest.

For more subscribe to my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/RussellBallestrini


The problem is that the economies of scale are invested in and enjoyed by the biggest players first, so by the time they can be enjoyed by the smaller farms the markets have already adjusted to make it a necessity just to stay above water.


Do you mean agricultural output per money or agircultural output per area? The latter one does not scale with bigger farms but shrinks.


What economies of scale specifically do farms have?

A farm is not a factory where you can create a uniform process...


Well, as a simple example, you can't efficiently plow or mechanically harvest lots of land which are very small or have a weird shape. If you aggregate them, it becomes much more efficient.

Same thing goes for purchasing equipment or supplies, you can buy in bulk for a large farm.

Modern farms ARE factories.


What you are saying is true, but a lot of people hate the thought, since a farm has historically been a family working within a small community or a village, first and foremost for their own benefit, with the surplus going back to the village or greater society through trade or cooperation (or later by force through taxation by the Lord of the land). This was a good and healthy life that produced strong people. For thousands of years the farm was the producer of civilization and culture. Today, on the other hand, it has been reduced to a factory, and culture and tradition is increasingly molded by political organizations who sometimes don't have the family's best intentions at heart. The unit has been operationalized and a big part of what it once meant to be a farmer in a close-knit community has instead been reduced to being a factory worker on minimum wage (or less, if you're an illegal immigrant).


That's a "Golden Age" perspective. At best it was true for a minority of people for a rather short moment in time, compared to the time agriculture has been around.

Historically agricultural workers were slaves or at best serfs. In any case, a brutal lifestyle, generally for someone else's benefit.

Well, what you're saying does apply to a category of countries, underdeveloped ones. Countries at very low levels of what we'd consider civilization. There people were either shepherds or subsistence farmers but closer to what we'd call hunter-gatherers.


> Historically agricultural workers were slaves or at best serfs.

This was certainly common, but e.g. England hasn't really had serfdom for 5 centuries (after a gradual decline). Quite a lot of the labor was hired servants, perhaps a majority, although (IIRC) the median servant worked alongside only one or two others. So not family, but still a lot of family-sized groups.


> Historically agricultural workers were slaves or at best serfs. In any case, a brutal lifestyle, generally for someone else's benefit.

Not really. It's a myth that farms were made solely to support "the 1%." In fact research suggests that work hours were often less in those days than in modern times.[1]

To be sure, part of the farming produce was taxed in various ways (legitimate or not) during a lot of history, and there were disagreements about how big that tax was supposed to be that sometimes even lead to revolt, but then there were no real alternatives either. In short, farming was the best possible life to be had during most of history for most people, unless you were part of the nobility or some trading class. For most that just wasn't attainaible in any meaningful way, except perhaps through the participation in wars, or for some, marriage.

Indeed, until very recently most farms were "subsistence farming" (historically speaking, of course), but that isn't to say that it was necessarily a "bad" or gruelling life, considering the technology that existed at the time. At best that assertion is anachronistic. Of course the farming of yesteryear is worse than more modern farming methods! On the other hand you have to remember that living in a society where most people do something else than farming is a very recent developement. This means that most people grew up on—or close—to a farm throughout history.

Living in a family, perhaps close to a village, while growing plants and tending to livestock, was an integral part of life for most people. Thus, the way of structuring life on a farm was the main bearer of culture and tradition to new generations in those societies. I'm of course not speaking of "high" or "fine" culture here, which was the domain of the cities and various courts, but the traditions, social rules, and work ethics instilled in farmer families, who then brought it into the cities; much of it coming to pass exactly because there were no safety nets like a welfare state back then. So you either worked your farm, or subsided to begging or famine. In that sense you could say that there was a rather strong selection towards that kind of ethics too.

Today, most of that "folksy" ethics and culture is dying out, if it's not dead already, as more and more people are solely living in cities over multiple generations. This is why so many are completely out of touch with how things like dairy, meats or grains are even produced. Moreover they never got to take part in the family cooperation required to run a farm successfully, which both requires a certain kind of morality and work ethics, and not least an up-close and personal knowledge of how nature works. All that vanishes when agriculture becomes just another market share for the industrialist.

I'm not saying that it's all bad. Certainly the most obvious gain is that more people, at least in theory, should be able to work less to get food on the table, as it were. But there are also certain very healthy and good things that are lost in the process too, and I think it's important that people are at least aware of it.

[1]: http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/worktime/hours_w...


> Countries at very low levels of what we'd consider civilization.

Industrialized.


Not even. Large farms first appeared in the Fertile Crescent more than 5000 years ago.


> a lot of people hate the thought

Source?

> For thousands of years the farm was the producer of civilization and culture.

The producer of "civilization and culture"? In what sense? Farms produce the goods we eat, how does that lead to culture and civilization? I'm not that knowledgeable at history - if that is the case, then I'd really like to read more about it.

> Today, on the other hand, it has been reduced to a factory

Given your previous assertions about farms losing their status as cultural hotspots, I bet you hate Andy Warhol :)


> The producer of "civilization and culture"? In what sense? Farms produce the goods we eat, how does that lead to culture and civilization? I'm not that knowledgeable at history - if that is the case, then I'd really like to read more about it.

Well, I recommend any history book about the Fertile Crescent and Ancient Egypt.

If you have 1 hour, hear/listen to this podcast/video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2lJUOv0hLA


Historically more than 95% of the population had to live on a farm to support the 1%ers who didn't. Most of them were slave labor. this farmers did define the dominant culture.

Of course most of them don't appear in history books so they are easy to forget about.


Without farming, humans were hunters and nomads, had comparatively very few possessions and left behind few artifacts. It's likely that writing was invented after humans settled down on farms, possibly for bookkeeping.


>>since a farm has historically been a family working within a small community or a village

Yeah, but I'd rather go to a supermarket and buy 5lbs of meat than go hunting. Things change.

Small plot of land keep people where they are with zero hope or mobility. You cannot buy equipment and the tractors are best used in fields 1 mile wide or whatever.


I'm pretty sure I've seen farmers in rural Ireland successfully ploughing fields that aren't 1 mile wide.


Definitely, but smaller fields are a lot less efficient unfortunately.


To be clear, when you say efficient, you mean percentage of profit (value produced/costs) is lower in aggregate than if that same patch of land were part of a much larger farm. I submit this definition of efficiency ignores the distribution of those profits, which currently support a group of people owning the fruit of their labor - as opposed to those people being locked into dead-end wage labor jobs working at a much larger farm, while the real profits flow to a single entity.

When people talk about the hollowing out of the middle class, this is exactly what they mean. Capitalism is very efficient at producing wealth but extremely inefficient in distributing it.


Your system means that when your local garden fails your family starves to death. With the large farm we have insurance so that when (WHEN not IF) there is a crop failure we just buy something from a farm far away. Distance is important here: crop failures tend to be because of a situation that affects your entire village so you can't fall back on a local safety net, you need a large one with a distribution network. The distribution network in turns requires a lot of people not working the farm but instead distributing things around. To make this work you need large farms with surplus.

In short your ideals sound good, but they just don't work out. Too many people are needed off the farm to pull it off, but you put them on their little farms.


Correction - the local system means that when the local system fails _for years on end_ then the remote part of society needs to step in to support those who are starving locally. But this is true, no matter how high you push things. If something kills all the okra (see Interstellar) then we'll have to fall back on spinach _as a society_ if we have one mega-farm. If everything on the planet dies off then we'll have to flee the solar system, or get support from neighbors in the local galactic cluster.


I don't know what Intersetellar is (obviously a book/movie but I don't care to look it up).

What is the local vs remote system? When you have small farms local is you, and remote your neighbors who you walk to. When you have large enough farms you can generate enough surplus that the world cares - and they are generating enough that they can afford to play nice. Small farmers in general don't generate enough surplus that they can feed each other across the distance of a continent.

Support from a galactic cluster is nice in SciFi, but in reality space is too big. It is questionable if Earth/Venus could support each other, as our orbits are often too misaligned to do anything in time. (the fast trip to mars involves Venus so things are even worse). Going between stars - forget it, by the time we find out about a problem they are dead or have survived.


Does not follow. I'm not talking about subsistence farming. Nothing stops you from buying food from small farms further away that didn't experience crop failure.


Your small farm doesn't have enough surplus in the good years to pay for the transport cost to get food from farther away.


No, I mean it's less efficient. A large field can be farmed with larger machinery which is more fuel, time (and yes, cost) efficient than smaller machinery. There is less time spent moving between fields which can be critical for something as weather sensitive as harvest. Large machinery typically produces bigger gaps between tramlines and reduces spillage when turning, leading to greater yields and less waste.


You're just restating what you said and what I accurately interpreted: the costs are higher with smaller farms. You define this as inefficiency. I point out this definition of efficiency only considers amount of surplus generated, not how the surplus is distributed. With larger corporate-owned farms the surplus is distributed in a very inefficient way.


I'm talking about the process of turning sunlight into food. If you want to make that process use as few resources as possible (especially fossil fuels) then you need big fields with large machinery. Distribution of wealth is a different topic.


It is astonishing to me that you can look at how technology has impacted labor over the past half-century and believe that this definition of efficiency, which by necessity includes human labor cost as something to be minimized for the benefit of the recipients of the resulting surplus, has nothing to do with distribution of wealth.


I'm saying that's a different argument, and not one I raised.

You incorrectly inferred my meaning from my original post and are now doubling down, I'm not sure why.

It's as simple as this: We want to produce as much food as possible from as few natural resources as possible, emitting as little carbon as possible in the process. Large fields are more efficient at this, for reasons I've spelt out already.

Even in a fully communist society this would be true.


Modern farm business is made to look like a factory by the big business, but that is not a proof that this maximizes yield per acre, or makes food as cheap as possible.

This is not an anti-corporate slur, I am just pointing out that if you have n acres of land under big ag, you would need to implement a more boutique ag operation on the same piece of land to come up with a sane comparison.

Since this is really not feasible generally I would like to know has someone actually studied this.

For example, soil is not necessarily uniform, and smaller scale operation might utilize the specific area of land for a mixture of landraces that might improve the yield than the monocrop that was designed to be able to produce crop in a generic industrial process, but not might for example be optimal for any soil.


Ecen a pretty basic set of modern farm equipment and facilities will run into the millions of dollars, and will have very low utilization on small farms. A single modern combine can harvest >100 acres per day. With multiple big fields of crops that have different harvesting times your equipment will spend much less time idle.


That's right, but it's not necessary to aggregate small farms into large ones to maximize machine utilization. It's also possible to separate the machine-owning part from the other aspects of farming and aggregate only that, by forming an association of farmers who share equipment. (Shared ownership of the means of production, so to speak.) In German, that's called a Maschinenring. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maschinenring Not sure whether the concept is unpopular in the English-speaking world, or just not considered noteworthy enough to warrant its own Wikipedia article.


In Ireland we have agricultural contractors who specialise in owning/operating big equipment that are only contracted in when needed but they are then very busy at certain times of the year an 18 hour days for a few weeks wouldn't be unusual. Literally making hay while the sun shines I guess.


The overhead of transporting this equipment between farms makes the process significantly less efficient. The difference between harvesting 2,000 acres a day and 1,700 might not seem like a lot, but add in transaction costs and you can be talking 5+% higher food costs ignoring subsidies.


It's not just that, certain pieces of equipment (combines in particular) are needed at the exact same time in multiple different places, and a delay of a day or even a few hours can be ruinous (if you don't harvest wheat at exactly the right time it can be more or less destroyed by the weather)


How do big farms cope with situations where their equipment is needed in multiple different places at the exact same time?


If you have 20,000 acres and equipment failure means you don’t harvest the last 1,000 acres before a rain that’s a problem. But for smaller farms it’s more binary where either 100% is on time or 0% is. You can bet people are more willing to let the first happen than the second.


If you merge multiple small farms into a single big one, the overhead of transporting this equipment between farms turns into the overhead of transporting this equipment between different parts of the farm. The distance that needs to be covered remains the same. Sure, the hand-off between farmers needs to be scheduled, but is that going to make the difference between 2,000 acres a day and 1,700? Do tractor drivers on big farms never take a break?


Individual farms aren’t simply a single open field. So, you need to physically drive between locations, verify that this is the correct location, enter the correct settings, ensure each farms resources are separate etc.


And which of these steps can be omitted on a big farm? Only "ensure each farms resources are separate", no? Isn't that just an accounting question?


I think you’re underestimating the overhead of talking to people. If your doing something worth X,000$ you want some signatures before and after the fact. Even the possibility of driving to the wrong location is meaningful.

But, it’s also little things like the distance a tractor travels before it needs to turn around. Picture painting a a wall with and without windows using those long rollers. The simpler the shape the faster you can go.


There are transaction costs to these arrangements.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_the_firm for the broader question of why we have (big) companies at all instead of everything being organised on eg a project basis and people and equipment hired just as needed.


But there's only so much farmland. Those super efficient machines increase the efficiency of its operator, not the efficiency of the land.


they increase the efficiency of the land too. By doing perfect spacing between plants they ensure optimal growing conditions for each which in turns increase yields greatly. Two plants in the space of one shade each other and the net result is a lot more than half the harvest is lost since each needs to put the same amount of energy into making a plant before they can put any into creating the crop. Too far apart and sunlight reaches the ground uselessly (or worse a fast growing weed that will shade your plants!).



Just a few: Tractor amortization over additional acres. Administrative overhead rarely scales linearly. Better prices on inputs from ordering in larger quantities. Access to new tech that is too expensive for smaller operations to justify.

A farm is very similar to a factory in many ways. You buy inputs (especially Nitrogen) and convert those into a usable output using biological machinery. This becomes especially true for people planting permanent crops (I.e almonds) where you also need to consider the maintenance on the plant (pruning, etc) as it ages. Uniformity of process is actually another place that large farms benefit. They can afford the quality managers capable of designing such systems. An owner-operator with one guy working part-time for him is less likely to bother.


Harvesting, planting, fertilizing, irrigating... are all uniform processes. Larger farms can invest in more machinery (and more expensive machinery), and build more infrastructure for themselves. They can do more sophisticated testing of their crops/animals, can monitor the things they need to monitor to a higher level, they can absorb loss-incurring seasons more readily. All of that is economies of scale.


Others pointed out the economies of scale in terms of production. I will point out that a large farming operation also has more resilience against risk. If some minor disaster takes out one of the fields on this farm, a blight on the one field, there are many other fields that may still be intact. This is even more so when you are Big Ag and you have multiple farms in different states. You might lose 5% of your crop to a bad hailstorm or an early frost in Oklahoma, but 95% of it is intact, while the small time Oklahoma farmer has no such consolation.

Agriculture isn’t just a numbers game for production, but also for spreading risk.


Which is why historic small farms tended to be a lot of small fields. You didn't only only one patch of ground you had several. If the wheat field failed, maybe the barely elsewhere did okay and so you can at least survive until next year.


I'd imagine a lot of things can be streamlined from big companies that individual/independant farmers can't keep up with; one thing that came to mind was those big circles visible on aerial photos like those pictured here https://www.quora.com/Why-do-they-make-circular-crop-fields-...


Buying a $500,000 machine (that has massive throughout) makes sense when you’re farming 10,000 acres, but not so much when it’s 20 acres.


I commonly hear farming described as "Geographically distributed manufacturing" in the industry. It's a lot closer to a uniform process than people think.


Leafy greens production is quickly being standardized and automated in a highly controllable format. e.g. [0]

It would be reasonable to assume that the farming of many other crops will eventually transition to fully automated indoor formats.

[0] https://infinite-acres.com/


Not really. Leafy greens are expensive in the store for what you get: a lot of labor required, and spoil quickly after harvest. It makes sense to automate indoors. Most crops need a lot more space, and a lot less labor. Indoor farming is not economical for these.

Don't get me wrong: there are a number of crops where it makes sense. They are an important source of nutrients (and taste!), but a poor source of calories overall.


Or to grow in a small home garden. Leafy greens are the easiest crop to grow in a small plot, or even indoors. Greens, fruits and tomatoes/peppers are the easiest for home growers to become self-sufficient. The labor is credited as exercise and therapy.


Not a farmer but I imagine better amortise the cost of machinery, better optimise a process when done at scale.


I think you lose a lot of granularity when you just measure a farm by size.

A 20,000 acre “farm” that only grazes a few thousand head of cattle because it’s practically desert could be much less productive than a 100 acre farm in the most fertile region of the world.

So it wouldn’t surprise me that the smaller farms feed an outsized proportion of the population.


I know a guy that set up a food operation in a sea container in Toronto. It was a whole ecosystem of food producing organisms. Fish in the water, herbs like dill, tomatoes, all sorts of stuff. He'd sell it at 4x grocer prices to pricy restaurants near-by. His reasoning in putting it in a sea container was that he could always find a spare place to park it / electrify it with all his friends in the construction industry.

Made enough to live in Kensington Market, which is a hipster / hippy part of Toronto.


I grew up in Iowa, so my fascination with hydroponics is partly from the technical intrigue, but also an egalitarian philosophy.

A locales food security with conventional agriculture is heavily dependent on the quality of their soil, while with hydroponics and derivatives it's more a function of their engineering prowess (and available infrastructure).


Exactly, there's some rather large farms in the NZ high country, and they tend to measure stocking rates for their more marginal land as "hectares per head" - much like measuring an M1 tank's fuel consumption in "gallons per mile".


This quote is from a report, which itself is based on a FAO report:

http://www.fao.org/3/ca7036en/ca7036en.pdf

Quote with context:

The results show that, worldwide, farms of less than 1 hectare account for 70 percent of all farms, but operate only 7 percent of all agricultural land. Slightly larger farms between 1 and 2 hectares account for 14 percent of all farms and control 4 percent of the land. Together, farms of less than 2 hectares account for 84 percent of all farms, but operate only around 12 percent of all agricultural land. Farms in the range of 2 to 5 hectares account for 10 percent of all farms and control 6 percent of the land. Interestingly, the largest 1 percent of farms in the world (those larger than 50 hectares) operate more than 70 percent of the world’s farmland.

(there are 608 million farms in the world)


To put some numbers in perspective:

In the US, the sale of public lands for everything west of the Ohio River was on the basis of the Public Land Survey System. The smallest saleable parcel was a "quarter-quarter section", or 40 acres (~16 hectares) of land. The Homestead Acts would grant (at various times) 160, 320, or 640 acres of land to free for anyone who would farm out. In other wards, the "small" pioneer farms of American history are in the top 1% of all farms.

Put differently, the large number of small farms is driven by the size of subsistence farms in the intense rice-growing areas of Southeast Asia (rice being more productive per acre than wheat, especially if you're not dealing with industrial inputs). Then, you have the subsistence farms of less-productive crops like wheat, mostly in Africa.


The profit share for those largest 1% of farms is even greater than 70% as well. I believe it’s around 93% of profits are made from the large operations.


For reference, 50 hectares (123 acres) is a small farm for an ag community/family. It's not the least bit surprising that they are low profit. Several members of my extended family farm at and above that acreage and a majority of my grandfather's farmland is leased out to a larger family operation since he's retired. Those family members mostly have regular 40/week jobs, since they're just hobby farms.


Absolutely, the cutoff to be a large farm is quite low. I am a farmer myself, but we have a very large plot compared to the cutoff point (~10,000 acres, half of them permanent and half row crops). There are enough difficulties to managing our operation, I would never advise someone to go into the business unless they had an almost religious calling to it.


Isn't this just pointing out that farms follow a Pareto distribution, like a lot of creative domains? It's a really common emergent pattern. It doesn't diminish from the observation the article makes, but it does make it somewhat less surprising when you're used to seeing Pareto curves all over the place.


There are other comments in this thread about Pareto. Personally, I think it's a very different distribution because its basically misleading. The very vast majority the 608 million "farms" are the equivalent of a small house and a yard.

There may be more classic Pareto distribution if you change the statistics - basically the title and newspaper article are misleading in trying to point out inequality. Its a trap. Advocates of Pareto like to downplay inequality by invoking Pareto distributions as being "natural". Both points of view are flawed in this specific case (but are valid in other cases) because the statistics don't mean much - it's like playing a rigged casino game against a player where it's the house that wins.


The inequality discussed by the article is a reduction to a popular political line. These popularized, almost mythical, portrayals of agriculture are uselessly far from reality. If you want to summarize a tremendously complex industry, it's more useful to compare in terms of the crop being produced and the region's level of economic development.

For example, in the US, mechanized row crop farming over large numbers of acres is the norm (growing corn, beans, wheat, etc). These farms are all small head count family-run operations, sized between a few hundred to a few thousand acres, with a total somewhere in the low hundred-thousands of them.

The worldwide number of farms then runs up into the hundreds of millions due to small landholders - subsistence agriculture, locally sold produce, etc.

A farmer growing corn in a remote Central American village is completely different from the farmer growing corn in the United States. A produce farmer at your local farmer's market is completely different from a wheat farmer on the Black Sea. There's a living to be made at many points on the spectrum, and humanity needs each of them.

Real problems certainly do exist. They have more to do with things like the market pressures of producing commodity products, baseline calorie and nutritional demands, distribution, and structural supply and demand inefficiencies.


Maybe that's out of date. Iowa used to be run as described, but the 'family farm' is largely extinct. Now its all run by corporations in large blocks.

This is an evolving issue, and its gone at least as far as the OP suggests.


Speaking as someone who provides services to the industry, your statement just isn't correct; as I originally stated it's a popular myth that is very different from reality. There are large corporations involved, but they come in at the points where inputs are supplied to the farmer and production is purchased.

Production is still operated by family run farms. It's so capital inefficient that no corporation would dare bother.


Here's some data: https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/money/agriculture/20...

Its pretty bleak. Farmers that don't farm. Family ownership has dropped drastically. Most farm owners are 65 or older, half of that women that outlived their families and don't work the land any more. Most land in production is rented. Families that keep the ol farmstead do it for sentimental reasons and hire it out to a corporation.


The article indicates that the people who own the land are renting it out to the people who are farming it. This doesn't mean that corporations own the land or do the farming. The article you linked explicitly states that corporate ownership is very low and as not changed in 40 years.

> Corporate ownership has remained relatively stable since 1982, coming in at 10 percent last year.


Land ownership is a tangential subject, but this does portray some accurate details about modern agriculture in the US.

Many children leave the family farm; they can earn more with less work, and operating a profitable farm operation is very difficult. Families don't like selling their farmland, so they rent it out to another farmer. There are funds that buy farmland to profit from rental or future resale, but again they are not the operators.

Perhaps it'd be helpful if you provided a few examples of these corporations? Not incorporated family farms, but these for-hire corporations operating at large acreage scales.


Industrialisation of farming is a good thing more than a bad thing. You don't want the cost of food to go up, or the supply to go down. You kind of want large scale industrial farming. It's like complaining that large factories are taking over small artisans.


Maybe true in glorious future where the industrialized farm can support increased biodiversity. Currently, however, this promotes large-scale monoculture. Which is inherently harmful on almost every level, including the ability to keep the cost of food down and and the supply up.

Food diversity is much much less than it was 100 years ago. Nutritional content of food is down significant levels from 30 years ago.


> Nutritional content of food is down significant levels from 30 years ago.

Source: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/soil-depletion-an...

> Currently, however, this promotes large-scale monoculture.

This can be good or bad, depending on what is produced in a large scale, I guess(?) Especially at this point in time we should focus on foods that don't mess with the environment/don't fuel climate change.


> Maybe true in glorious future where the industrialized farm can support increased biodiversity

While it certainly reduces on-farm biodiversity, higher yields also let us leave more land completely un-farmed. For example I think maybe 10% of France has returned to forest in the last 40 years, and more since 1900, but I can't seem to find a great link...


The Jevons Paradox would like a word.

E.g., we spend 14 million acres on non-food corn ethanol, and 80+ million acres of corn is fed to livestock at terrible feed conversion ratios. We'd get the same amount of net calories on our plates for 8 million acres if we ate the corn.


The area farmed in the US has declined slowly since the 1950s, maybe down 20%? Am eyeballing graphs as google is failing me:

https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/charts/58267/farms_fig01_45...

It would decline faster if we didn't subsidize stupid stuff like corn ethanol, for sure.

Edit, a maybe a better graph:

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/share-of-land-area-used-f...


I don't know about France, but I understand in the US that decline has mostly been the result of residential development buying out farmland.

For just one small but hot-button current example, see Napa. For a historical example, see Silicon Valley, which was once orchards.


Urban land is 69 M acres, cropland 391 (according to some quick googling) and pasture 654. So urban is 17% of cropland, or 7% of all farmland. I'm surprised it's that high to be honest, compared to plane-window impressions. Surely a majority of urban area is post-1950, how much is former crop/ranch/forest I'd struggle to guess. Would be interesting to have better numbers, and over time.


It’s also dangerous from a national security point of view. Consolidating farming and relying on monocultures certainly has economic benefits but it also creates an increasingly fragile system.

A new parasite or disease could easily destroy enough of a years harvest (or more) and now the nation has a food shortage. Because so much of our food is derived from or reliant on the monoculture it would have cascading effects. It would be a disaster on many levels.

Of course this is preventable but who has the courage to stand up for something that could happen when the political capital is won dealing with the cleanup. Food diversity isn’t just a “feels good” thing or an “ought to be” thing - it’s very much important in creating a resilient food supply which in my opinion is a matter of national security.


>Consolidating farming and relying on monocultures certainly has economic benefits but it also creates an increasingly fragile system.

But everything you're describing is with monocultures, not with consolidated farming. If a particular crop breed is the most efficient I don't see why a diverse group of farmers wouldn't all go with that.


>Currently, however, this promotes large-scale monoculture.

Standardization is a hallmark of efficiency and humanity has lots of mouths to feed. I'm not sure you can really do it any other way.


I don't think we could have gotten here any other way, and I'm very glad to be able to eat every day - but if we keep rapidly converting good land into bad, we're going to end up worse off than we were before Haber & Bosch gave us an alternative to famine.


Yes, we can[0]. For agroforests to work though, you need to change the mindset from demanding every fruit everytime of the year to something more in line with how crop cycles work.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agroforestry


I'm willing to bet that biodiversity in large farms and in small farms is relatively similar. Sure, if we returned to the way the American Indigenous farmed, co-planting maize, beans and squash that'd be awesome for biodiversity. But that requires hand harvesting -- you can't even use a sickle or a horse to help, let alone any type of machinery.

Small farmers and big farmers both use monocultures.


> let alone any type of machinery.

Any 20th C machine. If we do get good enough at robotics that we can switch from herbicides to weeding by AI, that might allow all sorts of interesting things.


> Currently, however, this promotes large-scale monoculture. Which is inherently harmful on almost every level, including the ability to keep the cost of food down and and the supply up.

It's hard to reconcile this point with the strong trends over the last century of more monoculture, more production, and much lower prices.


It is not just monoculture that has created this increase in production. It is also increased inputs like fertilizer and pesticides. At a certain point the pesticides stop being effective and the ground needs so much fertilizer it increases prices. This happens on hundred year time scales, so you can't just look at a small portion of ecological history to reach conclusions.

You are welcome to think what you want, but everything I have read about agricultural ecology suggests that nature is stronger than our science. Pests evolve (perhaps slowly, but faster than the science we stole from nature). Naturally enriched soil is more fertile.


Agreed. I this trend has made us all a lot more wealthy (and obese) as more people spend less time farming their day away.


That nutritional argument seems very speculative. I don't know of any 70-year-old food that could be tested side-by-side with 'modern' food. And 'nutritional content' is certainly up per dollar, per man-hour. And its more available with modern refrigeration and transportation.

It seems overwhelmingly true that for most people, their food has improved drastically over 70 years.


What does 70 year old food have to do with it? Just go to any seed store or seed bank and you will find hundreds if not thousands (or tens of thousands) of varieties of everyday fruits and vegetables that you will not be able to find on store shelves. It's not because they're too old, it's because they're not economically viable at industrial scale. Their aesthetics are unappealing to consumers, they spoil too fast off the vine, they bruise too easily in transport, their shapes and textures are harder to machines to work with, and so on.

The age of the variety is a red herring, it's the industrialization of farming that's important. Our access to food has improved significantly, but anyone with a small garden and some seeds from an online shop knows that the "quality" of everything from modern tomatoes to berries is suspect.


Seeds are half of it, but wouldn't you'd also want to grow them in the same soil? Maybe manure & bone-meal were providing a different balance of nutrients to modern fertilisers, or just slower growth.


> I don't know of any 70-year-old food that could be tested side-by-side with 'modern' food.

That's a false base for your argument. You can find traditionally grown vegs from villages today. Then you can grab a tomato from your super-cheap super market and test those two side by side. The traditionaly grown veg isn't old per say, but it is surely way closer to the old qualities. So if you find a difference between those two products you must surely conclude there is a difference between old - modern crops.


So that just leaves soil, tillage, fertilizer, process. Which were pretty primitive 70 years ago.


I think that frame was correct for a long time, but things that are generally true in one generation can be false in another.

Small, undercapitalized, under-industrialized farms were an issue for a long time... in some/many times and places this was the bottleneck on the green revolution.

That doesn't (necessarily) mean it's the case here. IE, the economies of scale when going from a $100k farm to a $10m may not apply to a move from $10m to $1bn. I think this is ultimately the question: Are there real economies of scale edriving this.

If/where the current transition is being driven by finance, it's a different kettle of fish. IE, If it's just cheaper/easier to finance megafarms... which I think is the case, it's not real economies of scale. It's securitisation.

As the article mentions, extreme scale and centralization has some serious side effects.

Industrial farming is the story of several centuries. It has major triumphs, like the feeding an extraordinary human population. It also has major dark spots. Slavery, and centuries of moral failures of the colonial "plantation" model. But it also caused several famines and other such collapses.

For an old analogy from the early days... Agribusiness that the British East India Company could profit from was often at odds with producing food.

Douglas Adams has a fantastic essay (section) about Dutch agricultural industrialization reforms in Bali.

If nothing else, there's a major "eggs in one basket" problem... an even bigger problem when it comes to ecosystems and biology than elsewhere.


Uncapped and unbounded it’s a bad thing. The measuring posts are moving every day, they’re constantly getting bigger. Small farms are bought out by bigger farms.

You sure you want a handful of multinational conglomerates growing all of our food?


Yes. Is there a good reason for agriculture to be less concentrated than industrial sectors, for example automotive?


Increased innovation created through more competition (eg: vertical farming). Also, all the issues associated with mono-cultures.

I don't think comparing agribusiness to other industries is going to help. Yes, factory farming is more efficient, which makes it cheaper. But the price we pay doesn't necessarily reflect the actual costs to our health and the environment.


Having massive farms does not guarantee a lack of competition though. Lack of competition requires a very, very small handful of corporations to own most of the farmland producing a particular crop.

Additionally, large farms seemingly are more well suited for polyculture (i.e. small farms are more predisposed to do monoculture farming given their smaller scale).


It seems an over-simplification to say that it's always good for the cost of food to go down, or the supply to go up. In the West, it looks like much of the rewards of intensification goes towards making people obese. And in societies where more people don't have enough to eat, it still isn't clear whether more intensive farming resolves that. The move to cash crops seems to lead to less local food security for example. And perhaps landless people moving to the city ultimately creates a higher demand for food than can be matched by the output of farming modernization?


To challenge the assumption that more food supply is always good, you need to address the issue of famine.

A recent narrative

https://fic.tufts.edu/publication-item/somalian-famine-narra...

As Gandhi said at a religious conference with global elites, it’s fine to be pontificating with well-fed faces, but to the majority of Indians, God looks like a loaf of bread.

India is at the forefront of addressing the complexities of modernization. They also have the greatest need to do so, with 200M malnourished in Southern Asia.

http://www.fao.org/3/ca9692en/online/ca9692en.html#chapter-1...

Some articles on pros and cons of modernization:

https://www.futurefarming.com/Smart-farmers/Articles/2020/4/...

https://www.dw.com/en/why-indian-farmers-are-angry-over-agri...

https://www.gisreportsonline.com/as-indian-agriculture-expan...


I would like to know if that 70% of farmlands also correspond to 70% (or more) of the output.

I am skeptical that is the case - but I might be wrong... I would like to see the output figures in any case.


it depends on the context, concentration of land in the hands of few promotes income inequality. It maybe a good thing for consumers, but will be a bad thing for small - medium farmers who wouldn't be able to sustain their income source.


> You don't want the cost of food to go up, or the supply to go down.

Our economic and technological systems generally pursue what is approximately analogous to a greedy algorithm. This effect worsens as any sector becomes centralized. A small pool of large farmers is in the long run more likely to get stuck at suboptimal efficiencies than a large pool of small farmers.

But more concerning than that is continually optimizing any system for efficiency makes it more fragile. Some number of small farmers are more likely to survive system shocks than a large farmers. A system dominated by a few highly efficient large farmers is a system in extreme danger from systemic shocks and black swan events. That is, catastrophic drops in the food supply are much more likely with a few large farmers, not many small farmers.

If industrial production of smartphones collapses, who cares. Life will go on. We can forego many industries, if we really have to, so as long as we take care of the externalities (which we aren't doing with smartphones, but whatever), no big deal if they're oversized and over-optimized. This is not the case with food. People have to eat.


The challenge is when every problem becomes a hammer in search of a nail — corn and soy being the hammer in industrial farming.

Industrial agriculture is phenomenal, and a miracle of the 20th century. But at the same time, the negative externalities (to borrow a fifty cent phrase) have basically caught up with us. Monocultures are environmentally costly, and land use change is a major driver of climate change.

Personally I’d love to see a patchwork of local, regional farms supplementing an ever larger share of the food supply. There’s appetite for this type of produce — wealthy suburbanites are more and more willing to spend extra for “organic”, as flawed as that term may be.


This is a gross over-simplification of an incredibly complex problem. For those interested in an analysis that goes beyond 140-character insights, please read A Small Farm Future by Chris Smaje. And for those uninterested, be cautious of these "common sense" hot takes.


Maybe the title for articles like this should be "farmland ownership conforms to power law as expected, exponent = K"

Then the discussion can focus on whether is K is surprisingly high or low compared to similar statistics (general land ownership, farm revenue, etc), not endless confused comments that seem to be coming to terms with something being a power law distribution at all.


Yes, I really think we (society) should be having disscussions like that. Judging statistics relative to each other not independently based on our life-veiws.


James Scott's "Seeing like a state" makes a fairly strong argument why big agribusiness is not as obviously the optimal choice for best use of land as a technologist (like myself) might imagine on the first blush:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seeing_Like_a_State


Offtopic but this book changed the way I see things in many aspects of life. Funny how I came across it from a talk about abstractions in Clojure.


Yes, it suddenly brings so many facets of modern life into clear focus.


Winner-takes-all is something like a natural law. That's just math, not a value statement or judgement.

Probably the outcome of preferential attachment and compounding interest (rewards). I'll let others talk about economies of scale, financialization, regulatory capture, and so forth.

If society determines that winner-takes-all is undesirable, we'll have to choose otherwise. That means forfeiting economic efficiencies, adding friction to open markets, some kind of profit sharing (redistribution).

A policy of robustness over efficiency could make a lot of sense. There will always be shocks to the system. In vesting in resilience is a pretty good idea.

Note that I wrote "open markets". The taxonomy of markets includes open, closed, gray, and black. "Free markets" is double speak for pro-monopoly laissez faire winner-takes-all.


Yeah. We have all the efficiency we need in growing food, and more besides. (At least in terms of output - maybe not in terms of sustainability and environmental damage.) But as you say, we really want resiliency, too.


When looking at the current structure of agriculture, I think the context is long term undercurrents & cycles.

First is the green revolution and its post credits. This is one of history's great undercurrents and it meant that fewer people worked in farming every decade for a long time. Urbanisation, industrialisation and their consequences are all underpinned by this centuries long undercurrent. Kind like Moore's law, but slower.

The second one is more of a Hegelian pendulum swing. Dylanfm mentioned the nixon era "get big or get out" philosophy. Here in Ireland non viable farm sizes were the economic issue for over a century. Farm sizes that could not support a farming family. Viability increasingly became intertwined with non-land capital, machinery or whatnot. Besides not supporting the farmer, undersized farms couldn't afford modern farming methods and overall farm productivity suffered.

It's still an issue in much of the developing world.

But... big is a different beast at different scales. Economies of scale are not linear, scale isn't necessarily driven by economies (cheaper unit prices) especially past a point.

Speaking of undercurrents, a lot of them come from macroeconomics. The economics of money itself. Money in huge investment pools has to go somewhere. If there's a lot of money/demand coming from here, it competes with money/demand from small farmers. One or the other will own any given parcel of land.

Fungible ownership structure, complex financial arrangements such work only at gigantic scale. Also, financing at mega scale is more favourable... very impactful in a capital intensive game like farming. If demand for land/farms as an investment vehicle doubles...

You can sometimes think of such macroeconomics as normal economics in reverse. Normal economics: farms supply and consumers demand. A macroeconomic trend might mean the demand for suppliers (farms, companies) has gone up. When demand goes up, supply responds. Financial markets demand shares, bonds or other such instruments. These finance large corporations, not family businesses.


I found your comments on large-scale finance very illuminating. Thank you!


Farm size isn't a useful metric. My father-in-law farmed 800 acres in Saskatchewan Canada, which I'm sure was large enough to qualify it as part of the 1%. It was a hobby farm, he had a full-time off-farm job.

800 acres in much of the world is a massive amount that can grow a massive amount of food. For Northern dryland wheat farming it's a very small farm. A more typical size for the area is about 10,000 acres.


A few years ago I learned about the Matthew Principle [0] on an Econtalk podcast or something like that. Now I seem to see it everywhere and try to figure out if these types of winner take all are natural or just set up by interested parties to minmax.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_effect


Some farms are just hella big with ultra low land productivity.


Currently, EU subsidizes farms based on land area. Which is supposed to change, but the lobby is strong.


EU also sets limits on how much farms can produce. No one cares about yield from unit of land, they care about keeping prices high, so that farmers get adequate profits.

EU will even pay farmers a pension if they retire and stop production.


Funny story, an aging local farmer used raise free-range a small amount of turkeys for the Christmas market. But she stopped because she thought the EU satellites would catch her doing it without permission.

Those turkeys were far better than anything you would buy in a supermarket.


Regulations and centralised governments kill small businesses. Don't worry though, it's for your health (oh and for those cheeky shareholders of big corporations).

Similar story here: https://www.fwi.co.uk/livestock/poultry/other-poultry/turkey...


The current CAP proposal for the 2020-2027 period basically, thanks to intense lobbying by the agribusiness sector, more or less the same as the current scheme.

If adopted, it will more or less put a stake through the EU Green New Deal that they're supposedly also implementing. :(


They should subsidize by efficiency/yield, soil maintenance, and crop rotation.


And a lot subsistence farming in the developing world where you basically just farm for yourself to eat which are very small.

And even if someone farms for selling to others if they don't have reliable access to machinery the farms will be really small as that just does not scale up (just take a look at pre industrial world where something like 90% of people were farmers)


> And even if someone farms for selling to others if they don't have reliable access to machinery the farms will be really small as that just does not scale up (just take a look at pre industrial world where something like 90% of people were farmers)

You seem to assume/imply that small farms in the developing world cannot scale up due to economic/business reasons.

However in some developing countries, farms cannot be scaled up due to legal reasons. Countries like The Philippines don't allow ownership of farmland over one or two hectares per person. For companies the maximum is 5 hectares if I remember correctly. Foreigner investors cannot legally own any land whatsoever there (not even through a company, because foreigners aren't allowed to be majority share holders).

Is that good or bad? I don't know. Agriculture world wide is a highly regulated and highly subsidized non-free market that has very little to do with the concepts of capitalism and free market. This should probably be analyzed on a country by country basis with a couple of history books handy.

Random facts that I like about farming subsidies in the West: if farming in the Western world wasn't heavily subsidized, it wouldn't exist in the Western world. The reason for the farming subsidies is to have internal food production in case a war prevents sufficient food imports.


I agree with most of your comment but the final paragraph is a bit ????

> if farming in the Western world wasn't heavily subsidized, it wouldn't exist in the Western world

It probably would change, but it's weird to suggest it would stop existing without governmental subsidies. Most farming in the West is either intensive mass-production of commodities or sectorial, high-margin goods like wine. For the most part, agricultural subsidies are helping small businesses in sectors where they aren't really competitive (mostly by making the taxpayer or the consumer pay the difference, but that's another story...). Again, not to say subsidies are wrong per se, but I don't follow your reasoning there.

> The reason for the farming subsidies is to have internal food production in case a war prevents sufficient food imports

???

Most Western countries (with the possible exception of the US, I don't know) aren't agriculturally self-sufficient, nor it is a goal for them to be. In case a war broke out, energy supplies would be a much more pressing concern, especially for Western Europe.


He's right. Western Europe heavily imports laborers from Eastern Europe, Turkey and North Africa for many crops. Germany opened its borders at the height of the first Covid-19 wave to allow workers from Romania to come, when Romania was a hot bed for Covid-19.

Many Western countries are self sufficient agriculturally and they are huge exporters.

Agriculture is a cornerstone of national security. Life sucks when you are rationing fuel or imposing lights out curfews but it gets dire (and dangerous!) when people starve.


> Germany opened its borders at the height of the first Covid-19 wave to allow workers from Romania to come, when Romania was a hot bed for Covid-19.

Just a small correction, you've got your data the other way around. Early to mid April when Asparagus-Gate happened, Romania had at the very worst 500 new daily cases for a population of 19 million, while Germany regularly had 4-5000 for a population of 83 million.

So in essence Germany was a hotbed.


You were probably testing at least 10x more than we were, at the time ;-)


New Zeeland ended all agricultural subsidies in, IIRC, 1984. Seems to be working out pretty well for them.

That being said, there certainly are good reasons to have rough food self sufficiency and resiliency for crisis situations, rather than going all the way with free trade and Ricardo's comparative advantage arguments.

I just hope the EU could direct it's farm subsidies to emphasize the environment, and not dump as much excess products on the world market, driving poor 3rd world farmers into bankruptcy.


> Again, not to say subsidies are wrong per se, but I don't follow your reasoning there.

The reasoning is that it is so much cheaper to produce food in some low income countries (less/no regulations, lower wages) that the Western world would never be able to compete with it without subsidies.

I'm not an expert on farming at all, but as far as I know at least in the EU, all farmers are dependent in some way or another on subsidies. In other words: it wouldn't make financial sense to farm in the EU without subsidies. I'm assuming it's the same in the US, but I might be completely wrong. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Hence my conclusion: if farming wasn't subsidized in the Western world, it wouldn't exist in the Western world and it would all move to low income countries that aren't as regulated and have cheaper production. Just like the production of the vast majority of the rest of our goods I guess?

> Most Western countries (with the possible exception of the US, I don't know) aren't agriculturally self-sufficient, nor it is a goal for them to be.

?? This looks pretty self-sufficient to me? http://capreform.eu/trends-in-eu-agricultural-self-sufficien...

Or at least enough production to survive a war or other crisis.

Being from The Netherlands I know that we export a ton of food (a tiny country that is the second biggest exporter in the world behind the US). We also heavily subsidize food production.

If self-sufficiency of food production (in case of crisis) wasn't a goal of the Western world then I have no idea why we would have any internal production at all? Why would you subsidize food production within a geographical region for any other reason than food security?

> In case a war broke out, energy supplies would be a much more pressing concern, especially for Western Europe.

Ah? I would think that both (food security and energy security) are dependent on each other, equally essential and pressing? I mean: you can't have one without the other in times of crisis.

It's a bit off-topic, but I can't think of many policies that are geopolitically dumber and more dangerous than European energy policies (with perhaps France being the only exception). Example: Germany is in the process of making itself voluntarily completely dependent on Russian gas for the vast majority of it's average energy consumption ( > 60 %) and for more than 90 % of it's base load production (when there's little wind and sun).


> Why would you subsidize food production within a geographical region for any other reason than food security?

Here in Norway food security is only one of the reasons, at least it seems that way. Another very important one is that a farm requires workers, machinery, and material. The workers need doctors and their children need schools, the machinery needs mechanics, the material (fuel, fertiliser, cement, wood, etc.) needs transport. So by subsidizing a farm thousand metres up a mountain we generate enough business to keep a small community alive and prospering where otherwise there would be no one. This in turn means that there will be people nearby who will see an opportunity for other businesses such as tourism.

This means that on the 700 km journey through the mountains from Oslo to Trondheim you are rarely more than a few tens of km from the nearest petrol station, fast food outlet, hotel, and that it is rare to drive more than a few km without seeing a house or cabin.

Without farming in the valleys there would be no secure employment in these areas because the only other income is from tourism which is very seasonal and also easily disrupted by events such as COVID or any downturn in the economy.


While I agree with you that the EU is roughly self-sufficient, food security is not the only goal of EU farming subsidies. France has strongly supported these subsidies, which replaced domestic French subsidies, because of the effect on rural life and the rural economy. Subsidies are the reason that millions of small farmers can make a living, the reason that many French villages still exist, one of the reasons for that high quality local produce made in small batches is available cheaply all over France, and one of the reasons that retirees from the UK and Netherlands like to live in rural France (the much more intensive farming in those countries makes rural life quite different).


> Is that good or bad? I don't know.

I do. It's good.


And conversely, many “family Farms” are just subsidy hoovering hobby farms relying on land appreciation to build wealth.


> Anna Creek Station has an area of 23,677 km2 which is slightly larger than Israel

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Creek_Station


Yet only capable of carrying up to 16,500 head of cattle during a good season


16,500 cattle, so that's 450 pounds ground meat per head, a hamburger is a 10:1, so that's 16,500 * 450 * 10 = 74,250,000, that's only 75 million hamburgers.


That's roughly 2 cattle per square mile or 1 head of cattle for every 1.5 sq km.


After the fall of communism in Bulgaria, land was to be given back to people(during the communism everything was owned by the government). Don't know the details but now we have small amount of farmlands and forests.

Turns out, most urban people don't fancy to work the land by themselves and those in the villages really suck at the organisation.

So my grandma is living in a town, she opted out to keep her land in a cooperative and simply receive some cash at the end of the year each year. Not much money but it's free money from her standpoint.

My relatives that live in a village opted out to own and work the lands by themselves like most of the other villagers.

The result? Villagers fail to organize the crop production, if one year potatoes turn to be very profitable, next year everyone do potatoes and prices tank, someone does tobacco and makes the bank.

Cattle production also died out because they failed to integrate into a steady supply chain of a buyer. Companies would be collecting milk and some villagers don't hesitate to add water and the companies stop coming. One year everyone is in milk the other year no more milk, everything becomes meat since some construction business gives more money in short term so they need to get rid of the livestock. Tough luck, the milk buying chocolate factory.

At the ends, most young people opted out to work in a EU country that pays very well during the season and stay jobless for the rest of the year. Those who managed to get good education completely moved out to the cities or even other countries so no one left to actually work their own farmlands with few exceptions of people who do speciality crops and work like beekeeping. Most of the farmland got sold to large companies and those who couldn't get good education become employees of the farms they once owned.

What I am trying to say is, it's probably the way it is because the alternative is not viable. These things need large scale companies, be it private or governmental.


I'm not sure that's the only conclusion that can be drawn. What you're describing is simply a lack of education on the matter - there could have been a program to help these people out rather than just assume a monopoly will do a better job in the long run.


If we had self alternating magnets we could have built motor that run without using energy. The reality is not ideal for our desires though, so we don't have free energy motors.

Anyway, I don't know what courses will fix the disorganisation problems and make the farmers turn into MBAs while still accept to live in a village and do hard work but if there's an success story of this, I would support it.

From my point of view, these things need to be done in huge scale. To achieve scale, owned by single company or governmental body or cooperative is all good by me. Probably proper regulations and governmental programs could be a solution too.


Yes. I think you cannot teach people these things fast, it takes decades (and is then actually a culture).


There is a niche for small scale farms, but those had to be run like a business. And let me tell you it is tough business to run with high capital costs and low margins.

Huge companies have many advantages in certain production areas, but there are many others like intensive vegetable production, wine grapes, poultry, rabbits (just to name some animal production) and some speciality crops that favor small producers. Farms just need to invest in building their own supply chain.


Exactly, sometimes we underestimate the power of a streamlined process.


Isn't this regular old Pareto Distribution?


Regular old is 20/80. Would be nice to have some data sets to see what it looks like.


The rule is repeatable though. According to it the top 4% have 64%, and the top 0.8% have 51.2%, which is already much closer.


A useful comparison from 5 minutes of googling:

In 2017, the top 20 car companies produced 76m vehicles [1]. There "may be as many as 2000 car companies globally".[2] This page (admittedly it seems to have been "hacked by Javanese team") says total vehicle production was about 96m.[3]

So, 1% of motor companies produce 80% of the world's cars.

Is there a reason one statistic should alarm us more than the other? Is food production different from motor car production? Should we think of farms as factories?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_manufacturers_by_motor...

[2] https://www.topspeed.com/cars/makes/

[3] http://www.oica.net/category/production-statistics/2017-stat...


I'd say that food production is way more critical. Centralization of production at this levels could make the whole system much more fragile, and we depend more (and with more immediacy) on food than on private transportation. Plus I don't agree with the idea that food should be treated as a commodity.


The headline doesn't really tell the full story in this case. The article describes increasing concentration of control of farm land via certain financial products (and direct ownership). It's more of a collection of quotes than an article I suppose but it touches on the effects of this on economic inequality, agricultural monoculture, land stewardship concerns, that sort of thing.


It’s important to prevent monopolies in any industry but there are degrees of importance.

The food supply chain is more important than the automotive supply chain.


But 1% of even 2000 car firms is far from a "monopoly", and 1% of the world's farms is still probably thousands of farms, right?


Much more then thousands, WAY more.

Somebody else in this thread says:

> there are 608 million farms in the world


There's nothing wrong with that.


what a strong argument, could you please elaborate on your stance on this topic?


There seems to be a damned lot of obsession with monetary efficiency in this thread, and very little concern with output per acre, output per ton of carbon spent in production, or whether the farming practice is one that will allow the land to be a farm and not an infertile wasteland in twenty years.


...and other common, unsurprising results from the power law distribution


Science article generator!

Cut off data at 2.3 sigmas, apply shocking result to catchy headline!


Common, yes. There's bound to be some kind of disproportion between the number of land owners vs land area in capitalist societies. Though, the extent of the power law distribution is surprising, at least to me.


And where are all the city folk in a rush to get their share of farmland?

I love farmers markets, but at the same time small farmers own less land. With mechanization and contracting out of harvesting "as a service" it's not all that surprising that "1% of farms" operate on this much land.


This is all going to change over the next decade with the rise of indoor farming. With increased and more predictable yield, indoor farms can be more hyper-localized and run by independent-operators in their community.


From where do you get the energy for indoor farming? Is it more efficient to turn solar radiation with photovoltaic cells into electricity to then turn it back into light before it reaches the leaves of the plants?


For those interested in the subject, I encourage you to read Chris Smaje's new book, A Small Farm Future. Fascinating analysis of the existing state of affairs, and where we might be headed.


And if they didn't, food would probably be a lot more expensive.


Does a strong argument exists for this? To my understanding agriculture was turned into big business in the beginning of 20th century because of political process, not because it was obviously a more efficient way to produce food at the time.


If it does, we should also ask if that strong argument continues to hold on a 50-year plus time-line.


> Does a strong argument exists for this?

No. At that level of concentration the opposite is true:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oligopoly

On top of that, massive multinational companies can have extremely influential lobbying groups and can demand subsidies from governments.


“I believe that agriculture land -- productive agricultural land with water on site -- will be very valuable in the future," - Michael Burry in 2010 (the guy from "The Big Short").

His fund made a ton of money during the 2001 dot com crash, 2018 financial crisis, and now with land. #contrarian

More: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2010-09-07/michael-b...


This doesn't surprise me: there are some huge industrial farms and the rest are small private ones, obviously.


The huge ones are also private, FWIW.


Sure, obviously these are not state-owned, but I meant it in a different sense - like when you compare a multinational hotel chain to a family-maintained hostel. I wish I knew a better word for this.


Corporate vs family/sole proprietorship could be one way to describe.


It still can be technically a corporation, even if the corporation is owned by a single person, a family or a small team of friends.


Yep. I was thinking of it more in a qualitative sense, similar to characterizing a phrasing/word choice as “corporate-speak” whether or not it is made by a corporation or not.

But perhaps there’s a better descriptor that also travels across cultures and legal frameworks (e.g. not all jurisdictions use the “corporation” nomenclature).

From Wikipedia: “ In American English, the word corporation is most often used to describe large business corporations.[7] In British English and in the Commonwealth countries, the term company is more widely used to describe the same sort of entity while the word corporation encompasses all incorporated entities.”

Communicating ideas precisely yet with nuance is a fun challenge :-)


Given the tax and liability laws in the US only a fool farmer isn't a corporation. Hobby farm is the most likely way to fall into that - if you are doing it for fun you don't really care that there might be a better way.


BTO vs. non-BTO?


sounds like strategy used in past

[1] Collectivisation and the Ukrainian Famine - History Matters (Short Animated Documentary) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLlp-LmXm3s


And the remaining 19% surely fill out the remaining 10%.

Power laws everywhere.


australia?

One big farm in Australia is Anna Creek Station at 2.4 million hectares

Total UK farm land is 9 million hectares.


Say what you want about Marx, but his prediction about increasing concentration of Capital was right on the spot.


Concentration of capital is the essential point of capitalism. It's the ultimate end goal. Also, capital is a unit of power in a capitalist system and in all systems, power wants to concentrate. Power has a gravitation pull.


[flagged]


We're not that far, people are already rioting


Modern farming got extremely more sophisticated and more productive at a cost of making it hard to be competitive with small operations.

Good things: much higher yield per area, economies of scale, better soil maintenance, more hydraulic planning.

Bad things: inhumane feed lots and lack of biodiversity.

Note these are the same journalists who would've praised catastrophic land reforms by Marxist governments, like Zimbabwe. The same journalists complaining of food costs and shortages (+yield, +supply). The same journalists complaining about deforestation (+yield). The same journalists complaining about global warming (CO2 sequestration).

There is room for improvement on biodiversity and long term care of topsoil. But a hit piece on inequality gets more views and gets more subscriptions/ads.




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