The Problem With Little Teeny Farms
March 28, 2010
If you look at the history of little teeny farms, it isn't good. This
is usually found in countries where inheritance laws/customs decree
that a family farm be split equally between children. This tends to
cause farm sizes to get smaller and smaller over time. Per-person
productivity declines (even as per-acre productivity rises), because
people don't have enough land to work. The result is grinding poverty
-- not just a "third world" nonindustrialized existence, but the edge
This happened in many countries (see Malthus), which is why the
American colonies were so exciting to Europeans. They weren't
restricted to some inefficient little three-acre landholding. They
could grab all the land they could handle, thus maximizing their
per-person productivity, and also maximizing their personal well-being.
That's why many cultures have had the custom of passing on the family
farm whole and intact to only one child, most likely the eldest son.
Women are married off to other families. Younger sons typically have to
make a go of it somewhere else. In return for this gift of an estate
(or family business), the eldest son typically has to care for the
parents in old age. Ideally, each farming family should have the most
land that they could possibly handle alone, or maybe a little more.
What happens to the younger sons? They could, conceivably, work as
agricultural workers on someone else's land. By definition, this would
be someone with more land than they could handle themselves, or they
wouldn't be hiring anyone. In this way, ideally, the people/land ratio
would equalize to the level that maximized per-person productivity with
the traditional techniques of the day.
The result was a great surplus of people -- all those younger sons and
their wives -- who needed to find a livelihood that wasn't in farming.
They ended up in the cities, of course, which is where everyone who isn't an agriculturist
ends up. There, they would provide some other sort of good or service.
In this way, the economy thrived. If 100% of the people are farmers,
there isn't anyone to make all the things that can't be made on a farm.
If, say, 20% of the people are farmers, that means that 80% of the
people aren't farmers, and can produce all the goods and services of a
complex and thriving civilization.
We've taken this to an extreme today, where about 2% of the people are
farmers, and 98% of the people are engaged in something else. Arguably,
we would be better off with a different method of food production,
because this system produces horrifically bad food. This different
method of food production -- more local, higher quality -- could well
be accomplished by a much larger number of family-owned farms.
Let's say the total population engaged in food production were to rise
to 10%. That is five times more than today. However, in terms of the
economy as a whole, it is not that much different. The portion of
people that are not farmers goes from 98% to 90%, a 10% reduction.
Actually, since about 10% of people today are unemployed anyway, we
could move to a 10%-farming situation with no reduction in non-farming
Some people have suggested that as many as 30% of the U.S. population
could be engaged in agriculture. I'm not sure this is such a good idea.
This would mean that the not-farming population would decline from 90%
to 70%, a 23% reduction. Having five times as many farmers (2% to 10%)
could be a good thing, but do we really need fifteen times as many?
They wouldn't create any more food than people today, although it might
be better quality.
You could think about it in money terms, if it helps. Let's say that
the farming population increased from 2% to 10%, a multiple of five.
However, the amount of food produced would be about the same, because
you can only eat so much, and the land can only produce so much. It
follows that the cost of food (at least in relation to the other goods
and services) must rise by about five times also. If we assume that we
want to pay all those new farmers at least as much as farmers today for
their labor (arguably too low as it is), then the total amount of
dollars spent must also increase by five times. This doesn't
necessarily mean that supermarket prices would rise by five times,
because much of the cost of supermarket food is the processing, not the
raw materials. But, you can see the basic idea.
Now how do you feel about having the farming population rise not just
five times, but ten?
What is fairly clear is that we can't -- and shouldn't want
to -- become a "nation of farmers." That might have been OK in 1860,
because the population in 1860 was 31 million people. There was enough
land in the U.S. that all of those people could have as much land as
they wanted. Today, the population is about ten times that, or 309
million people. If we had the same ratio of farming population (call it
70%) today as then, that would mean 10x as many farmers, and thus each
farm would be about 10% the size. This is a recipe for grinding
poverty. I mean Bangladesh-type poverty.
Let's see what the math looks like. There are about 641,680 square
miles under cultivation today in the U.S.. This does not include rather
large areas of excellent farmland that have fallen out of cultivation,
especially east of the Appalachians. However, it includes areas that
may not be cultivable (or shouldn't be cultivated) in the future, such
as areas that demand heavy irrigation, and are causing salinization and
depleted groundwater. So, let's call it a wash and say that the land
under cultivation in our ideal "nation of farmers" future is the same
There are 640 acres in a square mile, so that's 411 million acres.
We will assume a farming family has four people, and that 70% of the
population has a "family farm." That works out to 55 million farming
families. Each family would have 7.5 acres.
That is not a lot. Indeed, it is rather too small. Remember, the 411
million acres would produce about the same amount of food as it does
today. The main difference is that there would be 220 million people
farming, instead of about 6 million today, making the same amount of
food (or less) from the same amount of land. Remember that in 1860, all
the farmland in the United States was farmed by 31m*70% or 22 million
people. Can you imagine the economic contraction this would mean? I
don't mean "the simple life." I mean "I live in a shack made of twigs
on the edge of starvation."
That would still leave about 90 million people to live in cities, which
is three times the entire population of the United States in 1860.
Let's put it this way: what if five million people -- from places like
Las Vegas perhaps -- wanted to move to Vermont and have a "little teeny
farm"? The population of Vermont today is about 600,000. And they
already own all the farmland. The math just doesn't work.
Some people today are going even farther, and suggesting that we have
some sort of future by converting today's Suburbia into micro-farms.
The Suburban ideal was always the "little teeny farm," even back in the
1830s. Instead of adopting the Traditional City design, even in small
villages as was common in Europe, Small Town America was built on the
"farmhouse on a quarter-acre" model that is identical to suburbs today
(except that many suburban plots today are smaller than a quarter
acre). The fact of the matter is, this sort of hobby gardening is a
grossly inefficient way of making food. Just talk to a real farmer
about what he thinks about a quarter-acre farm (actually more like an
eighth-acre since some of the land is occupied by the house itself and
some other bushes, trees and porches).
Look, I have nothing against growing some tomatoes in your backyard,
but it is a hobby, or perhaps
a survival technique as urban Russians or Cubans discovered. I can tell
you one thing it is NOT: it is
not sustainable. You aren't going to have a civilization that lasts for
a thousand years that is based on eighth-acre hobby gardens. There is
no example of this in all of human history, anywhere in the world. For
good reason too.
This is just a continuation of the Suburban Fantasy! The same old idiot
fantasy that has been going on for over two hundred years!
I'll tell you what can work: you could have 10% of the population on
family farms, growing food in a healthy, natural way, and 90% of the
population living in cities. The 90% of the population living in cities
should be living in a proper city, which is to say a beautiful
Traditional City, rather than a Suburban Fantasy of little quarter-acre
ersatz-micro farms. 10% of today's population is 31 million people,
which is more than the total number of farmers in 1860.
If 10% of today's population were on family farms, the average farm
size would be about 52.5 acres, which is the kind of nice big farm that
a family could operate and make a whole lot of food. The kind of nice
big farm that people had in 1860, which is why the U.S. drew immigrants
from around the world.
Do you see what I mean when I say there is no alternative to the
Can we stop wasting our time with this "little teeny farm" fantasy?
For the most part, the progressive farmer types -- the permaculturists
and so forth -- have done a pretty good job of outlining how that
5%-10% of the population that might conceivably be involved in food
production could go about their efforts in the best way possible.
Actually, I think that the progressive farmer types still have a lot to
do. Few people seem to have completely assimilated the concepts of
Masanobu Fukuoka, who is the most sophisticated farmer type that I know
of (and he was a full-time farmer, not a part-timer). The real
advantages, as I see it, are from abandoning the European
grain/meat/dairy pattern altogether. We should have a lot less meat, a
lot less dairy, somewhat less grains, and more vegetables. This would
tend to solve the farming issue the easy way: just don't do it. About
70% of U.S. grain production goes to feed livestock for meat. If you
have fewer livestock (much fewer, like 70% less), and that livestock is
grass-fed (in the case of beef) instead of grain-fed, then your grain
farming needs basically go away.
Thus, I think that food production and cooking/cuisine should be
considered as a whole. Just substituting grass-fed beef for corn-fed
beef, or organic corn from chemical corn, doesn't really get us where
we need to go.
The problem emerges when this progressive farmer pattern, which might
be perfectly good for that 5%-10%, is assumed to be a template for the
entire civilization. It's not a matter of population, either. The world
population at the birth of Christ, 1AD (acutally 4 BC but close
enough), was 200 million people. For the whole world. And the world
population in Babylonian times, 1500BC, was about 40 million, or about
the same as the population of California today. But even then, there
was a pattern of cities and farms. Two separate and distinct
formats. Athens. Babylon. Rome. Beijing. Alexandria. Tenochtitlan. And
the farmlands that supported them. What we didn't have was some sort of
homogenous even goo of little teeny farms, or some mixed-up blend that
is not properly either a farm or a city.
The normal pattern of human development, over the past 5000 years. By
"city" I mean an urban place, which follows the traditional pattern of
urbanization, which I call the Traditional City. It could be a very
small village or a giant metropolis. Here we can see a village which is
definitely a village, not a farm, and farmlands which are definitely
farmlands, not a village. Two separate and distinct patterns, both
serving the needs of the other.
Another example of the same principle, from Germany. A metropolis
follows the same pattern, just on a much larger scale.
Sometimes I wonder why these simple and obvious things, which humans
around the world have done for thousands of years, have today become
* * *
OK, farmer fantasists. I'll offer this: let's say 20% of the population
was farmers, but that consisted of 5% full-time farmers and 15%
part-time farmers, who collectively did the work of another 5% of
full-time farmers, so the result is equivalent to 10% of full-time time
farmers as described earlier. This is about 62 million
people, doing what 21 million people did in 1860.
What about those 15% of the population that are part-time farmers?
There are two basic options. One is that they don't have any other
income-producing activity. Thus, they don't have
much in the way of wealth -- they live like Buddhist monks -- but they
have a lot of free time. No 2500sf farmhouse. No fancy horse and buggy.
No iPhone. Maybe they have a 450sf strawbale cottage they made
themselves, and a
bike. But, unlike the family farmer of 1860, they don't work 12 hours a
day six days a week, with a break on the Sabbath. That could work. But
it still means 80% of the population is living in Traditional Cities.
The other possibility is that these 15% of part-time farmers also have
some other source of income. This would either mean a part-time job,
or, for a family, perhaps one full-time worker and another (wife
probably) that maybe splits part-time extreme gardening with
child-raising and housekeeping.
Let's look at this arrangement. First, the wife doesn't have a job --
which is actually rare these days. Obviously, you can't have two
parents with full-time jobs plus farming plus kids and housekeeping.
Not enough daylight hours.
So, let's assume that the husband has a job that doesn't involve
farming (because then they would be in the 5% of full-time farmers).
Where is this job? Unless they have some sort of Internet business, it
probably means the kind of job you'd have in a city, in an office or
factory, hospital, retail store or something of that sort.
In short, the person is working in a city, whether a metropolis or
perhaps a small town or village.
This family's primary business is thus the husband's full time job, not
the wife's part-time extreme gardening hobby. The viability of this
arrangement depends on the husband being able to find adequate and
satisfying employment, while still being able to live on a piece of
land suitable for extreme gardening, which we could put at a minimum of
three acres and could be ten or more. This can be quite difficult in
So now we have a problem. The house is on three or more acres, but the
job is in a "city" of some sort. How does the husband get to work?
Today, the typical answer is "in a car." So, we have automobile
dependence built into the equation.
It doesn't quite have to be that way. You could have a small village
that is perhaps a mile or three away, and the husband could commute to
the village on foot or bike. Still, you'd have to have some sort of
adequate job in the village, which is not that common. (The main
purpose of villages in farming areas is to provide services to the
The second option is that the family could live in the village, but the
farmland is outside the village. Then, the wife would commute the mile
or three from the village to the farmland/extreme garden.
Where are the customers for the part-time farmer? Obviously, if
everyone is a part-time farmer, then nobody has any local customers,
because everyone is making more food than they eat. The big customers
for the part-time farmers would,
of course, be people in the cities. So, the food would have to be
collected and shipped to metropolitan areas. Although the food may be
of very good quality, you still aren't going to get the "meet the
farmer in person at the farmer's market" experience, unless perhaps the
farmer travels to the city to go to the market.
What the farmer fantasists are really fantasizing about, it seems, is
the idea of producing food in the backyard of a suburban house in a
There is nothing particularly wrong with this as a hobby, but of course it is
hardly even a part-time business at this stage. The typical suburban
plot is maybe 1/4 acre on the large size, and it can easily be smaller
than that. The house itself and some other niceties occupy some of the
area, so the acual area available for food production is perhaps 1/8th
of an acre. (In the suburban Los Angeles house I grew up in, the
available land would have been more like 1/20th of an acre, and that is
only if you used every possible bit.) This might be barely enough to
provide fresh vegetables for the family itself, but wouldn't leave much
for the neighbors.
Other comments in this series:
14, 2010: The Traditional City: Bringing It All Together
a Trip to Suburban Hell
2010: Let's Take a Trip to New York 2: The Bad and the Ugly
24, 2010: Let's Take a Trip to New York City
2010: We Could All Be Wizards
2009: What a Real Train System Looks Like
2009: Life Without Cars: 2009 Edition
2009: What Comes After Heroic Materialism?
2009: Let's Kick Around Carfree.com
November 8, 2009: The Future Stinks
2009: Let's Take Another Trip to Venice
2009: Place and Non-Place
2009: Let's Take a Trip to Barcelona
September 20, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity 2: It's All In Your Head
September 13, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity
July 26, 2009:
Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 3: How the Suburbs Came to Be
July 19, 2009:
Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 2: Downtown
July 12, 2009:
Let's Take a Trip to an American Village
May 3, 2009: A
April 19, 2009: Let's Kick Around the "Sustainability" Types
March 3, 2009:
Let's Visit Some More Villages
2009: Let's Take a Trip to the French Village
2009: Let's Take a Trip to the English Village
the Comex (scroll down)
January 4, 2009: Currency Management for Little Countries (scroll
Effects (scroll down)
August 10, 2008: Visions of Future Cities
2007: Let's Take a Trip to Tokyo
2007: Let's Take a Trip to Venice
July 9, 2007:
No Growth Economics