An unclear picture of what down on the farm means…

July 22, 2009

How are things down on the farm? Well, I don’t know. I don’t live down on the farm. But I ask this because something caught my ear while hearing part of an interview with Willie Nelson who is going to put on another Farm Aid concert.

Willie says the folks are “hurtin’” down on the farm.

The first problem is that “the farm” or “farmers” is a kind of generic term that conjures up some type of bucolic existence with a hay barn, cows and pigs, and maybe some sheep and goats, and chickens running around in the yard, and maybe a garden plot.

But farming in the real world includes everything from giant corporate-run institutions with much heavy equipment and probably no chickens running around in the yard, to large family operations with again a lot of heavy equipment and run much like a corporation, to what I described in the previous paragraph.

And these days some people farm as only a supplement to a regular job or visa versa and some people do it for hobby only.

But I’ll get back to that later.

What caught my ear was that farmers are “hurtin’”.

Just a year or so ago many farmers, such as mid western corn farmers, had hit a bonanza with rising prices due to export demand and the ethanol market.

But the economic downturn has hit nearly everyone, farmers included, and now price projections are not so good in many sectors.

The dairy industry has been hit hard because of the recession and again the drop off of the milk export market, but at the same time rising feed and fertilizer and other production costs.

But farmers are not a homogenous group. There are all kinds of farms and farmers involved in raising all types of crops and animals and there are all kinds of business arrangements.

In addition, a large part of the nation’s farm economy is subsidized in various manners by the government through farm programs usually included in something that is passed from time to time called the omnibus farm bill.

I’m not an expert in all of this but I know that as an example mid western corn farmers take advantage or can take advantage of things such as federally-subsidized crop insurance (get paid if your crop is ruined in a hail storm or something like that), subsidized loans, and price supports. In many cases the government will buy a crop from the farmer if market prices are not high enough.

Nelson’s Farm Aid concert thing began back in the late 1970s. What had happened is that the farm economy in general was flush in the early 70s and the government was urging farmers to plant as much as they could and banks were falling all over themselves to loan money. Farmers did plant all they could and new people or corporations entered the market.

Well, of course that created a surplus, and the market went south, so to speak. A lot of farmers could not pay off their loans and lost their farms.

There is good logic to having government farm programs in that they are supposedly designed to create stability in the production of food and fiber. Farm commodity prices are so volatile that it would be difficult for the average farmer to invest year to year in land and equipment and seed and fertilizer and so forth without some backup that farm programs provide.

Unfortunately there is much abuse, such as so-called farmers who operate out of the skyscrapers of New York and collect vast amounts of farm subsidies.

And on a much smaller scale you run into something like this: Once while working as a farm reporter I attended a meeting of a local Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Committee – local farmers appointed via a federal agency. A farmer submitted a claim for crop damage. He had a field of what is called “volunteer oats”. That is the oats originated from a previously-planted crop and came up again from left over seed. So here is a field he did not plant. The oats came up on their own. But they were subsequently damaged, by rain at the wrong time, or hail or something, I don’t recall. The committee voted to pay his claim out of your federal tax dollars. Maybe there is some logic in that – I did not see it. But that claim was small potatoes when compared to the billions paid in subsidies to corporate farms and many family farmers who have large spreads and quite frankly do not need the help.

Personally, I am a big supporter of what is generically called the farm economy. And I have reason to believe that family farms or owner-operated farms are a more efficient and a better model for our society than corporate farms. Family farmers tend to be more dedicated to their land and are more likely to be conservation oriented. They also actually may operate their farms more efficiently. I had a corporate farm manager tell me once that family farmers have an advantage in decision making. He said he could, for example, eyeball a field and tell when it needs irrigation and how much. But in the corporate structure things such as irrigation schedules are worked out by a committee and have little flexibility and decisions cannot be made on the spot.

Family farmers also have a better chance of being diversified. Corporate farms tend to milk something (cows if they are into dairying) for all it’s worth and then move on.

And diversity is important when it can be done in agriculture. To use a farmy metaphor, putting all your eggs in one basket can lead to trouble.

And that may be part of the problem for the dairy industry. I know that in California, despite that ad campaign that shows happy cows living in pastoral paradise, the average dairy here is more like a factory with thousands of cows and shifts of workers, and the animals lying down in their own waste. In the typical California model milking cows are usually not pastured. They eat at the trough while they are being milked and then go back out into a pen. There are variations in this model.

If dairies were smaller and if the farmers were more diversified, raising other commodities, they might have an option when milk prices declined. As it is many of the big dairies are going out of business, as I understand it, and that even despite government price supports.

But I do not have it out for agriculture. I am a big supporter. When I think back on it, I have made much of my income over the years indirectly and almost directly from agriculture. As a teenager I worked as an irrigator and later I worked for a number of years as a farm reporter and I worked for many years as a truck driver hauling predominantly farm products. And I know it’s important because I eat food and wear clothes. Even if we don’t make much clothing in this country anymore, we still grow a lot of cotton, and do produce some wool.

Agriculture policy is a complex issue. I just have a suspicion that some use the image of the old woman and man and pitch fork, ala American Gothic, as a promotion for help down on the farm. Money is tight. A lot of people need help. I do believe in family farms. But let’s make sure who we are talking about when we support the various farm subsidies and make sure we are helping a good cause and not just serving as a cash cow for a farmer headquartered in a skyscraper in New York.


Interestingly, virtually all nations subsidize their agriculture.