Friday, August 16, 2013

The death of the small farm

This isn't meant to be a depressing post.  True, the gradual flight from the countryside into cities can be a sad story for those of us who like the countryside better.  But unless we understand how we got to this point, it's going to be hard to see a way back.

It was always my understanding growing up that you simply can't farm anymore, not unless you want to be Amish.  That the modern world has developed to a point that makes it completely inefficient and impractical to farm on any but a massive scale -- and that, of course, you'll never be able to break into.

That isn't true.  There are many reasons why so few of us are farmers (less than 1% of Americans today) but none of them are necessities just because we live in a modern age.  Some developed countries (Japan, for instance) still have an agricultural system based on small farms.


1.  Land grabs
The harshest reality about small farmers is that they are often actively driven off their land.  Either the land is confiscated by the government to give to a large corporation, or the smallholders are pressured into leaving by a variety of methods.  I've been reading about a lot of these in Land Grabbers, by Fred Pearce (which I hope to review in its entirety later).  I think the worst examples were rice farmers having their farms destroyed by large sugar planters in Laos, but there were also examples of African herders being fenced out of new game or wildlife reserves, Indonesians agreeing to a small amount of logging on their community land and having the whole dang forest clear-cut, etc.  In many cases the farmers don't have an official title, especially in former communist countries where all the titles were burned a generation ago.  In others, title is simply ignored, or the farmers are "compensated" by being given a sum of money, an apartment unit, and a job.  In many cases there is no actual choice.

Here in America, that doesn't happen often (that is, since we did it to the Indians), but it does happen here and there.  For instance, if the government needs your land to build a highway, the Constitution gives it the right to seize your land so long as it pays you.  Sometimes land is ruined without being seized, like when fracking residues poison the groundwater or a hog confinement operation moves next door and pollutes your land with manure.  Technically you should be able to sue, but if you're the little guy, it may be cheaper to just move.


2.  Population growth.
As the population gets larger, people are going to gather in cities.  That doesn't mean no one can farm anymore, but the percentage of farmers is going to be a smaller in a very populous nation than an emptier one.  Say there's a thousand acres out there of very good land, which can feed a thousand people.  We could give each of the thousand one acre each, but at that point it would be mostly taken up with houses.  It makes sense to put the houses on less fertile land, and to save the good land for farming.

Or consider a man with a 100-acre farm making a very good living.  He has five sons, so he divides it up into 20-acre farms.  These still make a good living (a small farm can be as profitable as a large one sometimes), but if they each have four sons, each son will have only four acres, and their sons will only get one acre each!

In reality, most people don't have four or five sons each, and often only one or even none of the children actually want to farm.  So haven't seen that kind of subdivision of farms here in America.  In England, where owning land was an enormous status symbol, the problem of second (and third and fourth) sons was a huge issue because no one wanted to divide their estates.


3.  Subsidies.
This is specifically an American problem; I know nothing about agricultural subsidies in other countries.  In short, subsidies were invented to keep farmers from going out of business.  Some time ago, so many farmers were growing corn, and with such amazing yields, that the price was dropping too low and the farmers couldn't sustain themselves.  With such high supply and low demand, the logical thing would be for some of the farmers to stop growing corn and start growing something else.  Instead, farmers were going under.  For awhile the government paid farmers not to produce so much in order to keep the price of corn high; later a system was invented to pay the farmers to keep producing a lot, thus keeping the price artificially low and then making up the difference with a handout.

The subsidy system favors large farmers; the more you farm, the more you get.  It also isn't at all determined by need, so the wealthiest farmers usually claim the biggest subsidies.  And the subsidies are only for selected commodity crops -- corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton being the biggest.

The result is that corn costs almost nothing, and we're glutted with it.  The response has been to find more things to put it in.  So sugar is replaced with high fructose corn syrup, olive oil with soybean oil, and gasoline with ethanol from corn.  (This last is so hugely inefficient that it takes at least a gallon of gas to produce a gallon of ethanol.  But at least it is Creating Jobs.)

Another side effect of the subsidy is to make it unprofitable to be anything but a Midwestern corn farmer.  So it's unprofitable to grow vegetables because you still have to pay taxes, which get paid out in subsidies to your neighbor, who is growing corn.  And the price of American corn is so low that farmers in the Third World and in Mexico can't compete.  Everyone in their countries buys American corn and the local farmers go out of business.  Then the landless farmers go .... to America, of course!  Whereupon we call them illegals and argue over what to do with them.

In short, subsidies are trouble.  What it's taken me a long time to understand is, if they're so bad, why do we have them?  Surely there must be some point to it, or we wouldn't be doing it.

Turns out it's the nature of lobbying.  Think about it.  Only 1% of Americans are farmers--perhaps more in certain areas, but the bulk of votes still come from city voters, who don't care about the Farm Bill.  Your representative probably doesn't care about a few hundred votes from small farmers.  He does, however, very much care about the giant check that a big farmer is willing to write for his campaign, so that he can buy some TV ads for the city folks.  And that's exactly what my congressman, Bob Goodlatte, has done every time the Farm Bill comes up -- shoot down any effort to reduce subsidies, winning some very powerful allies for himself.  Few people know or care about that bit of his voting record, but I do.

At least here is one cause of the decline of small farms that has an obvious free-market solution: end subsidies.  Do it fast, do it slow, but we need to stop paying farmers to grow something nobody wants.


4.  Turning productive activity into consumptive activity
Farming is primarily a productive activity.  You take land and human labor, and you produce goods.  The price of these goods isn't high (and one should hope not, considering everyone has to consume them three times a day), but that's all right as long as overheads are low.

But what happens when the salesman comes along and tries to sell you a mowing machine, a new plow, a tractor, some nitrate fertilizer, special hybrid or GMO seed that has to be bought new every year, or what-have-you?  If you're smart, you wait till you can afford these things.  Most farmers instead thought, "Well, if I buy this new thing on credit, it'll boost my yields so much that I can pay it off in a few years."  That promise usually falls flat.  Nitrogen fertilizer props up yields for a short time, but then they level off when other nutrients in the soil start to be depleted.  Farmers end up adding more and more to maintain their yields.  GMO's that are designed to kill bugs or weeds soon stop being useful as well, as the bugs or weeds develop resistance to the toxins used.  A tractor saves labor, but it won't boost yields unless you buy more land, going further in debt.  And it requires fuel and new parts all the time.  Next thing you know it, farmers are deeply in debt and have to keep buying and buying new things just to keep up yields enough to make their payments.  The more debt you have, the more land you're going to have to farm to break even.  That's why people say small farms aren't profitable.  If you have debt, they aren't.  Just yesterday I read the quip (in Gene Logsdon's All Flesh is Grass), "There will be only two farmers left eventually: one on either side of the Mississippi. One will be Tyson Foods, and the other, Cargill, and eventually one will have to buy the other out because neither will be quite big enough yet to make a profit."

Meanwhile the Amish are getting by just fine on small farms and horse plows.  They don't net much, but their overhead is extremely low.

The end result is that when you buy your week's groceries, it is possible that of your $100, $20 goes to shipping, $50 to processing (like making wheat into the bread and pasta and crackers you actually buy), $20 to the farmer's expenses of fertilizer and tractor parts, and $10 to pay the farmer himself.  So while you can't afford food, the farmer is also barely getting by.


5.  A taste for industrial goods
One thing capitalism does very well is make consumer goods.  After all, there's lots of opportunity to specialize and get all the best materials from all over.  After selling that sort of thing to the city folks, the salesmen headed off into farmland and sold them to farmers too.  At one time there was somethng of a cultural stigma among farmers against using "boughten" stuff.  You wanted to be wearing homespun; you didn't want to be that stuck-up guy in factory cloth.  But that shifted over time until "boughten" things started to be a source of prestige.  Rather than prove your self-sufficiency by appearing in homespun, you wanted to prove your wealth by wearing calico.

You can see this all the time in Laura Ingalls Wilder's books.  Again and again, Pa and Ma fall prey to the lure of glass windows, metal nails, fancy stoves.  And again and again, they try to count the crop that's going to come in soon as money in the bank.  Every single time, it seems, there's a hailstorm or a locust swarm and the whole crop gets eaten up.  Pa and Ma lose everything ... again.  They forgot that farming is a somewhat uncertain business; you may be likely to make it year by year, but you can't count on sure cash income each year like a wage slave can.  You have to make your own things and let the city people call you country people and make fun of your children for being barefoot and wearing outgrown clothes.  There are many blessings to being out in the fresh air with an abundance of healthy food growing outside your front door ... but you can't always have all that and eat white bread, too.

Now the Ingalls do eventually learn, and they finally "make it."  They are able to buy their sewing machine and their organ with cash, and their standard of living improves to what the city people have.  But Laura doesn't seem to have quite caught on.  In The First Four Years, she caves and buys a clock on credit, and (not to spoil the story) that ends up being a bad choice.  I guess people didn't quite realize then -- as often they don't realize now -- that salesmen are sometimes willing to sell you things they know perfectly well you won't be able to pay for.  See also: housing bubble.

To some extent, though, this is changing.  Most people would rather receive a gift of a basket of fresh produce, homemade jam, or home-baked bread than their equivalents from the grocery store.  I brought my cucumbers, in a salad, to a party a few weeks ago and they got lots of praise and a place of honor, because everyone was impressed that I had grown them myself.  Whole-wheat bread, hand-carved furniture, and knit sweaters are in; mass-produced goods, though they still sell well, are seen as not worth very much.

6. A lack of respect for farm life

Together with the last point, we can see that farming is not a respected profession in modern culture.  No one wants to be the bumpkin, the Farmer Hayseed, wearing overalls and never traveling outside the county or going to college.  There's a great deal of prestige in city jobs with large incomes, in college degrees, in city clothing and culture.  However, that's in many ways a false image.  People are just as happy on farms as in the city, and many people who leave for the city find it a disappointment.  Some find themselves in abject poverty, living in slums, unable to find employment.  But once you've sold your farm and spent the proceeds on expensive food and rent, there's no going back.

I get annoyed when people tell me the reason for urbanization is that it must be better in the city, or else people wouldn't go.  There must be jobs in the city, or why would they leave the farm?  But that's ignoring a very loud cultural script that says making it to the big city is success, and staying on the farm is failure.  Everyone in the movies always wants to get off the farm and make something of themselves.  No one ever finds themselves feeling empty in the city and longing to get back to the land in the movies.  But seeing as movies are made by people who left the country (if they ever were there) to go to Hollywood and "make something of themselves."

7.  Lack of knowledge
Last of all, there is a lack of knowledge.  In this country it's particularly rampant, because there isn't a long history here.  There isn't anyone whose family has farmed in the same spot for twenty generations and can tell you what that specific patch of land needs most.  When the pioneers arrived to the Midwest, they just said to themselves, "Virgin soil!  No trees!  Let's plow as many acres as we possibly can and plant them all to corn!"  The whole Midwest was one big cornfield before they realized they were eroding it.  The Dust Bowl is an example of that, and it wiped out thousands of small farms.  That gorgeous topsoil just blew right away because there was nothing holding it.  Other farmers lost their land when they faced unexpected pests, like locusts.

Even in other countries, though, a lack of knowledge destroys farms.  Cry, the Beloved Country has some interesting parts about how the South African farmers were plowing up and down the hills instead of across them, leading the furrows to turn into little rivers when it rained and the soil to wash right down the hill.  You can also read in British and Russian novels about landlords who spent all their time partying in the city while letting untrained hirelings run their farmland to the ground, contrasted with good landlords who took care to share their knowledge with the peasants.  Anna Karenina is a good example.

Farming isn't rocket science, but it's hardly child's play either.  Farming without knowledge can have two outcomes: either you fail your first year out and go back to the city poorer than you set out -- or you get fine yields the first ten years while degrading your soil, and then they start to diminish without your knowing why.  Then not only do you go out of business, but that farm is now no good to anybody else either.


The good news

Not one of these things is a necessary death knell to the small farm.  Not one.  Land grabs and subsidies are the biggest enemies, because it is impossible to opt out of them, but these can be combated politically.  Population growth does put a limit on the number of farmers there are likely to be, but it seems to me that there would be few food-independent countries that couldn't manage to sustain 10% of the population on the land instead of 1%.  That would be a large improvement, and I don't think very many more than that would even want to farm.

The rest are all choices.  You can choose to ignore the cultural script that tells you farm work is drudgery and office work is freedom.  You can choose to farm in a way that avoids expensive inputs (which means it will probably turn out to be organic, though it doesn't have to be labeled as such).  You can choose to produce your own goods and take pride in them, ignoring the temptation to buy a lot of mass-produced goodies to keep up with the Joneses.  And you can choose to stay out of debt.

It's sadly difficult to get into farming in the first place.  Because of regulation, it can be hard to find a market.  But if you manage these things, it is quite likely that you can make it out to farm, if you just want to badly enough.

And if you just want to homestead instead of farming for a profit -- producing as many as possible of your own needs while maintaining a steady income from off the farm -- you can certainly do that.  More people are doing it all the time.  Telecommuting and internet businesses can make that easier.

But don't be deceived: it will take more work than you would be expected to do in the city, and you will end up with less money.  It's up to you to decide if the benefits are worth it.  I'll talk about those (probably, if I don't get carried away arguing about feminism in the combox of my last quick takes post) next time.

ETA:
I forgot two of the most important restraints on small farming!  Neither one is impossible to overcome, but they sure do make it difficult.

The first one is the industrialized food system.  Farmers don't sell direct to the consumer anymore; they sell to the processor.  This means two things: one, since the product is pooled, there is absolutely no advantage to doing things any differently from the next farm over.  If your neighbor is cutting corners, you'd better cut them too, because he is saving money you're not saving, and you're both getting the same price.  And the second is that, since the product is pooled, food safety is a lot harder to come by.

An example is milk.  Bob Little has only 30 cows.  He treats them like family.  They all have names and eat good grass every day.  They get plenty of sunshine and exercise.  His operation is scrupulously sterile.  Joe Big down the road has 30,000 cattle which never see the light of day.  He milks them straight through mastitis, gives them hormones to make them overproduce, and isn't picky about whether they eat grass or surplus candy.  (Yes, in this country we feed cattle surplus candy -- I believe including the wrapper "for fiber."  Not even kidding.)

On the one hand, Bob and Joe can't really compete against each other.  Although Bob's milk is better, it gets mixed together at the plant and so the consumers don't know it's better.  But Joe can produce his milk much more cheaply, and manages to drive down the wholesale price of milk to 25 cents a gallon.  (I know YOU don't get milk at that price!  The producer pockets the difference.)  Bob goes out of business, obviously.  Then when Joe's milk gets contaminated with listeria after pasteurization and by the time it gets recalled, it's already in six states and fourteen people have died.

Is this necessary?  No, not really.  It is more efficient in many ways, so that the industrial food system is able to sell for cheaper.  (Compare the price tag between conventional and organic, or try pricing grassfed milk at the farmers' market if you have it.)  And, because the processors have money to spend on advertising and marketing their product to grocery stores, odds are you don't even know there are alternatives.

Currently there's a vast countercurrent of people buying direct from farmers in order to cut out the middleman.  Prices are still higher because fewer corners are being cut, but demand stays high enough that farmers are actually able to make a living this way.

The second issue I didn't mention before is overregulation.  Of course we want safe food; no one disputes that.  But it seems to me the really unsafe thing is pooling large amounts of food and redistributing it across the country.  If one cow has e. coli and we don't mix meat, that means a few cases of e. coli, all in the same place.  If we mix it, suddenly half the nation's beef supply has e. coli.

But instead we have laws about what dairies are allowed to look like, how many chickens can be in a shed of X size, laws regulating who is allowed to sell what.  Laws against raw milk are an example.  Meat must be inspected, at the producer's expense.  It's no biggie to keep an inspector on the payroll if you are processing a million animals a day, but if you sell a hundred a year, that may end up being a major inconvenience.

Some of these laws are so ridiculously stupid that one wonders why we have them.  Answer: see subsidies, above.  Big Ag has a lot of lobbying power, and you and I do not.

However, there is a law coming up in Virginia next year called the Farm and Food Freedom Act, which basically states that farmers may sell direct to the consumer without following the regulations the industrial food system has to, provided the food is labeled as not having been inspected.  My delegate has said he'll vote for it, and E. W. Jackson, who is running this year for Lieutenant Governor, supports it as well.  If you live in VA, I recommend contacting your delegate and asking him or her to support this bill.

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