Thursday, December 15, 2011

First application of the peasant economics research

In Survival Podcast Episode-802- Permaculture Misconception vs. Reality (@29m45), Jack Spirko talks about reducing the size of the average farm so the average farmer can make a living on 40-80 acres like they used to. Currently, farmers with a thousand acres might earn $25,000 including subsidies. Permaculture would mean growing 4 acres of premium corn and lots of other things, as well, and earning a decent living doing it. Jack states that the farmer would have to hire people to pick instead of using machinery, which would cost more but be good for the economy and make a more sustainable local economy.

Theory from the research on the economics of peasant farms:
  • This will drive food prices up
  • which will decrease the purchasing power of wages in other sectors
  • but will probably drive wages up in those other sectors due to less competition for jobs
  • which may decrease activity in those other sectors
  • but either way it will provide more employment on the land
  • which will encourage migration out of other sectors and back to agriculture and into the countryside (this would be true in the U.S., now, since rural areas are now so sparsely populated, whereas in the Old World the same dynamic would have checked the initial migration into industrial employment and encouraged people to stay on the land)
  • BUT, it's possible we've reached a tipping point where we can no longer depend on ongoing industrial growth and need to move people back into the country to take up the surplus labor from the city
  • ALSO, the farmer may not have to hire a bunch of laborers for harvest, because he will have the labor necessary on site to handle the harvest, as 4 acres of corn is not an overwhelming amount and sufficient labor can be kept employed the rest of the year at other tasks due to the diversity of on-farm operations; e.g. livestock, forestry, fiber, homestead activities (fixing the roof), etc.
Jack also suggests people start producing 10-25% of their own food locally, so farmers don't have to make as much for us.

So what would it mean to move people back into agriculture?

It might look like this:

Agriculture would need to become more labor intensive if more people were to be employed farming. To have stable employment on the land, you would need a diversified family farm-type model, otherwise you will need large labor inputs at particular times which means a large demand for migratory labor, which is problematic. A diversified family farm would likely result in better soil fertility and higher yields - along with more work but the work would be spread more evenly throughout the year. More farm income would be re-invested back into individual farms, which traditionally prevented capital accumulation, but chances are good that industry is well-enough developed at this point that capital would still exist for useful large-scale infrastructure projects, though on credit. Cooperatives could play a strong role in this if we'd rather keep creditors, the state, and large-scale capitalist agribusiness out.

The price of food would go up but wages in all other sectors would also go up due to less labor competition in other sectors. This would be the inverse of the scenario Doreen Warriner demonstrates in her book. Probably the price of food would rise more than wages, so the proportion of income a family spent on food would increase. The consumer would be paying for farm biodiversity and soil conservation. Some of the additional costs of labor-intensive agriculture, however, would be defrayed by the fact that the farmer would also be providing for more of their own needs, due to the availability of their own labor during the down periods of the farm cycle. In other words, they would need less disposable income because they could be growing and making more of their own stuff, or via a cooperative enterprise (e.g., a community-owned biogas plant for transforming farm waste). A diversity of on-farm enterprises would also create economic resilience for individual farms.

Support for this theory from Warriner: In the scenario (c. 1939) where Western European tariffs were removed, Eastern European wheat would come in at half the cost (I assume the equilibrium would be reached for both at around 75% the pre-tariff cost)...
In Western Europe the industrial population would gain through cheaper food, but would find the adjustment in the labour market through the influx of labor from the land a very serious one...Free trade inside Europe would inevitably mean a big displacement of labour in the West. (p197)
We can assume that the original decrease of food costs as a result of large-scale mechanization had a comparable impact on the population of the U.S., sending many farmers into the industrial labor pool. We need only reverse this pattern to see that sending people back out of the industrial labor pool and onto farms would have the opposite effect of increasing food costs and decreasing labor competition. Food prices go up, wages go up. In fact, in the foreward, she notes the reversal that came as a result of Eastern Europe becoming a net importer of grain in the years between 1939-1964:
So the priorities of 1939 are now reversed. Then industrial development was the first; now it is increased food production. The movement of population into industry creates a demand for food which agriculture cannot supply, partly for lack of capital, and partly for lack of incentive.
A big potential issue affecting the livelihoods of the new small farmers, however, would be land ownership. If the massive tracts of land currently owned by agribusiness were rented out, or if farmers were hired on as independent contractors working a chunk of land in a way that's dictated by the landowners, you would have virtual serfdom. The landowners could charge enough to make farming anything but lucrative. Farmers would need to own their land for this to work well. It's the difference between the Bulgarian peasants (land-owning, organized) and the Hungarian peasants (landless, disorganized) in the 1930s. It's hard to imagine this working in the U.S. without some sort of land reform, which is tough to imagine at all. Even in an era of smaller-scale farming (due to peak oil or what-have-you), the large land-owning agribusiness giants could easily turn into something like feudal lords.

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