Small, diversified farms are less efficient than large ones. Which means that food grown on them is more expensive. Marc Bellemare, an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s department of applied economics, calls farmers market produce “luxury goods,” and Tim Griffin, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, explains the dynamic simply: economy of scale. “As the farms get larger, it’s easier to invest in labor-saving machinery, technology and specialized management, and production cost per unit goes down,” he says. It’s Econ 101.
Even John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agriculture and applied economics at the University of Missouri and an outspoken advocate of the idea that small organic farms ought to feed the world — an idea Bellemare calls “wishful thinking” — acknowledges that we’d need many more farmers to make that happen, and that food would be more expensive.
From an article in the Washington Post last week.
In the middle of July, I received an email from Tamar Haspel, who writes the Unearthed column about food for the Washington Post, and who is herself a farmer (she farms oysters on the coast of Massachusetts). She wanted to talk about the inverse relationship between farm size and productivity, which I have written about both on this blog and in a 2010 article in World Development. The end result is the article I link to above.