Exclusive: One Man, One Horse, One Acre, One Day – Turning Back the Agricultural Clock

by MISCHA POPOFF January 20, 2009
It’s an old rule of farming that one man with one horse can plow one acre in one day; something to keep in mind when anyone from the organic industry says he wants to take agriculture back to better days.
 
According to Canadian food activist Jon Steinman, Canada’s first community supported agriculture (CSA) project for organic grain grossed $1,000/acre (Small Farm Canada, Jan/Feb 2009). Sound exciting?
 
CSAs are catching on throughout North America as a way to connect consumers directly with farmers, allowing them to share in the risk and the bounty. Most are small-scale and are limited to vegetables and fruit. But a closer look at this CSA for grain reveals an arcane system which the organic industry should avoid like the plague.
 
Members paid an exorbitant $66.60/bushel for wheat which, according Steinman,“is very fair for organically grown whole grains.” Yeah, right. It’s over 333% higher than what thousands of organic grain farmers are happy to sell their best wheat for, and 666% higher than the price of conventional wheat at its market peak last summer.
 
But members of this CSA think this is the price they must pay to have purer, more nutritious food while saving the environment. And they contend that after eliminating the middlemen they didn’t mind giving the windfall to the farmer.
 
What they fail to mention is all the labor they contributed. Many CSAs require members to contribute labor directly on the farm. In this case we know for certain that members handled everything after the grain left the farm, including cleaning, bagging, shipping, loading, unloading, delivery and, last but certainly not least, milling.
 
Although some health-food aficionados eat unmilled grain − extolling its virtues as a raw, whole food − the rest of humankind still mills wheat into flour, an expensive process as old as farming itself, which adds to the retail price. We then bake with it or make pasta.
Speaking of pasta, the price these Luddites paid for their raw wheat is just 7% less than the price of pasta in a grocery store. Paying an organic premium is one thing, but if these CSA members are dumb enough to pay almost the same price for a raw ingredient as they could pay for a finished product, then they’re as insulated from reality as fundamentalist polygamists who think we’re living in the 19th century. And if you think I’m being unkind, hold onto your hat, it gets worse.
 
One of the organic farmers involved plans “to use horses full time and keep his costs down.” I encountered this kind of “thinking” occasionally when I was an organic inspector. A few seemingly intelligent organic farmers actually think horses are more cost effective than diesel just because they eliminate a fuel bill. Wait until they start feeding those horses all year long, even when they’re not working.
 
There are 20,000 man-hours of energy in a single barrel of oil, which even at its peak price never exceeded $160 US. Even if oil jumped to $300 a barrel, that works out to just a penny and a half per oil-powered man-hour.
 
Sure, we need to wean ourselves off oil. But rest assured, the engineers at John Deere don’t have electric or solar-powered tractors on their drawing boards. The workload of even small market gardens is just too great and diesel will remain a fact of the farm economy for generations.
 
Now, hold onto your hat again…
 
In their single-minded effort to eschew fossil fuels, this CSA used four sailboats to deliver the wheat from the farms at one end of a lake to consumers (sorry, to the “community”) at the other end; a 56-hour round trip for less than 225 bushels of wheat. (I guess they’re lucky the harvest was a paltry 15 bushels an acre; abysmal even by organic standards.)
Instead of embracing basic, modern, mechanical technology, Canada’s first organic grain CSA literally sailed its way into the history books; without doubt one of the most inane examples of modern-day Luddism; it’s like they’re playing a game of “farm.”
 
Maybe these people don’t think their time is worth anything, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most Canadians would rather leave food production and handling in the hands of people who are far more efficient. Even small organic grain farmers know that a standard super-B truck holds over 40 metric tons of wheat, more than 6½ times this CSA’s entire harvest. One man, one truck, and only a fraction of a day.
 
Let’s hope this type of anti-industrial farming doesn’t catch on.
 
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing EditorMischa Popoff is a freelance political writer with a bachelor’s degree in history. He’s also an IOIA-trained organic inspector.
 

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