The farms of capital: Perspectives

The economical perspective

We have never calculated on getting rich by moving to a farm. Maybe less poor, since buying a much smaller house in the Stockholm area would have cost us five times more. Still, to create actual economical value from a farm, you need some farming activities going that converts ecological and cultural capital into economical. We have chosen goats. Not only because we love goats, but they are also the perfect species for our stony, hilly and bushy farm. As the only domesticated ruminator that can break down cellulose, they are thriving from all shrubs and bushes that most farmers consider a problem. They are also low in expenses, since they’re not too out-bred to suffer from diseases that affects cows and pigs and calls for overuse of antibiotics.

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The investment itself is a zero sum. If we bought an adult goat and took it directly to the butcher, we would get meat for about 8 euros, and that’s what we are paying for minced cow meat in stores. But that is all economical risk there is. If we don’t want the goat, we eat it. As long as the animals are in production and bred, they keep producing buckling for meat and new milking goats each year, not to mention about 600-700 liters of milk. If we only would sell the milk for let’s say, 30 cents/liter, that would give us 200 euros/year, but here is a possibility to convert cultural capital to economical presenting itself. By using our knowledge and making cheese, the value increases significantly. Calculating on a cheese yield of 20%, 650 liter of milk can be turned into 130 kg of cheese. Depending on wich kind of  cheese, the price may vary, but counting low, we could probably sell it for 15 euro/kg. thats 2000 euros/year. Per goat.That’s not bad. And we got 21 of those. Then we have costs for feeding them, but 6 months of the year, they are browsing freely, not costing a cent, the cold 6 months are we feeding them hay and dried bushes from our own lands, but if we had to buy all hay for a winter season, that would sum up to about 30 euro/animal.

Working time is another factor that is hard to estimate. When we learned to make cheese, we estimated 6 hours/batch, wich would be 12 hours/week with two batches a week. This would be a reason to scale up, or collaborating with nearby farms. And now another cultural conversion opportunity appears. What if some process steps can be easily automated and monitored? What if I can expand my sensor network to control and record the process so I get reliable results without needing to put my nose over the kettle all the time? That’s potential.Talking potential. Quality dessert cheese are sold for much more than 15E/kg. 60-70E/kg directly to customer isn’t impossible. But that would need to involve a quite advanced storage facility… Mmm, tasty conversion.

Potential for conversions

Ecological to economical: Plants to milk and meat.

Cultural to economical: Milk to cheese

Cultural to economical: Programming skills to reduce labour time.

The cultural perspective

The capital form with the highest potential to be developed on a farm ought to be the cultural. Back before the industrial era, a variety of skills where required for maintaining several lines of production. During the industrial age, a specialized skillset was encouraged, but much due to the high conversion costs (labour taxes, insurances and administration), the option to hire specialized high skilled labour is not availible to the small scale agricultural entreprenour. Instead, as knowledge is becoming more and more accessible, developing the personal skillset has become the main value building activity on the modern farm. The old socialistic utopia where workers spend their lives specializing on their profession, supported by professionals in their other needs, seems quite outdated contemporary work life. For people of today, that idea even represents a dull and meaningless existence ledaing to exhaustion and psycholigical breakdown, taken the almost impossible choice of deciding specialty in early school years. Today, at least in the nordic countries, education is accessible when needed. In its institutionalized forms in universities and study circles, as well as less formalized forms online, just a search away. This is a time when people who embraces their full potential are starting to look for lines of occupation where all their areas of expertise are possible to convert into economical and social capital, or possible to let grow into more cultural capital. The small, flexible, affordable and sustainable farm has such endless opportunities in providing cultural growth and capital conversions, that we are likely to see an urban brain drain when mulitskilled individuals needs a place to realize their potential.

Potential for conversions

Cultural to economical: Skills in computer science boosts efficiency of the small farm through data analysis and automation.

Cultural to economical: A global presence catches experiences from successful actors world-wide, not just from the home market. The best suited methods for farming your lands may be developed in Japan, not Germany.

Cultural to social: By providing the community with a necessity like food, the relationships between the farmer and her customers are often reported as joyful.

Cultural to economical: By learning to perform a diversity of task, the costs for hired expertise can be lowered. Either by doing it yourself while enjoying the cultural growth itself, or by trading services outside the market. It may be the nightmare of a socialistic government to watch an untaxed gray market of people helping each other or doing stuff themselves, but since time and skills are harder to control than products and money, the advantages of keeping transactions within the cultural form of capital are obvious. Even if no real conversion is made from cultural to economical by eliminating the conversion costs, the saving is to be taken in the economical form.

Cultural to economical and social: The costs for workplace related illness is rising in Scandinavia, and many employers are struggling with high number of physical as well as mental illness among their employees. In the best cases, the costs are taken as high turnover, when people are able to change job easily on an overheated labour market, and the sick person gets a chance to feel better in a new workplace. In the worst cases, the costs are taken as sick salary and sick leave, and the sick person is trapped in an unsatisfying situation without a possibility to get any change. Even if the sick person has a safety net in Sweden, the trend that people are getting sicker and needs to be provided for, means higher costs for someone, and that reflects either on the taxpayers or the salary levels. Work on a small farm can be hard, but in the long term, the variation in physical exercise, as well as the intellectual challenges in making successful conversions creates a highly adjustable working environment. To be able to adjust your workplace to whatever unique conditions you may seek, is a rarely seen benefit on a regular workplace.

The social perspective

When we first moved to a farm, far out on the countryside, increasing isolation was one of our worries. With no social connections to the area were moving to, except for a handful of friends within a 250 km radius, and all colleagues spread out over the country on remote connections, we expected to be lonlier than in Stockholm. Another aspect we thouht about was isolation from society, since we would se a smaller part of the world, not take part in other peoples everyday struggles citylife and worklife, and quite much create our own parrallell universe.

It turned out to become the opposite. The guest rooms has been frequently occupied, by friends and family, as well as colleagues coming to work from the farm instead of the office. Friends with children always take the detour to our farm when they’re on the road, since missing visiting Claire and Nils’s goats never would be forgotten. Colleagues expresses a sentiment of vacation, even though we may work long days. Maybe due to the mandatory tasting sessions of homebrewed beer.

Moving to the countryside and taking an active role in caring for animals and the environment also means a lot for people, so finding new friends and aquaintancies that share our interests hasn’t been an issue. Actively participating in activites for development of cultural capital, sush as courses at the local makerspace Blekinge uppfinnareverkstad and visits at farms in the vincinity has been a great way to meet both technically and agriculturally skilled peoples, sharing our passions.

Participation in international networks such as World WIde Opportunities on Organic Farms  and several magazines coming to our farm to write about our story has also kept us in contact with the world outside, showing us that there’re people out there incredibly interrested in what we are doing.

Conversion

Social to cultural: Knowing skilled and passionate people that can advice us when things get ungoogleable is worth a lot. Doing interesting stuff on the farm attracts people with skills and passion, and even if they can’t solve a problem directly, they usually have someone in their extended network that knows about stuff.

Social to economical: Investing in social capital when you have a product to sell is an investment also from the economical perspective. By encouraging visits, from old friends as well as from becoming, we establish knowledge about our products. Especiallty, what no marketing activities can do, showing the complete trustable production chain where the origin and production methods of the food can be traced back to a happily smiling goat. More about the importance of trust and the teoretical foundation of our marketing strategy in this article by sociologist Mark Granovetter: The Strength of Weak Ties.

Social to cultural and economical: Beeing a host farm for the WWOF network gives us contact with volunteers helping us with practical tasks, as well as sharing knowledge about things that we never would come to think of ourselves.

The farms of capital. Part II

Previous part: The farms of capital. Part I

The forms of capital

The last two decades, as the first devices of the digital age has evolved from a bunch of futuristic prototypes and ideas to common necessities, we have been used to phenomenons such as tech startups and unicorns. Small creativity and knowledge-driven service enterprises going from nothing to billion dollar balance sheets on a few years. Compared to traditional industries, their valuation is very different. No machines, no properties, representing value. Only knowledge, and the ability to keep knowledge and attract new knowledge is worth anything. What they are doing is not that important either. With access to skilled people and great knowledge, the service appears where there is an instant need to fill, and discontinue when there is none. No capital invested in infrastructure or machinery that needs to be returned before the business can be considered a mistake. Just take your computers and expertise and work on something that is actually needed.

Access to the market is another significant key to success, meaning close contact with the customers.Traditionally, marketing was focused on branding and segmentation, meaning a strange one-way-communication strategy ,where you describe a lifestyle, feeling or social context to your customers, and then brainwash them to believe that they want it, and your product will provide them with that. In the age of information people see through all that. And when they in the process of finding out whats behind the mumbo jumbo realizes that your product is bad for the environment, bad for the farmer, and bad for the human body, your marketing investment is gone. There is no accident that the company that right now is maybe the most characterizing actor in the early information age, Google, never runs commercials. They just provide answers.

The act of farming will continue to take place as long as there are mouths that wants delicious food. That’s for sure. But to fully understand the mechanisms in motion behind the digital economy, and apply those on a successful agricultural enterprise, we need to expand the view on accounting, marketing and financing, all experiences inherited from the industrial age. Instead, we need to include the human as a social and intellectual being, depending on and appreciating  her ecological environment as well as the society she is a valued part of, rather than just a profitable consumer or zealous worker.

The french sociologist Pierre Bourdieu introduced quite such a model in the 80’s in his well cited essay The Forms of Capital. It derives from deep sociological and economical roots, including Karl Marx, Max Weber and Gary Becker, and proposes that there are essentially three different kinds of capital: economical, cultural and social, and that many important choices are made in order to develop and transform these capitals.

Economical capital, well we’re all familiar with that. Money in the bank. It can take different shapes, currency, stocks, properties, debts, but it’s all an accumulation of the social construct that we all agree on as money. It follows a few agreed upon rules. A surplus of capital generates interest, for example, just a negative balance will cost you. It can be inherited, accumulated from value-creating activities as labour or trade, spent in a day, or taken by a robber, inflation or the tax authority. Even though it seems to be a placement of high risk, economical capital is the only fully tangible form of capital, and as such, defining the value of other capitals out of how easily they are converted into economical capital. Economical capital is the easiest form to convert into other forms. It’s said that money can’t buy you love, but one of the main reason for a society to establish the construct of money is that they should be universally interchangeable. Not necessarily the best way to obtain everything, but certainly one way.

Not much growth in sight from the ecological and economical perspective, but from the cultural?
Not much growth in sight from the economical perspective, but from the cultural and ecological?

Cultural capital are the abilities that let you function in the society. Languages, skills and acceptable behaviour are some examples. Good health, creativity, a job title or an academical qualification are others. In most cases, cultural capital is either innate or achievable through education or experiences. We often speak about cultural capital in terms of how they can be converted into economical capital. We acquire skills in order to get a job, from wich we get salary. We use our creativity to perform music and sell tickets and records. Many people developing their cultural capital derives feelings of joy and meaningfulness from these activities, and I think that more and more people would rank learning higher than earning, if not earning were the means to be able to acquire knowledge and skills. Being rich on cultural capital often automatically converts into social capital, as the highly skilled, creative and educated often are seen as venerable and respected members of the society. Being in good health also becomes crucial to the accumulation of cultural capital, since sickness easily destroys the possibilities to monetize, as well as acquire new skills.

Social capital are the benefits you get from your social environment. Being members of your family, acquired friends, politicians, fans, customers, followers, they all influences you, and get influenced by you. By developing social relations and building trust and friendship, a social safety net is constructed, that activates in times of trouble and can greatly reduce the time and effort needed to get back on track. Group memberships is another social ticket to transactions based on borrowed and shared trust, that never would been possible to build on your own.

What about ecological capital? No, Bourdieu didn’t mention that, but during the 30 years since he wrote The Forms of Capital, the issue of ecological sustainability has risen from a hippie thing, to everybodies concern. We might as well add this to the model. The human civilization as we know it is depending on a working ecological system on the planet. Disturb it, and famine, draughts, war and plagues comes running, rendering all other forms of capital practically useless. Every person is born with a quota of natural resources that can be consumed without depleting the earth, or without forcing  coming generations to lower their standards or face catastrophes. When world population increases, that quota decreases, but when inventions in the area of ecological sustainability are made, more are being produced from less. When more of the resources are put into recycling systems, the quota is extended. When you develop ecological capital, is when you develop the other forms of capital, without letting the earth’s resources take the cost. Neither today, nor in the future. Hopefully, increasing population also comes with increasing cultural capital, as knowledge and consciousness seems to present the best opportunities of conversion into ecological capital.

The farms of capital

So how do we best use a farm to accomplish growth in these four capital forms? There are no final answers to that question, rather an eternally ongoing investigation, so let’s down with the results found so far, before they dissolve in the inflation device of cultural capital called memory.

The farms of capital. Part I

The post-industrial crossroads

During the last century, the farm as a societal phenomenon, as well as economical factor, has transformed. A typical farm 100 years ago, would today be considered small scale or homestead. The activities on a farm 100 years ago could span over almost the entire agricultural field, including animal husbandry for several species, vegetable, crop and fodder cultivation, forestry, fishing and fruit foraging, as well as processing the staples into refined and conserved food. These value creating processes was distributed horizontally over several production chains, as well as vertically from raw material and staple production, to refined food and manufactured goods. An economically flexible model, since the cost of switching line of production when one was doing bad, mostly was service based as taken in the learning of a new skill, or hiring another specialist.  The modern industrialized farms are most often highly specialized on a few activities, chosen from an economical perspective. If there are grasslands, cow or sheep meat would be a good choice. If there are sedimentary soils, growing crops would be suitable. However, managing farms from an industrial perspective has proven risky, as not only the weather presents unforseeable risks, but also the global market, dependencies on logistics, dependencies on fertilizer and fuel prices and interests on the capital invested in the machine park. The solution to many of these problems has been to scale up and specialize even more, all inspired from other industrial areas. But as the same logistic network that is needed to transport your cattle to a distant meat packaging plant, also can transport meat from a place where it is cheaper to produce, the competition eventually becomes harder. A phenomenon that has greatly reduced the amount of small farms.

That’s all logical. This curve is to be found in all areas affected by industrialization, let be during different periods.The agricultural sector just tends to be a little slower than i.e. manufacturing and raw material sectors, that accomplished the same a few decades earlier.

However, the industrial age is long in the past now. The digital era, the age of information and knowledge, has introduced itself in area after area, leading to transformation of traditional methods, or extinction. Will the huge, specialized and economically vulnerable farms destroy each other ecologically and economically in the competition, and how will our food be produced then?

Pesticides being distributed on a field. Expensive and specialized machinery eradicating the biological environment, as well as the means of its own economical existence. Source: Modern Farmer/Wikimedia commons

Next part: The farms of capital. Part II