Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Marshalls (Alfred and Mary) on farming

In the past I have discussed the theory of the farm explaining why farming is one of the few areas left in the economy still dominated by family businesses. The standard argument as to why this is so is given by Allen and Lueck (1998, 2002).

The is key to understanding why so is that the incentives generated within agriculture favour family farms. The two basic issues are opportunities for hired workers to shirk due to random production shocks from nature and the limits on the gains from specialisation and the timing problems caused by seasonality. The trade-off between effect work incentives and gains from specialisation help determine the costs and benefits of different farm organisational types.

The abstract from Allen and Lueck reads:
Using a model based on a trade-off between moral hazard incentives and gains from specialization, this paper explains why farming has generally not converted from small, family-based firms into large, factory-style corporate firms. Nature is both seasonal and random, and the interplay of these qualities generates moral hazard, limits the gains from specialization, and causes timing problems between stages of production. By identifying conditions in which these forces vary, we derive test able predictions about the choice of organization and the extent of farm integration. To test these predictions we study the historical development of several agricultural industries and analyze data from a sample of over 1,000 farms in British Columbia and Louisiana. In general, seasonality and randomness so limit the benefits of specialization that family farms are optimal, but when farmers are successful in mitigating the effects of seasonality and random shocks to output, farm organizations gravitate toward factory processes and corporate ownership.
Allen and Luecks's paper is relatively recent, 1998, so this all looks modern using new ideas to so with contracting to explain family farms. But is it so? A week or so ago I was reading Alfred and Mary Marshall's “The Economics of Industry” published 1879 when I came across the following on pages 57-58:
§ 11. The largest industry is that of agriculture; but there is scarcely any other industry which is able to make so little use of the advantages of division of labour and of production on a large scale. For agricultural labourers cannot be grouped together in large masses ; they must be scattered over the country. And each season of the year has its special work: a man cannot spend his life in reaping. So that the work of agriculture cannot be broken up into a vast number of parts each of which is performed by a band of labourers who devote their lives to acquiring a special skill in this class of work.

Agriculture, however, seems to be following in the steps of manufacture. Field steam-engines are becoming common, and new machines to be worked by them or by horse power are appearing in rapid succession. The fields demand every day a smaller number of dull labourers and a greater number of intelligent mechanics.

This change is exercising an important influence in the competition between small and large farms. The small farmer cannot always afford to have a field steam-engine; he cannot afford to have a great number of machines for occasional use. Thus every year puts him at a greater disadvantage relatively to the large farmer. This disadvantage is diminished but not removed by the rapid growth of a subsidiary industry, which undertakes steam ploughing threshing, &c. for farmers, The growth of this industry is the most important step towards obtaining the advantages of division of labour that has ever been made by agriculture.

In comparison with a small farmer a large farmer gains something in economy of buildings, and in economy of materials. He is able to have a better rotation of crops; he can send a great many labourers into a field in which there is anything to be done quickly. He can, as a rule, borrow capital from the banks more easily than a small farmer can. Lastly, the large farmer is likely to have more knowledge and greater skill and enterprise than the small farmer, He probably received· a better education at starting; and he can afford to leave to subordinates much work that the small farmer does himself, so that he has more time and opportunity for increasing his knowledge, And as farms change hands from time to time, the ablest farmers are likely to find their way to the largest farms. Thus the economy of skill is carried further under a system of large, than under one of small, farms. On the other hand the large farmer loses in the matter of superintendence. The small farmer works hard himself: he watches for every trifling gain and every small saving: and those who work under him have little opportunity of being idle or dishonest.
Its often said that in the late 1800s-early 1900s the answer to any student's question about economics was "It's all in Marshall". Well it appears it is!

  • Allen, Douglas W. and Dean Lueck (1998). "The Nature of the Farm", Journal of Law and Economics, 41: 343-86.
  • Allen, Douglas W. and Dean Lueck (2002). The Nature of the Farm: Contracts, Risk, and Organization in Agriculture, Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press.

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