Economics of Sustainable Ag

Despite my desire to beat Cory to the punch this morning with a post about the FDA desire to limit the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in livestock operations, a more pressing desire to put on a decent presentation at the Yankton Organic Field Days tomorrow has led me deep into the Series of Tubes researching the economic sensibility of sustainable farming.

Yep–that’s one of my two presentations tomorrow (the other’s on CSA)–somehow I roped myself into it after expressing a desire to attend such a presentation and being told that our dear Ag Economist friends at SDSU don’t have the hard figures to present such a lecture.

So li’l ol’ English instructor and small farmer me is doing some serious reading on the subject. I’m glad I have learned the usefulness of constructing an annotated bibliography before writing a research paper or presentation–that’s what I make my students do, and that’s what I’m doing now.  Looks like I’ll have a great new assignment example to post to my online classes!

What I’ve found in my reading is this: while there have been some studies on the social, economic, and environmental impacts of sustainable agriculture, there is a great need for larger studies with better measurement techniques.

Consider, for example, that many of the studies have assumed basic equality between conventional and organic/sustainable farms in terms of soil structure (tilth) and fertility without realizing that residual fertility means less fertilizer cost and better tilth improves soil’s ability to absorb and hold moisture–reducing run-off and leaching of nutrients, as well as irrigation costs.

Other studies have simply measured net yields and income without measuring input costs. Since one of the tenets of sustainability is to reduce outside inputs–that seems like a pretty important thing to measure–more important because one of the biggest costs on conventional farms is the outside inputs of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, etc.

Add GMO seed on top of that and the conventional costs really skyrocket. Of course, not every sustainable farmer saves their own seed–and with some crops, they run the risk of being sued for patent infringement by GMO seed companies if their neighbor’s GMO crop cross-pollinates with their own seed stock.

Measuring input costs is a huge factor in determining economic feasibility of sustainable farming practices because even if sustainable yields are lower (and the popular myth that organic/sustainable yields are lower is not necessarily true), drastically reduced input costs can mean much more of the crop’s value goes into the farmer’s pocket instead of to seed, fertilizer, and chemical companies, boosting the overall profit margin beyond that of conventional practices.

So my research is basically telling me there needs to be more research–but I think that’s a good thing.  More hard research on the benefits that any sustainable farmer can tell you about means more jobs, more good news, and a stronger movement in a positive, sustainable direction.

Despite the need for further research, I do feel confident that I’ll have enough hard facts and findings for a decent presentation tomorrow–and if any of those SDSU Ag Economists are there, I’ll be sure to share. 😉

OK, back to work!


7 responses

  1. Thanks for doing the legwork on this! I hope you’ll share your findings with us. Perhaps an Annual Meeting presentation? Or at least a discussion with the Small Farms Committee? We’ve gotta get this info to the people! 🙂

  2. Boy, those folks know how to wrangle their volunteers.

    At my old Quaker meeting in California, a wise elder used to take people aside when they asked that the meeting do things the meeting wasn’t currently doing and didn’t have obvious capacity to do. She’d give them a serene look and then flip into arcane language that alwayys got their attention:”Friend, has thee considered that God may be calling you to do this yourself?”

  3. I have a theory that ‘sustainable’ ag folks would get more play in traditional circles if they traded the word ‘sustainable’ for ‘profitable’. The numbers probably aren’t crunched because most ‘sustainable’ folk are motivated more by non quantifiable things, ya know, savin the earth for birds, bees, and little fuzzy critters. 😉

    When guys like Trent Loos are breathing down your neck for “threat’n their way of life” or “forcin yer hippie propaganda on us”, it’s because those guys are stubborn. For whatever reason such talk flips a certain switch, and makes us dig in our heels. It was Salatin’s explanations of how he was making big bucks without the expenses that got me goin down the sustainable road. The way to beat industrial ag critics not by showing them pics of green fields, but spreadsheets of greenbacks.

    I know this because I am an input farmer, and the inputs are my biggest problem with where we are today. I’m also a degreed ag economist, and my people love graphs and charts, so toss a few of those out and they’ll eat that shit up!

    • I do think the audience dictates how you phrase the message. I was talking to folks at an organic workshop, so while I was talking economics, I was also talking a little butterflies and bumblebees. I like butterflies and bumblebees–sure, but what I like best about them is how they increase my yields.

      When something that’s cute or fuzzy is also a benefit economically, that seems like a pretty decent deal. I also think tomato hornworms are cool-looking, but I kill them. And I won’t reiterate what happens to cute wittle fuzzy bunnies in my garden, except that my dog gets a nice snack that helps keep her from eating grass she can’t digest.

      My major point across the board at these workshops is to get out that sustainability is NOT altruism. Sure, if you want it to be–if you don’t want to make any money and just be a do-gooder, be my guest. I totally agree that the do-gooderism in the message is part of the palatability problem–farmers struggle enough as it is, and asking them to do something just because it’s the “right thing to do” isn’t the best tactic.

      Telling them that doing something (that is also sustainable) will save (or make) them money is a far better way to go. I’ve also found that showing producers the sustainable practices they already have in play is helpful in removing the semantic prejudice about “sustainability”–even if it’s just that their shelterbelt is a wreck, but it’s housing native pollinators. We can call it “conservation,” too. Sounds like “conservative.” 😉

      The lack of graphs and charts (granted I didn’t have as much time as I’d have liked to do research) is the problem here–I totally agree that farmers want to see the numbers–and they should be able to see those numbers. Unfortunately, the vast majority of ag research dollars aren’t coming from sustainability proponents, so the tidal wave of research we need to be able to see either isn’t being done or isn’t getting out.

      Thanks for the comments!

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