Farming

There is a sentence in my thesis that reads: “The modern food system seemed to be personified in scientists, chemists and biological engineers, rather than in a farmer and his mule.”  One of my advisors commented, “Farmers today have to be commodities traders.”  He was correct of course.

Consider this from this month’s issue of Progressive Farmer magazine: “An Iowa farmer with a 195-bushel APH and an 85% RP policy spent 10 cents per APH bushel to guarantee $4 corn on Sept. 5. That’s equivalent to a strike price of $3.60 on a put, he says.”

Much of the magazine reads like that.

My grandfather subscribed to Progressive Farmer from as far back as I can remember. He would have no idea what to make of sentences like those.

Today industrial scale farmers not only have to deftly trade futures contracts on the commodity exchange, they also have to navigate the complexities of federally subsidized crop insurance and the myriad of federal programs upon which a significant portion of their revenue is dependent.  Those kind of farmers probably spend more time filling out paperwork and meeting with accountants than they do on the tractor.

That’s what farming in America has become.

Advertisements

23 comments on “Farming

  1. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, my Dad was a wise man in every thing that he put his mind around. I will never forget the wisdom he imparted to me in my very young days of farming interest. He told me that farming was very unique business in that a farmer must figure out a way to buy retail, sell whole sale and make a profit. As that pearl of wisdom has had a chance to marinate in my mind over the years I have come to really appreciate the wisdom in that statement. Farming is indeed the biggest gamble with weather, sale price of the harvest, hungry wild life, plant disease, infestation of bugs or worms, and the list could go on and on. The draw to tend the land must be something that’s been implanted into the very fiber of the farmer and passed down through the generations. I feel that draw and am proud to be a product of farming ancestors. From a very young age I remember having a love for the soil and what it could grow. I just didn’t make a choice to practice that love until retirement.

    Have a great APH bushel day.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Buying retail and selling wholesale has been sucking farmers dry too long, in my humble opinion. We have sold wholesale when we had no choice but we try hard to only sell retail. It’s hard enough to make ends meet doing this (sometimes seemingly impossible) without having to pay middlemen too.

      You’re right about the draw of the land. Following it may mean working hard long hours for little or no pay.

      Like

  2. Jeff says:

    Ain’t capitalism great?

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I’m sure the farmer with the mule would regard this as a great improvement over having to just accept whatever the “market” was paying when he showed up with is crop. But still, having to play the futures market in order to make a living as a farmer is something of a paradigm shift.

      Like

      • Jeff says:

        I found your reply to Curt very interesting. You use the word “market” to signify something abstract and disconnected from human enterprise. There was a time, prior to the invention of capitalism, when the market was very much submerged in human relationships. When that was the case, a fair price was paid or the seller paid a social, if not a physical (by being beaten) price. If you’d like to read more about this, pick up a copy of The Great Transformation, by Karl Polanyi. The “market” as an abstract phenomenon, disconnected from human agency, is an invention of capitalism and is one of many differences that the vast majority of people don’t understand when they speak of economics and markets. That is how “capitalism” becomes a good thing – it is very much misunderstood exactly what “capitalism” is.

        Like

  3. I certainly didn’t understand it. Would you describe farm subsidies as a form of corporate welfare, Bill? –Curt

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Yes, broadly speaking. Of course not all subsidies are created equal. There are subsidies that pay or share in the cost of conservation measures that wouldn’t happen in their absence (for example) and there are subsidies that enable and encourage environmental degradation. Subsidies that artificially lower the price of the products of those who are sufficiently well-connected politically to receive them have a crushing effect on their less well-connected competitors, destroying the ability of the market to reward the best producers (as opposed to the best-connected producers).

      Like

  4. bobraxton says:

    Grandfather on my mother’s side (born 1902) had a John Deere (tractor); grandfather on my father’s side (born 1887) farmed with mule and plow.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      When I started working on my grandfather’s farm he had tractors, but used horses whenever he could. He once told me that he felt guilty using a tractor for anything a horse could do. Eventually he switched over to tractors completely. But I have great memories of Champ, the Clydesdale who pulled our sleds to the barn without anyone having to guide him and who 4 of us chaps could ride at the same time (without any saddle, of course.)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. shoreacres says:

    This article isn’t related to directly (if at all) to this post, but it does touch on issues that have been discussed here and elsewhere. I thought it was quite interesting.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Thanks for linking that. It’s all very familiar to me, and profoundly disturbing. I just heard about a study of identical and fraternal twins that concluded that musical skill is almost entirely genetic, rather than a product of practice and hard work. Not long ago I listened to a scientist very convincingly make the case that all we do is determined by chemical reactions in our brains (a cause and effect relationship) and that free will is nothing but an illusion. Now I read this, that convincingly argues that what seemed tome to be an intensely personal reaction to a unique situation is in fact common (if not universal) at my age regardless of the circumstances. At times like this I’m very thankful for quantum mechanics. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. avwalters says:

    If you ant to read about farms, give me Wendel Berry anyday.

    Like

  7. This is the case with many enterprises. The time public school teachers put in extricating themselves from red tape eats into half the instructional (hands-on) time. We have little of the ORgaNiC processes left where franchises, gov’t, and corporations have taken over. The farmer’s tale is a very sad one, indeed.

    Like

  8. valbjerke says:

    Though we started our farm as an enterprise – thinking we could actually make money (as my dad did years ago) we have found it next to impossible and though we still sell some product, we’ve backed off to mainly provide our own food and enough for family.
    Ten years ago – one was allowed to raise, process, and sell ‘gate to plate’ 1200 kg of chicken in a calendar year – with a 30.00 permit. Now we are allowed to raise 250 birds for personal consumption only. ALL farm raised livestock must go through a government inspected facility. The closest poultry abattoir (and just recently open) to us is a two hour drive away – they charge 4.00 per bird to process. Tack that on to a six pound bird we charge 3.50 a pound for…..do the math.
    Ultimately – government interference drives a large part of the agricultural economy underground. A LOT of horse trading goes on around here. 🙂

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I hear you loud and clear. As you probably know, one of Joel Salatin’s books is called Everything I Want to Do is Illegal. To be able to legally sell cuts of our pork we have to load the pigs on a trailer and drive them an hour into another state to be processed at a government-approved slaughterhouse (even though there is a superior one run by a neighbor about 2 miles from me). There are plenty of farmers selling their pork “under the table” and I don’t blame them for it. But its just one more thing making it hard for farmers like us to compete. Because of the cost of processing, we can’t match the price of the factory-raised pork in the grocery stores or the price of the black market sausage.

      Whether we’ll be able to make it economically remains to be seen. One thing is certain–we’ll only be able to survive if consumers look beyond merely price. I’m remaining optimistic, but if we can’t persuade enough people to get their food from farms like ours, rather than from the industrial system, then we’ll just go back to homesteading.

      Like

      • valbjerke says:

        Exactly on the ‘homesteading’ idea. I find it surreal that farmers can be classed as criminals for raising and selling food. And it’s daft that the only thing I’m legally allowed to sell directly to a consumer without a middle man is eggs and produce. I have people begging me for milk. Cheese. Butter. Chicken, turkeys, geese, ducks – anything and everything – they don’t care what it costs. I can get ten dollars a gallon for milk if I dared to sell it.
        We are allowed to sell any livestock direct to a consumer if it leaves the property alive. Under no circumstances are we allowed to help them process it though – we do sell a few goats and sheep live – but I’m pretty particular to who these days. Last year a guy paid me for three goats, no quibbling on the price – but by the time he was done manhandling them into his truck I was sorry I had taken his money. Seems to me it would be a far better end for the animal if we were allowed to at least put it down here. Hard not to get discouraged when following all the ‘rules’.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Ru says:

    Wow its crazy that you guys can’t sell the stuff you farm direct to the public. I grew up in a farming area and even today, you can get produce directly from the farms. The best chicken comes from a local farm and they decapitate the poor thing and even pluck it if you want in record time.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      We’re allowed to sell produce, but not milk or most meats. Selling self-processed chicken is legal, up to 1,000/year. It’s not legal to sell any other cuts of meat unless they’re processed, packaged and labeled at a government-approved facility.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s