We are seeing significant changes in small-scale gardening and farming communities emerging in cities . We are also likely to see many people increasingly move to back yard or even front yard gardening and more toward supporting co-operatives and wholesale farmer’s markets. Much of this is driven by economic issues, which also threaten to bring about a more substantial reorganization of the way major populations self-organize.
Commercial farms, and large scale farming generally, operate on rather narrow profit margins. Tilling, fertilizing, applying insecticides or herbicides are all expensive in that machines are involved and these must be periodically purchased and maintained. Labor costs have decreased as harvesting is increasingly done using machines. It is hard to imagine that farming productivity has much room to improve, but farmers in the future will likely pay more for water or water rights.
Even while some crops are still harvested by hand, labor costs are low and special groups of skilled workers handle the harvest with great efficiency. In many countries skilled farm workers cross borders as guest workers to participate in harvests. While they often make significant wages when compared to what they could make at home, there is a widespread view that they are taken advantage of by growers with respect to temporary housing, living costs and medical care in the guest country whether they are here legally or illegally.
In America, as elsewhere, there are significant problems with profit margins in commercial farming. Long term inefficient or counter-productive agricultural or farm subsidies may come to an abrupt end in America and elsewhere as tax issues are reviewed and revised in the wake of massive financial difficulties.
As these difficulties continue, one response is to cut government expenses in major programs while also raising additional revenues by revising the tax code and by cutting all or nearly all government subsidies. The latter may be unavoidable to a significant extent. Many are still unemployed even now five years after the original downturn. The continuing loss of net jobs through automation and more efficient job reorganization is not widely appreciated. Many are working part time and at a significantly reduced wage. In addition, in many households, where there were formerly two workers, there is now only one working at a full time job with the other may working half-time, part-time or not at all. Net reductions of hours or wages or both by increasingly efficient businesses are likely to be a continuing problem. Jobs are being lost to automation or to outsourcing more rapidly than they are replaced.
Those families affected by significant job losses reduce expenses by doing for themselves some of the jobs they would have previously outsourced to private contractors — everything from baby sitting to painting the house, and more. Net income may be reduced to a point where there is a much smaller tax burden and that helps as well. The family simply has far less money to spend, and often must find either unusual ways to save on expenses or to earn money through action as a private contractor — painting someone’s house for a fee, or even growing a substantial amount of their own food, or buying selected items at wholesale farmer’s markets for canning, freezing or for cold storage.
As the population increases there is more net need for food grown or raised. Also, as the profit margins on commercial farms are cut, many of them will leave the business. Some may be able to improve the efficiency of their operation. Some may move toward simplified natural farming strategies like those of Fukuoka in One Straw Farming, noted in posts elsewhere in this blog. That would be an unlikely transformation for many large scale farming operations. It is more likely that many commercial farms will shift toward more profitable farm products initially, but in most cases that would also lead to oversupplies and a supply-demand downward spiral. Profits would tend to disappear.
In the face of such difficulties and with a continuing loss of jobs, I see no other option than for people to increasingly grow some or much of their own produce. Decreased job opportunities or part-time activity has forced many into increased spare time in which to consider establishing their own businesses or part time jobs as private contractors utilizing such skills they may possess. But not all economic activity will be based on special skills. In many cases, some of these individuals will grow things: window gardens, small back yard plots or even front yard gardens where the skills required to get started are fairly minimal. Clearly, personal or private gardening-farming will increase.
In gardening, we have always learned from each other. With a few skills, which can be easily improved upon, knowledge of cold root cellar storage, freezing and/or canning can be assimilated by anyone. Also, by carefully buying seasonal items in bulk at co-ops or farmer’s markets almost all can reduce what they pay out for fruits and vegetable over the year by a substantial amount. Even when gardening in pots and Earth Boxes or in raised beds with more substantial set-up costs, and by adding savings from co-op, farmer’s market or neighborhood fruit and vegetable stands items , one can likely save $100-150 a week or more on the food bill for a family of four. That’s $5,000 -7,500 a year in baseline expenses needed to live.
In the next ten years with continuing job losses associated with automation and with basic expenses for food and other commodities likely to increase as well, due in part to an expected decline in commercial farming, the population will very likely turn more and more to natural farming and gardening to meet more and more of its needs.