We Have to Talk About Farmland

Hello Big Team!

I am breathing an *enormous* sigh of relief this week because everyone who has ordered a copy of Farm (and Other F Words) through me has (hopefully!) received it by now (or will in the next day or so). If you have not, please let me know immediately! We’ll get you one in a jiffy.

Also, if you’re in or around DC later this month, come say hi to Big Teammate Reana Kovalcik and myself! No RSVP required, so if you’re around and want to meet others interested in Big Team Farm-type ideas in the region, come through. We’ll see you there.

Investing in the Future of Agriculture

I had a chance to talk this week with the One and Only Hannah at Humble Hands Harvest this week, a collective farm near Decorah, IA. I don’t think I can overstate how excited I am about what Hannah Breckbill and her co-farmer Emily Fagan are working on right now, from the Queer Farmer Convergence (get on the 2021 waitlist now!) to the Collaborative Commons Future of their farm.

Support their mission here.

Big Team Farms Meetups

Many of you responded to the meetup invite, and I’m excited to announce that we’re going to tackle our first events!

I’m going to email folx directly to set those up, but I’ll include again, if you’re trying to meet people in your region, virtually or in person, who are interested in being part of a Big Team Farm— fill out this form.

The Problem with Second Best Solutions

I’m excited to get to answer a reader question today! From Big Teammate Dara Schreiber. She sent this article: No Soil. No Growing Seasons. Just Add Water and Technology, and this question:

I wondered if you had a take on (I imagine you do) the increasing ag-tech boom. With climate change and demand for local food supply could this be a "good farm" after all? Or this a big business / big money looking for another way to diversify. 

I’ll start by sorting out the indoor agriculture being discussed in this article from agtech writ large. I have critiques of both (naturally), but for the sake a reasonable length newsletter, I’m going to keep the focus on massive, indoor, hydroponic farms. If you’re looking for a fresh take on the rest of agtech, check out Sarah Nolet’s recent Silicon Valley Set Agtech Back a Decade.

On indoor farming; the first thing I’ll say is, I don’t actually know that much about indoor farming. I’ve visited the University of DC’s (the District’s one and only Land Grant University) small hydroponic test site, and I’ve been inside a FreightFarm in Driggs, ID, but besides that, my understanding of the science is pretty limited. But my understanding of its limitations are pretty well summed up in this quote from an Eater article by Steve Holt (Steve Holt!):

“The astronomical capital costs associated with starting a large hydroponic farm (compared to field and greenhouse farming), its reliance on investor capital and yet-to-be-developed technology, and challenges around energy efficiency and environmental impact make vertical farming anything but a sure bet.”

This article opens with a discussion about Plenty, whose CTO, Nate Storey, I quote in the book (spoiler alert). Many of Nate’s reasons for coming to Plenty mirrored the conclusions I’ve come to in my career, and given that he reached those conclusions and venture-backed indoor farming had made sense as a way forward for him, I grant that, executed intentionally, an indoor operation could be a Big Team Farm. So to the question, “can an indoor farm be a good farm?” I think the answer is probably yes.

But let me talk for a moment about why I don’t know that much about indoor agriculture. It’s not by accident. It’s because indoor ag is a second best solution, especially in the context of the US. We live in a country of incredible food-growing potential. A small fraction of the acres we currently have in production could feed the nation’s current population. In fact, a better organized and incentivized ag land system could even grow substantial amounts of food relatively close to major metro areas and answer the desire for “local” and “low food mile” food. There are 34,000 acres of farmland in Suffolk County New York (Long Island). There are 2.3 million farmland acres directly adjacent to the Bay Area, and nearly 60,000 acres in LA county alone. It makes sense, actually. Cities tend to be planted and prosper near productive agricultural land.

Knowing this, and that there are 3 trillion farm or ranchland acres in the US in total, it is very hard to believe that a major part of a health or climate solution involves shrugging off the inefficient use of billions of acres of farmland—used to grow billions of acres of corn for ethanol and other industrial applications or soybeans for export as animal feed— and attempting to replace them with energy-intensive production that requires not only large amounts of power for lights, temperature control, and to pump water (that we could otherwise get for free outside), but also steel to house it, tons of plastic (fossil-fuel derived) trays and water pipes, and even rare earth metals to operate servers, sensors, and the other technology needed to handle the artificial intelligence and machine learning that makes many of these projects attractive to tech investors.

The first best solution, and from my perspective, the only one that will actually work in the long run, is to address the inefficient and inequitable use (and therefore, distribution) of farmland in the US. Indoor farming seems to me to be the result of accepting that there is nothing to be done about the land that’s locked away in the hands of investors who care exclusively about asset appreciation and tax avoidance, and not at all about feeding people.

Banksretirement fundsretail investorsboutique asset managersand even some nonprofits and universities are doubling down on farmland investments. Bill Gates bought his first farm in 2013 and now owns nearly 270,000 acres across 18 states, making him the largest private owner of U.S. farmland. Leading pension fund TIAA went from owning no agricultural land in 2007 to controlling $8 billion of global farmland by 2017. Even the University of Alabama has partnered with a private firm to become an absentee owner of farmland.”

(If you aren’t signed up for the newsletter Food & Power (often by Big Teammate Claire Kelloway!), you should do so IMMEDIATELY.)

Committing to indoor ag as a solution feels like a tacit acceptance that we have to give up on efficiently using our actual land and instead must learn to feed ourselves on the margins. But of course, we won’t be eating warehouse greens in peace either. Those land hoarders, in the form of tech investors, will have their cut of indoor ag as well. In this way, my answer to Dara is yes, I do see indoor farming at least in part as just another way for “big business/money… to diversify.”

The problem with second best solutions, though, isn’t just that they represent a vastly less effective (and in many cases, harmful) use of resources than the first best solution. It’s also that adopting second best solutions tend to put off the kind of strain or turmoil that is necessary to move beyond a problematic system. In other words, indoor farms, with the help of millions or billions of investor dollars, act as a sort of pressure release valve, offering a distracting “solution” to the land consolidation problem. Indoor farms say, “don’t worry about how few people own all of America’s farmland— it’s not a problem! We’ll make sure you get fed here, in our super high-tech buildings. After all, when has handing over a critical part of your lives to a tech company with a seemingly bottomless pit of Wall Street investor money ever gone wrong in the past!”

All that to say, climate change, the diet-related public health crises, demand for local food, these pressures make it all the more important to get the solution right, and in my mind, indoor farming is not the farming we’re looking for. When land becomes accessible to people who want to grow food, to settle safely and securely, and to enjoy the natural world we’re a part of, there’s good evidence that better climate, health, and community outcomes will flow naturally from it. Instead, what we have today is our country’s food producing land locked away by the ultra-wealthy for the purpose of squeezing every cent of economic value from it as quickly as possible. Indoor ag does nothing to address this fundamental problem.

Until we want to have a serious conversation about land reform, second best solutions like indoor farming are little more than lipstick on a pig.

Last F(ew) Things

  • I appeared on a panel about Carbon Markets recently, and they talked about what I said here.

  • Farm (and Other F Words) made the NYC Food Policy Center Summer Reading List! Some other great stuff on there. Check it out!

  • My “Invites” tray remains open if you’d like me to say a few words at your summer wedding, tractor pull, or rodeo, shoot me an email.

  • If you’re new to Big Team Farms and want some explanation for what the F you just read, check out The Intro Newsletter and more recent additions by visiting Big Team Farms online.

  • Do you have announcements that would be relevant to the 1,400 or so members of the Big Team? Feel free to shoot me messages about projects, resources, job posting, etc. And to everyone who’s done that already, or who has asked questions that I haven’t yet responded to, look out for those in the next couple of newsletters.

  • Tuesday this week we woke up extra early to watch as many episodes of I Think You Should Leave: Season 2 as we could before work. It was funny, but lacked the brilliance of Season 1. We’re optimistic that it’ll be better the second time around. Loki is 🔥. We signed up for the Disney+ release of Black Widow after season Fast 9 in theaters left us very meh. We’re planning to make Black Widow brownies in celebration. The Slack has been quiet of late, but I’m excited to head over there after to chat with you all about pop culture :).

  • Don’t forget to share this email!

Stay safe out there friends. Don’t forget, if you have funny gifs, thoughts, comments, stories, questions, feedback, catchy song lyrics, good podcast recommendations, or anything else to tell me, I’m right on the other end of this email.

Rock on,

Sarah