How Big Agriculture came to be: a theory

The other night, our friends Frank and Judi had us over for dinner. They’re getting chickens this year, and discussions of hen breeds and coop designs have had us spending time with them. They’ve been to our house to scope out our operation, and they wanted to show us the progress they were making. We like Frank and Judi a lot, and were delighted to go spend an evening with them.

They’re planning a coop that’s similar to ours, and it was well underway. After we looked at their site, and talked a bit about predator-proofing, they showed us around their gardens.

We know Frank and Judi because they’re card-carrying members of the Cape Cod Organic Gardeners, an organization that tolerates our membership even though we’re pretty quick to resort to non-organic amendments or pesticides if we think they’ll help. Frank and Judi, on the other hand, could be the club’s poster children. Their organic garden is a thing to behold.

May is very early in the season for Cape Cod – the water all around us tends to delay the spring well into June. Despite a cold, damp season, Frank and Judi’s garden was pretty far along. Their beets are already five inches tall. They have lettuces and arugula and catalogna that are almost harvestable. Their mint looks like my mint looks in August.

And then there’s the garlic. Row after row of it. Strong and green, over a foot tall.

Frank, it seems, is a garlic geek. He’s experimented with many different varieties over the years, and he’s used his own garlic as seed, so it acclimates to his conditions. Over a dish of several heads, roasted, in olive oil, spread on Judi’s homemade bread (don’t you wish you had friends like that?), Frank explained the pros and cons of the various kinds.

Then he went into the basement and came up with a handful of Phillips and Sicilian Silver Skin. For us. Not enough that they were feeding us dinner, giving us a couple of catalogna plants, and letting us raid their mint patch. They had to send us home with garlic.

I marveled at the difference between Frank’s garlic and our garlic. Ours is tiny and stunted, with cloves the size of, well, cloves. His is big and full, with large, regular cloves.

“How do you dry it?” Kevin asked him.

“It’s easy,” Frank said. “I just set up a screen about the size of this table,” the one we were sitting at, maybe eight feet by three, “and a fan. I leave the tops on until they’re dry.”

Frank said this in an offhand, do-it-in-my-sleep kind of way, but I wasn’t fooled. Frank is an engineer, and although I’m in no position to assess engineering expertise, the fact that, before he retired, he ran the Cape Cod Canal for the Army Corps of Engineers, indicates to me that he has skills to be reckoned with.

I pictured his basement garlic operation as a system of screens, with a network of fans, all operated by a nuclear power plant.

Whatever it looks like, though, one thing is certain: Frank’s garlic operation is better than ours. It is better than ours ever will be.

You know those all-in-one office machines that copy, scan, print, and fax? And you know how they don’t do anything as well as machines that do only one or two of those things? Kevin and I are the all-in-one machine. We do so many things that it’s difficult for us to excel at any of them.

We’re okay with that – we like the variety, the novelty, and the endless learning curve. But there’s nothing like being a generalist to teach you the value of specialization.

Our little enterprise has given me a new appreciation for the economies of scale of large-scale agriculture, and a better understanding of how much better you get at growing things when you focus on it. Commercial agriculture began back in the Pleistocene Era when Oog visited Moog’s vastly superior garlic operation, and the lightbulb went on. Instead of thinking about growing his own, he started wondering what he had that Moog might want, and would be willing to trade garlic for. Turns out Oog smoked a mean bluefish, and a deal was struck.

From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to Cargill.

I’m as critical as the next guy of Big Agriculture’s excesses (unless, maybe, the next guy is Mark Bittman), but I never lose sight of the fact that it makes a great deal of sense to encourage people who are good at growing garlic, and doing it in a hospitable climate, to grow a lot of garlic. That way, people who don’t have the time, the skill, or the land to grow them at home have an affordable option.

There you have it. Big Agriculture is what happens when you follow skill and specialization to its logical conclusion, and that doesn’t have to be bad thing. If conditions were right, you might end up with someone like Frank growing vast quantities of high-quality garlic prudently and sustainably. I don’t think Frank himself is going to go that route, but you never can tell about a guy who’s got a nuclear power plant in his basement.

9 people are having a conversation about “How Big Agriculture came to be: a theory

  1. Perhaps Frank and Judi would deign to help us solve our garlic mystery: Ten years of great success, followed by a measly 10% of the crop surfacing this spring. Nematodes? Vampires, as you suggested on Twitter, Tamar? Some other scourge?

    And, yeah: I, too, resemble an all-in-one machine.

  2. In the leisure of retirement, I find myself picking up books about lots of things I really never knew
    interested me: the history of Odessa? the life of Georgia O’Keefe? the details of the ratification of the Constitution? Why not? So I’m becoming a living caution to generalists–knowing less and less about more and more until I know nothing about everything. Of course the specialist is in danger of learning more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. But I think we generalists (aka all-in-one machines) have more fun.

  3. What’s all that mumbo jumbo at the bottom of your site about gambling and eCOGRA and online gaming?

  4. I think Moog hit Oog with her club and took the garlic.

    I think the thing is to just keep at it, don’t give up. Refine your process, talk to people. Eventually you become learned.

    I planted our winter veg. this morning, even bought seedlings – that making them BRO-K expensive already. I bet the kangaroos eat them tonight.

    John: Do you have some toolbar and/or spyware installed that’s appending ads to web pages?

  5. Tovar – From one generalist to another, I’ll ask a specialist about your problem. I’ll let you know if Frank and Judi can shed any light on it.

    Mom – What’s that expression about the nut and the tree?

    John – My site got hacked, and that may be the result. So far, you’re the only one reporting the problem. I believe I’m all fixed up now, so if it doesn’t go away it may be on your end.

    Kingsley – I’m giving the garden my all this year. We’ve got the hoophouse up and running, and we’ll be experimenting with hydroponcics. I’ve got seedlings, I’ve got seeds, I’ve got hope. And, if all else fails, I have a club.

  6. Tamar,

    Before we go all gooey eyed over the economies of scale of big ag, or concentration of expertise, it might be useful to count, also, the costs. The problem, always with these claims (i.e: “small scale organic can’t feed the world”) is incomplete accounting.

    A couple of weeks ago you had a post about commercial fishing being able to do it “cheaper” than you can. But what all of these industries have in common is that they are dependent upon oil to make them go at all. Without oil, they all come to a grinding halt – they are by definition unsustainable. We’re past the point of peak oil – the day of grinding halt is coming as oil becomes too expensive to pump out of the ground.

    Another cost, never counted, it the cost to maintain an army to keep the oil flowing. Trillions of dollars, year after year, that amount to a subsidy for big ag. Take that subsidy away, the price of oil will spike and big ag, commercial fishing, etc. comes to a halt.

    Another cost, never counted is the environmental cost: the poisoning of the land by use of pesticides. The mono-cultures necessary for “economies of scale” or even your garlic farmers above who are farming organics, are not sustainable. Nature abhors mono-cultures – they breed disease as nature tries to restore balance.

    Another cost, not quantifiable because it can’t be expressed in dollars, is the negative cost that comes with specialization. A static economy is not sustainable for the simple reason that things change. Industries come and go: e.g.: I see no whale oil industry any where around here. With overspecialization economies can’t move and adapt. And I would argue that specialization makes people unhappy. Quantify that.

    I think there is an error being made when we over value “the best” versus “good enough.” For there will always be something better. But do you really need “the best.” The garlic you or I pull out of our ground may not be the best, but I’d wager that it flavors or food just fine. Always looking for “the best” is a false quest and a negative economy.

    Finally, you note that Frank and Judi’s garlic is wonderful and farmed organically. I’d give their methods a try. I’m slowly coming around to an understanding that if we can only harness the help of nature to help our farming that great things can happen. I look at our lettuces started in the greenhouse months ago are barely large enough to transplant. While the dandelion’s around the house are ginormous and already gone to seed all without our help. Whatever is farming the dandelions knows a lot more about farming that I do. 😉


    Best, Kim

    • Kim – You bring up all the important stuff! Hard to address in one comment.

      First, let me clarify that I am certainly not advocating for Big Agriculture. I think, as an industry, it has behaved badly. Nevertheless, forgoing economies of scale altogether because of the problems of monocultures seems to me to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is exactly some of the things you mention that make me think specialization is the way to feed people.

      Fossil fuels are a big one. Big farms require them, but so do small ones. And seventeen small farms, growing green beans, generally (although not inevitably) require more in the way of them, per green bean, than one large farm.

      As for pesticides, while it’s difficult to quanitfy the harm, there is certainly a point at which bad things happen both to humans and to land. The earth’s tolerance for chemicals is not infinite, but neither is it zero. What I want is for farmers to be prudent. It’s possible to farm conventionally and be prudent. It’s also possible to farm organically and NOT be prudent (those copper compounds are brutal!).

      And about specialization. Certainly, whale oil has gone the way of all flesh. But I’m not willing to equate specialization with a static economy. Particularly when it comes to farming. The need to eat will not go away. If you can grow a better apple, cheaper, it’s unlikely that you’ll be obsolete any time soon. And the only way you’re going to grow a better apple, cheaper, is if you focus on apple growing. And, if you grow a better apple, cheaper, you will make apple goodness and nutrition available to that many more people.

      It’s not that Big Agriculture is good and Small Agriculture is bad — or vice versa. Feeding people is a complex and difficult enterprise, and I’m not willing to dismiss any possible solutions out of hand.

      Thanks for leaving a thoughtful and constructive comment. If you want to call it rant, I can only say you can rant here any time you like.

  7. I think I am in danger of being very jelous of Frank. Followed the instrcuctions of a couple of books on how to grow garlic (which, being in Spain, instrcuctions were pretty much like: put it in the ground when big, pick and eat) and they all died. Again. And people keep saying that garlic pretty much grows itself. Oh well hope I get better luck (or more skill) next year.

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