UN Report: The World’s Farms Stretched to ‘A Breaking Point’

Yves here. The UN assumes that farms around the world will need to feed 2 billion more people by 2050. I suspect Mother Nature/the Jackpot will dent those numbers.

By Dana Nuccitelli, research coordinator for the nonprofit Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an environmental scientist, writer, and author of ‘Climatology versus Pseudoscience,’ and 10 peer-reviewed studies related to climate change. Originally published at Yale Climate Connections

Almost 10% of the 8 billion people on earth are already undernourished with 3 billion lacking healthy diets, and the land and water resources farmers rely on stressed to “a breaking point.” And by 2050 there will be 2 billion more mouths to feed, warns a new report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

For now, farmers have been able to boost agricultural productivity by irrigating more land and applying heavier doses of fertilizer and pesticides. But the report says these practices are not sustainable: They have eroded and degraded soil while polluting and depleting water supplies and shrinking the world’s forests. The FAO report discusses some important climate change impacts, such as changing distribution of rainfall, the suitability of land for certain crops, the spread of insects and other pests, and shorter growing seasons in regions affected by more intense droughts. While not the sole source of obstacles facing global agriculture, the report makes clear that climate change is further stressing agricultural systems and amplifying global food production challenges.

The report also offers hope that the problems are solvable: Water degradation can be reversed by turning to smart planning and coordination of sustainable farming practices and by deploying new innovative technologies. More sustainable agriculture can also help fight climate change: For instance, the report notes that wiser use of soils can help sequester some of the greenhouse gasses currently emitted by agricultural activities.

Drastic changes in climate will require regions to adjust the crops they grow. For example, the report predicts that much cereal production will probably have to move north, to Canada and northern Eurasia. Brazil and northern Africa may have a harder time growing coffee, but it may get easier in eastern Africa. A changing climate “may bring opportunities for multiple rainfed cropping, particularly in the tropics and subtropics.” And for areas “where the climate becomes marginal for current staple and niche crops, there are alternative annual and perennial tree crops, livestock, and soil and water management options available.”

The report recommends seed and germoplasm exchanges globally and among regions, and investments to develop crops that can withstand changes in temperature, salinity, wind, and evaporation.

The changes will not be easy, the report says, but they may be necessary to avoid widespread hunger and other catastrophes.

Extensive Land and Water Degradation

Over the past 20 years, the global population has risen by more than 25% from just over 6 billion to nearly 8 billion people. The amount of land used to grow crops has increased by just 4% over that time, as farmers have been able to meet the growing demand for food by dramatically increasing the productivity per acre of agricultural land. They’ve done so, for example, by increasing use of diesel-fueled machinery, fertilizer, and pesticides.

But these practices have come at a price. “Human-induced degradation affects 34 percent (1,660 million hectares) of agricultural land, the FAO reports. “The treatment of soils with inorganic fertilizers to increase or sustain yields has had significant adverse effects on soil health, and has contributed to freshwater pollution induced by run-off and drainage.”

This degradation is especially extensive on irrigated farmland. Irrigation has been critical for meeting food demand because it produces two to three times as much food per acre as does rain-fed farmland. But irrigation also increases runoff of fertilizers and pesticides that can contaminate soil and groundwater.

The FAO reports also that globally, agriculture accounts for 72% of all surface and groundwater withdrawals, mainly for irrigation, which is depleting groundwater aquifers in many regions. Global groundwater withdrawals for irrigated agriculture increased by about 20% over the past decade alone.

Similarly, the quality of 13% of global soil, including 34% of agricultural land, has been degraded. This degradation has been caused by factors such as excessive fertilizer use, livestock overgrazing causing soil compaction and erosion, deforestation, and decreasing water availability.

Map of global soil degradation. (Source: UN FAO State of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture report)

Deforestation trends offer one relatively bright spot in the FAO report. The global forested area has declined by about 1% (47 million hectares) over the past decade, but that is a significant improvement from the nearly 2% decline (78 million hectares) in the 1990s. And in the November 2021 international climate negotiations in Glasgow, 141 countries, covering 91% of global forested area, agreed to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. It remains to be seen, of course, how many reach those commitments.

Climate Change Is Worsening Food System Breakdowns

Climate change exacerbates farmers’ challenges by making weather more extreme and less reliable. Extreme heat can stress crops and farm workers while increasing evaporation of water from soil and transpiration from plants, thus amplifying agricultural water demands. Here too, it’s not all bad news: Agricultural productivity is expected to increase in regions that are currently relatively cold, but decrease in places that are hotter and drier, especially as climate change exacerbates droughts.

As with others, farmers will need to adapt to the changing climate, and making those adaptations can be expensive. For example, as the primary or sole producer of many of the country’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts, California effectively acts as America’s garden. But climate change is exacerbating droughts and water shortages in the state, and farmers are struggling to adapt. About 80% of all almonds in the world are grown in California, generating $6 billion in annual revenue, but almonds are a very water-intensive crop. As a result, some farmers have been forced to tear up their lucrative almond orchards. It’s a stark reminder that “adaptation” can sound easy on paper, but in practice can sometimes be painful and costly.

Farmers and Planners Will Need Io Adapt

Adaptation will nevertheless be necessary in the face of an anticipated 50% increase in food demand by 2050 (including a doubling in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa), extensive land and water quality degradation, and a changing climate. The FAO report recommends four action areas to continue to meet rising global food demand.

  • First, adopting inclusive land and water governance through improved land-use planning to guide land and water allocation and promote sustainable resources management.
  • Second, implementing integrated solutions at scale, for example by helping farmers use available resources more efficiently while minimizing the associated adverse environmental impacts and also building resilience to climate change.
  • Third, embracing innovative technologies and management like remote sensing services; opening access to data and information on crops, natural resources and climatic conditions; and improving rainwater capture and increasing soil moisture retention.
  • Fourth, investing in long-term sustainable land, soil, and water management; in restoring degraded ecosystems; and in data and information management for farmers.

Fortunately, sustainable agricultural practices can also do double duty as climate solutions. The FAO reports that 31% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agri-food systems. Sustainable farming practices like regenerative agriculture can require less diesel-fueled machinery and less reliance on soil- and water-polluting pesticides while increasing the carbon stored in farmed soils.

Solving these multiple problems will require planning and coordination, the FAO writes in the report, and “data collection needs to improve.” Again, a bright side: The technology to improve data collection already exists, and advances in agricultural research have also put other solutions within reach. What is needed now is for policymakers and planners to coordinate work with farmers to adopt more sustainable practices and adapt more quickly to the changing climate. So, while the food system is currently at a “breaking point,” these more sustainable solutions are all within reach.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    The terrifying thing right now is that climate is changing quicker than we seem capable of changing agricultural systems. Its hard to exaggerate just how resistant the entire agriculture system – from farmers up the chain to big Ag and government bureaucrats can be to changing what appears to be a successful system. Farmers are always legitimately slow to change, and they often can’t without help because of debt and the fear of making the wrong decision. We can see this clearly in intensive dairying, where farmers have to invest hundreds of thousands in the storage and management facilities, and so become highly resistant to anyone telling them that they should go organic, or grow crops instead. And while tree based crops are potentially far more sustainable, it takes years after the investment for the farmer to make any money. Someone has to support them in the meanwhile.

    Humanity has backed itself into a corner with an agriculture system based on mono cropping and intensive fossil fuel based inputs. It will find it incredibly hard to reverse course.

    1. martin

      has to be on a local level- small farms can adapt most quickly- corporate ag can’t get out of its ‘shadow’. are you familiar with the work of Gary Nabham? gives me hope and solutions…

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I don’t know Nabham, I’ll look him up.

        I think its very true to say that small farms can adapt quickly – I’ve been surprised sometimes to see the rapid switches made from farmers in my family. But the switch in my experience is usually within a tight bound – from, say, dairy to beef, or sheep to cattle. Its very tough to get a farmer who has spent his life raising animals to suddenly start planting hazelnuts or avocados or coffee. Or vice versa for that matter. Farmers that always mixed up crops were always far more resilient and flexible, but in so many parts of the world this is dead. My grandfathers dairy and beef farm had an orchard and a ‘garden’ for potatoes and cabbage for family consumption, along with a few pigs and turkeys (the latter for gifts for us urban relatives). I doubt his grandson who now runs it would have the faintest idea how to grow cabbage or apples – the orchard and garden were swept away in the 1980’s when dairy became so profitable.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Here is a bunch of images of Gary Paul Nabhan. Each of them lists the URL that they came from. Some of those URLs lead to interesting places. Searching on each of the images will stumble across any URLs which seem intriguing and worth following up on.

          Here is a particular Nabhan book relevant to this post. It is called Growing Food in a Hotter Drier Land. I have linked to a NOmazon source.

          And here is an organization to find, save, and redistribute back to their original tribes certain vanishing agriculture seeds of the dry Southwest. It is called Native Seed Search and it has a seed catalog among other things. He left it long ago and it still functions, which shows that he was successful by creating an organization strong enough to survive his departure.

    2. mikkel

      Yeah this article is confusing and disappointing. Dana is a fantastic writer, and has long been a leading light for the group I’d label as “realistically optimistic” (more optimistic than me but definitely within reason).

      However this whole post falls way outside of that, complete with its “we’ll just move to Canada” meme. I had sworn I’d even read Dana debunking that once upon a time…but perhaps I’m delusional.

      That and the hand waving around climate chaos impacts, including the fact that it will be continuously changing faster than we can adapt…

      Over the last few years I’ve felt better since the amount of gaslighting went way down in places like YCC. Now I’m seeing it pop up again, what is going on?

      Is it that COP has taken the fight out completely?

    3. Monte McKenzie

      because thy arn’t trying ..
      Google: OSU aquaponics / aeroponics . learn ag for 21st century!
      I’ve been a fan of those since 1990!
      then write a NEW REPORT

    4. Karach

      Correct. This is the problem with massively scaled-up industrial agriculture. Once you’ve invested millions of dollars in combines, sprayers, seeders, cultivation equipment, advanced grain storage and cleaning facilities, etc. you become locked into that production model. The gains in efficiency per unit of energy input are drastically offset by the lack of flexibility of such a system.

  2. BillS

    IMHO I can’t help but think that the EU and the USA eliminating damaging farm subsidy programs would be a good place to start. The bulk of these funds is effectively a direct transfer from the taxpayer to Big Ag and various “land mafias” that destroy any possibility a rebirth of the small farmer as a force for regeneration of soils, aquifers and farm productivity. As usual, “follow the money!”

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, unfortunately agriculture subsidies are now largely a scam, a hidden handout to big business and big agriculture. The farmers representative organisations in many countries are not little more than clubs for the largest farmers. Its not unknown in Europe for ‘farmers organisations’ to directly lobby against support for small farmers. Its particularly frustrating (and I’ve had more than one argument in a rural pub in Ireland and England over this) that small farmers often don’t realise this. They get all their information from farmers newspapers that are essentially funded by Big Ag.

      Its very frustrating that so many answers to our problems come down to ‘stop giving billions in taxpayer subsidies to polluters’, but thats the system we are in.

      1. mikkel

        I wouldn’t say that those are “the answers” since we need to radically restructure just about everything to have a chance.

        However subsidies are the equivalent to repeatedly shooting ourselves while trying to stop the bleeding.

        It is astounding how effective pocket money is in convincing small timers to support policies designed to isolate them.

      2. Scylla

        They are a handout to big, corporate farms that have a corrupting influence, but I was literally on a small family dairy this morning (They milk 60-70 cows and have around 80 beef cows) and I was told that they are working on their taxes and that their income almost exactly matched the subsidies they got. I visit a great many farms, and this is one of the better managed ones. This farmer is not proud of that fact, but he states that he does not know what he could do to create real profitability. They have no hired help and all the work is performed by two nuclear families. As far as I can see, If the subsidies were pulled, agriculture in the US would collapse. The only way I see to fix this, along with most of our other problems, is to overthrow the existing system and start with something that is not capitalism. I’ll add that in my experience, it does not seem that the big farms are really doing any better, except for the fact that they have more access to revolving credit. They just keep borrowing more to pay off previous loans, and they banks allow it to continue (no doubt some of the big corporate farms share board members with local banks).
        The real problem, IMO, are all of the corrupt middle men (food processors/distributors/retailers) that have forced farmers to become price takers that are effectively prohibited from selling directly to the public, and no matter what you change, it seems to me that our capitalistic system has inherent structural conditions that undermine/remove any reforms that are instituted.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          There is something else that could be done. Outlaw the import of food of any kind that is already being grown in the US. And outlaw selling any US grown food for below a set price.

          A version of that was done in America for the duration of WWII. A German submarine semi-blockade semi-provided the functional equivalent of outlawing food imports which were designed to compete with domestic product in order to tear down the domestic price in order to bankrupt non-huge farmers in order to consolidate their land into the growing sector of already-huge plantation-farms.

          The criminalization of under-pricing food was provided by the Steagall Ammendment to the Agricultural Adjustment Act.

          Here is a quote about it from off the web.
          “The Steagall Amendment guaranteed crop prices at a 90 percent level of average farm commodity prices that occurred between 1910 and 1914. Inflation was computed into the calculations. Because of World War II, many parts of the globe were in food crisis.”

          Here is a sad pathetic little wikipage about it.

          Years ago I read about it in much more detail in Charles Walters Junior’s book: Unforgiven . . . the American Economic System SOLD For Debt and War . . .
          Here is a link to a NOmazon source for that book.

          Restoring all these laws and protections would not overthrow capitalism. But it might keep enough farmers commercially viable on enough land to keep enough people alive long enough to eventually overthrow capitalism if that is what they decide to do. And in the meantime, it really would be beneficial. And even if socialists consider it ” anti-radical” and “meliorative” . . . which socialists hate because it violates the Leninist principle of ” the worse things are the better they are” . . . it would be perceived as radical enough by the International Free Trade Conspirators and the Corporate Globalonial Plantationeers that they would organize the kind of blockade against America that America now organizes against Cuba.
          The International Free Trade Conspiracy might go even further and try the kind of physical invasion against a Steagall Ammendment 2.0 America that the West tried against Bolshevik Russia in the first few years of its existence.

    2. Amfortas the hippie

      yes, yes, and yes.
      and bust up Big Ag, a la Teddy R., post haste.
      I’d even go so far as to mandate that grocery store accept actually locally grown over brought in from afar, as well…with strict enforcement of point of origin labeling….i’ve been to too many “organic” “farmers markets” in my time where the big dog was: 1.not organic, and 2. was just off the highway from the fruit terminal…and everybody was supposed to just ignore it.

      and, of course, my usual refrain: ban persistent herbicides that make hay and manure and compost herbicidal.
      aside from the now hopefully over 6+ year grasshopper plague, the herbicidal manure is my biggest problem.

      also, some useful definition of “Farmer” would be helpful,lol…ie Cargill is not “a Farmer”…and neither is someone who robotically “farms” 10,000 acres of corn and rapeseed(canola). the entire usa subsidy operation is captured, and corrupt…humans need more than corn, soy and rape…but dow etc keep pushing for ways to grow more of these , because that’s the giant subsidy funnel they got their heads stuck in.

      1. tegnost

        among many other things I am totally in agreement with you on persistent herbicides.
        Regarding the post I think it’s hopium that climate change will/has occurred in a gently sloping linear fashion such that USDA can manage shifts to growing areas.

  3. Bart Hansen

    Food demand increase of 50% by 2050, and population from 6 to 8 billions. Good luck!

    Lots of those green areas on the map are either too far north, too dry or mountainous.

    What farming can occur in that huge cream colored part of Africa?

    Will California be planting any crops by 2050?

    1. Keith McClary

      “Lots of those green areas on the map are either too far north, too dry or mountainous. ”
      Some of the northern areas may get a suitable climate for agriculture (at least grazing) but the soil has been scoured off to bedrock by glaciations, or they are permafrost.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        And yet if the subdivision houses in question have enough yard around each house and all that yard around each house were intensively cultivated for fruits and vegetables, micro-orchards, etc. with all the already-living-right-there hand-labor available to grow all those plants; the overall amount of food grown in those suburban subdivisions would be more than the overall amount of agribulk-commodity food-precursor input-product that was grown on that same space when it was farms.

        Many years ago Ernest Schumacher got published a little article about that in Atlantic Magazine. I can’t remember what issue. It was on the theme of “small can be very food-productive” in assessing the hopeful side of suburban possibilities. Of course no search engine would help anyone find it now. But there are a couple of Schumaker-related sites which might lead the patient searcher to something like it.



  4. Ernie

    The problem is overpopulation. Period. All the other problems flow from that, including climate change, war, disease, and poverty, to name some big ones. Human population growth has increased population density, with all kinds of ill effects. One is disease: more people crowded onto a small planet, especially with relatively easy travel and connection to each other puts more people into the position of infection each other – every person is a pathogen and mutation generator, and density increases the ability of pathogens to mix and match genes from other people. Another is climate change: every human born requires heat, usually from fuel that contains carbon creating CO2 when it is burned. More population equals more CO2 in the atmosphere (disregarding metabolic CO2). The only way to cure the farming issue is for the population to reduce. The longer we allow the population to remain the same or increase, the worse the problems will become.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Even the most cursory look at per person emissions by country, or by wealth, or by lifestyle, would show you that the core problem is not population. The average American emits three times the CO2 of the average Swede or Portuguese or French. Eight times as much as the average Uruguayan or Indonesia. And 150 times as much as a Ugandan or Malawian. The average rich North American or Saudi or Canadian or Australian emits many, many times more.

      Or put another way, you could wipe out 90% of the worlds population, but if the remainder consumed like North Americans, we’d still be screwed. The problem is consumption.

      1. Tom Pfotzer

        And the problem with “consumption” is:

        a. how we run our economy
        b. how we run (design, construct and operate) our household
        b. what things we consume, and how often

        Our economy and our households are incredibly wasteful of energy and materials. We know how to fix all the leaks, but it involves a lot of change.

        Take a look at the parade of 30-ton-cargo garbage trucks next time you visit the landfill (have you ever actually been to one?). Ask yourself “what’s the avg age of the contents of that truck? What’s in there, anyway?”

        A good bit of what the West consumes is about status and enjoyment. Those are malleable “wants”, but re-directing those wants involves some serious mods to one’s social standing in the short run.

        Most fossil fuels are used for transport and HVAC. Produce local, don’t commute, and insulate your house well. That would put a enormous dent in the CO2 load.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          If more people with the money to pay for consumption will spend more of that money on consumables produced locally, it might inspire more people to try producing more consumables locally. That might set a virtual spiral upwards into motion. That then could set more people free from having to commute. It may have to start with a devotion to local purchase of consumables by people who can do so to get that cycle spiraling.

      2. jrs

        But most very poor countries wish to be richer, so they are not content to be poor either even if various factors keep them that way. They will escape it and develop if they can and environment and climate be damned.

        And most people on the internet talking about population live in countries with an unsustainable level of consumption. A French level consumption is NOT sustainable either. So really such people SHOULD be talking about having less kids. There is no happy poverty where people are content to be poor and countries don’t strive to develop, in which 10 billion people live.

        1. Bellatrix

          Correct, but there are no easy solutions here because even if people in rich countries have less kids, they then set themselves up for a future demographic time bomb, where they will need to increase immigration of young people to fill the gap and look after the ageing population. This is one of the advantages that developed western nations have over some others. The US, Canada, Europe, Australia, NZ etc. have little trouble attracting immigrants, whereas it won’t be so easy for China, which has the biggest demographic time bomb of all.

      3. jonswift

        The core problem is not population is correct–its humans in general–we behave like humans.
        However per person emissions means that a 90% decrease in human population would be close to a 90% decrease in human population emissions (not 90% because I assume some capitalist enterprises who want to create more emissions presently are constrained by pressures from other emitters and might emit more in future). Decreasing human emissions by 90% would go a long way to curing global warming–and the farmer’s supply problem. It doesn’t matter what the average brainwashed American does–that’s Ernie’s point.

        1. Ernie

          I am trying to respond to all of the previous posts related to mine.

          I say population is the problem because there is a belief, especially among the corporate and financial leaders, that population can grow infinitely, and all will be well because technology will solve everything. This belief is nonsense. Every system has limits, and it seems to me we are clearly reaching the limits of population growth. Nothing lasts forever, and that includes the supplies of resources humanity consumes. Every ill we experience as a species, and as a species among many species, is due to our species’ constant demand for more (usually in the form of money). But constant growth is unsustainable, and in fact, impossible. The earth’s resources are finite, including space to live on without wiping out other species.

          The original premise of the NC post is that the world’s farming is being stressed beyond what is sustainable. It’s not just a matter of demand by a growing population, although that is critically important. It is a matter that all systems upon which the human population depends – climate, food, water, space, materials…everything – is being irreversibly consumed, leaving nothing for future generations of any species. Farming is sort of a canary in a coal mine for human activity. Although is is true that one portion of humanity by itself is responsible for a gigantic proportion of climate changing chemicals in the air (not just CO2) and other forms of consumption, all of humanity has the potential (and arguably, as a matter of equitability, the right) to consume as much. Even if there was a perfectly fair distribution of the earth’s benefits among all members of the planet’s expanding population, all the planet’s systems upon which biology depends would still be reaching their breaking points.

          Apportioning responsibility for the planetary distress on those who consume and emit the most is fair and reasonable, and they should be obligated to work toward fixing what they broke. But determining responsibility is only a prelude to fixing the problems. Next year the population is expect to have doubled from what it was in 1974 – that is, it doubled in 49 years, less than one average lifetime. We are adding 1 Billion people every 12 years. (https://populationconnection.org/blog/world-population-milestones-throughout-history/) We are being exhorted to continue to expand because we need more workers to support retirees etc. But we also are exhorted to expand because it’s good for business. More people means more laborers and more consumers and taxpayers, while only the tiniest minority of the population actually benefits from the expansion, and all this is to the detriment of the other species of the planet, animal and vegetable.

          The only solution to controlling all the factors leading to unsustainability – to exceeding the limits of all the systems that support the planet – is to somehow, without inequitably disadvantaging those who have not yet benefited from the various human systems that have brought wealth and comfort to some parts of the population, halt population growth and eventually reduce it to a permanently sustainable level at which every human benefits equally.

          Farming will be less stressed as the population is stabilized and eventually reduced, as will the other planetary systems.

        2. drumlin woodchuckles

          If the average non-American looks to the average American as either an example or an excuse or both, then what the average American does on average could have an impact.

          If Eleventeen Billion suspicious foreigners all watching America say ” Conserve? You first, and show us how its done.” and average America actually did so, then Eleventeen Billion suspicious foreigners might do so as well . . . just as much as Average America does, though not one jot or tittle more.

          And here’s a way that America could help down-populate the world without killing anyone at all . . . offer to let childless migrants under a certain age come in IF and ONLY IF they get demonstrably permanently sterilized first. Then they could come here, have a good life, and have zero children. And more and more could keep coming here and having zero children. America could become a population sink. If other demographic timebomb countries did the same, they could increase the population-sink effect.

  5. Bruno

    “Almost 10% of the 8 billion people on earth are already undernourished with 3 billion lacking healthy diets.” Anybody “lacking a healthy diet” is already undernourished.

  6. Mikeyjoe

    The increased population will need housing and unfortunately the necessary houses, streets, shops, etc. will bulldoze dwindling farmland.

  7. Bruno

    “farmers have been able to boost agricultural productivity by irrigating more land and applying heavier doses of fertilizer and pesticides. But…these practices are not sustainable: They have eroded and degraded soil while polluting and depleting water supplies and shrinking the world’s forests”
    This perfectly illustrates the fantastic perversity of the Economists’ concept of “productivity”: it counts only the total (as measured in currrency units) marketable output of any production process without any accounting for the destruction of real productive value (the combined workings of the skills, energies, and vital activities of our Earth’s living environment–most emphatically including its soils and waters). This perversity is no less when environmental destruction is “on the one hand” and growth of “Economists’s productivity” “on the other”–as is virtually always the case in the writings of even the most environmentally aware “Marxists” and “Ecosocialists.” So they go on prating of “Progress” when the planet’s survival imperative is Repair and Restoration.

  8. Tom Pfotzer

    I have gradually evolved into local farming. I have lots of different plants – fruit, nut, vegetable, forage, and forestry. I don’t use herbicides nor pesticides.

    All this is at the household / small farm scale; I only produce hay for sale off the farm(1).

    I am terribly inefficient at all farming tasks. The tools and resources available at the farmstead level are many generations behind what’s available at big-scale.

    Most of the organic farmers I come into contact with are young, idealistic, and in good physical health.

    When kids come or health and/or optimism degrades, farming gets exited or cut back, and a “town job” gets substituted.

    For small scale farming to reach its potential (e.g. to feed our society), a few big things have to happen:

    a. small-scale tools need to get way, way better

    b. we’ll need to pay more for food; scale matters, and that shows up as price differential. Think about whether people will continue to pay more for local food as econ conditions deteriorate. They’re going to think twice about it….

    c. pest management has to take a giant step forward. Organic farmers have a really, really tough job of managing pests. There’s a reason herbicides and pesticides are so heavily used, and it’s not that “farmers don’t care”.

    The organic farmers I see that are making it are incredibly industrious, intelligent, and devoted. They’d succeed at anything they chose to do. A “town job” is waaaayyyy easier, less risk, etc.

    Behind the (current) glamor and cachet of small-scale farming is some fairly unfavorable economics. If we’re serious about shifting to small scale, and having small scale feed a lot of people, a lot more resources and technical evolution are going to be needed _at the small scale_.

    Remember, the big-scale operators have enjoyed 100 years of massive investment; think ag-schools (extension service, research, etc.), seed, pesticide, fertilizer, equipment companies getting virtually unlimited investment, skill, effort….

    The small-scale operator is currently operating at an enormous economic and technical disadvantage.

    Next time you get the chance to talk to a small-scale farmer, ask them if they think the tools and materials and resources (like labor!) available to them are sufficient for the job they have to do.


    (1) Producing hay is almost the dumbest thing you can do as a farmer. I produce hay for sale because prop taxes are majorly reduced by virtue of producing a crop, and right now, that’s the crop. Other crops are in the offing, but not ready yet.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      As a mere amateur, I am dimly aware of some people trying to design/engineer/produce and sell what might be the kinds of tools and micro-machines you are hoping for. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has a selection of tools. Some of them are efficient-to-use hand tools. Some of them are efficient-for small spaces tiny little micro-machines. It would take some searching to get to the micro-machines part of the listings.

      There once was a little machine called Quadractor. It could have various cultivation and etc. implements attached to its underside to cultivate and etc. the wide permanent beds between its straddle-the-bed wheels. http://blog.farmhack.org/2013/03/24/the-quadractor-an-all-purpose-work-vehicle/
      Perhaps it could be revived. Or revived and updated.

      Here is something called Tuff Built Tractor. Also able to straddle a wide permanent bed. Also able to mount wide-bed-worthy implements under itself. Or in front of itself or behind itself.

      So people are trying. I feel confident there are other such things out there that I know nothing of.
      At some point someone might scale down the roller-crimper micro-farm size for micro-farm use.
      Here is a bunch of images of roller crimpers which are too big for the tiny farm. But someone could shrink it down to just the right size.

  9. Eclair

    Report from our small corner of western New York state. We inhabit 65 acres, most of it recently acquired on the death of our 95 year old neighbor. His dad had a farm; cows, pigs, chickens, veg, apple orchard and woodlots for firewood and deer habitat.

    It’s hilly, wet and rocky (shale), getting wetter as the rains become heavier and more frequent, and infested with invasives: multiflora rose, Japanese honeysuckle and knotweed. Feeling angry and frustrated at the State of the World? Grab leather gloves and large pruning sheers and go attack a mammoth multiflora rose bush!

    The skunk cabbage is magnificent and there are ramps in the early spring. Last year we purchased 70 tiny trees and bushes, mostly natives, from the county. I just sent in this year’s order, for 50, all native to the county. We dig a lot of holes and make a lot of protective cages so the deer don’t browse them down to nubs. The native plants (we won’t live to see the big trees reach maturity, or even adolescence! ) will provide food, shelter and nesting material for wild turkeys, song birds, hawks, black bears, deer (!), and butterflies.

    Our neighbor kept about two-thirds of the land mowed, as meadow. Well, until last year; the old brush hog bought by my brother-in-law, ‘needed work.’ It still does. I am persuading my spouse to hire a local guy with a working brush hog. And we will be setting out hedgerows, with those native plants, across the open meadow areas, to create ‘wildlife highways.’

    We plowed up lawn for increasingly large veg gardens: garlic, onions, leeks, peas, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, dent corn, winter squash, rhubarb. The herb garden is new last summer.

    We plant winter rye as a cover crop; it flourishes and we could probably raise it for grain. Last summer, after becoming enamored of the concept of a ‘bee pasture,’ I sowed strips with buckwheat seed. The deer munched down the tender shoots in the unfenced area, but the long strip planted after harvesting the peas in the fenced garden, flourished. The bees loved it. And, in our area, one plants about July 4th; the stuff germinates fast and grows and flowers and turns into seed even faster. Amazing! It wants moisture and heat, otherwise, it rots in place. The small local mill, originally powered by the waters of the Stillwater Creek, grinds buckwheat and corn.

    I have been experimenting with buckwheat pancakes, such as are traditional in the French region of Brittany. Well, they call ’em ‘galettes.’

    Oh, all that rain makes for a great crop of snails and slugs: I drowned 201 of them one morning. So, I am planning on getting ducks, who dine on slugs, this spring. Probably will be a disaster, but something is calling me: Get duuucks!

    I could see our little region developing a local cuisine: grains like rye, oats, corn, and buckwheat; apples turning into cider; lots of summer veg; the dairies (cows and goats) taking advantage of the lush summer grasses, fermenting milk into cheeses; chickens laying tons of eggs; pigs. And ducks. I have been rendering hog fat into jars of white lard; kind of an acquired taste, and quite excellent for rubbing down garden tools. And, duck fat ….. Animal fat has calories, essential in the cold winters. And, in a diet that is heavy in veg, legumes and grains, it adds taste and texture. (I prefer olive oil but I don’t foresee a Mediterranean climate happening in NY anytime soon. Rape seed oil? )

    Will it work on a larger scale? Certainly it can work on a regional scale. How can we make it work in an equitable manner? It is a political decision that results in one group with the land prospering and growing fat, while another group starves.

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Sounds wonderful. Also sounds like you’re having a great time at it. Buckwheat pancakes are hard to beat, esp. if you’ve got some maple syrup. It’s terrific that you’ve got that local mill to grind your grain…that opens up a lot of possibilities.

      Dent corn and grain mill. Hmm. In my neck of the woods, there’s a lot of custom distilling going on, and I’ve been considering putting in some old open-pollinated dent corn for use in making bourbon and other corn-based spirits. Can’t get that sort of corn easily, might be a good niche crop for somebody. And hand-picking corn is not hard work, and it can be done gradually over a period of weeks.

      Really enjoyed your tale of good fortune.

    2. Larry Y

      Not a farmer at all, but a bit of a foody.

      As for rye, how about varieties for whisky? https://thecounter.org/rye-varieties-determine-whiskey-flavor-far-north-spirits-research-university-of-minnesota-crookston/

      Buckwheat crepes are great. Was in Brittany for business and ate them basically everyday. Also, Japanese soba noodles.

      Instead of rapeseed and/or canola oil, consider different varieties – Chinese semi-winter rape for caiziyou, used in Southwest China for the famous Szechuan cuisine, and/or mustard seed oil https://www.seriouseats.com/mustard-oil-guide

      1. Eclair

        Thank you for the link to ‘serious eats!’ Mustard greens are a joy to grow … and eat …. and use as cover crop. Had not thought of mustard seed oil. Need machinery.

        I remember years ago wandering about the back streets of Xi’an and watching a sesame seed oil maker and vendor. The oil extraction machine was, if I recall, hand operated and resembled a small cement mixer.

        Northern european-based cuisine is often too bland for my tastes. Pepper sauces and hot oils really spice it up. I have been trying to grow horseradish root, but, so far, no luck.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      Here is an article about a husband-and-wife farming team in Western New York State who are doing this viably on a 1400 acre farm. https://www.mofga.org/stories/farming/martens-farm/
      The article contains links to the farm’s website itself. So I think its viablility-at-scale has been demonstrated.

      I sometimes see Mr. and Ms. Martens at organic farming conferences. He/she are always surrounded by questioners. I manage to ask one question each time, and so far Mr. Martens has treated my questions as non-frivolous enough to be worth a one-to-several-minutes answer. I then ask a follow-up question the next time I see him. The next time I see him I will ask . . . how early can you plant winter rye in the “season before” and still have it vernalize over winter such that it will resume growth the “next spring”? Maybe I will even try running tiny experiments in my own garden. Plant a few square feet of rye on July 1st, another few square feet on August 1st, another few square feet on September 1st. And see how early is too early to successfully vernalize over winter for next spring.

  10. digdeep

    Eh..R’ we truly 8 Billion humans?

    Riddle me this:

    What did the polygamist say to the billionaire eugenicist?

  11. Eclair

    Yes, maple syrup. My spouse’s cousin has a small dairy farm nearby, which is kept afloat by the proceeds from their sugar bush. The milk is sent to a cheese-making plant in Ohio! A still is on my long long list of possibilities. Persuading a neighbor to do it would be a better option.

    And, I am aware, every day, of our ‘good fortune.’ A happy blend of my spouse’s glum Swedish and Alsatian ancestors finding this area of NY / Pennsylvania, and settling down to scrape a living out of growing potatoes and cutting trees and his determination, after a childhood of haying, planting and picking strawberries, and mending farm machinery, to ‘go West’ after college and invest in Boeing stock.

    And, mindful too, of the way the settlers pushed out the Seneca peoples who lived so lightly on the land. I look on our work as a partial reparation for the damage inflicted.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      sugar bush . . . sugar bush . . . hmmm . . .

      Has anyone ever thought of ultra-pasteurising a few gallons of maple sap and holding it aseptically till the height of bee activity season and then offering it to the bees to see if they like it? And if they like it, to see if they can make it into honey? Maple sap honey. Maple honey. As thick as maple syrup while burning zero fuel to make it that way.

      just a thought . . .

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