ThinkProgress.org has the latest news on the urban farming phenomenon in Oakland, California. While it is great to see people so heavily engaged in eating good food, this is not the kind of change I hope to see in the food system. It lacks permanence: zoning authorities can give and atake on a whim. I would prefer to see city council members burning their political capital on a micro-scale slaughter facility within city limits or some other piece of noisy, stinky, critical infrastructure. It’s much harder for cities to change their minds on something once bricks have been laid down, long term loans have been authorized, and a few dozen jobs are at stake.
Backyard farming should underscore two important points for those who eat and for those who grow. It shows that there is a.) a consumer demand for local products – duh – and b.) a dearth of supply so critical that it motivates consumers to undertake the difficult practice of farming for themselves.
Consider a world where this happened in economic transactions other than farming. Imagine if everyone had to learn how to fill their own cavities because they didn’t have access to a dentist. Imagine if everyone installed a lift in the garage to maintain and repair their own vehicle because there were no mechanics around. Farming is a skill, especially when it comes to the humane and efficient slaughter of livestock. I applaud those willing to do it themselves, but learning to farm proficiently requires an investment of time and resources commensurate with any other profession.
Part of the problem is the mis-regulation of the food industry. Compliance costs push small producers right out of the market. The second most pervasive problem is a function of the first; inflexibility of scale. There is zero infrastructure in places like Oakland which can process locally produced products. Not incidentally, the lack of infrastructure is the part that takes the longest to remedy. A zoning change can occur overnight. A flour mill or a slaughter facility takes much longer and requires a real long-term business and organizational strategy to achieve success.
Backyard farming is a beacon fire for entrepreneurs. I don’t know if you’ve notices but food is kind of a big deal lately. To see the American economic model react so slowly to consumer demand is shocking and a bit depressing. If do-it-yourself farming is a viable option for people who want to eat differently, it is a sign that many producers are still systemically incapable of meeting demand. The good news is that if you are a producer, there are still plenty of consumers out there for alternative agricultural products, and lots of money to be made if you take the long view.