The Farm Dole

Tuesday, February 12, 2002

...SO?: A friend sent me this Michelle Malkin smackdown of the Environmental Working Group, which I've praised for its farm-dole expose project. The nifty thing, though, is that it doesn't matter if Malkin's points are correct--the EWG has been getting props for its reporting, not its accounting, lobbying, or silly scare campaigns. As far as I know, no one's questioned the farm subsidy numbers. Anyway, just figured I had to note that, in case you hear that EWG has been "debunked" and therefore its farm-dole research is irrelevant. I really can't stand it when people just casually say, "Well, Jones has been debunked," or, "Smith debunked Brown over a year ago," with no attention to what that means and whether the relevant portions of Jones' or Smith's work has actually been addressed.

Monday, February 11, 2002

HOME ECONOMICS: I'm about five pages from the end of Wendell Berry's essay collection Home Economics. I'm still puzzling over some of it, and I doubt I agree with most of what he's saying, but I'll lay two things on your plate right now: an inspiring essay and a dumb solution.

Dumb solution first, because I screwed up the blog-mechanism. Throughout the book, Berry refers to the depredations suffered by farmers at the hands of the "free market"--always in quotes. He gives one paragraph alone to the problems caused by farm subsidies, and even then does not move beyond the true, but insufficient, point that these subsidies have benefited agribusiness at the expense of small farmers.

How Berry sees anything resembling a free market when he looks at farm prices is beyond me, and I suspect this belief that today's American farm operates in some kind of laissez-faire Samiztopia leads him to be much more sympathetic to subsidies and government regulation of farming than he should be. Berry even says, "It may be that the greatest danger to farmers is their inclination to look to the government for help, after the agribusiness corporations and the universities (to which they have already looked) have failed them. In the process, they have forgotten how to look to themselves, to their farms, to their families, to their neighbors, and to their tradition."

But among his other proposed solutions to the steep decline in family farming, Berry proposes a better subsidy. If only I ran the subsidies! you can hear him sigh. Well OK, what's his plan?

"[T]he price of farm products, as they leave the farm, should be on a par with the price of those products that the farmer must buy. ...[W]e must control agricultural production; supply must be adjusted to demand. Obviously this is something that individual farmers, or individual states, cannot do for themselves; it is a job that belongs appropriately to the federal government. ...We have... the right to be small farmers or small businessmen or -women..."

This proposal would require price controls on vast swathes of the economy--especially if we take his inclusion of "small businessmen" seriously: What doesn't some small businessman, somewhere, need to buy? Who will decide whose farms and businesses are too big? How will we make those decisions without evoking the very envy, entitlement mentality, and sense of dependence on the government that Berry abhors? Why should the feds step in to keep farmers farming (which is what they're trying to do anyway, with predictable efficiency), but not to keep doctors doctoring, teachers teaching, tractor-factory workers manufacturing tractors, or my great-grandfather running his first lousy business (oh wait--Berry does want that, since my illustrious forebear was a small businessman, however deadly he might have been to each business he touched)?

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Berry's hostility to the free market has made him cuddle up to the feds. But I don't believe federal subsidies can be made farmer-friendly, and I don't believe that farmers should want what would be, essentially, welfare that worked--a sinecure.

FARMING THAT MAKES SENSE. The inspiring essay is "A Good Farmer of the Old School," in which Berry profiles Lancie Clippinger, a farmer who managed to prosper while his neighbors were going under. Lancie did it by reducing his costs, rather than by increasing his production. Some quotes make the point better than I can: "[W]hat struck me most... was the way he had employed nature and the hogs themselves to his own advantage. ...[I]nstead of harvesting his corn mechanically, hauling it, storing it, grinding it, and hauling it to his shoats, he let the shoats harvest and grind it for themselves." Lancie switched from horses to tractors when his neighbors did, but, unlike them, he switched back: "Part of the justification for the return to the use of horses is economic. When he was doing all his work with tractors, Lancie's fuel bill was $6,000 a year; now it is about $2,000. Since the horses themselves are a profit-making enterprise on this farm, the $4,000 they save on fuel is money in the bank. But the economic reason is not the only one: 'Pleasure,' Lancie says, 'is a big part of it.'" He uses manure from his cattle and horses rather than buying fertilizer--another cost savings. "If you are losing money on the corn you produce, he points out, the more you produce the more you lose."

And Lancie's farm is flexible: "A farmer who has no fences cannot turn hogs in to harvest his corn when prices are low. A farmer who has invested heavily in a farrowing house and all the equipment that goes with it is stuck with that investment. If, for some reason, it ceases to be profitable for him to produce feeder pigs, he still has the farrowing house, which is good for little else, and perhaps a debt on it as well." Lancie, by contrast, can quickly pick up or drop different crops and livestock, "because he has invested in no expensive, specialized equipment."

Berry uses Lancie's example to argue against the "industrial" mindset or model. I don't share his opposition to the modern economy, but the industrial mindset is real, and damaging--it might surprise Berry to learn that Virginia Postrel has also taken up her pen against the notion that the best economic management is top-down, inflexible, vast, and unresponsive to local needs. Postrel's solutions differ greatly from Berry's, unsurprisingly, and so far I (mostly) prefer hers. Nonetheless, "A Good Farmer of the Old School" proposes a common-sense way for farmers to make a good living, rather than scraping along on subsidies and rust.

I'd greatly welcome comments from anyone with experience with this kind of farming, since I hope I've made it clear that I've never farmed and never plan to. (I started this site because my relative's command, "Write about farm prices!", has bothered me ever since she said it. I don't claim expertise of the learned or the lived varieties.) I can be reached at