Small Scale Farming is More Efficient, but How Does it Scale?
In 1900, there were 30 million people involved in agriculture in the United States working on 5,740,000 farms that were an average of 147 acres each. The total farm land in use was 843,780,000 acres. They produced an average of 5 commodities per farm to feed the American people with a population of 76 million. The numbers work out like this: 40% of the population worked in agriculture and it took 11.25 acres per consumer to produce our food with each farmer producing enough food for 2.5 Americans.
Data taken from most recent USDA AG census shows that, in the US, as of 2012, there were just 3,180,000 people involved in agriculture in the US working on 2,109,303 farms that were an average of 433 acres each. The total farm land was 914,527,657 acres. They produced an average of about 1 commodity per farm to feed the American people with a population of 315,000,000. This shows that in 2012, just 1.1% of the population worked in agriculture and it took 2.9 acres per consumer to produce our food with each farmer producing enough food for 100 Americans.
1/10 as many people are involved in agriculture in 2015 than in 1900. Each farmer is producing enough food to feed roughly 40 times as many people as 112 years ago. Farm land has only increased by about 8% since then. In fact, there's evidence to suggest it went up more significantly for some time but has been decreasing due to increased crop yields. uses. Efficiency in land use has increased by 388% meaning that we are producing 388% more food per land unit than 112 years ago.
What does it all mean? If we were to return to the methods of farming in 1900, we would need to increase our total farmland to 3,543,750,000 acres. That is a change of 2,629,222,343 acres or 410,816 square miles compared to what we currently use. To give us a visual picture of what this is, that much land would be 1.5 times the size of Texas.
What about labor you ask? Well, we would need to have an additional 122,820,000 people enter the agricultural workplace. Looking at the 2010 census data, the US total non-institutionalized work force was about 155,000,000. Of that non-prisoner, non-hospitalized, over the age of 16, and currently not in the military population, 140 million people were already employed. That leaves us about 107 million farm workers short.
When you see the organic yields are higher than conventional farming, you have to ask, for what inputs? In economics, input is defined as the resources such as people, raw materials, energy, information, or finances that are put into a system to obtain a desired output. For farming this includes land, seed, fertilizer, man hours, pesticides, fuels, and durable equipment.
Most of the studies done to show how much higher yield is only looked at acreage meaning this organic farm grew "X" product at "Y" yield per acre. Their yield is higher than a conventional farmer. But it is only a higher yield if looking at one input of many. Yes, you can get a higher yield per acre. But what about the yield per man-hour? What about the yield per gallon of fuel? Organics can in some ways yield better, but in others they yield very poorly. In addition most of the studies looking to compare organic to GMO's specifically will pick very small growers. These tend to be inclined to show that, since an organic farmer grew carrots at this yield per acre, but they don't include that is was only a tenth of an acre and they are multiplying. The large grower they are comparing to is growing 60 acres. It doesn't compare to scale.
If we want our food to be grown sustainably, put simply, it needs to be something we're all involved in.
Image source: cnn