When an alcoholic spirit is aged in a wood barrel, an interesting process takes place. Because wood is porous, over time a small amount of the liquid inside a barrel will pass through the walls and evaporate. This is an extremely slow, but over the course of years the amount adds up. While more water than alcohol is lost by this process — this is why spirits generally get stronger as they barrel age — some alcohol does make it out, a fact that is causing a bizarre problem around large aging warehouses.
It turns out there’s a type of fungus that preferentially feeds on ethanol, which is just another name for alcohol. When Jack Daniels builds a warehouse and packs it to the rafters with barrels of whiskey, the air that comes out is laced with alcohol, which causes this fungus to grow over everything in the area. It forms a fuzzy black coating over trees, houses, cars, and road signs. There have been lots of stories about this over the years, but here’s an exemplary one from The Times.
The root problem, as I see it, is scale. The sheer number of barrels in a single place mean the surrounding atmosphere for hundreds of yards is saturated with enough alcohol to fuel the growth of whiskey fungus. The incentive to get bigger and bigger is efficiency. It’s better to have as many barrels in one warehouse as possible, and better to have as many warehouses near each other.
This dynamic plays out across agriculture. It’s why there are thirty thousand cow dairies, skyscraper pig farms, and millions of acres planted in a monotony of corn and soy. Putting more of something in one place generally means labor, infrastructure, and machinery can be deployed more efficiently, which in turn lowers costs.
I am not anti-efficiency. Efficient farming is largely responsible for unalloyed goods, such as the fact that famine far less common than it used to be and that an immense variety of human expression and creativity has room to blossom.
What frustrates me is the lack of a limiting principle. In farming, more efficiency always wins out, even if the margin is very small. If a thousand cow dairy farm is 5% more efficient than one with one hundred cows, eventually the one hundred cow dairies will be squeezed out, even though ten one hundred cow dairies would be better for the local agricultural landscape and economy than a single thousand cow dairy. Perhaps smaller warehouses aging fewer barrels would mitigate the worst of the whiskey mold problems, but huge distillers prefer the ease of fewer, larger locations.
I wish there was a way to recognize how wonderful highly productive agriculture is, but to also temper it. While it varies across products, the biggest productivity gains come in the move from subsistence farms to productive small and mid sized farms. Going from those to mega farms does yield some economic benefit, but it is not as pronounced, and it comes at huge costs.
Unfortunately, as long as the economics are on the side of bigger-is-better, I don’t see an obvious way to shift things.