Sunday, August 21, 2022

Intensive vs. Extensive agriculture

From the comments:

WindyWyo wrote "Ultimately it all comes down to conversion factors and feed efficiency."

And Michael responded "No, it doesn't NOT come down to conversion factors. My chickens eat things I do not want to eat. They clear my garden from unwanted bugs that eat my crops. Thus, I don't use as many toxic poisons to keep my garden reasonably safe from them. My chickens eat from the multi-species pasture I run. Thus, eliminating much of my need to use toxins to deworm my critters.

"Modern Industrial Farming" is profitable in the short run as History thinks but soon reduces the soil from a living self-regenerating system to a near sterile dirt that merely supports the heavily sprayed for bugs and weeds fertilizer fed structure....


They are both right.


Within the narrow, financial context of industrialized, intensive farming Windy is absolutely right.

"Any  curve can be accurately represented with a straight line as long as you are looking at a short enough of a segment of it"  -Kay Banks explaining Integral Calculus

Industrialized farming is capital intensive. There is a ton of debt to service or a legion of shareholders who demand growth-and-dividends. The structure is animated by hordes of people, all of whom demand wages and benefits. 

Intensive, industrialized agriculture is similar to a high-speed plane, flying close to the ground. Things happen quickly. The metrics are simple and relentless:

  • How many pounds of edible meat grown per square-foot per month?
  • How many pounds of edible meat per pound of feed to three significant digits?
  • How many pounds of edible meat processed per day per square foot of processing facility?
  • How many pounds of edible meat shipped per hour of employee time?

These narrowly defined measures are susceptible to various kinds of traps. 

One of those traps is that fixed-costs are not fixed when production levels pass certain benchmarks. A chicken processing line can only travel so fast if humans are to perform their assigned operations. If more volume is to be accommodated then the line must be split and more stations (floor space and conveyor) must be added.

The other half of that trap is that variable-costs are not necessarily variable when production levels drop. You cannot lay-off half of your maintenance crew or only clean up half as often after the production in your chicken processing plant drops. It doesn't work that way.

Another issue is that variable-costs don't disappear when production levels drop or a plant closes because it is "inefficient". Those costs are transferred. People don't stop eating or paying their rent. They go on unemployment/welfare/disability; sometimes temporarily and sometimes permanently.

Another transferred cost are the nutrients being stripped from Peru (fish meal) or soil erosion in eastern Iowa (corn and beans) or a myriad of other places. Those costs do not show up in the corporations' quarterly reports. 

A third issue is that the capital flows dwarf actual operating profits and can mask operations that are not viable when capital is flowing in or can swamp viable operations when interest rates rise and debt cannot be rolled-over.

Within the long time-line Michael is right.

Healthy, biological systems provide many "services" for free.

Free-range cattle, for instance, have a protein conversion ratio of about 4% vs. confinement chicken and aquaculture's ratio of 25%. The reason that free-range cattle is a viable industry is that it is extensive rather than intensive.

The cow harvests its own food and spreads its own waste. In most of the world requires no shelter. It may need hay in the winter or maybe it can be turned loose in picked corn fields or the grazier can carefully parcel out "stockpiled" pasture to get it through the winter in areas where heavy snows do not crust over.

Consequently, the person raising those cattle does not need to invest in equipment to mix rations or equipment to distribute it to every cage or pen. He does not need to remove waste nor does he need a lagoon to store it or equipment to mitigate spills. He does not need vast pole-barns nor does he need a bunch of people on pay-roll. 

His "monthly nut" is microscopic compared to confinement operations.

Conversion ratios still matter in extensive systems. Reed Canarygrass makes an impressive pasture but you are not going to be able to pay your property taxes if your cattle will not eat it. The point is that the extensive agriculturist is like a plane flying 500 feet above ground vs  intensive agriculture's tree-top elevation. It isn't stress-free but there is time to think and respond when things happen.

Conceivably, carefully managed pasture could remain healthy for five centuries with little more input than an electric fence or hedges, movable watering containers to move concentrations of poop-and-pee around...and salt. The export of nutrients can be offset by feeding imported food (hay, grain) on the pasture.

The soil remains covered with green, growing plants so it is always capturing organic content. The "burn-off" of soil organic matter is related to erosion and soil temperature. The densely woven root system of the sward and the efficient capture of sunlight and water transpiration mitigate against both loss mechanisms.

The soil becomes rich in bugs and worms. Birds and other wildlife visit the pasture. Bees and other pollinators adore the clover and incidental forbs growing there.

Proponents of extensive agriculture are likely to say that extensive agriculture does not transfer costs the way intensive agriculture can, it creates and shares benefits.


  1. Some changes need made in agriculture but how to do it and not trigger mass starvation is above my pay grade. I do know this: At one time good soil in Iowa was a foot deep. Even as recently as 40 years ago it was often 3-6 inches deep. Now in some places its barely an inch deep. Crop rotation seemed to help a lot. Many don't do that anymore. During the 1930s they learned to plant trees and hedgerows. It prevented dust storms. Now , big agribiz has led to mainly large farms that have torn out the fences and trees etc so they can just use those big machines and go and go. They use lots of fertilizer and no one " Walks Beans" anymore. Its all done with a drip-wick herbicide. Does it matter? Well....when I was kid you saw 100s of night crawlers and after a rain sidewalks were covered with worms. are lucky to see even a few small worms and even fewer true night crawlers. ( Extra large worms that come out at night if you have never seen one). The ground needs extra prep as it is little better than concrete. ( Worms used to keep the soil loose) Yet, how do you do intensive when the oil stops flowing.

    1. On top of all that in many areas the water is contaminated with PFAS .

  2. And to add more toxins into the discussion the chemicals used on that near sterile concrete like "soil" have half Lifes of YEARS.

    I lost a nice raised bed garden for three years because I was TOLD the bale of straw was local-organic but was from a Big Ag roundup heavy supplier.

    That roundup killed off my heirlooms for three years even with my efforts to sheet compost to increase biological activity in it. As mentioned by John Gault earthworms almost disappeared.

    It's been 4 years and my raised bed seems "normal" again. When I weigh my fall production I'll see.

    What that toxic mess does to humans eating it is to be determined BUT plenty of ambulance chasers are seeking USERS of Roundup and its chemical cousins about various cancers. So as a gentleman farmer and medical sort I have grave concerns.

    Wheat is a grass, if you can grow a lawn you can grow your own pancake patch. Mine is looking good this weekend.

  3. Incomplete thought, sorry. Bees, think about that. Mass losses from Scotts Yards and other nicotine-based sprays for "pesky bugs".

    My neighbor even in my quiet area has lost too may beehives due to flatlanders from MA moving up and wanting a "perfect" lawn so he's OUT OF BUSINESS.

    I've started using carpenter bees and taking the egg tubes inside to survive my harsh NH winters, so I keep pollinators.

    Almost like someone wants even home gardeners-beekeepers out of business, eh?

    We are the carbon the World Economic Forum wants reduced.

    As that meme of the guy at the table "prove me wrong".

  4. Are you growing very much wheat?? I have considered growing a small patch mainly for fun. I have a feeling thrashing the grain by hand sounds like work

  5. I have a small patch for the 5 gallon pail I want yearly. Next year I bet that will double+ in size as more for the replacement chicken feeding. A sneaky trick I learned from some Maine Organic folks is MULCH the wheat with shredded leaves.

    That reduces the "tares" in my little patch. A cordless drill with a threaded rod some nuts and a bit of dog chain inside a 5 gallon bucket makes a nice thresher. A fan makes a nice way to please your chickens to no end while you pour that threshed wheat from one bucket to another.

    Oh, the chickens also LOVE patrolling my wheat patch from when the wheat gets about a foot high up until the wheat starts heading up. That keeps small green "tares" plucked and the girls LOVE visiting that patch after I harvest.

  6. Interested reading, my only comment has to do with row crops in south Alabama. I worked with a farmer that has a degree from Auburn in soil management. He does everything different from the other farmers. He's opinion is that soil has to be living. Not a dead entity

  7. When I was in school back in the '50s, our textbooks were touting conservation practices such as contour plowing to check erosion. The last time I drove through the rolling land of Iowa on I-80, I saw no evidence that anybody was practicing contour plowing.

  8. This topic is hot on my brain. There is a great deal of renewed interest in this high level discussion. With many folks also chewing on the "big change without big starvation" question.
    I'm still early in the readings but anyone wanting to deep dive should look up Permaculture, Agroforestry, Silvopasturing, Paul Wheaton,, Restoration Agriculture.


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