Upstream from Whole Foods


[S]mall farms are actually surviving and even flourishing to an extent no one guessed 20 or 30 years ago.

So says Bruce Gardner, dean of the Agriculture College at the University of Maryland.

The United States had 6 million farms in 1944, and by 1970 that number had declined to 3 million, a rate of loss of almost 3 percent each year. If the pattern had held, we would have just over a million farms today. Instead we have 2.1 million, and the rate of decline has slowed to a trickle, with today’s total essentially the same as that of 1990.

Gardner suggests that this uptick in the fortunes of the small farm is due to labor performed off farm.

I am wondering, though, if this might not also reflect the Chez Panisse “eat local” philosophy and the Whole Foods retail phenomenon. All that “natural produce” has to come from somewhere and this probably isn’t going to be Monsanto.

Consumer taste and preference is fragmenting in a plenitude effect. Markets follow suit. Small suppliers were once swamped by economies of scale. Now smallness, especially when it confers speed and adaptability, confers advantage.

In the food category, this advantage is multiplied by a preference for freshness, local origins, and a state of chemical innocence. Of course it makes no earthly difference whether something was harvested by hand or machine, but we still like things that are “hand picked” (read: not entirely alienated from human contact).

All this should put small farms in a nice position. If I read Gardner correctly, the small farm slide stopped in 1990. It would be fun to match this against the dissemination of the Chez Panisse trend and the rise of Whole Foods. Might match.

And this is the thing we didn’t anticipate. Even the writers who invented our “cyber punk” view of the future missed it. Smallness would flourish. Big corporations would have their place in the world. They would, like Microsoft, do what they could to eat their way through all the little, smarter companies. But there would still be lots of little companies left. (Clearly, I am on the verge of a children’s story here. Consider these parentheses a prophylatic.)

The rise of the new economies would not mean the triumph of bigness. It was going to mean the triumph of bigness and smallness. And the death of the middle.

That the small farm should return to us, that’s really not something anyone anticipated. Intellectual bowed their grave and noble heads to mourn the passing of ‘the world we have lost” and the rise of the “cash nexus.” Most sanctimoniously did they agree that small farms were a goner, the first and perhaps most final fatality of the rise of the industrial world.

Darn, wrong again.


Gardner, Bruce. 2005. The Little Guy is OK. New York Times. March 7, 2005.

4 thoughts on “Upstream from Whole Foods

  1. Daniel Rosenblatt

    Not a subject I am an expert on–or even a well informed amateur. But from what I know, I suspect that you are both right and wrong: Right that to the extent that anyone can make a living working full time on a farm, the whole food revolution that Alice Waters started is responsible. Wrong though, to suggest that farms are in a good position. This is mostly based on a recent “This American Life” episode in which a failing farmer was offered a “makeover” for his farm. Clearly, the farmer in question had some problems that were all his own (like not “being a morning person”), but it also seemd to be the case that the best that could be achieved was a pretty tenous existence. Luckily for people like Alice Waters, for some people farming is enough of its own reward that they’ll do it despite the hardships. But then, a lot of our economy warks that way.

    The episode of “This American Life” is here:


  2. Tom Guarriello

    As affirmation of your points here, Grant, may I recommend a trip to the Union Square Farmers’ Market in NYC on Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday, year round. Shoppers will find the most amazing selection of artisinal vegetables, cheeses, meats, flowers, or breads, all from small farms/producers/bakers and supplying some of New York’s finest restaurants from the backs of their trucks. Truly a wonderful experience.

  3. Ennis

    Small farms can be competitive:

    In Thailand, farms of two to four acres produce 60% more rice per acre than bigger farms. In Taiwan net income per acre of farms of less than 1.25 acres is nearly double that of farms over five acres. In Latin America, small farms are three to 14 times more productive per acre than the large farms. Across the Third World, small farms are 2-10 times more productive per acre than larger farms.

    In the US, farms smaller than 27 acres have more than 10 times the dollar-per-acre output of larger farms. In Britain a recent study of the hidden costs of industrial farming raised the bill to £2.3 billion — almost as much as the farm industry’s total income. (

    But, it’s hard to get the cash you need. Farming is highly variable, and small producers don’t have deep pockets. Large producers, on the other hand, get large subsidies, and are taking a larger and larger share of the subsidy pie:

    On the Bush Administration’s watch, mammoth industrial farms have collected an ever-greater share of federal farm subsidies. In 1995, they received $3.98 billion, or 55 percent of all federal farm payments. In 2002, their portion increased to $7.8 billion, or 65 percent of all federal payments. Currently, almost 30 percent of agricultural subsidies go to the top two percent of farms and over four-fifths to the top 30 percent.

    Indeed, the 2002 census confirmed the consolidation of the U.S. farming sector around a smaller number of increasingly wealthy corporate players. The census found that the most profitable three percent of large farms earn 61 percent of all the money paid for agricultural products in the United States. (

    While there are two million farms left in America, only a quarter of those are small farms:

    Of the two million remaining farms, only 565,000 are family operations (

    My gut feeling is that small farms may be doing better than two or three decades ago, but they’re still losing ground, and it’s still hard to be a small farmer. To the extent you can survive, it’s thanks to Alice Waters and the whole farmer’s market movement. Still, alot of family farms are traditional. They’re invested in a few staple crops, and don’t have the knowlege or connections to go organic and get the benefits of the higher prices.

    The one exception to this trend, and I’ll bet you they’re a large chunk of the remaining family farms, are Amish and especially Mennonite farmers, who are thriving and expanding their territories far beyond their traditional niche in Western PA.

    Then again, I know very little about this subject.

  4. rashomon

    >>Even the writers who invented our “Cyberpunk” view of the future missed it.”

    Hmmm. Gibson and Sterling, perhaps, but Neal Stephenson nailed it in “The Diamond Age.” Handmade crafts are a near ultimate luxury good in a world that can duplicate any material design quickly through nanomanufacturing.

    Though I tend to think the real luxury will be customized design.

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