• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Ag ec as a lens on economic sustainability

OK, I'm prejudiced.  I don't much care for factory-raised meat (or produce, for that matter).  That's one of the reasons why I have a big freezer in the garage.  (Chest type.  Energy efficient.  In the unheated garage so that five months out of the year it uses almost no electricity at all.)

October 4, 2012

OK, I'm prejudiced.  I don't much care for factory-raised meat (or produce, for that matter).  That's one of the reasons why I have a big freezer in the garage.  (Chest type.  Energy efficient.  In the unheated garage so that five months out of the year it uses almost no electricity at all.)

Having a big freezer gives me the flexibility to buy my meat by the (fractional) animal.  Each fall, I buy a hog and a side of beef.  When I can get a good price or trade, I get a few turkeys or a half-dozen roasting chickens.  (One of my neighbors still raises capons.  Delicious!!) 

Buying right at the source probably hasn't saved me a whole lot of money over the years, but it's meant that I know how my food is raised, what it grew up eating, whether it's full of antibiotics (not!!!).  This year, however, I think I'm going to save a WHOLE LOT of money.

See, the downside of keeping a store of frozen meat is that you constantly have to think a couple of days ahead -- what are we going to have for dinner two nights hence?  (If you didn't previously take it out to thaw, how are you going to cook it?)  And the downside of constantly having to think two days ahead is that, especially when life gets busy, you forget.  I forgot earlier this week.  And so I had to stop on the way home to buy some meat.

I didn't want anything fancy.  Just some ground beef that I could work up with some zucchini, onions, carrots, tomatoes, garlic, seasonings.  (In my house, garlic isn't a seasoning.  It's a food group.)

Then I saw the prices.

Up to $5.29 a pound for ground beef.  Relatively low fat (10%). admittedly.  But nothing fancy.  Not imported.  Not organic.  Not USDA Prime or even Choice or Select.  Not Angus or any other specified breed.  Just hamburger.  And this wasn't a fancy meat department in a fancy grocery store.  Just self-serve in a mid-tier regional chain.  $5.29 a pound!

Before you get started, yes I do know that there's been a drought in this country.  And I do understand the impact of that on feed prices, and thereby beef prices.  And that's kind of my point.

But before we get to that point, one more bit of anecdotal evidence.

Apples.  Particularly, Washington apples.  Which are pretty much the only (domestic) game in town since most Northeastern apples were lost to a late frost this past spring.

Check out this story from NPR.  A bumper crop.  No domestic competition, and they can't get the harvest in due to skilled labor shortages.  (If you don't think picking apples efficiently requires skill, you obviously haven't done it.)  But the line that caught my ear was near the end of the story:  "A few people will go broke and a few people will make a whole lot of money. And the people that will make the money are the ones who can adapt to change. It's just a fact of life."

"The ones who can adapt to change" are the ones who have achieved a degree of economic sustainability.  How much change they can survive indicates what degree.  Economic sustainability is the ability to remain profitable (or, at worst, avoid taking a big loss) under circumstances of significant change.  Unpredictable change.  Inevitable change.  Unrelenting change. 

Economic sustainability is definitely not the same as economic efficiency.  Efficiency is generally achieved by minimizing variation so that the learning curve (institutional and individual) can be scaled quickly and increasing returns to scale result quickly.  Economic sustainability is achieved by consciously not minimizing variation.  Expecting variation.  Accommodating variation.  Embracing variation.  If you prepare for variation, you don't expect tomorrow to be just like yesterday.  Nor tomorrow's process to be just like yesterday's.  Nor tomorrow's product.

Traditional small-scale, diversified farming is (at least by some measures) inefficient.  But it's allowed people to survive for thousands of years longer than industrial mono-cropping has been around.  Industrial farming (mono-cropping, CAFO operations, etc.) is designed for efficiency, and at that (at least by some measures) it succeeds.  But because these industrial-scale operations are inherently designed around standardization, they don't adapt to change well.  When they fail (and they're failing with increasing regularity and scope), they fail big.  Which results in decreased production of fodder.  And beef.  And apples.  And more.

Agricultural economics provides us a lens on this sort of sustainability, in part because the diversified family farm (or at least its image on TV) is still a recent cultural memory.  The traditional family farm provides an increasingly infinitesimal percentage of America's food production, but compared to the percentage of manufacturing that takes place in analogous craft-scale shops, it starts to look pretty significant. 

Real farmers (as opposed to agri-business-folk), and real craftspeople (as opposed to CNC milling machine mechanics) know to expect variation.  No two pieces of ground, no two plants, no two animals, no two summers, no two pieces of wood, no two batches of clay, no two pieces of fabric are exactly the same.  So you learn to work with the strengths, and around the shortcomings, of the item on hand at the moment.  Which means you adapt to your circumstances, your materials, your environs.

Which means you learn to adapt.

Which means you can adapt to changing circumstances.

Which means you can be economically sustainable.

I think a lot about what that would mean on a national/continental/global scale.  And next spring, I'm gonna buy me a couple of weanling steers.


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