I grew up in the country, seven miles from a paved road. The place I considered my community was roughly the shape of a square, about 6 miles on each side. Near the center of that square, on the southwest corner of a dusty intersection was the Whipple Community Building. It used to be a one-room school house. Pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and a flag without enough stars still hung at the front of the room. The building was owned by Whipple’s Ladies Aid. The women in the community met there to quilt on Wednesdays. Once or twice a year we would go there in the evening for a cake walk or a Christmas party. If all the kids showed up there might be 10 or 12. My next oldest sibling is a brother ten years older. He had gone to school in a one room school house until the sixth grade. That was about 1966. He said there were more children in the country then. It seems that I should have known then that things were changing but I didn’t. I thought the only thing that had changed for fifty years was that people drove cars to the cake walk instead of buggies. Even a grade school kid knows that living in a place like that is valuable. I thought it was something to be proud of. And it is.
Its much different now. No more Whipple’s Ladies Aid or quilting. No cake walks or community Christmas parties — at least not out in the country. The people who live there are different. No farmers. At least they don’t act like farmers. Most of them work in town in manufacturing, teaching or service jobs. Those who consider themselves farmers don’t really farm. They provide labor to operate equipment and feed animals, and they do so as cheaply as possible.
I think that many of them still have the skills of a farmer. They still know how to select appropriate crops and livestock and how to grow food, but these days nobody will pay for those skills. I am sure the land will still produce a variety of food crops, including grains, vegetables, even nuts and fruit, and all types of livestock. But the only things grown there now are wheat and cattle, both of which leave the state before they are processed into food.
This is the result of a fifty years of industrialization implemented through centralized planning, enforced through United States’ Farm Bills. The Farm Bills have been fabulously successful in providing cheap commodities. As a result, we can pay 5 dollars for a box of breakfast cereal that contains only 5 cents of grain. (Its funny, as a kid growing up on a wheat farm I didn’t have any idea there was wheat in breakfast cereal.)
People tell me that this change, this industrialization, was just progress. Because of that progress, I was able to go to college and law school and do something more enjoyable with my life. Instead of providing cheap labor to operate equipment and feed animals, I could be a professional for a multinational agribusiness corporation, a lobbyist for a commodity organization, or perhaps even have a position in the United States Department of Agriculture.
Somehow the idea that leaving the farm was progress didn’t seem right to me. And when I am in rural Oklahoma today something does not seem right there either. Here is what I think is wrong. It is fairly simple and is based on basic neo-classical economics taught in Agricultural Economics 101 in most every land grant university in the country.
Farms and farmers are under valued. My definition of a “farmer” is a person skilled in animal husbandry, agronomy, economics, and business management such that he or she can select appropriate land, plants and animals and manage the naturally variable process of growing things to produce food for a profit. A “farm” is where the naturally variable process of growing things takes place. There was a time — in my family it lasted until about 1965 — when we got our food from farmers.
Through the process of industrialization, “farmers” were replaced with “agricultural producers.” “Agricultural producers” are a bunch of low-skill, low-wage laborers to operate equipment and feed animals, supervisors to make sure the labor is working, and managers to handle the money. Appropriate selection of plants and animals is replaced with genetically engineered plants and animals. “Farms” are replaced by chemical fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides and irrigation so that any plot of sand can be turned into a suitable “growing medium.” “Farms” are also replaced by confined animal feeding facilities in which food animals never touch the ground and never see the sun. This process of industrialized agricultural production is overseen by executives of multinational corporations and government bureaucrats. These “agricultural producers” have laborers, supervisors, managers, executives and bureaucrats, and there is not one “farmer” amongst them.
For the past fifty years, this process of industrialized agriculture has been viewed as the way to feed a hungry world. Today, however, things have changed. Everything is very variable — the climate, the energy markets, food markets, money markets, and labor markets. There is no more cheap labor, cheap energy, cheap commodities, or cheap transportation. Everything on which industrialized agriculture was built has changed.
Industrialized agriculture was premised on standardization — every tomato tasted the same. It might taste like cardboard, but by golly it looked and tasted the same as every other tomato. But now everything is very variable. For industrialized agriculture that is bad. But for a consumers that may be good. If you buy a tomato . . . in season . . . from a farmer . . . it does not taste like cardboard. In fact, a tomato . . . in season . . . from a farmer . . . is so good that the red round thing you buy from a big box store in December does not even deserve to be called a tomato. That, my friends, is the result of the naturally variable process of growing things. That is farming. It seems to me, that right now farmers and farming are very valuable, but they are under-utilized and under-valued.
Okay, this is where the neo-classical economics comes in. If a resource is under-valued, the market will respond and buyers will pay for and employ those resources. If you believe in free market economics, farms and farmers are a wise investment.