Bob Neal

As Maine and America emerged this week from pandemic restrictions, we read that our economy has begun re-righting itself, but that we have too few workers — too few of the kind of jobs workers want, and too few dollars in pay.

The solution proffered for these too-fews is that those workers who are on the job must become more efficient. But efficiency comes in many forms, and the quest for one kind of efficiency can come at the expense of another.

Let’s look at farming, the activity that I know best, because I raised turkeys for 30 years.

To grow food, farmers use their own and other people’s labor, land and machinery. A balanced farm finds efficiencies in all three.

Almost from its start in 1906, the Department of Agriculture has pushed just one kind of efficiency: labor. The most common measure of labor efficiency is income per farmer, so the USDA has pushed factory farming to produce more income per farmer. But it comes at the expense of efficient use of land and machinery. Not to mention the quality of food.

Big ag boasts that the number of farmers has been shrinking for two centuries, with each farmer raising food for more and more people. Writer Wendell Berry, on the other hand, laments that it now takes 129 people buying food to feed one farmer. I agree with Berry.

To attain the astounding production figures that conventional farmers attain, they must buy inputs. Huge tractors, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides from unrenewable sources and, often, land-use that sacrifices production per acre to production per human hour.

Look first at land. John Vivian, a back-to-the-land homestead author, showed that a farmer with a little machinery could grow, for example, broccoli worth $20,000 (in 1970 dollars) on an acre. Conventional broccoli farmers could grow less than half that.

Australian/British ag economist Colin Clark calculated that the world could feed 12 billion people if all the land tilled in 1955 were worked in the manner of Danish farmers, who use machines but work smaller farms and use more labor an acre than factory farms.

Some comparisons. Farmer Barbara Damrosch and her husband, of Four Season Farm in Brooksville, in 2012 raised veggies worth $140,000 on 1.5 acres, about $93,000 an acre.

At the U.S. average of 172 bushels of corn per acre and Wednesday’s price of $6.83 a bushel, corn farmers would gross $1,175 an acre, so a corn farmer with 850 acres can gross $1 million a year. In my best year, using seven cleared acres and a woodlot of 40 more (for fence posts, lumber, etc.), I grossed about $200,000. That’s $28,000 an acre if you count just the cleared land, about $4,250 an acre if you factor in the woodlot.

Who is more efficient? Yeah, I know. Comparing veggies to corn to turkeys is like comparing apples to oranges to pears, but all are food, and all are figured in dollars.

Big farmers are highly efficient in the use of time, and all that machinery makes quick work on flat land. But the weight of the machinery can limit the amount of time they work the land, as they wait for it to dry in spring and hurry to harvest before autumn rain.

I’ve seen Amish farmers in Pennsylvania working land in March behind teams of horses, while tractor farmers waited for drier ground. And I ran my small tractor every day.

Big farmers cannot plant rows so close or crops so close within a row as can smaller farmers. Big machinery to cultivate and spray needs more space to maneuver. This helps explain how smaller farmers can get more crops from an acre.

My farm had been a dairy farm. Henry Parlin milked seven cows for most of his life, my late neighbor told me. Parlin sent his cows to the woods to graze, and they made enough milk to support the family. But today, the cost of inputs would be too steep.

It is often said that Americans won’t work on farms. But, have you ever heard a young person say how much she would like to farm, “if only . . .?” I contend there are lots of wanna-be farmers. Many learn the craft as apprentices on Maine farms.

At the Skowhegan Farmers Market last week, I bought chicken from a farmer who apprenticed at a farm in Pittsfield and now has a farm in Troy, and I bought squash from a farmer who apprenticed on a farm in Dresden and now farms in South China.

At a farmers market 10 years ago in Columbia, Missouri, I ran into a farmer who had interned on a farm in Brunswick. He had come to Maine to learn how to farm, then went back to Missouri to apply what he had learned. A lot of people want a path to farming.

 Bob Neal wouldn’t be surprised if quests for efficiency conflict in economic activities other than farming, as well. Neal can be reached at [email protected]


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