Hope For Non-Industrial Farming?

John D. Mueller, in his masterful Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element (see this review to get more of an idea about the book as a whole), relays an interesting story from Wendell Berry:

… Clippinger realized that the farm had failed financially because it was too specialized and too dependent on expensive purchased resources for the scale of its operation ever to turn a profit. He therefore converted the same land to raising a diversified selection of livestock (pigs and draft horses) and crops (corn, oats, and alfalfa). Instead of a tractor, he used some of the horses for plowing an planting, part of the crops to feed the livestock, and crop rotation and livestock manure to sharply reduce fertilizer purchases. But most interesting of all was how Clippinger turned what Coase and the other economists assumed to be a “negative externality,” or cause of loss, into a “positive externality,” or cause of profit:

Lancie, that year, had planted forty acres of corn; he had also bred forty gilts that he had raised so that their pigs would br ready to feed when the corn would be ripe. The gilts produced 360 pigs, an average of nine per head. When the corn was ready for harvest, Lancie divided off a strip of the field with an electric fence and turned in the 360 shoats. After the shoats had fed on the strip for a while, Lancie opened a new strip for them. He then picked up the strip where they had just fed. In that way, he fattened his 360 shoats and also harvested all the corn he needed for his other stock… . [I]nstead of harvesting the corn mechanically, hauling, storing it, grinding it, and hauling it to the shoats, he let the shoats harvest it and grind it for themselves. He had the use of the whole hog, whereas in a “confinement operation,” the hogs’ feet, teeth, and eyes have virtually no use and no profit.

In this way, Clippinger soon turned the farm from a substantial loss to a substantial profit. [116]

A little later, Mueller notes:

As we saw in the case of Lancie Clippinger, agricultural efficiency and profitability depend on using methods appropriate to the scale of the operation, and it is quite possible to be too specialized and too dependent on machinery and other purchased inputs to be profitable. This suggests that as long as laws are not actively biased in favor of large agribusinesses, it should be possible for family farms like Lancie Clippinger’s to thrive alongside agribusinesses. [121]