Dustin Bajer, The Long Tail of Agriculture

The Long Tail of Agriculture

Agriculture is Missing its Long Tail

Imagine we could arrange every food producer on the planet according to total productivity. On one end, we’d find highly productive industrial megafarms, and way down on the other end, we find marginal food-producing activities such as foraging or kitchen window herb gardens.

Graphing our lineup of food producers, we see a curve of highly productive producers on the left that rapidly drops off to smaller producers on the right. This type of graph is called a Pareto Distribution or Long Tail Curve, where a relatively small number of producers (The Short Head) produce the majority of the food and economic activity

Dustin Bajer, Long tail food production graph
Short Head and Long Tail Agriculture

Short Head Agriculture

If a society wants to increase food production and boost the economy while increasing food security and resilience, at which end of the curve should we invest?

From the outside, long tail food production looks so marginal that it barely registers as a serious contribution to food production or economic activity. While the long tail concerns itself with free-range heirloom whatsits, the short head is busy feeding the masses.

Since the majority of the food and economic activity happens in the Short Head of conventional agriculture, so conventional wisdom suggests we should invest our efforts there. I think this is a mistake.

The Pressures of Short Head Agriculture

To its credit, Short Head Agriculture produces tonnes of food. Unfortunately, it’s also led to increasingly narrow profit margins and a “Get Big or Get Out” approach to agriculture. The Short Head is getting shorter as smaller farms sell to larger ones. A 2014 Statistics Canada study reported a 24.8% reduction in the number of farms between 1991 and 2011. Larger farms often represent a loss in diversity—crop variety, farming methods, and farmer demographics (the average age of a farmer is 54).

Short-head market forces demand uniformity at high volumes and low prices. Traits like taste and nutrition are sacrificed for productivity, appearance, and shelf life. Plants and animal varieties unsuitable for large-scale farming fall out of favour or go extinct.

Dustin Bajer, Short Head Agriculture
Conventional (Short Head) Agriculture is productive but inaccessible to most would be farmers

Short Head Agricultural Bends Towards Uniformity

Over time, Short Head Agriculture bends towards higher volume, lower cost (lower margins), standardization and uniformity, with fewer business models. The increasing scale of production prevents would-be farmers from entering the market and concentrates the food supply into an ever-decreasing number of farms, farmers, crops, varieties, processors, and distributors. Production is high but fragile.

“The U.S., which has lost stunning amounts of plant diversity to development and single-minded commercial agriculture, was once home to something like 7,100 different varieties of apple a century ago; only about 300 continue to exist in any quantity”

– CBC News

Long Tail Agriculture

To the right of the Short Head, a long curve of progressively smaller producers emerges filled with less productive crops, varieties, and production models.

It’s easy to dismiss Long Tail producers as quant, marginal, and insignificant. The Long Tail is filled with hobby farms, backyard gardeners, and people growing micro-greens. Incapable of producing food at any real volume, conventional farmers and government officials are quick to declare “that’s not a real farm!”

The Large Impact of Many Small Producers

While the volume any Long Tail produer is smaller than a conventiaol Short Head operation, the total productivity (volume of food and economic value) of the Long Tail Agriculture is widely underestimated.

Dustin Bajer, Long tail food production graph
The area under the Long Trail, representing the total amount of production in the long tail is on par with the area (total production) of the Short Head.

Revisiting our graph, we can see that the total volume of production is equivalent to the area under the curve. The area under the Long Trail (yellow), representing the total amount of production in the Long Tail is on par with the area (red) of the Short Head.

Let’s not forget that in 1944, twenty million victory gardens “provided around 40% of the U.S. vegetable supply.” That’s not nothing. The challenges is that not all of those twenty million gardens would be considered “profitable” (we could get into the ethics of a for-profit food system, but let’s save that for another day).

Dustin Bajer, Long Tail Agriculture, WW2 Victory Gardens
In 1944, 40% of the vegetable produced in the United States came from victory gardens.

Long Tail Agricultural Bends Towards Diversity

Over time, Long Tail Agriculture bends towards higher profit margins, less standardization (between farms), a greater diversity of business models, crops, varieties, and distribution methods.

Long Tail Agriculture can’t directly compete with conventional farming in terms of volume, uniformity, and price, but it doesn’t have to. It’s secret weapon isn’t economy of scale but it’s ability to nitche.

The smart Long Tail strategy is to provide something that larger producers can’t. Instead of competing with commercial pork, Long Tail producers raise heritage mangalitsa pigs on hobby farms and demand a premium for their product. Long Tail beekeepers supply hyper-local honey that reflects the unique flavours of the neighbourhood in which the hive was located. Short Head brewing gives us Bud Light while Long Tail brewers innovate.

Conventional, Short Head agriculture has the benefits of scale, so Long Tail Agriculture needs to lean into it’s ability to differentiate. Short Head demands uniformity. Long Tail demands diversity.

Dustin Bajer, Long Tail Agriculture, Craft beer
Alberta Craft Beer (Long Tail Brewing) was made Possible by Reducing Minimum Batch Size Requirements

Regrow Agriculture’s Missing Long Tail

Unfortunately for food culture, place making, would be farmers, and the economy, a lot of Long Tail production is discouraged or illegal. Bylaws limit or outright ban urban agriculture while business licensing, market rules, insurance, and health and safety requirements trim the tail so thoroughly that most Long Tail businesses never make it off the ground. Zoning, licensing, liability, and sanitation are critical, but so is the need to create opportunities for Long Tail businesses to meet them.

If health and safety standards are too burdensome for small producers, we could pursue common, commercial processing spaces. If regulatory confusion, fees, and red tape prevent vendors from attending markets, then the rules should be clarified and costs reduced. In 2014, “California legalised selling food made at home and created over a thousand local businesses.” It’s not about lowering the bar; it’s about enabling small producers to rise to meet it.

In Alberta, a reduction in the minimum batch sizes for breweries caused an explosion of economic activity and diversity within the craft beer scene.

An Agricultural Barbell Strategy

Lets celebrate Short Head Agriculture for growing most of our food, but let’s recognize the economic and food producing potential of Long Tail Agriculture. For a century, we’ce heavily invested in Short Head agricultural strategies to a lot a benefit. But I’d argue that we should resources, time, and money into also supporting the Short Tail.

Made popular in his book, “Black Swan“, author and polymath, Nassim Taleb advocated for a barbell investment strategy that maximizes returns while reducing risk. The strategy involves placing the bulk on ones investment into safe, long-term investments while investing a smaller amount in high-risk but high-reward potential investments.

We might make the case that many small farms is the more resilient approach, but in terms of total volume Short Head Agriculture is the safe investment. But in terms of potential growth, job creation, economic opportunities, and innovation, the risk and reward is in the Long Tail Agriculture.

Would be farmers don’t have the resources or desire to break into Short Head production. But if we could increase access to the Long Tail, we could see a renosaunce in small-scale and local food production.

Dustin Bajer, Growing Food in Edmonton, Donald Ross, Vegetable Mountain. Edmonton Gardening.
Edmontonian Donald Ross displaying some of his vegetables.

A Quick Thank You

I would like to thank Mel Priestley for looking over a rough draft of this post when it was first published in 2017. For more information on Mel, visit her food, wine, and culture website at melpriestley.ca.  Thank you, Mel.