Food is the link that connects humankind to the real, material, biological world. Air is free. Water is mostly free for most of us in the developed world. (God hope it stays that way.) Food requires great capital resources. Until technology separates us, humans are animals of the earth. This seems to be our condition for the foreseeable future. Therefore, ownership, control and the preservation of farm capital are of great importance to human health, wealth and general well-being.
What follows is meant as a starting point for consideration. My hope is that this will open further discourse and argument. I make several far sweeping assumptions in what follows. I leave it to you, the reader, to verify the accuracy of many claims.
I believe many, decentralized, local (within 200 miles of the consumer), small (1000 acres or less), diversified, biologically-dependent farms (hereinafter, “small farms”) are desirable over the current U.S. and global food systems.
Therefore, I propose public policy and the resulting legal and regulatory framework license small farms to produce, process, distribute and sell marijuana as a means to shift food production to small farms.
Cancer and heart disease are far and away the most common causes of death in the United States. According to the CDC, each year in the U.S. more than 610,000 people die from cardiovascular disease and another 600,000 people die from cancer. More and more research shows these diseases are directly related to nutrition and lifestyle.
I, therefore, take as a basic premise that more access to more fresh, nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats is desirable.
Meanwhile, more and more research shows that the conventional production models for fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats are providing less than healthy, nutritious and ethical food.
Small farms produce more healthy food and preserve natural resources better compared to global, large-scale, petro-chemical-dependent, monoculture farms (hereinafter, “conventional farms”).
It is also easier for small farms to raise animals using more ethical practices, which do not cause undue suffering. (I take these claims as largely given so I will not argue the points further here.)
An equally important factor is proximity of small farms to population centers. There are at least four significant benefits:
- Contact: More efficient sales and distribution to markets. On the input side, there are larger labor markets. Furthermore, the direct contact and communication between producer and consumer also serves to provide accountability and direct oversight over farm practices.
- Diversification: Different plant and animal species are better suited for different microclimates. Each small farm across the United States develops its own unique character. Diversification generally creates a more stable farm/food system with less ecological impact, and it provides cultural value from diversity of goods.
- Culture and Education: Provides the community with invaluable culture and education inherent in exposure and proximity to farms and food production.
- Economic Impact: A decentralized farm system naturally distributes wealth to each community in which a functioning small farm operates.
It is therefore desirable to have many small farms as close as possible to population centers.
In the United States from roughly the turn of the 20th C, the Federal and state governments have implemented far-reaching policies to intentionally concentrate food production in fewer hands away from cities. This has created great benefit from extremely low prices for food. The percentage of household income in the U.S. dedicated to food is much lower than it once was. However, this specialization and concentration of food production has associated social costs, which are quickly outweighing the benefits of the low food prices. It is now necessary to address these policies if we desire a transition to small farms.
While production capacity acre-per-acre is greater on conventional farms, preservation of resources like biodiversity, water, and top-soil are more pressing issues in current and long-term food production. The problems with regard to U.S. and global food are not due to output, but quality, commodities-focus, harvesting, distribution, price and resource management. In these regards, small farms tend to use more ethical practices to produce more healthy food, are more water-efficient, conserve topsoil better, produce less harmful chemical run-off, and produce more diversified, non-consumable “waste” matter, which can be cycled back into the farm as necessary inputs to preserve productive capital, i.e., soil.
The U.S. market for grocery store sales is approximately $606 billion per year. The demand for fresh, healthy, sustainable, ethical, local food is growing. The market for certified USDA Organic food is approximately $36 billion per year, with substantial growth every year. While so-called “USDA Organic” standards do not capture my conception of small farms, it illustrates the going trend.
However, it is extremely cost-prohibitive for new farmers to capitalize and operate a farm in the US. This is especially true for locations that are closer to population centers. On the capital side, farms require extraordinary input for land, irrigation, fencing, soil amendments, farm equipment, machinery, and other operating capital.
Within this capital and labor intensive industry, farmers are required to compete in a global food market, which is heavily subsidized and regulated to favor large-scale commodities and feed growers. Due in part to heavy subsidies and cheap global labor, global food prices are artificially low. The small profit margins make the economies of scale larger. The onerous regulatory framework makes entry even more costly. This is a nearly impossible situation for the growth of small farms.
The total combined market in the United States for legal marijuana is nearly $5-6 billion per year.
These are products from goods that are produced on farms, and which have high profit margins. This revenue could help make small farms profitable.
The market for legal medical and recreational marijuana in the United States is approximately $5–6 billion, which is an increase of over 25% from 2015. Industry experts predict that the market will surpass $22 billion by 2020. The market for marijuana in the United States is far greater when considering the current illegal recreational use of marijuana, which is estimated at approximately $40–50 billion per year. We are within a unique time in history when we can shape this potentially huge, emerging market.
(I take for granted the position that it is absurd to differentiate between alcohol and marijuana under criminal law. There are no morally defensible criteria by which alcohol and marijuana can be differentiated. Marijuana should be removed from the federal Controlled Substance Act and state criminal codes. Marijuana should be administered and regulated by state liquor departments as is done in Oregon, Washington, and, now, Alaska.)
There is a growing demand for differentiated, innovative, healthy, ethical, local craft foods and alcohol. The diversified, decentralized, local grower-producer environment is ideal for supporting and adding value to this market. Each location throughout the United States would have its own unique varieties of meats, dairy, vegetables, fruits, and marijuana.
I propose simple, albeit broad-sweeping, maybe overly-ambitious strategies to accomplish this shift. Some possibilities (to begin a conversation) include:
- Set mandatory production and distribution percentage thresholds, i.e., acre-per-acre (food/marijuana): a) Fully decriminalize marijuana. License small farms for marijuana cultivation, processing, marketing, distribution and sales. b) Create a regulatory framework to allow small farms to produce, market, distribute and sell any food, marijuana to individual consumers, wholesale distributors, or retail establishments.
- Restructure federal subsidies (approximately $322 billion between 1995–2014) away from large-scale production commodities and feed farming, and redirect these subsidies to capitalize small farms.
Aside from the huge fight that would come, no doubt, from incumbent interests, the integration of farming with these industries would be relatively simple given the overlap of capital resources, including infrastructure, equipment, labor, distribution, and other intangible property. This would generate substantial efficiencies and economies of scale. Licensing small farms to produce marijuana would simultaneously attract private capital for investment into small farms.
I propose the legal/regulatory framework would require food produced on farm to be diversified (at least 7 different plant and animal species), subsistence-based, primarily for the local communities at market prices, and would set minimum requirements of food distribution. This would deter small farms from producing only marijuana at the expense of producing and distributing food in a meaningful way. However, I advocate a liberal regulatory framework for farmer-producers with regard marijuana, as well as all marketing, processing,distribution and sales of any farm goods.
If small farms could be price competitive for food on a global market while generating enough revenue to be profitable, the current food system might shift dramatically and fundamentally toward small farms. This could result in far-reaching benefits for public health and the preservation of natural resources.