Economies of Scale - Where Do They Lead Us?
Could we feed ourselves – should we try?
Economists gaze lengthily into the firmament and declare loudly that economies of scale force down retail prices so everything is cheap and we can fill our wallets with surplus cash to buy the things that are really expensive. But agriculture has been slavishly following this message since I was a student in 1973, and long before that. Even then a 600 acre farm was borderline ‘viable’, or so they told us. Like an enormous Leviathan; like a tremendous cargo container ship, farming has got bigger and more capital-heavy and lighter of manpower and - no more profitable!
I hear my farming friends utter the terrifying phrase ‘Nick, it’s just not worth doing anymore‘. This might be brought on by another huge and unpredicted drop in the wholesale price of pig meat, taking it well below the cost of production – and this even with a unit hosting 1000 sows; or the price of wheat in Chicago has blipped down to £80 per ton for some unfathomable reason known only to the speculators.
Is it time to try the ’economies of small-scale’? Is it time to place a value on skills – keeping them and expanding them; to place value in working once again in small efficient groups; to place value in well-being and job satisfaction, and the satisfaction of having a job?
The economies of small scale may be able to start hundreds and hundreds of small, self-employed businesses.
It may allow us to look down the telescope and see magnified human well-being, instead of mankind screaming towards a vanishing point with no one left to feed us.
Futurefarms, a co-op food business situated in the Parish of Martin, Hampshire, and many other Community Supported Agriculture schemes all over Britain and the US, do create, in some small way, an alternative market for food. They serve up umpteen opportunities for people to do something themselves towards providing their own food. Something grown or hand-reared has recognisable ‘value’ to those involved, and is therefore truly ‘valued’. It is no longer a commodity without any story or history.
Fragments of this idea rub off on passers-by and friends and next-door communities, and so the attitude to the value of food and its biological mysteries become part of our lives.
At the moment we are dependant on the grocer for our daily needs. The farmer/grower/producer has been lost from sight over the horizon - rubbed from our lives by the economies of scale and the long distance food chains. They seem to carry out their tasks behind enormous capital screens and in vast sheds - being capital mountains that are only climbed by corporate companies.
We have to think about providing work for many more people in agriculture. Perhaps those jobs could begin around small community farms selling produce direct into devoted local kitchens. Perhaps the importance of who has grown it, where it has been and what it costs, will, with increasing transparency, reach all people.
If you dismantle the cost of a chicken in front of the customer: make it clear that the cost of the egg, the heat, the food, the rent and the depreciation of the shed it lives in for 14 weeks, plus the labour to look after it, adds up to the cost per kilo of the meat - that’s it. That is the unavoidable cost of chicken meat raised in your community. Any chicken you buy for less will have come from miles away and will have lived a short dismal life in crowded conditions and won’t do you as much good
People need to know what their food producer is earning. Only then can we acknowledge and agree the price of food. We must have the incentive to pay our food producers the salary they deserve for looking after our well-being. Don’t forget – there is no Hippocratic oath applied to farmers.
Feeding People is easy - Colin Tudge
The Carbon Fields - Graham Harvey
Agri-Culture - Jules Pretty
Swindled - Bee Wilson