Urban Farming

This idea is hilarious here in Iowa, where we wonder if some city folk have ever seen real farms. “The reality is that farming is an inherently space-intensive enterprise,” as even Manhattan native Matt Yglesias can recognize86 percent of Iowa is farmland (down from over 90 percent just a decade ago). That’s a bit shy of 30 million acres. That’s about 2000 Manhattans. The mind-blowing productivity growth in agriculture over the 20th century stands as one of the great achievements of human history. It involved immense strides in pest and weed control, farm machinery, bioengineering, and economies of scale. All this has made it possible to feed a rapidly increasing population with decreasing amounts of land and labor.

(Aside… No doubt Happy Planet Index-type people in 1909 were pointing out the physical impossibility of our one finite planet supporting 7 billion people.)

It’s nice to have a garden. But didn’t seem nice when I was a kid, when my family had a huge garden plot (a quarter acre, maybe?) on the property of a farmer who went to our church. That much garden in a city would seem like some pretty serious urban farming. Set in the vast scale of cultivated central Iowa, it seemed like what it was: almost nothing. Later, as a teenager, I detasseled corn and walked beans. If a field is big enough, and the curve is right, from the middle you can’t see anything else.

If not for the massive subsidies it receives, the percentage of land under cultivation in Iowa would decline even more rapidly than it has. But it would remain one of the best places in the world for growing stuff. An unsubsidized Iowa would grow a different mix of stuff, and would traffic in a different mix of animals. Greater heterogeneity would reduce some economies of scale, but the scale of the actual farming–the kind that keeps humanity fed–will probably remain inconceivable to many rooftop basil growers.

UPDATE: People we’re  justly complaining about the junk chart. It’s the only one I could quickly find that had the time-scale I wanted. Here’s a better one that goes back just 60 years.

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44 thoughts on “Urban Farming

  1. This is not entirely related to the post:The articles I have read about urban farming lately has got me thinking: Could the intensive indoor farming techniques proponents of urban farming envision being used conceivably feed the US population with a total building mass and electricity and water usage similar to todays.. If the US population could be fed by, for example, using a quarter of todays building mass and a quarter of the electricity used today for indoor farming purposes, would the worst case scenarioes of a really dry and hot world look as bad? Would it really be “the end of our civilization”? Does anyone know of anything I could read about this?

  2. To be fair to the Happy Planet people, there is some absolute limit to the amount of energy an Earth-dwelling civilization can consume. In that sense, there is some number of humans that it's physically impossible for Earth to support. We can't dwell exclusively on Earth and consume more than the sum total of the chemical energy stored in the Earth, the heat and radiation emitted by the (ever-cooling!) core and mantle (including energy generated by the core's rotation), the angular momentum of the Earth as it travels around the Sun, and the energy the Earth receives from the Sun. But that sum exceeds the demands of any recognizable version of our civilization by many, many, many orders of magnitude. I'd be much more worried the actual engineering problems we'll have to confront in the next 50 years or so than about per capita consumption. But engineering is hard, and it makes for much more boring press releases.

  3. the giant scale of american agri-business yes requires a lot of land. but wait? do we really eat that much corn? nope. we use it for animal feed, sugar, and heck, fuel, why not. it is darn peculiar that people in cities have to resort to farming to break out of the prison of big food, but those are the facts. our scoffing “farmers” in the “heartland” are serfs in the pitiless ADM and monsanto empire, whether they have the bravery to admit it or not.

  4. Dave, (1) most people like to eat animals that eat grain. (2) Yes, subsidized agribusiness is enormous here, it ought to be an embarrassment, and it takes no bravery to say so. (3) the scale of the type of agriculture that smug urban assholes deem admissible is still huge. It would be huger still if we got rid of subsidies for corn, beans, and wheat, which crowds out production of other crops. (4) most of the types of vegetables people grow themselves aren't subsidized at all. They mostly aren't grown in Iowa, but they are grown on a massive scale. If some provincial folks in Brooklyn feel bravely independent and otherwise delusively self-satisfied for growing their own beefsteaks and basil out back, that's fine. But (5) without the economies of scale of “big food,” food would cost a lot more, the poor would be much poorer (the poorer you are, the more food dominates your budget), and lots of people would starve to death.

  5. Is the point to make money or to simply feed families? If making money, this is laughable. Farmers here in KY have trouble turning a profit even with tobacco, which i believe has the highest dollar yield per acre of any crop. If the point is to feed families..it's certainly a nice idea and one that has been tried many times before, but not terribly original. I like the idea of incorporating hobby farming into suburban developments on the edge of rural areas. Hobby farming is where a lot of innovation comes from and it strengthens the bond between rural and suburban and acts as a bridge to urban areas.

  6. Pingback: Urban Farming | Property | Properties

  7. Thanks for the reply. hey it doesn't take much to realize what jerks those urbanites are, because they sure as heck don't live off their little plot as smug as they are about it. you know unless they grow enough soy to make tofu, tempeh or textured vegetable protein. however, i just have to overall disagree about starving to death. as it is, we are feeding ourselves to death. i absolutely agree that MEAT would cost a lot more if we didn't subsidize agri-business. but is that so bad? should a cheeseburger really cost a dollar? hey i love meat too but it is just way too inexpensive. and sure okay that takes the steak off the table of some people, at least everyday. but have you had a walmart steak? it is gross. and i'm one of those sort of people that perfers to eat an animal that has eaten grass, and not garbage like other animals and human cereals like corn and antiboitics. food in general can't get any cheaper. you look at these people in the supermarket and they are buying individual serving mac and cheese packets and breakfast cereals for 5 bucks a box and all this kind of thing. that's the problem. i mean you can basically eat potatoes for free. so i don't think i'm eltitist or anything. i certainly am not eating filet all the time. And I am not the one that wants to tell people what they should eat. What I want is for the market to decide. a real market with real food prices that actually reflects the cost, including the external costs which agri-business are presently allowed to pass on to us indirectly.

  8. Kevin Carson is always going on about how it is only due to our distorted corporatist/plutocratic economic system that we use land/capital rather than labor intensive forms of farming. He usually cites Karl Hess' book on urban agriculture and similar stuff.

  9. That stuff is 15% true and 75% bullshit. This, for example, is bullshit:

    the average residential lot, if subjected to biointensive farming methods, could supply the majority of a family's vegetable needs. And what's more important, the total labor involved in doing this would be less than it takes to earn the money to buy equivalent produce from the supermarket. The average person could increase his independence of the wage-system, improve the quality of his food, and reduce his total work hours, all at once. This is an ideal theme for mutualist propaganda.

    Many points to make, but I'll stick with 2. (1) People like yards. (2) The claim that it's cheaper for families to grow their own than to buy from a store amounts to a denial that there are gains from specialization plus a denial of economies of scale (a Carson specialty), which is just totally incompetent. It's exactly like saying everyone would be wealthier if they manufactured their own cars instead of buying them. Or maybe that's a bad example because cars would not exist in freed markets because we'd travel attached to inexpensive homemade kites which the corporatist conspiracy has brainwashed us into believing are impossible! I'm pro-gardening, but I'm smart enough to know that my investment doesn't begin to cover my opportunity cost.

  10. New Zealand has no agricultural subsidies at all and our farming methods are pretty capital intensive. I think that our farming is probably more land intensive than yours, but if so it will be due more to our lower population density than anything else.

  11. But (5) without the economies of scale of “big food,” food would cost a lot more, the poor would be much poorer (the poorer you are, the more food dominates your budget), and lots of people would starve to deathI completely disagree with this statement, and the evidence refutes it. You need to explain why the states in our country with the highest obesity rates are also are poorest. Starving they are not.

  12. I prefer to imagine that my food comes from the grocery store. Seriously, though, the graph is horrible. Witness: (1) The combination of oddly-overlapping lines (with dots), creating multiple levels of output for several periods, (2) the odd addition a third W to what should be be “WW1” and “WW2,” and (3) the absurd claim that the age of “horse power” in agriculture began shortly before the Civil War. The graph is basically good only to communicate the very simple point that over time, farmers have become very, very good at farming, and that the pace of their improvement has increased over time.I'm sure that a key of some kind would clear up a lot of the problems. Whence came this monstrosity of a data representation? Did it originally come with a key, or perhaps a written apology for its grotesqueness?

  13. While I agree that, for a lot of reasons, urban farming could never supplant what goes on in Iowa as our primary source of food (do the author's actually make that claim?). It seems worth noting that the largest irrigated crop in the United States is grown almost entirely in urban areas – turfgrass!

  14. Will said “without the economies of scale of 'big food'”, speaking of our society as a whole, and presumably also the world as a whole, seeing as so much American food is exported (and even that which isn't, keeps American demand for foreign production down).That poor people now enjoy so much cheap food that they can be fat while being poor merely shows how impressive the economies of scale are. Will doesn't need to explain why poor Americans can afford to be fat and aren't starving now, since he was making a contrafactual hypothetical.It shouldn't take much historical awareness to know that less than a hundred years ago, people in the United States spent vastly more on subsistence than they must now, and that starvation was possible.Or that it's only very recently that starvation in the third world was made to be due, in essence, only to localized disaster or government interference, rather than happening every time there was a slightly worse harvest – because imports of food are so amazingly cheap, because of those efficiencies of scale and modern farming technology.

  15. I completely disagree with this statement, and the evidence refutes it. You need to explain why the states in our country with the highest obesity rates are also are poorest. Starving they are not.

    How does that refute it? That poor people have a lot of food now has only slightly to do with what would happen if we all farmed with low productivity techniques. It does suggest that we could lower productivity a fair ways before people would starve, but we couldn't go back to before the Green Revolution and avoid starvation.I believe, Matt C, that Will is using “big food” to mean the economies of scale of farming massive plots of land. Not, e.g., to refer just to the subsidized crops like corn and wheat. Fruits and vegetables are largely unsubsidized (they got thrown a few bucks to get the votes to override GWB's veto of the last farm bill, though), but they're still grown on massive plots.Will is right. Getting rid of farm subsidies would not eliminate large agribusiness, it would just alter what crops were grown. Large farming is efficient. Look at New Zealand.

  16. I think Will was talking about the actually poor (as in starving africans), not the relatively poor americans.

  17. Also, as another NZer, a lot of NZ land is very hilly and remote, so unless you go to the really heavy-capital investment of terracing the hillsides it only makes economic sense to raise sheep.

  18. Will,

    This, for example, is bullshit…

    Maybe, but I can't see that you've earned this assertion by means of argument, at least not as presented here.

    (1) People like yards.

    Sure. And people also dislike their jobs, and like cheap fresh produce.People also typically like gardening work more than their jobs up to some point of labor-intensiveness, after which they start liking gardening work a lot less.Given all this, the question is one of trade-offs among alternative uses for land and labor — whether people's desire for (say) maintaining a grassy yard as a consumption good is strong enough, on the margin, to outweigh the countervailing benefits of small-scale biointensive vegetable gardening on the same land and with the same labor-time.No doubt this will in fact be different for different people: some people really like yards; other people really hate their jobs; etc. But of course Kevin is not suggesting that, given the choice, all workers will prefer to transform some marginal units of lawn into marginal units of a kitchen garden as a means of reducing work hours. Nor is he even claiming, in the passage quoted, that any workers will withdraw entirely from the wage system in favor of gardening. What he does suggest is that, given the choice, some (significant number of) workers will prefer to trade out some (significant amount of) marginal wage-work, yardwork and yard-land in favor of marginal increases in garden-work and garden land. Of course, it's easy to throw around isolated bits of data about what people “like” and don't “like” in the abstract without considerations about opportunity costs, substitute goods, or division of the stock into marginal units, but given that Kevin's point was about people's preferences over alternatives on the margin, I can't see how that gets any serious economic work done by this kind of response.You might then ask, “Well, why don't they already do what Kevin suggests? Seems like people's revealed preferences tell us all we need to know about the trade-offs involved.” Which would be true — (1) if decisions were being made under conditions of adequate information (so that there is no need for, say, “mutualist propaganda” to offer information to people currently dependent on wages for their food about available alternatives which they may not have known about), and (2) if those preferences were revealed in a free market, where (among other things) substitute goods aren't subsidized by the government, the wage-system isn't made artificially difficult to escape by government-imposed needs for ready cash on hand, research and dissemination of information aren't artificially skewed towards the needs and interests of competing business models, necessary inputs (notably, a patch of land, space to compost, etc.) aren't made artificially expensive by government price-fixing and government-imposed restrictions on use; etc.But they aren't.

    (2) The claim that it's cheaper for families to grow their own than to buy from a store amounts to a denial that there are gains from specialization plus a denial of economies of scale (a Carson specialty), …

    Well, no, what it amounts to is a specific application of a denial that gains from specialization and economies of scale are (1) unlimited (2) homogeneous across all goods and all producers.Whether the application is apt or not is something that depends on more data than you can get from a one-paragraph pull quote (and is something that Carson discusses at length throughout his work on questions relating to, e.g., cottage industry and home food production). But the principle being applied is that there's an equilibrium point at which marginal gains from specialization are outweighed by marginal costs (transaction costs, heterogeneous preferences for marginal labor-time, etc.), and an equilibrium point at which marginal gains from economies of scale are outweighed by marginal costs of scale, and that this equilibrium point may be different for, say, low-wage service sector workers than it is for highly-paid professionals, and may also be different for tomatoes or chili peppers than it is for pickup trucks or jumbo jets. Remembering which is not “totally incompetent,” but rather a prerequisite for actually doing any kind of serious economics in the real world.

    I'm pro-gardening, but I'm smart enough to know that my investment doesn't begin to cover my opportunity cost.

    Maybe the kind of gardening that you do, and the alternative uses of your time that you have in mind, are different from the kind of gardening that Kevin has done, and the alternative uses of his time that he has in mind.

    Or maybe that's a bad example because cars would not exist in freed markets because we'd travel attached to inexpensive homemade kites which the corporatist conspiracy has brainwashed us into believing are impossible!

    Is this kind of rhetorical broadside at ridiculous cartoon versions of your interlocutor supposed to be funny?Because it sure isn't necessary to make the point you're trying to make, and it's also neither particularly fair nor particularly reliable as a way to get out a relevant response to the argument your interlocutor actually made,rather than other, different arguments that he didn't make, but which you find easier to lampoon.

  19. This is all terribly unconvincing, especially the ad hoc method of explaining away revealed preference with whatever mix of false (or inadequately heightened) consciousness and systemic injustice is necessary to preserve your prior conviction. I get really tired of this, which is why the kite joke is funny. Because it's exactly how you and Kevin tend to argue when backed into a corner.

  20. Very true, though I wonder how far out we can sit the collecting dishes and still be able, reliably, to transmit the energy back to Earth. I also forgot tidal forces; there's probably some way to generate electricity from tidal forces.

  21. “This is all terribly unconvincing, especially the ad hoc method of explaining away revealed preference with whatever mix of false (or inadequately heightened) consciousness and systemic injustice is necessary to preserve your prior conviction.”It's a method of argumentation common to people who are (or want to be) libertarians but have strongly held prior convictions that seems to contradict revealed preference. A straightforward statist would just argue for government action, but some libertarians deal with the cognitive dissonance by imagining subsidy where it doesn't exist or isn't large enough.Your point is exactly right, Will. The composition of crops and use of farmland would change without subsidies. But the experience of New Zealand, and of largely unsubsidized fruits and vegetables in the US (along with experiences elsewhere in the world) demonstrate that increases in farming productivity are real and large scale farming is here to stay.

  22. “What he does suggest is that, given the choice, some (significant number of) workers will prefer to trade out some (significant amount of) marginal wage-work, yardwork and yard-land in favor of marginal increases in garden-work and garden land.”

    Some. But not in any significant amount to make a difference in food production and distribution on a large scale. Look at New Zealand. Look at fruits and vegetables in general, which aren't subsidized. You're massively overstating your case.

  23. Will,As you please, but to back someone into a corner you need to actually start with the position that they have, not some a strawman position that's easier for you to attack. To attribute a claim to Kevin which he does not hold (for example, that there is just no such thing as gains from specialization or economies of scale, and that he is just in “denial,” rather than having given a specific argument with specific evidence as to why there are countervailing costs and diseconomies that are important in the case of a particular set of potential producers and a particular good) and then smugly ridicule this cartoon version of your interlocutor, rather than replying to the argument that was given you, is something quite different. To then describe your interlocutor as “totally incompetent” at economic analysis on the basis of this ridiculously crude strawman, when he has repeatedly and at length set out a more nuanced view, is awfully graceless, not to mention unreliable as a way of getting to the truth.As for ad hoc rationalizations of prior convictions, I suppose that the charge against Kevin would be just if Kevin hadn't ever set out in any systematic or comprehensive way to provide evidence for his claims that a shift, on the margin, away from wage-labor (yards, whatever) and towards home food production, might be preferable for some significant number of current wage-workers under free market conditions, or that state intervention systematically tends to favor hypertrophic centralized producers, to subsidize centralized capital-intensive agribusiness (and centralized, cash-lubricated capital-intensive business in general), etc. Or if he simply stopped and then refused to consider any kind of countervailing factors that might tend to push in the opposite direction under the conditions he is supposedly considering. But if he has provided such a systematic investigation and argument ahead of time, and has considered the countervailing factors, then we're not talking about an argument ad hoc; we're talking about the application of prior evidence to a specific case. And, well, you know, I hear he did already write some stuff about that stuff, even at some length. Maybe you think that what he wrote about it is underargued, or “terribly unconvincing,” or maybe even that it's “bullshit.” But you've not yet given any reasons that anyone else can inspect or has any reason to care about for finding it so. Because, at the level of principle, I am fairly sure that no competent economist would deny that there are limits to the benefits of specialization and to economies of scale, that those limits are not homogeneous across all goods and all producers, and that large-scale government interventions may have large-scale systemic ripple-effects which tend to skew the trade-offs in some markets towards artificially centralized or capital-intensive equilibrium points. And on the level of detail, Kevin has presented some detailed evidence in favor of his take in many different books and articles, whereas you've offered “people like yards” and some contemptuous ad hominem swipes at smug urban eco-asshole basil growers, without any concerted effort to show that Kevin's wrong on any particular point that he made. Maybe you don't want to spend the time necessary to respond point by point, or even on one point. Which is fine; everyone's got preferences and priorities. But if you're not prepared to present a systematic response, then summary handwaving about what's “bullshit” and what's “terribly unconvincing” to you seems like an immoderate way to respond to an argument you're not actually willing to reply to. And the fact that you don't like the conclusion of the argument (that revealed preferences on this point under actually-existing capitalism reflect the influence of government intervention and not what people would likely do in a free market) doesn't mean that citing the premises by way of explaining how Kevin came to the conclusion is an “ad hoc” response.As for my own prior convictions, you seem to know more about my prior convictions than I do. Try finding anything that I've personally written which makes a detailed claim about how much wage-workers would shift towards kitchen-gardens for personal or family use in a free society. Insofar as I've argued about any of this stuff, it's in the form of pretty broad claims about shifts on the margin, ceteris paribus, away from centralization, dependence on cash savings, and employer-employee relationships, in a free society. I'm not an especially good gardener myself, would most likely still be doing web development to pay for my food if laissez-faire broke out tomorrow and would be happy to do it, and generally have a much less detailed set of expectations about what free labor would look like in practice than Kevin does.I do, however, have a pretty strong prior conviction in favor of playing an argument where it lies. And what I get really tired of is seeing Kevin put as much work as he does into putting out interesting, original, and detailed writing and analysis specifically on the question of economies of scale and benefits of specialization, producing reasoned responses to inappropriate and out-of-context applications of the economics of scale, division of labor, and roundabout production, only to see that work casually misrepresented and ridiculed as if he were simply unaware of, or trying to wish away, elementary pin-factory economics.

  24. You write what amounts to a pro-agribusiness puff piece, absolutely devoid of any facts to back it up, with a liberal admixture of insulting ad hominems and appeals to stuff that “every schoolboy knows,” and toss around “economies of scale” like it was one of Cloud William's “Holy Words.” In short, you've created what amounts to an agribusiness cargo cult.Then Rad Geek makes some actual arguments, and supports them. And in particular, he points out that economies of scale actually mean something.And you think HE has backed himself into a corner?Large-scale mechanized agribusiness produces a larger output per man-hour, but soil-intensive horticulture produces more output per acre. That's a fact. John Jeavons' raised bed techniques have been demonstrated to produce enough calories to feed one person on a tenth of an acre. That's another fact.Ralph Borsodi demonstrated–with careful accounting–that the total labor involved in growing and canning tomatoes, including amortization on the land and kitchen range, electricity, and all the rest of it, was about a third less than the labor required to earn the money to buy grocery store canned tomatoes for a person making an average wage. That's still another fact that can't be wished away by yelling “Economies of Scale! Booga Booga!””Economies of scale” result from the fact that some production inputs are lumpy, and are maximized when a set of production inputs is fully utilized. They vary with the material conditions of production, and–rather than being unlimited–are maximized at some discrete point beyond which diseconomies set in. Economies of scale are also entail packages of costs that in some cases offset each other, as when production reaches a scale at which economies of unit production cost are offset by increased distribution cost from a larger market area. And economies of scale depend on which production input you're trying to economize on. These are all things to be answered with fact, but you write as though they weren't even issues at all. “Economies of Scale! Booga Booga!” is apparently sufficient.

  25. John,1. It's not my case. It's Kevin's case. He gives the argument for it in his book and a series of articles which I'm certainly not prepared to reproduce in full here in the comments thread. My point so far has simply been that specific criticisms Will has offered as a reply to the case are in fact crude misrepresentations of the case he's allegedly replying to.My own view is that Kevin probably overreaches on the extent to which centrifugal effects on agriculture will result specifically in sustenance kitchen-gardening. But I'm not prepared to wave that off as “bullshit” in the absence of a reply to the evidence he gives, and I'm not about to try and make the case that he overreaches based on the (clearly false) claim that he just denies the existence of benefits from specialization or economies of scale.2. That said, it's also simply not true that centralized growing of fruits and vegetables “aren't subsidized” in the U.S. They receive far less in the way of direct federal subsidies (in the form of domestic price supports and export subsidies), compared to (say) cereal grains, soybeans, sugar, etc. But many vegetables (e.g. potatoes, onions) are bought up heavily through government purchase and donation programs (school lunch program, military procurement, etc.), many are included in government agricultural export financing and promotion programs (e.g. the Market Access Program), the market is just as heavily regulated as the cereal markets in favor of large incumbents by means of USDA and state and local regulations, they are covered by federal crop insurance bail-outs, and — this happens to be awfully important in the agricultural markets near where I live — benefit very heavily (especially with crops like melons, which are now mostly grown in the Southwestern desert) from government irrigation subsidies and engineering projects.Moreover, Kevin's point is not simply concerned with the effects of direct government subsidy to producers. It's part of a larger case which significantly has to do with (among other things) the suppression of potential competitors and substitute goods, either by government-enforced cartelization, direct legal suppression of the product, by direct legal suppression of necessary inputs, or by the ripple-effects of economic distortions that make the inputs artificially expensive compared to how they'd be in a free market, or that make the inputs for centralized business models artificially cheap.Is all of that enough to demonstrate that there'd probably be a large scale shift towards home food production in a free society? I dunno. In any case, we're still talking about a really heterogeneous set of products (the economics of tomato growing are quite different from those of cantaloupe farms, and both are awfully different from banana plantations), and all this is no doubt beyond the scope of this comment thread. But it's certainly a reason for believing that the market we have to look at now is pretty damn skewed, and so that pointing to revealed preferences under those market conditions is not a very reliable guide to what would be economically efficient in a genuinely free market, which was my point in mentioning all this stuff in the first place.

  26. Kevin:

    Ralph Borsodi demonstrated–with careful accounting–that the total labor involved in growing and canning tomatoes, including amortization on the land and kitchen range, electricity, and all the rest of it, was about a third less than the labor required to earn the money to buy grocery store canned tomatoes for a person making an average wage.

    To be fair, Borsodi's results here are partly a reflection of the sample he chose, and probably not nearly as easily applicable to other foods as they are to tomatoes. Homegrown tomatoes are one of the easiest fruits to grow tolerably well in most U.S. climates, and typically offer the largest cash savings from home production and preservation. Getting similar cash savings from homegrown corn or rice or melons would be a lot harder. (At which point, of course, the issue gets tangled up in a lot of other, knottier trade-offs, like the extent to which people might be willing to trade out food based on cereals and other things not easily grown at home in favor of different foods that are more easily grown at home. Which is a live concern, but one that's hard to do much in the way of monetary accounting to answer, since a lot of the trade-offs involved are generally qualitative rather than quantitative.)

  27. Rad Geek:Re subsidies to centralized production of fruits and vegetables, the position of California as the nation's leading producer might just have something to do with:1) Heavily subsidized irrigation water, serving rain-poor areas, from government-built dams;2) Artificially cheap freight shipping on the Interstate, by trucks that cause virtually all roadbed damage and pay maybe half the actual costs of maintenance;3) The piggybacking of California agribusiness on essentially free, state provided land (the former Spanish and Mexican haciendas).If shipping and irrigation costs were fully internalized, I expect people in rain-rich areas like (say) western Massachusetts would be buying a lot more vegetables grown by truck farmers close to where they lived.Point taken re Borsodi. He did, however, run a homestead that was largely self-sufficient in most fruits and vegetables and dairy products, and even produced some meat and cereal grains. And he was under the impression based on his own experience–although I don't know if he did the same detailed calculations he did for tomatoes–that it was cheaper in labor terms than working at a job to buy the food. I do know that he did such calculations for a fairly wide range of home production including spinning and weaving, furniture making, etc., and argued that some two-thirds of what we consume could be produced most economically on the homestead or in the small shop. What's more, he conceded that in most cases factory production was “more efficient” in terms of internal unit costs of production, taken alone; but he argued that the invention of stand-alone, electrically powered machinery captured most of the efficiencies of machine production, and that the additional internal economies of scale of factory production were offset by the fact that home production took place at the point of consumption and had no distribution cost.Borsodi, being a natural polymath who would have put Odysseus to shame, also probably underestimated the transaction costs of learning to produce so many different things at the household level. But one of his chief failings was his neglect of the possibility of intermediate scales of production between the autarkic household and the large mass-production factory. A neighborhood-level division of labor, by enabling the most skilled seamstress, baker, woodworker, etc., use a particular set of home appliances to full capacity, would probably maximize economies of scale and comparative advantage with no appreciable increase in distribution costs.

  28. Large-scale mechanized agribusiness produces a larger output per man-hour, but soil-intensive horticulture produces more output per acre. That's a fact.No doubt. Tradeoffs abound. Our current arrangements are a result of labor being relatively expensive. John Jeavons' raised bed techniques have been demonstrated to produce enough calories to feed one person on a tenth of an acre. That's another fact.Fair enough; at what cost in other inputs (especially labor)? This is a cool demonstration of what you can do at one limit (maximizing calories per unit of land), just as robotic wheat harvesting is a cool demonstration of another limit (maximizing calories per unit of direct labor, or something). There's no particular reason to believe that either one represents an optimal solution to food production.Ralph Borsodi demonstratedIn the 1920s. Revisit the (admittedly crappy) graph on farm productivity and ask yourself what this implies about the relationship today.

  29. Man… You argue AGAINST agriculture subsidies and this is what you get. I'm not denying that families can grow sufficient food on small plots of land. I'm denying that it makes sense for most people, given their preferences and opportunities. And so I'm incredibly skeptical of the idea that more than a few people would find it worthwhile to support a restructuring of institutions to shift to a radically different structure of food production. I don't know why you think this is an attractive alternative. You may counter that in a very different world people would have very different preferences and opportunities, and I will agree. But I tend to be skeptical of specific claims about what kinds of things are likely ever to be different. For example, I don't believe it is true that most people can be persuaded to prefer the sense of independence from self-employment and home production vs. hyperspecialization, wage labor, and radical interdependence, unless they can be made to believe they would be much better off.I sense you get pretty frustrated about the fact that you tend not to be persuasive to people with a background in relatively orthodox economics (or mildly heterodox economics). But I don't know how you expect us to respond. I've spent a great deal of time with and have learned a lot from new institutional “transactions cost” economists, and feel like I have a very good sense of the arguments of some of the world's best economic thinkers on the limits to scale. And my sense is that your views diverge radically from the consensus view of even those mildly heterodox economists who are very, very sensitive to the whole variety of transactions costs in real institutional structures. I'm not sure why you think I should believe you rather than them, especially when your views on where diseconomies of scale kick in seem to play such a crucial role in your normative political theory. Anyway, I think I also have a pretty fair sense of actual agricultural practice. And it just seems to be a FACT that there are large economies of scale in agriculture, and that they have increased with technological innovation. So I don't know what to do with your alleged facts. You obviously agree that if working for a wage and buying food at a store leaves people better off than growing their own, then it doesn't make sense for people to grow their own. Right? So here's what I wonder… The real price of food is declining. True or false? Real average wages are increasing. True or false? I think the evidence is very, very clear that both are true. And I think this largely explains the dramatic decline in the household production of food. But you apparently don't. Why not? Would you agree that if the cost of food continues to decline as a percentage of the average wage, then the average-wage worker WILL hit a point where she is better off buying than growing? Do you think that would be a bad thing? And if your alleged facts are facts, why are they not exploited to create huge fortunes? If I'm a farmer with x acres, and I would get more output per acre by switching production techniques and substituting labor for capital, why wouldn't I sell a bunch of my machines, buy a bunch of labor at the average wage or below, and make higher profits?

  30. Jeavons' methods involve more application of labor at the point of production, although i doubt there's actually more labor per unit of consumption when the hours you'd have to work to pay shipping costs are taken into account. The initial digging of a raised bed is fairly labor-intensive, but once that's done the ongoing labor inputs are quite small. Close spacing, mulching, etc, minimize weeding and watering, and if you don't compress the beds by walking on them they only require forking up in subsequent years.Re the effect of innovation, there have also been eighty years of innovations that enhance the productivity of home production (rototillers; refinements of composting, green manuring, companion planting, etc., based on findings of soil science and biology). The organic farming techniques developed by Rodale, Bromfield, and Jeavons, compared to what Borsodi was doing, are like a Ferrari compared to a Stanley Steamer.

  31. No doubt home production techniques have improved dramatically with tech. But I use basically none of these technologies or techniques in my garden. Why not? Because I don't know about them! The more productivity is tied to specialized knowledge, the higher the gains to specialization. Indeed, tech increases productivity more at higher levels of education and skill. Thus the whole skill-biased technical change literature. So as tech improves, it become less and less likely that the average worker will be able to gain the level of knowledge and skill necessary to produce at the level of efficiency necessary for home production to make economic sense. It almost sounds like you already know this, but just don't like it. Is there something about food that you think is special, or would the average worker also be better off learning how to sew his/her own clothes, etc.?

  32. Re the effect of innovation, there have also been eighty years of innovations that enhance the productivity of home production (rototillers; refinements of composting, green manuring, companion planting, etc., based on findings of soil science and biology).

    Sure. There's also been many innovations enhancing the productivity of ham radio operators, people like me who build their own computers, people who tinker on their own cars, people who sew their own clothes, people cooking their own food, repairing their own home, and so on. But in every single case, while it's easier to be a hobbyist or DIYer than it used to be, outsourcing and contracting and taking advantage of specialization has become more common, because the productivity advantages of specialization have increased even faster.It's quite obviously much easier to cook your own food than it was 80 years ago. And yet the long term trend is in favor of people even more using prepackaged ingredients and eating out. And so on.Plenty of people are going to enjoy doing any one (or more) of these things as avocations. But I think it's ridiculous to pretend that for any of these things hobbyists are going to dominate the market. Some people will garden; it will be their hobby. But other people will choose other hobbies, and there will be so many possible hobbies demanding your time that people will pick only a few.Overall, this is a good thing, as people can choose what sort of hobbies and status competitions to participate in, and which ones to outsource.

  33. Will:

    I sense you get pretty frustrated about the fact that you tend not to be persuasive to people with a background in relatively orthodox economics (or mildly heterodox economics).

    Maybe. But if you use your sense of sight to read what Kevin wrote, it seems like part of what's frustrating for him in the current exchange is that his views on benefits of specialization and economies of scale were misrepresented so that the crude cartoon version of his analysis could be waved off as “totally incompetent.” I don't know about you, but I don't find that a very auspicious beginning for a conversation.There are lots of ways to discuss a view that you don't find persuasive, and lots of people have criticized smaller or larger parts of Kevin's writing on agriculture and local production. (I have, for one. William Gillis has, from a position arguably to the left of Kevin's. Etc.) But there's responsive criticism which attempts to clarify and hone in on the issue, and thee's non-responsive attacks. What you're doing in this most recent comment is something like the former. What you led off with is more like the latter.

    And so I'm incredibly skeptical of the idea that more than a few people would find it worthwhile to support a restructuring of institutions to shift to a radically different structure of food production.

    Well, the suggestion is not necessarily that lots of people would direct their economic activity towards restructuring etc. Some food faddists like that kind of thing, but the main suggestion here is that that would be an unintended consequence of the final prices for the produce of capital-intensive centralized agriculture with long-distance shipping rising relative to the final prices for the produce of more localized, informal, and labor-intensive county-scale, neighborhood-scale, or home-scale alternatives. (Note that you would see this effect even if absolute prices for all kinds of produce were to fall.)

    The real price of food is declining. True or false? Real average wages are increasing. True or false? I think the evidence is very, very clear that both are true. And I think this largely explains the dramatic decline in the household production of food. But you apparently don't. Why not? Would you agree that if the cost of food continues to decline as a percentage of the average wage, then the average-wage worker WILL hit a point where she is better off buying than growing?

    1. What's happening to real wages over time is a lot more complex than that, because, as I'm sure you know, modal workers don't make mean incomes. When you separate it out by socioeconomic class, you get very different pictures for different kinds of families. Particularly over the last 35 years or so.2. As specified, you haven't yet given enough information to determine whether or not a wage-worker will or will not reach an equilibrium point where the trade-off of cash for saved labor is worth making. If tomato prices decline relative to wages for non-food-related wage-labor, then that would tend to favor doing the wage-labor, buying the tomato, and pocketing the difference — if there's no comparable decline in the marginal time that it takes to grow the tomato yourself. But I don't think that the antecedent of that conditional has been established.

    And if your alleged facts are facts, why are they not exploited to create huge fortunes? If I'm a farmer with x acres, and I would get more output per acre by switching production techniques and substituting labor for capital, why wouldn't I sell a bunch of my machines, buy a bunch of labor at the average wage or below, and make higher profits?

    Well, if we're just looking at the input side, and not the effects of (say) government action on competition, then Kevin's alleged fact was that if you hold the acreage fixed, large-scale mechanized agribusiness will produce less total output than soil-intensive horticulture, but it will produce more output per marginal hour of labor expended on the acreage. The question then is whether it's more profitable for the farmer to economize on the costs of labor or to economize on the costs of land and capital. For people with relatively little access to large, concentrated tranches of land and capital, the trade-off may go one way; for people with better access, perhaps even access that's facilitated or directly provided by the actions of state or federal government, the trade-off may go the other way.

  34. I didn't bring up Kevin's piece, and I wasn't trying to start a conversation. I agree that “totally incompetent” isn't helpful, but that's how the argument in the post seemed to me when I clicked over to it, and it has yet to look much better. I'm not convinced that there is serious debate here to be had. Sorry.To your other points… 1. I meant the median real wage. It's gone up, even using the standard deflators that undercount the worth of innovation and qualitative change. Measured in the standard way, there's been some decline for some groups toward the bottom of the distribution. But the typical bundle of consumption goods at the median isn't typical toward the bottom. And so the effective rate of inflation isn't the same at all points of the distribution. Because food is such a large part of poor household budgets, the dramatic decline in the price of food actually buoyed real wages and consumption at the bottom relative to the middle. This strikes me as a terrible place to make a stand, especially when you take into account that lower-income individuals tend to be less skilled, and have a less than average (which is not high) capacity to put innovations in home production to use. 2. I think the antecedent is abundantly well established. The decline in food prices is due to, among other things, technology, increasing specialization, increasing economies of scale in both production and transportation, all of which imply an increasing opportunity cost to amateur, lower-tech, less specialized and much much much much smaller-scale home production. It just seems amazing to me that you guys think there's an issue here.

  35. I know this isn't what you're debating about, but keeping a small herb garden can be efficient and economical, even for someone whose marketable skills lie elsewhere. Once plucked, herbs stay good for just a few days. I used to have to constantly throw them out, and agonize weekly in the supermarket about whether I might need some cilantro or dill that week. Now, all I have to do is water my plants in the morning, and can just grab some herbs PRN. Thus, while other people are better than I am at growing food, we have to remember that they are providing a different product- one that arrives DOA.

  36. Will: I'll agree that it would make a better bargain at any given time to buy store food if a person's wages were high enough that they could earn the wages to buy the food in less time than they could produce the food themselves. I suspect wages would have to rise and food prices fall a great deal before that point is reached for someone of median income. And that's still leaving out issues of long-term risk and insecurity from the job market, of course. What you can produce with your own labor and property, you don't have to worry about having taken away at a boss's whim.And the economic calculus you describe for a farmer is influenced by government interventions that make conventional agribusiness artificially profitable, and force the small soil-intensive producer to play on an uneven field (i.e. competing with big agribusiness plantations with subsidized irrigation). Even so, despite the skewed incentives, we've seen an explosion of local market gardening over the past generation–Earl Butz's “get big or get out” reached its apex in the 1970s.What's more, I expect the economic calculus of both the home grower and the farmer to be heavily influenced in the next few years by Peak Oil: by increased long-distance shipping costs, fuel costs for mechanized equipment, and the natural gas inputs for chemical fertiliser.John Thacker: It's odd that you lionize the productivity advantages of specialization, because it seems to me that industrial development over the past thirty years has been in the opposite direction: toward networked local production integrating power machinery into craft production, i.e., using general purpose machinery to produce in small batches and switch frequently from one product to another on a demand-pull basis. That's the industrial model of Emilia-Romagna and other similar industrial districts around the world, and it's the model of the networked suppliers to which old-style American mass production industry increasingly outsources more and more of its operations. One of the central critiques of traditional mass production industry by lean manufacturing advocates (e.g. James Womack's *The Machine That Changed the World*, William Waddell and Norman Bodek's *The Rebirth of American Industry*) involves the false economies of specialization. Capital-intensive production with product-specific machinery requires large-batch production and push distribution to spread out the unit costs of the heavy machinery over the largest possible production runs. The result is mountains of goods-in-process inventory in the factories, mountains of finished goods in the warehouses for which there is no order, and mountains of inventory in “warehouses on wheels” being shipped around the country. By using less specialized machinery, scaling machinery within the factory to production flow governed by actual orders, and by scaling the factory itself to demand and siting it as closely as possible to the local market, lean production achieves lower unit costs than mass production; the reduced cost from bloated inventories outweighs the increased unit costs for each machine taken in isolation. Interestingly, industry tends to expand its craft periphery in economic downturns because corporations don't want to invest in costly product-specific machinery unless they can guarantee demand suffient to keep it running at capacity. But there has been a permanent structural shift toward an increasingly networked craft periphery, with corporations “outsourcing everything” and becoming increasingly redundant nodes on distributed networks of craft producers; in some cases, like Nike, they really do outsource everything, and the only thing that keeps the supplier networks from undertaking independent production is the old corporate HQ's control of IP and branding, marketing, and finance.On the same general theme, for a major segment of the economy–software and entertainment–the old corporate IP-centered dinosaurs are being eaten alive by production on the greatest general-purpose artisan tool of all: the desktop computer.

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