Turn on the television, dial in the radio or scan the internet and it’s virtually impossible to hide from news of “the economy”. It’s up. It’s down. It’s fragile. It’s strong. All this talk of “the economy” makes me wonder, what in the world is it, anyway? This thing we hear and read about seems to exert so much influence over our lives, but we just can’t put our finger on what it really means. What’s more is that we can’t make decisions in our daily lives to impact its influence on us or to react to its function in our lives.
For years, I’ve been doing my best to understand the global impact of ethereal concepts like fractional reserve lending, fiat monetary policy, classical versus neo-liberal economics and their effects on us ordinary people. In all my thousands of hours of reading, listening to, and watching “experts” champion their ideas for a bright “economic” future… I’ve not heard a single one of them say we need more earth worms. “Say what?”, you might be thinking. Before you jump to the conclusion that I’ve just taken a walk toward the wild side, let’s elaborate.
Recent studies suggest that highly fertile, healthy soils host a population of nearly 1.5million earth worms per acre. If we measure by weight, that’s more pounds of earthworms below the soil than livestock being raised above! Their tunneling helps to aerate soil, allowing air and water to travel deep within the root zones of plants. Their feeding activity recycles dead plant material into highly effective food for new plants and increases water retention.
With all this incredible benefit, you’d think that some smart person with alphabet soup after their name (all the university degrees our culture worships!) would be on a talk show trumpeting how they’ve found the key to unlock the economic output of earthworms. Why aren’t they? After all, the earthworms are performing their function completely for free. Hmmm, perhaps there’s a clue right there. What stock prices go up when my earthworms are at their peak productivity? None. Not a single one.
Some folks who watch what we’re doing here at our farm mistakenly assume that we’re a clan of hippy-dippy tree-huggers chanting cosmic koombaya around the old oak tree. We’re ok with this caricature because in reality we’re natural capitalists. By viewing our farm as a complex ecosystem, we seek to better understand the economic impact of biological players that perform their duties for free. We know that each year when we increase our populations of earthworms (and mycorrhizal fungi, and nematodes, and arthropods and soil organic matter etc) , we grow more and better grass. When we grow more and better grass, we can graze more cattle. We didn’t do anything special but to manage for the benefit of the earthworms. We also manage within a timeframe that looks much further into the future than quarterly earnings reports do.
When we get this right year after year, our costs of production go down and yields go up. Isn’t this the definition of economic efficiency? We’re more resilient to drought and price fluctuations in commodities like fuel and fertilizers. Never mind the fact that the quality of our meat gets better every year as well! The opposite is true in our current industrialized food system. With the exception of sporadic seasons, costs of production are (and will continue) to go up as productivity goes down. Hang around any diner in rural America on any weekday morning and milk prices are down, hay prices are up, it’s not raining, it’s raining too much and the damn tractor is broken!
As a food consumer, what does this mean for you? When the global food production system is struggling to cope with increasing costs and decreasing yield, the quality of your food goes down with it. Anyone remember when we could buy a half-gallon of ice cream? Look at your container in the freezer – it’s anywhere from 6-8oz smaller for the same price! That’s not all.
We begin to see deceptive marketing words used to fetch disproportionately higher prices for otherwise mediocre food items. In other words, your family is paying a premium price for virtually the same bland-tasting, nutrient-deficient product. The word “grass-fed” means nothing seeing that the there’s no regulation for its use in the marketplace. “Free-range” means that a producer must “allow poultry access to the outside”. Nearly every “organic” apple tastes like the box it’s packed in. In practice, the industry hides the corner-cutting production methods to keep their selling prices high in order to cover higher costs.
The bottom line is that your family’s vitality is the only thing that matters. At the foundation of every family’s economic balance sheet is health. All this talk of “the economy” means nothing when we’re sick. The sicker we get, the healthier “the economy” gets because healthcare and pharmaceutical stocks go up. Ponder that reality for more than a moment… just be careful your blood pressure doesn’t go up too much!
The way forward is natural capitalism. Clean water is priceless. Forests are worth more than their board-feet value as timber. Animals are more than line items on a balance sheet.
We’re not perfect and we’re making a bunch of mistakes along the way. The one thing I’m confident of: we have our sights set on the right measures of economic output. My 30 acres of earthworms will outperform any 30-year treasury bond portfolio - guaranteed!