About urban farming: impractical romanticism for a lost age

Excerpt from “The Problem With Little Teeny Farms, part 2: How Many Acres Can Sustain a Family?“, Nathan Lewis, posted at New World Economics, 4 April 2010:

We have been bashing the idea of “little teeny farms.”

The reason we are bashing this idea is because it is so much a part of Americans’ self-image. This “little teeny farm” idea has completely consumed the American imagination, producing endless problems. The U.S. suburbs are basically a product of the “little teeny farm” fixation implanted in people’s heads. This dates from long before the automobile — indeed, you can trace it back to about 1780 or so. (Oddly enough, before 1780 it doesn’t seem to be a problem. In those days, when everyone genuinely was a farmer, they dreamed of having some European-style metropolises.)

It pops up again in the various fever dreams of the “sustainability” types, whose solution to all problems, always and everywhere, is some sort of “little teeny farm.” For a long time, this was the “20 acre self-sufficient homestead in the backwoods of Idaho” model. Now they all want to make their suburban 1/8th acre plots into “little teeny farms.” There is nothing particularly wrong with this as a hobby, which is to say, a means of amusement, but is it not a method of producing a meaningful quantity of food! They seem to think they are being very creative with this, when in fact they are replaying the same tired fantasies that have formed the core of the suburban ideal for over 200 years.

In short, the “little teeny farm” idea is a terrible way to make farms — farms should be much larger — and an even more terrible way to make cities. Which is to say, it isn’t good for anything at all. I hope that by the end of this piece, you will understand the difference between a little teeny farm fantasy and a real, live, working family farm. And, a real, live, working city.

A little teeny farm fantasy involves something between a suburban backyard and about three acres. A real family farm is more like 200 acres, and produces enough food for ten to twenty families. It would be wonderful if we could have some real family farms (as opposed to an agribusiness goliath) producing food in the manner of the permaculturists and other progressive farmer types. This has nothing to do with the little teeny farm fantasy.

Lastly, I hope we will finally understand the interplay between the farm and the city. The farm is something like 200 acres. The city is a Traditional City, not a suburban 1/4-acre erstaz-farm.

… (he provides a detailed analysis) …

I think we can see that the “grow food in your suburban backyard” idea is a complete fantasy. Realistically, a farming family should have at least twenty acres, and that is a bare minimum.

At present, about 2% of the U.S. population is engaged in farming (I don’t know if this includes whole families or just farm workers). They farm about 411 million acres. 2% of the U.S. population is about 6.2 million people. Thus, the acres-per-farmer ratio is about 66 acres/person. The acres-per-person ratio is about 1.33 (411 million acres/309 million U.S. population). Much of this production goes to wasteful livestock feed. Some is exported. However, this also represents very high per-acre yields obtained with chemical fertilizers and GMO seeds. Based on this figure, we get 5.32 acres for a family of four.

In 1900, the average farm in Illinois was 125 acres. In 1850, the U.S. average was about 200 acres.

… If you want to raise a half-dozen chickens in your suburban backyard, while your husband is off working at the telecommunications company or law firm or software developer, go right ahead. Kind of like Marie Antoinette and her peasant cottage. If it was good enough for the Queen of France — and Michelle Obama — then what are you waiting for? I am all for eccentric hobbies, as long as they aren’t too smelly.

Unfortunately, the “sustainability” types are motivated almost entirely by symbolism. They think that with enough symbolic gestures — six tomato plants, a Prius, organic cotton underwear and a solar oven — they can “save the world.” Let me tell you what: six tomato plants, a Prius, organic cotton underwear and a solar oven doesn’t mean jack shit. Which doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy it. But it is really no different — in terms of resource and energy use — than having none of that at all. If you live in 3500sf in Suburban Hell and commute 35 miles to work in your Prius, and have six tomato plants and resuable shopping bags … so what. Living in an urban environment, like New York (but nicer), where you don’t own a car, and ride trains, and have a small apartment instead of a 1/4-acre ersatz mini-farm — now that has a real effect.


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