[p2p-research] The one thing depleting faster than oil is the credibility of those measurin...

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Wed Nov 18 17:10:34 CET 2009

J. Andrew Rogers wrote:
> On Tue, Nov 17, 2009 at 5:34 PM, Paul D. Fernhout
> <pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com> wrote:
>> But, here is a deeper issue. Lots of people like to work outdoors around
>> plants and animals. Maybe not everyone, but certainly more than the 1% to 2%
>> doing that now in the USA -- probably more like 10% to 30%, I'd guess,
>> considering gardening is the most popular outdoor recreational activity,
>> with more than 50% of households. Organic methods of agriculture might
>> require twice the labor, but would yield more with less fossil fuel inputs.
> There is a very serious labor *shortage* in agriculture at all scales
> and of all types. In parts of the country where there is an illegal
> labor pool they use that to compensate, but in many other areas where
> there is not an established illegal alien population, they have to
> automate because they can't find people that want to work in
> agriculture.
> In areas where there is not an illegal labor pool, the wages offered
> are generally quite good for the area, people simply do not want to do
> it. It is a lot of hard, dirty labor and that is not really comparable
> to what most people do in their garden if you have to scale it up to
> useful levels of productivity.

This may well be true, and certainly anything repetitive can get boring and
cause repetitive strain injury (so I'm still for automating) but it hinges
on what you consider wages that are "generally quite good".

Certainly, this sort of thing agrees with you on the surface:
"Labor shortage may leave Florida's oranges unpicked"
"As many as 6 million boxes of oranges may go unharvested in Florida this
year because of a shortage of fruit pickers made worse by fears about what
changes may come in immigration law."

No mention of wages there. Consider:
Seasonal farm workers are hired on a day-to-day basis to perform specific
tasks, such as harvesting, planting, plant pruning, staking and tying.
Federal laws require that any worker be paid at least the minimum wage per
hour of employment. Currently, minimum wage is $5.15 per hour and
agricultural workers are entitled to this hourly rate for every hour they
are on the farm. While minimum wage laws establish a floor for hourly
earnings, piece rate hourly earnings are typically much higher since the
worker's earnings are tied directly to individual productivity. ...
The purpose of this article is to summarize the harvest performance of crews
from which data were obtained. This summary provides some evidence of
average hourly and daily earnings. The interpretation of the data is
limited, however, to only field workers harvesting during a peak production
period in southwest Florida (January 1998). ...
This summary includes thirty-one orange harvest crews from various
employers, representing 1,313 workers who harvested 107,660 field boxes (90
pounds per box) of oranges. Collectively, these harvesters worked 11,066
total hours and earned $78,720. ... Nearly half (49%) of the oranges
harvested by the sampled crews were harvested at a piece rate of $.70 per 90
pound field box. Rates ranged from $.55 up to $1.30 per 90 pound box. ...

Assume there are about 100 oranges in a box (just for round numbers), so
about ten million oranges were picked. The wages paid were about a penny an

In the USA, the median salary is around US$50K. That's presumably with some
benefits. So, that's about US$30 an hour (assuming benefits were worth US$5
an hour).

Can you show me any agricultural jobs where, say, people doing labor in
fields are getting US$30 an hour and up? US$10 an hour, maybe. Or more
likely, closer to minimum wages.

So, I think a lot of this is a wage problem. It is a lot of work for other
people, but for little pay. And considering how important food is to our
society, if we were to pay agricultural laborers similar to union
autoworkers in Detroit were, they should be getting around US$50 an hour to
do things like pick oranges or plant seedlings.

Go offer US$50 an hour to people to pick oranges at a moderate pace, and see
how fast people line up to apply. :-)

This is off the top of my head, so feel free to get better figures, but I'm
guessing a person can pick and sort at least 500 oranges an hour without too
much stress, while talking to other coworkers and having an OK time. That is
ten cents each for picking costs for a big juicy organic orange if pickers
get paid US$50 an hour. (Granted, there are many other costs to growing
oranges, but picking is a big one.) So, about ten times what those workers
were getting in 1998 (although with inflation, maybe only five to seven times?)

In the store, I already pay probably around a dollar for a big organic
orange. Maybe even more.

So, these labor rates might not increase food prices that much, unless you
talk about all the other aspects of our food distribution system that don't
make much sense. For example, farmers might get ten cents on that dollar I
pay in the grocery store, in which case the cost of picking would be all of
it, and given other costs, clearly that would not work out.

So, the cost of the "middleman" in agriculture is enormous. It might make
more sense to focus on automating distribution at first (lower store costs)
than to focus on automating production, perhaps. Farmers markets and
community supported agriculture are two other approaches in that direction.

In general, food in the USA is too cheap (even as I think it should be
free-to-the-user :-). This is in part because not all the external costs are
paid for, whether the true cost of oil at US$500 a barrel or whatever
(considering defense costs and pollution), or the true social cost of
underpaying workers.

For the free market to work, things need to be priced at their true costs.
Otherwise we just pay more in taxes to make up for it, or otherwise create
some sort of debt burden (financial, social, environmental) for the next
generation. Of course, one issue is that the fact that many things are too
cheap in our society is that different people may pay in various ways for
cheap oranges than the ones getting the benefits from them. Still, this
effects even farmers. Maybe they have to pay a lot of taxes because people
don't pay good enough wages and so there is a lot of crime or violence or
lack of voluntary social investment in other areas of society. Of course, if
one farmer pays more, they go out of business.

So, this is a political issue to make it work. If *all* farmers were
required to pay US$50 an hour for farm day-labor, then none would be at a
comparative disadvantage. Or, if all farmers and others were taxed, and the
money given to improve society so that even poorly paid farm workers had a
good life, with access to libraries and free-to-the-consumer prepared
organic food and so on, or alternatively the taxes given as a basic income
to everyone to spend as they saw fit, then that would be another approach.

Although, no doubt, we might see a rush to automate. Then the issue is, who
should get the benefits of the automation? The farmers? The engineers? The
displaced workers? Or, maybe, everyone should share in it somehow?

In Europe, in  place like the Netherlands, agricultural workers have other
social benefits, so, they are in general happier, whether they get paid more
or less than in the USA. But, even there, there is a problem with exploiting
migrant workers:
"In the Netherlands, there are 70,000 undocumented workers. They are mostly
employed in the greenhouses (greenhouse agriculture) where they grow
vegetables and in flower fields. One district with a lot of greenhouses is
in Westland near Den Haag. There the number of undocumented workers has
grown rapidly. In recent years, there are more Bulgarians, Polish and
Ukrainians. The bosses no longer want Turkish and Moroccan undocumented
workers because they ask for 6-7 Euros/hour while the East Europeans are
given only 3-4 Euros/hour."

Anyway, why not pay people thirty Euros? What are the implications?
How much would food prices really rise? Would other social costs and tax
burdens go down? Who would pay the costs, and who would get the benefits?

What if, say, we raised wages but decreased interest payments on the land 
for the greenhouses or the construction materials?

Wages and prices are the outcome of a long series of political struggles. 
Why should the people who claim to own land or want rent for it get so much 
while the day-laborers get so little? That is a political issue.

Personally, I feel it is too late to resolve those issues piecemeal anymore. 
A basic income movement makes more sense to me than individuals or groups 
struggling to get higher individual incomes.

Example, the conclusion of a longer post on that point:
"Can unions and strikes still make a difference?"
"We are possibly past the point where union actions related to single 
companies make much sense. If unions are to have any major role in the 
future, it may likely be as part of larger efforts to rethink the underlying 
basis of our economy and society, like by somehow being part of a national 
effort for a basic income, or comprehensive single-payer health care reform, 
or reforming education, or things like that."

>> In general, most farms are
>> electrified in the USA, and all sorts of electrical implements, either
>> battery powered or corded could be made to do farm tasks.
> Facts not in evidence in most farming regions.  The primary power
> source on most farms, when they have them, are diesel generators.  It
> costs a small fortune to run electricity out to the fields, so most
> farms don't. It simply isn't worth the investment.

Again, if we change the nature of farming, so farms are smaller, this is not
so much of an issue. Also, most farms have sunny open places, so we can
expect solar panels to make a lot of sense there to supply electricity as
the costs of such panels continue to drop. Makes me think there must already
be a business opportunity here? :-) Considering how road crews set up lights
that have solar panels on them to minimize the need to refuel generators?

>> As I see it, the "tractor" represents an entire system of profit-maximizing
>> exploitive centrally controlled agriculture, where one farmer owns hundreds
>> of acres and takes all the profits themselves.
> Farming is fairly capital intensive, and the revenue/profit you might
> realize on a single acre is paltry. You need a farm that is large
> enough to cover the overhead costs.  Above the dangerous subsistence
> level, there is a minimum scale below which it doesn't even make sense
> to attempt productive farming.

There are lots of types of "farms". Maybe you might want to study this a
bit. You could google on microagriculture or market gardens and related
themes. Your argument about scale only is true within certain assumptions --
including assumptions about market access, labor availability, choice of
equipment, cost of land, and so on. Those assumptions may all change if
other aspects of our society change. And there are many profitable niches
with different assumptions even now.

> Note also that the scale of the farm required is dependent on the
> local ecology and climate.  In some very rich areas you have a
> reasonable farm on a mere tens of acres, but in other areas the
> revenue per acre is so low that you need thousands of acres just to
> cover basic overhead.

Then maybe we should not be farming such places? :-) Especially if most
agricultural land is not needed given how it is used mostly to grow grain to
feed to grass-adapted ruminants and make everyone unhappy and sick? :-(

>> They work by doing mowing every day, so they do not need to be so powerful
>> or massive or noisy, and the grass is (they claim) healthier. This is an
>> example of rethinking the agricultural problem. You can replace big heavy
>> tractors with lots of smaller machines.
> Uh, no.  The farm terrain is pretty rugged even with modern field
> conditioning technology.  That is why in some places the tractors have
> tires that are two meters in diameter -- it is so they can traverse
> the hazards.  If you used swarms of small robots you would never see
> half of them again and they would burn a lot of energy and time just
> trying to traverse obstacles that a larger vehicle could traverse
> easily.  Also, the use of big machines is not entirely accidental,
> they tend to be more efficient in many cases.
> In some parts of the US, they still use animal power in some limited
> contexts, mostly because you can get that into places that machines
> (big or small) have a hard time dealing with.
> We can definitely do agriculture better than we do it, but the
> problems and difficulties are not in places most people think they
> are.

You sound extremely confident about that. What if the robots are cheap? What
if they are solar powered? What if the first thing they do is smooth out the
fields? What if one reason farm land is so rugged is that farm tractor tires
chew it up? What if robots companion-plant crops in squares instead of rows?
Robots allow looking at agricultural problems in entirely new ways, just
like they have changed how laws are mowed (every day instead of every week).
It almost seems to me like the roboticists making lawnmowers have reinvented
sheep. :-)

You use the word "efficient". Big machines are efficient in what sense? In
terms of fun? In terms of labor? In terms of minimizing soil compaction? In
terms of minimizing pollution? In terms of maximizing companion planting and
intercropping? In terms of minimizing water use? In terms of minimizing
pesticide use? In terms of maximizing the reliability of the overall food
system? In terms of financial profits given cheap oil where tax dollars pay
for externalities not paid by the farmer? In terms of maximizing safety
(farming is one of the most hazardous occupations, as people lose hands in
connecting things to power takeoffs and such)? Efficient in what sense?

So, where do you think the problems and difficulties are? And what are the
goals of society that they relate to?

--Paul Fernhout

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