[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 isnt 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 didnt 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 childrens 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, thats 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.