Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sustainability and Economics – an eco-farmer’s thoughts

I get questioned about the economic viability of my little farm on a fairly regular basis. Usually the question comes in a rather dismissive form. “You can’t really hope to make a living doing that, can you?” Or, “It wouldn’t work if your wife didn’t work full time.” These questions bother me because they are hard to answer in a way that people understand. I’m going to try again. Feedback is welcome.

First, a short look at what I mean by sustainability.

In nature, everything is tied to a place (a spot of dirt or a range of travel). Everything needed for the life of the creature comes from that place. Resources are taken in, held for a while in a living creature, then they are returned to that place to be used by myriad other creatures. Individually and collectively they are expressions of that place and the resources held there. This cycle is very fractal in nature. It repeats at every level of magnification, from the microscopic creatures of the soil to the gigantic, ancient oak, to the vast herds of bison, it is the same process. They are all expressions of their place.

Resources are not lost, just tied up for a while in one creature or another. The system is infinitely sustainable without input beyond sunlight and water cycling through. This is the sustainability I am working toward on my farm. It is at the root of my obsession with all things local.

Economics and Sustainability

Natural sustainability limits growth. Places become more complex, denser in life, more diverse as more and more creatures find niches in the resource pool of a place, but they limit growth. The resource pool doesn’t really expand. So if resources are tied up in one creature they are not available for another creature. This creates equilibrium, balance. As an eco-farmer this defines the economics of my place. I can increase diversity, make better uses of the resources at hand, find more niches to fill, but I can’t push growth beyond the limits of my resource pool and I can’t upset the balance of life in my place without crashing the system.

Making a living

Unfortunately, I live in a world where another model of sustainability and economics holds sway. This model is based on unending growth. It strips resources from one place and feeds them into a growth machine somewhere else. Business expands, more tons of corn are harvested from this field, more pounds of beef are produced at this feedlot, than ever before. The measure of economic sustainability is “can you keep growing at the desired rate?” If you can’t, your operation is not viable.

This model and nature’s model are incompatible. So, what’s a poor farmer to do?

Here’s what I’m finding.

The more we move our farm toward nature’s model, meeting our basic needs from the resources here, and returning those resources back to the local pool, the less tied to the current economic system we become. If our food, water, and energy come from this place, we need very little cash to purchase it from elsewhere. We do have our deal with the devil (I mean the bank) to pay for our land. It’s a small amount, and we may reach a point where we generate enough income to pay that and our other financial needs. But, natural sustainability trumps income generation. We will push ourselves to be the best farmers we can, but we will not crash the system to make more money. If we can’t make enough farming the way we know we should, we will have to have some kind of outside income to meet the demands of our artificial economy.
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