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Monday, October 8

Blueprint to Shore Up Civilization's Base

This post picks up where the previous one left off (Civilization is now based on market valuations of food products. What's next?) I'll be covering a lot of ground fast; check with the other post if any references in this one aren't clear to you. 

There is a worldwide crisis in farming. Yet it's not been dealt with squarely because it keeps being labeled as something else: climate change, water shortages, 'humanitarian' crises, migrant/refugee crises, political crises, rampant urbanization, globalization, and on and on. But the crisis in farming is fueled by a debt crisis in small-scale commercial farming. So this is very serious when you consider that farming is the world's biggest business employing the most number of people, and that farming is civilization's most important industry. 

How did this crisis get off the ground? During the past century the two great waves of farming modernization -- mechanization and the Green Revolution-- have required expensive 'inputs.' In the case of the first wave it's mass-produced motorized farm equipment. The second wave has been hybrid seeds and chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides, all of which have required very expensive research to develop, with the price being passed on to the farmer.

Because most of the world's farms are small-scale commercial enterprises, few farmers have been able to afford modern inputs without going into debt -- either to banks or some version of a loan shark. That is how countless millions of small-scale commercial farmers have lost their farms and flooded into cities. Many millions of other farmers have depended on their nations' governments to help finance their commercial farms or at least save them from going under -- an approach that has often ended in the farmers still losing their farms or staying in deep poverty.  

The solution is a stepwise approach to commercializing small-scale farming that doesn't require the farmer to take on personal debt in order to establish his business. Such an approach was worked out by Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He called it the "New Theory of Agriculture." He outlined an economic system to support the farming system he created, and which is called "Sufficiency Economics." Here I'll just refer to the whole shebang as "NT" for new theory.

The key to NT is to think in terms of a network of farms. That's pretty easy in Thailand and other countries that still have large numbers of farming villages. It requires a little more creativity in heavily urbanized regions of the world.
    
1. Start with subsistence farming, using modern, low-tech  methods that are high-labor but don't require expensive inputs. Although the subsistence farm generates no income beyond the sale of any surplus produce, it does make the farmer and his family self-sufficient in food -- and even clothing if some sheep or a cotton crop, etc. is added. Over decades King Bhumibol personally modernized every aspect of small-scale farming in Thailand and when he couldn't find an off-the-shelf solution he invented one. 

2. Working with the average size of a small farm in Thailand, about 6 acres, he plugged the innovations into the New Theory farm -- a standardized farm that was mathematically laid out so that not a square foot was wasted. The NT farm allowed the farmer and his family to be completely self-sufficient in food. One hundred percent food security -- and with a diverse, high-quality diet. Yes, he did it on 6 acres -- actually less because the 6 acres had to hold the family's domicile as well as a livestock shelter. 

3. The standardization allowed him to integrate NT farms into a network -- a kind of cooperative of subsistence farms that together can generate enough income from sales of surplus produce to qualify for bank loans, in order to start small retail businesses based on farm products. 

4. Once a single network is established, it can then network with another NT network. NT networks can keep spreading until an entire rural region has achieved the best of both worlds: self-sufficiency in food, plus enough income for individual farmers to live reasonably well. 

5. The NT farming networks also allow a group of farmers to purchase whatever expensive farming equipment they might need that could be shared, which also cuts out the need for individual farmers to go into debt. For example, his majesty introduced dairy farming to Thailand and encouraged villagers to set up a small dairy farm in each village, which  could be used to raise income through making and selling cheese, etc.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

The stepwise progression of NT development means that no matter how much commercialization comes in, the farmer and his family have genuine food security at every step of the way, once their NT farm is set up. 

Unfortunately that point is not clear in descriptions of Sufficiency Economics, which tend to focus on character issues such as thrift. But Sufficiency Economics derives from common sense -- universal folk wisdom: 

Don't bite off more than you chew.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. 
Don't put the cart before the horse.
Don't count your chickens before they're hatched. 

If you have a small plot of land and want to farm it, first learn to feed yourself from the farm. Once you can do that, then is the time to think about starting a small business based on farming. Then hook up with other farmers and together you can take on debt to do even more business. 

So the idea is not to reject capitalism but to reject the wrong timing of debt financing. A farmer is not an industrialist. Yet a great many people forgot that when Get Rich Quick Fever first struck small-scale farming. It happened in West in 1917 with the introduction of the amazing Fordson motor tractor:  mass-produced, lightweight, gasoline fueled, relatively cheap.

Why, one man and his Fordson could bring in harvests that would rival those overseen by big landowners. That meant for the first time in history the little guy could break into commodity markets that had always been the exclusive province of the big boys -- the kingdoms, colonizing empires, and conquerors that could command vast tracts of land and huge numbers of laborers.

So people back then can be forgiven for throwing common sense out the window. The euphoria didn't last long when the Great Depression smashed commodity prices. But there is no getting rid of Get Rich Quick Fever; it keeps popping up. I'd guess that King Bhumibol's hardest task in the 1960s and 1970s was trying to talk Thailand's small scale farmers out of the idea that they were going to get rich quick selling rice. Then it all came crashing down in the recession in the late 1990s. The farmers who'd listened to his majesty were able to put food on their tables and keep their farms.

Now, what does a NT farm look like, how does it work? And can the entire NT blueprint be applied to regions outside Thailand? To that last -- I hope ways can be found because the greatest threat is always the one that creeps up on your blindside. 

To be continued.

UPDATE:

Continued: Getting around the fact that free-market farming isn't so free, after all; Pundita, October 10

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