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The threshold of scaling

We can’t talk agricultural development without talking scale. The invention of the hoe meant a farmer could hoe more land and successfully produce more food for his work. The plough did the same. And so did the tractor. Economies of scale is a pretty simple concept to understand. If it takes two people 4 hours to dig a trench, then four farmers would pool their capital, purchase a digger, and get it done in less than 2 hours, right? Of course.

Therefore, 400 people should be able to scale their efforts and produce more than 100 times those four farmers, right?

Not really.

Despite undergraduate agriculture students being taught the economies of scaling, and many successful farmers demonstrating it well, it isn’t the driver of farming success. The problem with scale is that it’s not a linear progression. And sometimes it doesn’t even stay correlated. Think of it another way. Is a commercial farm just a scaled-up garden? No, they are completely different systems. That’s like saying Los Angelus is just a scaled-up country village, even though it has entirely new public transport systems, energy systems, waste disposal, communication networks, you get the point.

The analysis of agriculture is done almost entirely at a micro-level. Study one variable, e.g. a macronutrient applied at varying rates across 1/10th of a hectare. Or maybe scale it up to an entire field. But farming is business. And big business is very different to small business. No longer does the owner know every screw in the workshop, or every customer at the market.

Scaling a business means developing new systems. Systems that weren’t present in the former smaller version of the entity.

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Roger Bilney is a lifelong farmer. His family began farming in Western Australia in the late 19th Century. There are now six generations of Bilney’s to be involved in the land they cultivate crops and

© 2020 by Richard Avery.