Thoughts on Sustainable Agriculture


This is the little cabin we were working on building in the fall. It’s not done so we are not living in it yet. We were lucky to even get the exterior done in time for winter!

One of my beehives. I’ve never overwintered bees before so I don’t know if this set-up will work. It’s 1” foam board held over two brood chambers with a black strap. I put the inner hive cover over them, then stacked the unpainted box ontop, filling it with dead leaves. I put the outer hive cover over the dead leaves. There is still heat coming out of both hives so I guess the bees are doing okay. We’ll see how they look come springtime.

As winter is progressing towards spring (I am writing this while listening to the wind howl outside my window in Alaska), I have been thinking about the nature of “sustainable agriculture,” and specifically “small scale, sustainable agriculture.” I find myself coming back again and again to the two main aspects of “sustainable:” agriculture must be both ecologically and financially sound in order to be sustainable. Last summer I realized that small-scale vegetable production can be ecologically sound, but I’m not convinced it is financially sustainable.

I simply cannot figure out how to run a small-scale vegetable farm without accumulating copious amounts of debt and/or working myself to death. Tractors, tractor implements, greenhouses, seed starting supplies, irrigation equipment, quality hand tools, a truck, cold storage facilities, washing and processing equipment… the list of capital one requires to begin and operate a small-scale vegetable farm goes on and on. This doesn’t even include the cost of land, which I’ve been lucky enough to not have to pay. To date I’ve managed to invest in little of the above, but I have been substituting these with my labour and I’ve been operating at a ridiculously small scale because of my lack of investment.

I have recently calculated my expected returns if I were to operate a 30 member CSA next summer. With my current level of capitalization (ie a rototiller, a hoop house, a precision seeder, a drip irrigation system and some hand tools) I figure 30 members is the maximum number of families for whom I can possibly grow food. And that would be A LOT of work.

If I charged $400 per share I would make just $12 000 (30 members x $400). If my expenses were $6000, that works out to an hourly wage of $5.00 ($6000/(50hrs*24wks)). I am not interested in spending six months of my life growing food for 30 families for a personal return of $6000.  That would not even cover my living expenses.

If I increased my level of mechanization substantially I could grow food for, say, 90 members. Ninety members at $400 per share would be $36 000, a more respectable revenue. But then I would be working more months per year and I would need at least one employee and all the capital expenses required to operate at that size (most notably a tractor and implements). I suspect that 90 members is still not a large enough scale to provide me with a real income.

These numbers show me that it is not worth my time to grow vegetables next summer. Small scale simply cannot provide me with a reasonable income. It appears that the medium scale at which most of the farms around Edmonton operate may provide farmers with more sufficient income, but I scratch my head about how one gets to medium scale production without accumulating so much debt that it will never be paid off. But then I haven’t seen these farms’ balance sheets. Maybe they have debt they will never pay off.

And thus I conclude that the real challenge to creating sustainable agriculture systems is not actually ecological. It’s surprisingly easy to grow food following organic methods, using on-farm products, and promoting biological diversity. The real challenge is making small-scale, ecologically sustainable agriculture be financially sustainable as well. If we cannot find a way to make agriculture businesses economically viable for farmers, young people like me are not going to be doing this for very long. And if we don’t keep on doing it, small-scale sustainable agriculture is not actually sustainable.

Which leaves me with what I should do next summer. I enjoy bees and will certainly continue to learn about beekeeping and expand my apiary. Next summer I will also be planting a wide variety of personal-use fruit and berry trees and bushes and will focus on establishing perennial vegetables (asparagus, more rhubarb). I am undecided about growing vegetables for market.