Farmers Forging Partnerships

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Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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  1. Avatar Mark Thompson
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    This is great stuff, Mike. And I actually learned something!

    This makes me wonder some things about the role of food as both cultural uniter and symbol of cultural division.Report

  2. Avatar Kim
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    Am jealous. Round here you can’t even talk the CSA into growing collard greens — plenty of kale, but never a drop of collards!

    (we get retired professors farming around here. makes for a fun, and efficient, CSA)Report

  3. Avatar wardsmith
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    Obviously Ky makes the world’s best ham as evidenced by this price.Report

  4. Avatar Kolohe
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    “long considered by many to be the most boring of American food traditions.”

    Huh?  even seperating out Cajun, which is a phenotypically and genotypically distinct thing from the larger “Southern” tradition, huh?  If you want the stereotypically most boring cuisine in the Continental US, you really can’t beat the upper midwestern Lutheran church supper,  Southern cuisine has always been one of the most *innovative* of the North American cullinary traditions.

    Which brings me to the other odd part of the piece (though it’s in the excerpt).  Stuff like headcheese represents (both in pre-20th century USA and in pre-century Europe) what you need to create when the rich folks have taken all the good stuff for themselves and you’re forced to make do with whatever scraps are left for your (slave or peasant) self and family.  Lost traditions? Yes, for sure. (and again definitely innovative for their time)  Dignity?  Just the opposite frankly.Report

    • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Kolohe
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      My single problem with “Southern” cuisine doesn’t involve home cooking at all, but restaurants “down south” who seem to think that “southern” requires virtually every item on the menu to be deep fried in batter. Of course Louisiana is in a class by itself. 🙂Report

    • Avatar Plinko in reply to Kolohe
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      I believe you’re committing a category error here.

       Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Plinko
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        Likely just one among others (including being a bit unnecessarily rude, by not leading off by complimenting Mr. Dwyer on a good post).

        But how is it a category error?Report

        • Avatar Plinko in reply to Kolohe
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          You’re comparing a very specific phenomenon to a very large and broad category. ‘Southern’ compromises an area and population larger than any given European nation, comparing the sum of their culinary history to a single bland tradition of a specific subset of other people doesn’t really illuminate much.

          The cuisine of the South and Midwest both have fallen victim to blandness during the 20th Century, just eat at any number of meat-and-threes down here in Georgia and you’ll find exactly the same utter blandness as the potlucks you mention.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Kolohe
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      Kolohe,

      I certainly don’t agree with the assesment of Southern food being boring – I’m only parroting some of the criticisms made by the larger food scene in the U.S.  There IS however a problem with blandness in many of the restaurants claiming to offer Southern cuisine.

      Plinko mentions the blandness of ‘meat and three’ restaurants and he’s absolutely right. Much of the problem is that the vegetables are predictable and only seasoned with ham. Potatoes and corn play too prominent a role. As my grandmother used to say, there’s not enough color on the plates.Report

  5. Avatar Russell Arben Fox
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    says:

    A wonderful and thoughtful post, Mike; I wish I’d been thinking about some of these questions and possibilities when I took my students out on our most recent local food tour! I’ll have to keep them in mind for next time.Report

  6. Avatar Michael Cain
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    “…the notion of creating urban-suburban-rural partnerships to drive economic prosperity.”

    I’m sorry to disturb a light-hearted discussion of the culinary arts — yay, pork! — but I have a general mad on towards the rural areas of my state these days.

    First, it’s redistricting time, and despite the rural areas on one side of the state losing population in absolute terms, and the rural areas on the other side losing population relative to the urban/suburban areas, they’re complaining bitterly about the unfairness of “losing” representation in Congress and the state legislature.

    Second, the judge hearing a school-funding lawsuit initiated by several rural school districts has issued a ruling that, if upheld by the state supreme court, would require on the order of an additional billion dollars per year subsidy from urban/suburban districts to rural districts.  It’s not the money per se that bothers me — it’s the rural districts’ unyielding position that even though they can’t fund their own schools, and that a majority of the students who graduate from those schools will wind up working in the urban/suburban areas, the mere mention of anything except total local control of the spending is unthinkable.

    And finally, the state is about to enter the fourth legislative session of struggling to balance the budget.  Last session, the legislature proposed closing the state prison which had both the smallest number of prisoners and the highest cost per prisoner for operation.  It was in a rural county, whose elected officials howled that it was a plot by the urban/suburban interests to crush that poor county’s economy by shutting down the largest single remaining employer.  A plot?  Really?

    Hey, I grew up in a rural area, but folks, the whining is getting really annoying.Report

  7. Avatar Rufus F.
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    There was a long article about Sean Brock in the New Yorker earlier this year that was absolutely fascinating and went into great detail about the history of Southern farming. I had no idea how diversified crops were in the mid 1800s in the Southern states or how much work goes into bringing back nearly extinct crops. It made me very much want to eat at the guy’s restaurants.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Rufus F.
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      Rufus – the NYT piece I cited explains some of the reasons why diversity was lost in the 19th century.

      One of the saddest stories around here as of late is the setback that diversification programs have faced due to corn and soybean subsidies. Our ag dept was doing a great job of moving farmers off of tobacco and onto new and exciting crops…and then ethanol became a big deal. Now it’s nothing but those two crops on many of the small farms.Report

  8. Avatar Simon K
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    says:

    Great article, Mike. Also – I love the photo. Nothing else to say, really.Report

  9. Avatar Michelle
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    Interesting article. What’s happening in your neck of the woods seems part and parcel of the growing local food movement, which I think benefits us all in terms of availability of fresh regional produce and meat and the backlash against a lot of the evils of industrial farming. I do believe there are plenty of possibilities for economic development inherent in the movement, not the least of which is making us aware of where our food comes from and how it’s grown. Recently finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a book that addresses a number of these issues.

    I hope you’ll be writing more about this kind of stuff. I think that reclaiming our food production from agribusiness is one of those issues that can unite liberals and conservatives.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Michelle
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      Thanks Michelle. And yes, i think you can count on more posts along these lines.

      The move away from corporate farming towards local production has its limits and I’m actually a big believer in the need for corporate farms. With that said, you’re absolutely right that small food production is an idea that should easily cross partisan divides.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Mike Dwyer
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        I’d say there’s probably a need for both corporate farms and high end niche local farms. It needn’t be an either/or proposition (especially in the US with its crazy oodles of arable land).Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Mike Dwyer
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        Mike and Michelle,

        I am still confused. Why should I be rooting for small or local farms?Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Roger
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          Small farms typically do a much better job of creating diversity of products being offered. If you’re a foodie or you like heritage foods, we need that. Also, if you take away small farms you are limiting food production to only certain regions of the country which, IMO, is bad for food security.

          I think ‘local’ farms are more about just supporting your neighbors, reducing carbon footprint and getting fresher foods with less preservatives.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Roger
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          There really are a lot of reasons. Diversified smaller farms are good for rural economies and communities and increase the vibrancy of city peripheries. They can draw tourism via u-pick and bed’n breakfast setups. As Mike noted they promote crop diversity and broad scale farming which is less vulnerable to weather phenomena, biological black swans and also reduces transportation costs. Also while small farmers in general are a favorite stump icon for politicians they don’t generally lobby very effectively unlike major agribusinesses so they’d improve the odds of us getting US agriculture in general off of the abomination of public subsidy. This in turn suggests hopes of toppling king corn off his perch in the American diet with all the fallout of improved health outcomes that promises.Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to North
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            Mike and North,

            Small farms do a better job of diversity of products compared to what? Against a given, large specialized farm, yes, but not against the combined world market. You seem to be arguing for small scale generalists rather than large scale integrated specialists. This seems very counterintuitive to my economic Spidey senses.

            Why would I care if only certain regions grow a given food? Shouldn’t the areas that can grow it most efficiently concentrate in the comparative advantage? I would expect a world market to be adequately diversified against weather and pests, and if it made economic sense to diversify more (as insurance against calamity), it is in farmer’s interest to do so.

            And what the heck is “food security?” My trake on history is that generalized farming was the era of widespread famines, and that global markets have pretty much made this a thing of the past. Perhaps I am misunderstanding you here, but I believe small generalist farms are the path to “food insecurity.” If taken too far at least.

            I’ve never gotten the support your neighbors thing. Seems kind of xenophobic to me. I feel it is more fair to support whomever can get me the best, freshest, healthiest food for the lowest costs. If that is my neighbor, then so be it. Maybe your future posts will address this issue. Food for thought…

            I think focus on carbon footprint is a pretty inefficient way to grow food. The same would be true if I focused on minimizing water use, or minimizing transportation cost or minimizing labor costs.  The point of economics is to balance all the costs and benefits.

            The vibrant rural communities argument seems to suffer from a version of the broken window fallacy. Any artificial benefit to this economy is likely occurring at the expense of vibrancy somewhere else. That said, I am fine with people paying for local bed and breakfast tours.

            I am all for less lobbying (rent seeking) of agribusiness, but the way to do so is not to reduce the scale of farming.

            But then again, I may be wrong…Report

            • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Roger
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              Roger, I don’t think “community” can be undersold.  It’s the local hardware store that donates to community activities, not the Home Depot with the signs in the window for the Little League bake sale.

              It’s just physically impossible to have a true community of 300 million or 7 billion people. [Prob why the classical idea of the polis saw 15,000 as the upward limit for a workable one.]

              I think we’re all to blame for this absolute emphasis on price, down to the last nickel.  We can laugh at “loyalty,” but there’s something to the riff that Big Boxing America is a net loss, for the price of a few nickels.

              I see your specific point about “food insecurity” and also about the division of labor-as-crop geography, that it’s better to grow grain in Kansas and wine grapes in California.  But price and efficiency isn’t all there is to commerce, all there is to its benefit.

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              • Avatar Roger in reply to Tom Van Dyke
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                Hi Tom,

                I think you make a good point on the size of communities, but I am not sure why this necessarily leads away from global free enterprise. I know the sentence I just wrote looks odd, but I am serious.

                Most things are produced more effectively via integrated specialization, and the bigger the network the more specialization, expertise, efficiency and scale we can achieve. But the gains of productivity don’t just end there. Increased productivity and efficiency frees up our time to do other things. Included in this list are the ability to spend more time with the kids, to volunteer as a soccer coach, to go to the local bed and breakfast, etc.

                I believe we will naturally be drawn to communities. But this does not require us to buy local… does it? Why? (Best Buy probably just gives to different causes)

                As to emphasis on price, I think that mischaracterizes the situation. Our emphasis is on net value. Yes, we like to buy from the neighbor, but we also like to save money or get more quality from our money. The point isn’t that buying local doesn’t matter at all, it seems to be people are voting with their dollars and others of us are questioning their values. I frequently disagree with other people on their choices, but as a rule I believe they are more qualified to make the choices they make for themselves than I am for them.

                Maybe I just haven’t thought about it enough though….Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Roger
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                Roger, I’m questioning our values, that the only value in commerce is price.  Of course you’re right about Ricardo’s economics [trading bread for wine], but the people in communities are economically interdependent, that is, if they’re truly a community and not just a collection of houses served by big box stores.

                Why buy local?  Because he’s your neighbor.  But hey, mebbe it’s already too late. We’ll all just commute an hour to work, and wave at each other from our driveways at 8 and 6.

                If we have a job, that is.

                Hey, it’s a complex subject.  I haven’t bought an American car in decades because they make crap.  And I love my Mexican produce from the Mexican market that costs next to nothing versus the supermarket. And I shop airfares down to the bone and complain just like everybody else when they want 5 bucks for a box of crackers.

                And I don’t think government has a role in any of this [except perhaps lowering taxes on our local businesses].  But when some on the left [in particular] complain we’ve lost something in this globalization and consumerism, where price is all there is to commerce, well, yeah, who can deny that something has been lost? An empty storefront is a sad sight, no?Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Tom Van Dyke
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                Not just price. One of the primary big-box advantages is convenience.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Tom Van Dyke
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                TVD,

                Yes to everything you write. I think we are hitting the two sides of prosperity. We can’t make “progress” without change, and change creates winners and losers. We gain economic efficiency, and we lose the local hardware store. We gain global interdependence and lose the old sense of community.

                And whether it is progress at all depends upon our values and contextual situation.

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            • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Roger
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              Roger – when I am talking about diversity of products I’m talking about artisan and heritage foods that have smaller demand but a demand that isn’t met by mass producers. A good analogy is microbrewed beers. In the 90s people began to demand something other than mass-produced pilsners and we got a boom in small batch production that hasn’t really slowed down.  We’re seeing the same thing with food.

              I think you’re assuming I am talking about food to simply fill our stomachs. I am talking about food that makes us happy.

              When I say food security what I mean is that we need our food production spread out across the country. Disease and weather can ruin crops in a geographic locale. The problem though is that much of the eastern U.S. is not topographically able to support large-scale farming.

              And I am a fiercely opposed to outsourcing our critical food crops to other countries wo a ‘world market’ is not something I would ever take comfort in.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Mike Dwyer
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                Thanks Mike!

                These are good examples. I see microbreweries as a great idea. I like supporting them with my entertainment budget.

                I still don’t get the geographic diversification thing. I of course realize that pests and weather can add an element of concentration risk, but I believe the economics of the situation would self correct for this. There is usually more than one place on earth good for just about any crop, and if this isn’t the case, there is would be an incentive to grow it outside this area just in the expectation of windfall profits if a black swan event occurred.

                And since you are talking about enjoyment foods, what exactly is the risk? I can always switch enjoyment foods. If this threat applies to food staples, then I can always switch from corn to rice, to potatoes, to….  This whole food security thing seems suspect to me.

                And i cannot for the life of me figure out why you would want to grow happiness foods — or food staples — within national borders. Why? This sounds like pre-economic thinking.

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              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Roger
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                Roger – I think we’ve split into two separate conversations:

                A) Artisan / heritage / luxury foods – We probably agree on this. Small farms are better situated to provide these.

                B) Food security – There are other small farms that simply grow staple crops. We need these because of potential failures on large farms in other parts of the country.

                Additionally, creating foreign depedency for food staples leaves a country vulnerable to trade pressure, crop failures abroad, imported diseases, biological terrorism, etc. When we have this much usable land within our borders why would you ever advocate outsourcing?Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Mike Dwyer
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                Mike,

                I advocate outsourcing because of two core themes of economics that were central to the rise of prosperity of the last few centuries:

                1) The division of labor and exchange, and

                2) Comparative advantage

                The path to prosperity was to reject the fallacies of self sufficiency, mercantilism and protectionism. If another country can gain comparative advantage in growing beef or bananas and we can gain it in microchips or microbreweries, then we should do so. We can trade our chips for their bananas. (I would certainly make an exception to this rule in the case of imminent threat of importing diseases/pests though.)

                Global diversification is better than national, especially for smaller countries (including Japan and Great Britain).

                The other advantage of trade is that it makes us interdependent. self sufficient countries tend to view their neighbors as opponents or competitors rather than as important cooperators. Strong trade ties encourage peace as well as prosperity.

                Of course in the case of the US, we are a huge net calorie exporter. We can easily produce many multiples of what we actually need to consume. Food is one of our comparative advantages.

                Food independence makes even less sense than energy independence, or steel independence, or solar powered technology independence.

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              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Roger
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                Roger,

                You write,

                “The path to prosperity was to reject the fallacies of self sufficiency, mercantilism and protectionism.”

                What I would say is that with regards to basic foods, prosperity should be a secondary consideration. The goal should be to have a safe and secured food source within our shores.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Roger
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                But what about Hawaii and Puerto Rico?  Which is to say, for one ‘our shores’ is a somewhat arbitrary construction (which doesn’t mean it’s not real).  More importantly, being ‘dependent’ on Canada, Western Europe, Australia and the like, is not so much a risk, and at a certain  level, NYC being ‘dependent’ on Iowa, Nebraska, and Florida (or even  upstate and NJ) for food security.

                A proper calculation would be to see if it’s better to mini-Juchify one’s food production from the ‘natural’ economic balance, or merely just invest in a kick-ass Navy.  (my sympathies, naturally, lie with the latter option)Report

              • Avatar Michelle in reply to Mike Dwyer
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                Food security–I see the promotion of diversity as part of the food security issue as well. Over the last century, as large corporations have taken over the production of food and seed, diversity has been lost. According to Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) American consumers now have access to less than one percent of the vegetable varieties available 100 years ago. Six companies now control 98 percent of the seed market and they fight to prevent farmers from producing their own seeds. This monoculture leaves crops vulnerable to disease and puts them at risk for a systemic crop failure if science fails to keep up with rapidly developing pathogens. A diverse agricultural base, with a wide variety of seeds and crops, is at far less risk of massive failure. Not to mention do we really want six giant corporations to have so much control over the nature and character of our food supply?

                Eating locally and supporting heritage crops and diversity is more than simply a matter of catering to elite, foodie tastes. Modern crops are bred not for flavor or nutrients but for their ability to submit to mechanized harvest and extensive travel. By encouraging and supporting more small, organic farms, we encourage healthier eating, greater decentralization, and more personal control over the stuff that goes into our stomachs.

                Um yeah, this is a soapbox issue of mine, one I’ve being doing a fair amount of reading about over the years and trying to adjust our lifestyle and diet accordingly.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Michelle
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                says:

                Michelle,

                Your concern for seed diversity as a security issue seems plausible. I can see the benefit of local or decentralized efforts to strive for diversity. Of course, it seems like the multinational agricultural corporations would be even more concerned. I would assume they are more aware of this risk than you and I and preparing for it. But I am just assuming. What does the literature say?

                I have no way to answer how many giant agri-corporations is optimal. As long as there is open competition and entrance, I would trust the market to discover this answer over rhetoric. I certainly have no reason to prefer 4 or 20 or 100 though.

                I empathize with the desire for taste and nutrition, though not at any cost. For many (most) purchases I will go with inexpensive. I like having the option for both. My guess is that as soon as enough of us push for fresher and more nutritious, the giant corporations will be best at satisfying it.Report

            • Avatar North in reply to Roger
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              Roger if you gleaned from anything I wrote that I’m in favor of some non-economic force compelling the devolution of our argricultual sector into small farms then I apologize but you’ve misread me.

              As Mike has pointed out with the example of microbreweries there are a great number of niche markets that large farms and agricultural conglomerates simply don’t notice and tend to pave over. Those are valuable niches for heritage, biodiversity, cultural and economic reasons. I’d submit that if we remove agricultural the odds seem good that more of these niches would be discovered to the general benefit of everyone involved.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Roger
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          Good question.   Small isn’t always better.   Economies of scale take over in agriculture:  small operations require higher markups and they don’t always scale well.

          And we have to avoid the Missionary Syndrome.   Just because you’re a foodie and really appreciate the quality of what you’re growing doesn’t mean you can hire in someone who will feel the same way about the operation.   Farming is labor-intensive:  though we’ve invented all sorts of labor-saving devices, those mechanical advantages won’t thin a row of lettuce or shovel out a stall or sanitize a milk tank and they’re expensive and difficult to maintain even if you can get them.   It’s hard work requiring huge upfront capital costs and there are no Solo Farmers.   You will need cheap labor to compete with the big operations.

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          • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to BlaiseP
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            Blaise – that’s actually why I favor hobby farms for small-scale production. People that pursue artisan foods as a second job / hobby / passion are often the most well-positioned financially to pursue these types of operations. If they have enough success to make it a full-time gig then great for them.

             

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            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Mike Dwyer
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              Down in Baton Rouge the friends I made at the Red Stick market call those hobby farmers The Douglases, from the old 60s TV show Green Acres.   I did my homework down there, crunching the numbers for a grass-fed beef operation and concluded I’d never break even.   It would be three years before I’d see a dime of revenue.   I’d be out about 1.4 mil for land and upfront costs and still be competing with established operations, most of which were in the same market space, gentlemen farmers, Douglases all.

              There are other ways to make a living farming down there.   I’m looking at turning organic waste into black soldier fly larvae as a crawfish food supplement.   There’s always the Rumplestiltskin principle at work, turning one man’s trash into another man’s treasure, but I’d have to create a market, usually about six years of hard work in any market space.

               

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  10. Avatar BlaiseP
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    I’ve had this idea for some time of converting unused mall and large office spaces into farming operations.   As the cost of transportation rises and the mall paradigm lapses into irrelevance, I have considered what might be done to capitalize on these trends.

    The business model seems obvious enough:   identify what would sell, approach those potential buyers and arrange to deliver produce on an as-needed basis.  Even a little taco stand will go through a dozen heads of lettuce a day.   A loose leaf lettuce can be grown in about 24 days under proper conditions:  the grower can time his plantings to ensure he can put those dozen lettuces on the delivery truck every day.

    Malls and dead office spaces have several advantages: the HVAC and plumbing is already installed.    It’s labor-intensive work, farming, and most such spaces have cheap housing within a mile where the workers can live.   Most of our Undocumented Brethren have extensive experience in stoop labor farming and they could teach our own Doughty Unemployed Citizens how it can be done.   The main advantage is the proximity of restaurants, where the highest markup can be achieved:   restaurants will pay a premium for freshness and they know exactly what they want.   Belay all this chi-chi “locavore” nonsense, high quality and low delivery costs make these Urban Farms cost-effective.

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