Efficient, or Convenient?

Efficiency

Farmers today are more efficient than ever before, using technology and science to minimize inputs while producing food for a growing global population.  In fact, less than 2% of the US population grows enough food to feed the full 100% of us – that’s efficient farming!

I’ve heard the locution above about a million times.  Shoot, I used to promote it, back in another life.  It’s the feature story of every mainline agriculture organization in the country, and it’s the greatest defense industrial agriculture has against any opposition: we’re efficient, so you have cheap, abundant food.  Stop complaining.

I’d be a complete fool to rail against the reality that I’ve had a fine life because I’ve had several meals every day of it.  Never once have I worried about starving, and to turn around and say I’m not grateful for such a profound gift would be pathetic indeed.  I’m alive, and I’m full, and I’m appreciative.

Food security aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about the agriculture efficiency mantra and I’m worried we’ve lost our focus.  Today I want to be full both physically and mentally, knowing that my sustenance is also sustaining the world around me.  That’s a new paradigm at the dinner table.

Efficiency’s definition, according to Google, is ‘(especially of a system or machine) achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.’  Comprehend that.  It’s a mechanical definition, isn’t it?  There isn’t much room for the natural order of things in an efficient system.

Efficiency is great for our washing machines and light bulbs, but I don’t think efficiency and farming mix well.  One is too techno-glitzy, the other is wild and earthen.  To apply a mechanically efficient mindset to the physical environment will result in…well, exactly what we have: consolidated farms owned by old farmers working mostly alone to plant seeds owned by someone else, rear livestock owned by someone else, sell raw materials at a loss to someone else who’s making money.  We’re focused on a singular objective: produce more and more at greater expense with less manpower. 

I love this thought from grazier Steve Kenyon: ‘We don’t need more efficient farming, we need more effective farming.’  Effectiveness encompasses a whole array of desired results instead of pigeon-holing us into one singular objective.

Recently, during a pasture walk featuring our grassfed beef enterprise, a guest told me he couldn’t believe how simple our rearing methods are.  It seemed ridiculous to him that modern agriculture labels equipment, fuel, fertilizers, chemicals, barns, growth stimulants, antibiotics, and computers as tools to make food production more efficient, when he was standing and looking at our system that doesn’t require the aforementioned list, yet it still produces beef.  “Isn’t it more efficient to not need equipment than it is to depend on it?” he asked as we gazed over the cows harvesting their daily allotment of forage.   The ex-vegetarian and his girlfriend bought a lot of grassfed beef that day.  There is an example of auxiliary desired results.

Efficiency has become synonymous with convenience, and convenience is the impostor that’s distracting modern agriculture from honest effectiveness.  It’s more convenient to run bigger equipment guided by autosteering GPS units over more acres than it is to put your sweat into growing ten acres by hand, so we take the loan, buy the tractor, and hope to make the payments.  It’s more convenient to take a loss selling a commodity on the market than it is to grow, process, and sell your own goods, so most of my peers just keep grinding away and hoping China does something to affect prices.  It’s more convenient to grow only one crop than it is to significantly diversify into a stacked enterprise farm, so farmers specialize and say it’s more efficient to do so.

When the public visits, though, they see efficiency in complimentary diversity and low tech systems, not in convenience. If the quest for scale and efficiency is driving people away from agriculture, then small farms must take advantage of their unique size and create hands-on diversity that will bring the public back, rather than trying in vain to compete with economies of scale.