Farming Doesn't Pay....For a Reason

Posted by {"login"=>"dvollrath", "email"=>"[email protected]", "display_name"=>"dvollrath", "first_name"=>"", "last_name"=>""} on August 14, 2014 · 3 mins read

An op-ed in the NYT showed up the other day, by Bren Smith, a farmer who lamented the fact that farmers like him (small, local suppliers) were having trouble making money. This despite the surge in farm-to-table restaurants and the "locavore" movement.

Why? Why haven't the new crop of small, local, hands-on farmers been able to make money? For the same reasons that farmers throughout history have not been able to make money. Their particular product is homogenous across producers, and almost perfectly substitutable with other products. Farmers have essentially no market power. No market power, no profits. Farming is probably the closest thing we have to the perfectly competitive market of Econ 101 textbooks.

Your hand-grown tomato (or kale, or beef, or whatever) faces both competition from other hand-grown tomatoes, as well as competition from conventionally-grown tomatoes. Even more, there is competition from other foods; even farm-to-table restaurants will change their menus to use lower-cost foods if your tomatoes cost too much. So even if your tomato is the greatest, most loved, best-grown tomato ever, you aren't going to be able to get a premium for it. And hence it's going to be hard to make money farming those tomatoes, especially if you are using really inefficient methods that require lots of manual labor.

Understanding the economics of farming takes us back to David Ricardo: farmers don't make money, landowners make money.

If you read beneath the surface of Mr. Smith's suggested remedies, he understands this. In his words:

But now it’s time for farmers to shape our own agenda. We need to fight for loan forgiveness for college grads who pursue agriculture; programs to turn farmers from tenants into landowners; guaranteed affordable health care; and shifting subsidies from factory farms to family farms. We need to take the lead in shaping a new food economy by building our own production hubs and distribution systems. And we need to support workers up and down the supply chain who are fighting for better wages so that their families can afford to buy the food we grow.

If you want farmers to have money, then you have to give it them directly (subsidies), give it to them indirectly (loan forgiveness or cheap health care), or give them a money-producing asset (land or a distribution chain). But competition is a bitch, and there is no world (including a higher-wage world) in which the pure act of producing food is going to make money for farmers.