Posted by: bkivey | 20 February 2012

Food for Thought

From the 11 January issue of the Willamette Week newspaper, comes a story on how some small farming operations in the state are agitating for state money. It seems that many of the small farmers who started operations in the last twenty years to take advantage of the burgeoning ‘locavore’ movement are finding that they can’t afford to stay in business at the prices they can command at the farmer’s market. Anyone who’s been to a farmer’s market knows that the prices are often significantly above what you’d pay at the local supermarket. There’s nothing wrong with that; if someone want’s to pay those prices for food, that’s fine. The problem starts when people involved in those operations think they’re performing some sort of righteous act that ought to be subsidized by the rest of us.

The folks who run what can only be described as ’boutique’ farms are convinced that they are providing a valuable community service by providing small lots of food to a very small percentage of the population. The small percentage of the population that buys that output is equally convinced that they’re qualitatively improving their diet, sticking it to Big Agriculture, and ‘saving the planet’. So convinced are these folks that their way is the Right Way, that they want to force everybody else to subsidize their choices, in spite of the economic reality.

The intellectual dissonance that this collision of economic fact and intellectual fantasy creates is evident in two sentences from the article only a paragraph apart:

“Small farms are vital to the sustainable local food system that urban Oregonians celebrate every week by crowding into highly priced farmers markets.”

“But advocates say this trend is not financially sustainable without state help.”

An operation that isn’t financially sustainable, is ipso facto, not sustainable, period. You can natter on about how you grow organically on your 10-acre farm only 20 miles from the city, but if you can’t make money doing it, it’s not a viable operation. Insolvency is nature’s way of telling you you’re doing it wrong.

It happens that agriculture in Oregon doesn’t quite follow the 80-20 rule; the story notes that 7% of the state’s farms provide 85% of the agricultural output. It seems reasonable to think that if all of the struggling farms went out of business, the quantity of food available would hardly be affected. As small farms in this state are exempt from certain food inspection regulations, the quality of the food might even improve. Not only are small farms wasteful of resources, their product is also less safe than that from large operations.

It’s the inefficient use of resources that seems to be a blind spot for the small farms folks. There’s a reason why large operations, in whatever industry, are more efficient than small ones: economy of scale. While there are practical limits, the fact is that it takes more resources per unit to produce on a small scale than a large one. For people who are constantly whining about ‘saving the planet’, and ‘paying true costs’, they seem remarkably uninterested in doing either if their sacred cows are gored.

Quite aside from the economic and hygienic arguments against subsidizing businesses that are demonstrably failing and don’t meet health standards, there’s a much more practical reason: we don’t have the money. The state is looking at a $35 million shortfall in the biennium ending next year, and, unlike the Feds, we can’t print money.  So cuts will have to be made, and I’d like to hear how a small farm advocate explains to a laid-off state employee how a subsidy for a failing business is more important than the worker’s job.

I just don’t see the small farm subsidy issue as vitally important as advocates make it out to be. I can go to any number of places reasonably close to my home and buy a variety of wholesome, nutritious food in sufficient quantities to get fat, if I so wanted, for not much money. I’m not seeing a compelling reason to subsidize other people’s food choices. If people really want to make a difference in how others eat, they should join the Peace Corps and help folks who really don’t have food, not just fewer choices.

20 February 1962

Fifty years ago today at 0947 EST, John Glenn rode fire to become the first American in orbit. The launch had been scrubbed three times previously, and there were two on-pad repairs to the vehicle during the fourth attempt. While the launch went relatively smoothly, almost nothing else did during his three orbits. The capsule developed control problems, forcing Glenn to fly the craft manually for most of the mission. His suit developed temperature control issues. The most worrisome development was a sensor indicating that the heat shield wasn’t properly secured. Instructed to leave the retropack in place in case the shield was loose, Glenn reported large chunks of burning material streaking by his window on re-entry. He feared that he was seeing his heat-shield breaking up, which was probably more than a little worrisome. Just under five hours after liftoff, Friendship 7 splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean.

I heard a newscaster today say that Glenn was the first human in orbit, which would greatly surprise Yuri Gagarin, who had achieved that distinction some 10 months earlier.

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