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Big Urban Farms

[ 32 ] October 22, 2012 |

The inevitable cycle of capitalism continues. Small businesses, designed to have tight community values and reject older ways of capitalism, become the next state of centralized big capitalist development. This time it is with once small urban farms that are growing increasingly larger and more centralized, spurring fears of big growers dominating the urban landscape, food sprawl, and social and environmental inequality.

In food, this is not unlike what happened with the organic label. What was once a rejection of an industrialized food system soon become dominated by huge companies like Cascadian Farms and lobbying groups looking to redefine the term in the interests of those companies.

I’m not entirely sure this is a bad thing per se. Local food is probably better than a worldwide food system. If we do want to solve the food problem, bigness has to be part of the equation. But that bigness comes with inherent environmental, planning, and equality problems. And thus, another movement will come along to challenge this latest manifestation of food capitalism.

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  1. ajay says:

    Local food is probably better than a worldwide food system.

    Best to be really cautious saying things like this, because the answer is “it depends”. Shipping is incredibly cheap and clean per ton mile. It can be a lot less damaging to the environment to grow food in Spain and ship it to Manhattan than it is to grow the food in exactly the same way in Buffalo, NY and take it to Manhattan by road.

    • BigHank53 says:

      I was slightly gobsmacked to learn that roses grown in Kenya and flown to London had a smaller carbon footprint than local ones, due to the expense of heating greenhouses.

      One of the less popular arguments for local agriculture is redundancy and disaster preparedness. If the delivery system for your auto components breaks, it’s expensive and annoying. If the food doesn’t show up, folks die.

      • ajay says:

        One of the less popular arguments for local agriculture is redundancy and disaster preparedness. If the delivery system for your auto components breaks, it’s expensive and annoying. If the food doesn’t show up, folks die.

        That’s a terrible argument for local agriculture. If you want your food supply (or indeed anything else) to be redundant, you want it to be geographically diverse, so that no single problem – like, say, adverse weather or a local disease outbreak – can take out the entire structure at once.

        • Rhino says:

          I think you are confusing crop blight fears with supply chain interuptions, in your response. Not that your points are inaccurate, just that you seem to have misunderstood Hank’s point.

    • Murc says:

      than it is to grow the food in exactly the same way in Buffalo, NY and take it to Manhattan by road.

      We have these things called trains. They’re not as clean and efficient per ton as shipping, but they’re still loads better than trucks.

      A little history re: shipping food to NYC and other urban areas in the northeast corridor from upstate. Back in the day, every farming community had a little rail siding running to it. If you had a crop to deliver, you’d let the rail guys know, and they’d drop a car there overnight, possibly a refrigerated one. You’d get your produce there in the morning (and by morning I mean like four am) and they’d have the car picked up a bit later in the AM. It would make it to Albany (or another centralized location, but in the context of upstate NY it would be Albany) within 48 hours at most, usually within 12, and from there it would make it to the city.

      Then trucks came along. You could call for a truck to come buy and grab your produce and it would make it to your city market that same day. It was a lot more reliable and cheaper than fucking around with trains, too; the various train lines were usually the only game in town and would sometimes just blow you off, leaving you by a siding with a ton or two of rotting produce. Plus people in the city liked getting produce that was super-fresh.

      But trucks are a LOT filthier. Didn’t used to be a consideration, but it is now.

  2. ajay says:

    Big farms are also much more efficient, you’re right. That’s why the whole “support the family farm” thing is misguided. You know who else was all about supporting the family farm? HITLER!

    …Yes, he really was; that’s why German farming was so inefficient and labour intensive, and that’s partly why they lost.

  3. Scott Lemieux says:

    Is there any evidence that small farms are better for the environment as a whole? Mark Bittman’s recent piece on the Central Valley found that small farms, who needed every dime to stay afloat, were more likely to abuse the soil to maximize revenues. Anecdotes are not etc. but this seems plausible to me. At a minimum, I see no reason to assume that small is inherently better.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      It’s highly unlikely that small farms are really better for the environment. If those small farms are run by first-generation hippie types who are schooled in ecological farming, etc., then they probably are. Over time and space, there’s little concrete evidence to suggest it.

    • Lee says:

      This. One thing that I really don’t understand about some of the Left is the obsession with smallness in many areas of life, especially food. The world is a big and complex place with a population of 7 billion plus. Feeding, clothing, sheltering, and slowing down population growth will require large scale solutions, big solutions. Results are really more important than any sort of touchy-feelyness about size of farms or any other solution.

      There is too much quackiness and ahistorical thinking behind a lot of the food movevement for my liking. Its kind of like the anti-vaccination movement when it comes to potential public health and well-being disasters.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        I would connect the discomfort of the modern left with bigness with a number of other issues–the fetishization of the individual, the embrace of anarchist ideas, suspicion of government, unions, and other large structures, etc. Within left-academia, it’s James Scott who is the most influential theorist of the last 20 years and for all his brilliance, his fundamental lesson is distrust of big government and embrace of those on the margins. It’s a huge problem, regardless of the food issue.

        • mark f says:

          Is Scott really a leftist? I didn’t get that impression from his work that I’ve read — only the two big ones, The Art of Not Being Governed and especially Seeing Like a State — and I know Brad DeLong thinks he’s basically a Hayekian.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            I don’t think that term really matters here. He is certainly influential to large sections of a broadly defined academic left and shares many of the same general philosophical principles as those in Occupy.

            • mark f says:

              That makes sense. Art in particular describes a necessary communalism in small stateless societies, too, so I can see the connection.

              I agree that it’s more of a fetish than any kind of reasonable policy. It’s one of the reasons I never quite got all the way there with OWS. It’s great to foster community and to be skeptical of power, but it’s probably not so great to be serving lead-filled eggs because you don’t know what you’re doing.

        • Barry Freed says:

          Add to that whatever lingering influence of E. F. Schumacher and his “Small is Beautiful” remains. I admit I’ve found him and many anarchist ideas and James Scott all very compelling in the past.

          Unfortunately, the past is exactly where most of their ideas seem best suited.

        • Lee says:

          I think this makes sense. During the 1960s, some not very helpful ideas like rather radical individualism and distrust of government became part of Leftist or even liberal thought. Not only does this create distrust of the many bureaucratic and technocratic solutions necessary for the world’s problems; it makes organizing to gain political power hard.

          Most of this is a result of the Vietnam War. It left a strong distaste for technocratic government, which is a same because social democracy represents the left at its most succesful.

      • DrDick says:

        There are significant economies of scale that can be achieved with larger farms and the average size of wheat farms in most areas of the US is 1000-2000 acres. This holds down the cost of food to consumers. Also, as Erik points out, small farmers have to maximize their returns more than large farms owing to higher unit costs of production. This creates adverse incentives to overproduction with potential environmental degradation. Small farms are also far more prone to failure and bankruptcy for these same reasons, which is not healthy in the food chain.

        The signature problem here is not so much large farms as it is increased consolidation of farms. This creates the potential for monopoly/oligopoly control and reduces variety both in crops produced and in farming strategies.

        In urban settings, size becomes a more central issue owing to greater competition for land from multiple uses (residential, retail, manufacturing, commons, etc.). The question then arises as to whether this is the optimal use of the available land in this context, give large expanses of rural land. I personally would be inclined to favor more, smaller farms in urban contexts or larger operators farming multiple smaller plots.

    • Not really. And even to the extent you can have “small farms,” on an industrial scale they really heavily on very large Agribusiness firms for their existence. Farmer Bob can get up every morning and plow his field, but it’s a touch harder to distribute his grain into the global market and all that.

      Otherwise, I’m inclined to think that the relatively low margins involved in farming make it something of a natural monopoly that’s always going to wind up dominated by a small number of very large firms.

      • Murc says:

        I’m inclined to think that the relatively low margins involved in farming make it something of a natural monopoly that’s always going to wind up dominated by a small number of very large firms.

        This is true if and only if it is combined with the presence of an efficient global or at least national transportation network that can move tons and tons of food VERY quickly from field to store across long distances.

  4. Quercus says:

    First, I’m not sure giant urban farms are really something to worry about. I mean, if land is so cheap (or food so expensive?) that someone can buy 200 acres in a city and farm it, more power to the farmer, I say. Sure, at the margin we don’t want to give the city away to a farm any more than we want to give the city away to a sports team owner, but that’s a local political problem, and doesn’t mean the farm in and of itself is bad.

    But as far as small is beautiful, I think there is a good reason for a leftist skepticism of large anything. On a pure economic level, economies of scale do exist (and efficiency is good!); while there can also be inefficiencies of scale, no economic reason not to let the market sort that balance out. But politically, big means powerful, and often that power is wielded for undemocratic and inefficient ends (*cough *sports stadiums* cough). So, assuming more or less equal first-order economic trade-offs, I think smaller IS better.

  5. Herbal Infusion Bagger says:

    I was slightly gobsmacked to learn that roses grown in Kenya and flown to London had a smaller carbon footprint than local ones, due to the expense of heating greenhouses.

    Having read (and contributed to) quite a few Life-Cycle-Analyses, I’d say price is usually a good proxy for environmental impact. Other surprising results from Life-Cycle Analyses: detergents made from petroleum have about the same environmental impact as detergents made from plant oils (e.g. coconut, palm oil).

    On urban farms: WTF is it with urban farms being granola totebagger flavor du jour with books and book tours? As a temporary use of space in blighted neighborhoods, OK.

    But in the end high-density housing is the better environmental policy. And urban farms work against it. So I welcome the day when every urban farm in the U.S. gets razed and replaced with multi-family housing.

  6. The Dark Avenger says:

    Why do you assume that big urban farms need a lot of acreage?

    he problems with modern agriculture are twofold: There’s not enough farmland to answer the call of increasing demands, and the logistics of bringing crops to consumers — the majority of whom are city dwellers — are mind-boggling.

    Giant skyscraper farms aim to solve the shit out of both problems in the same way regular skyscrapers solve population issues in large cities. A vertical farm not only can provide massive crops from a tiny slot of land, but also can be built right in the middle of the city it’s meant to feed. Each floor of a farming skyscraper has a separate farm on it, and each of these farms is specifically designed so that every single plant receives the same amount of sunlight.

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