Monday, March 23, 2015

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Farming is the Torah Path?

Continuing the conversation about farming and the path to economic security with Moshe F…

(Moshe F.) To respond to what you wrote, first of all, even if land were distributed among the Jewish people to be rented out for farming or business or whatever, how would that guarantee economic security?  What about land in the Negev desert, who would rent it for business?  And even land closer to population centers, we'd be back to business model, which doesn't guarantee success.  And mitzvot tluyot baatetz would remain just rituals.

What I was suggesting is not that each family farm their land using commercial agriculture methods but rather using permaculture, which is a developing method so it's harder to get exact statistics on it, but from my research it seems to hold great promise in terms of helping small scale farmers / homesteaders get significant yields from small amount of land and using less work.  And it's not just growing food, permaculture has methods for heating a home with very little wood, producing gas from waste (for cooking or heating), collecting rain water, using grey water for irrigation, utilizing heat from a compost pile - all of these are very passive methods that hardly require any work once they're set up.  It's true that some of these methods are still in different stages of development.  I agree that some "dreaming" is required in order to see a society where most families are self sustainable, but if it's true that that is the Torah's vision for society, then we should perhaps try to develop the methods that could make that vision a reality. 

I mean, the state of Israel also seemed like an unlikely dream not so long ago.  How did that turn into reality?  Some people understood that that is the destiny for the Jewish people, and started taking small steps to make it happen.

Reb Akiva responds…

While land ownership doesn’t guarantee economic security, neither does farming.  Farming has plenty of “bad years”, and many modern farmers have lost their land and been unable to be successful – particularly those who weren’t able to scale up.

In my brief research, I found an interesting differentiation between farming productivity and farming efficiency.  This article states that among the most “efficient” farming countries were Niger and Ghana.  Yet not only aren’t those country food exporters, major portions of their population are at risk of starving! (World Food Program) “In Niger, a lean period marked by the agricultural production deficit in 2013 puts poor and very poor households in a difficult food security situation…”

So while the most efficient farming measures the total energy investment in food output, the most productive farming measures the total food output per area of land.  In this context the U.S. is rated as not very efficient, using lots of high tech machines, fertilizers and pesticides, and investment in optimized seed stocks and animal stocks.  But it is rated as the most productive.

As an example, the modern turkey in the U.S. has such large breasts that it cannot breed naturally – meaning technology and effort is involved in the breeding process of every commercial turkey delivered to stores in the U.S.  Yet the U.S. produces so much turkey that it can not only meet the meat needs of the U.S., but many other countries as well.  (Did you know that the U.S. is the major provider of “chicken paws a.k.a chicken feet” to China and Asia?)

Farming security is a misnomer.  The majority of family farms in the U.S. have gone under, and that’s even with massive government crop subsidies.  In other countries, such as France, farmers are protected by completely banning the import of competing produce (some of this occurs in Israel as well).  This may keep the farmer in business, but keeps food costs high for everyone else.  And even if everyone was farming, not everyone farms everything.

Pound of Whole Chicken - Sample of U.S. Prices:

Portland, Ore.: $1.59
Little Rock, Ark.: $0.88
Los Angeles, Calif.: $1.59

Sample of World Prices:

Kuwait: $2.01
Spain: $2.03
Hong Kong: $2.50
Taiwan: $2.92
Brazil: $3.79
South Africa: $3.85
Germany: $6.00
Paris: $6.37
Israel: $10.00  (kosher l’mehadrin)

While the first Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch encouraged the Jews of his time to leave merchant professions (in which many were struggling) and become farmers, we do not see such recommendations for subsequent generations of Jews or chassidim.  And while it was very appropriate for the returning Jews of Israel to invest in agriculture to make Israel food self sufficient, it’s never made sense to produce significant excess food.  Food, unprocessed at least, is not a particularly profitable export.  It’s further subject to loss in transit.

Israel Agriculture - 2.8% of the country's GDP is derived from agriculture. Of a total labor force of 2.7 million, 2.6% are employed in agricultural production while 6.3% in services for agriculture.

U.S. Agriculture – 1.2% of the country’s GDP is derived from agriculture.  Approximately 2% of Americans are employed in agriculture production.

So while Judaism mandates many agricultural mitzvot, and many Jewish holidays are tied to the seasons, the Land of Israel, and the bringing of agricultural products to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (not currently in existence), it never mandated farming as a profession.  And while there were many generations where Jews were not able to farm, even in times and places where they could – farming was rarely the practice of the majority of Jews.

Farming is a very worthy profession, and one with many spiritual aspects.  If one is interested in farming, go for it!  But I don’t think modern religious Jewish society fits a “every family a home farm” model.  As I stated previously, the kibbutz, moshav, and cooperative villages in the Shomron have tried various recent models of making this work.  A few have been successful, done well, even gotten rich.  The majority, including the majority in these communities, have not.

On the other hand, what we do see practiced in many religious Jewish communities is the cottage industry and home entrepreneur.  Creating regulatory environments that make such businesses legal, lightly regulated and lightly taxed, and giving easy access credit, training and business support, is something I think would be very valuable.  Besides increasing families economic sufficiency, it also provides a way to “invest more to succeed more”, and an outlet for children (in large religious families) to provide sweat equity of real economic value to the family.

1 comment:

  1. Akiva, either you misunderstood me or I didn't express myself well. I don't advocate that most Jews go into FARMING as a profession. What I'm saying is that nowdays we have many lowtech technologies that could allow most families to provide themselves with most of their necessities, including food, water, and some of the utilities, WITHOUT HAVING TO INVEST MUCH TIME IN IT. So people should still be free to invest their time into a profession of their choice, which need not be farming. (Yes, some of the technologies still need to be developed a bit more) My point was that Torah seems to imply that it wants most families to produce most of their food (which is not the same as going into farming), and if it can (almost) be done now without compromising the free time necessary in order to go into any other profession, then why not help it happen? (What would be necessary is develop permaculture a bit more, and then see how it would be possible for families to be able to get land.) Hope I explained myself well this time.


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