Monday, September 08, 2008

Harvester of the Sea

The Eastpointer

Harvester of the Sea

By Richard E. Noble

If you have lived in Franklin County for any length of time, you have probably heard a seafood worker compare his life to that of a farmer. The first time that I heard such a comparison, I smiled, thinking it to be, more or less, a joke or another example of misplaced logic.

But over the years of working as a seafood worker, I began to feel some of that spirit myself.

Many oystermen, shrimpers, crabbers and fishermen will refer to what they do for a living as "a way of life." That is a phrase that I have often heard farmers use - maybe you have also.

Seafood workers look at Mother Nature as a business partner. Mother Nature can be a rather difficult boss sometimes but overall, she makes the rules and provides the income. I have never seen a seafood worker complain about the demands put upon him because of the perils of Mother Nature. Farmers have pretty much the same attitude.

Seafood workers are oftentimes more environmentally conscious than farmers. Seafood workers deal with Mother Nature in the raw - no pesticides, no sprays, no fertilizers and not too many sophisticated adaptations benefit their industry.
When they came to Franklin County with the modern farming techniques of aquaculture, it was rejected primarily because of its "unnaturalness."

I was always amazed at how the seafood workers responded to natural tragedy. They never seemed to get upset. They always wanted to go back to work as soon as possible. If they had a boat wrecked, they patched it; if a motor failed or went under they cleaned and fixed it. They seemed a rather unflappable group - rather old-fashioned and ever convinced of the "old ways."

So it especially interested me the other day when I read an article about a 1962 Nobel Prize winning economist, Amarta Sen, who discovered that there was an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produced per hectare. It seems that the smaller the farm the greater the yield. And recent more in-depth studies are confirming Sen's research.

This notion is contrary to conventional wisdom - and contrary to the wishes of Agri-bis Inc.
I remember discussing this years ago here in Franklin County. I suggested in a letter to the editor that the old fashioned tonging method of harvesting oysters may actually be more productive, more efficient and of more social benefit than dredge or machine harvesting. My notion was that in some cases small, inefficient and even primitive might actually be better in the long run than big, efficient and mechanized.

It is difficult to believe that some guy with an ox and a handmade plow can out produce an Agri-bis international conglomerate on a per hectare basis but studies in Turkey, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, the Philippines, Brazil, Columbia and Paraguay stand testament to the notion. Land reform in Japan and South Korea, where large farms were broken up after World War II and divided among small farmers, have been said to be an economic miracle - and a similar result is said to be happening in China. The opposite is the case in the U.S. and Western Europe - the big are growing while the small are disappearing.

I also remember reading about the "unexplainable" circumstance that was taking place in Communist Russia a few years back. The Russian peasants were given the right to grow their own personal vegetable gardens in their free time away from their full-time jobs on the big collective state run farms. It seems that the individual peasant gardens were quickly producing a large surplus that the peasants were selling on the side in the black market. The Russian government had no explanation.

When I was studying economics in school, I remember a concept that was called "the point of diminishing returns." This economic principle fostered the notion that something could only grow so big before it began to diminish in results - before people began to bump into one another or before "big" got to "unmanageable."

When we read our economic history books we find the same notion being advanced and re-advanced from Adam Smith to Galbraith.

There was a time in America when we wanted to bust up trusts and monopolies. But today we have redefined monopolies and disassociated them from "bigness." A monopoly for example is a big business that controls the peanut butter industry from the peanut in the field to the consumer in the market place. But by today's definition if a big business has controlling interests in not only peanut butter but jelly and white bread also, it is technically not a monopoly or a trust - and it is a good thing and not a bad thing. It is a good thing because as we have all been conditioned to believe (erroneously) - big is always better and small is inefficient and wasteful.