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Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Myth of the American Farmer

Image is everything. Whatever image you may have in your head of an American farmer, the too-numerous-to-count agriculture promotional groups most likely planted it there. Thanks to my teenage daughter who is very active with 4H, I have a bumper sticker on my car that says, "I love my farmer," and in her case that is quite true.

Here are some results of a recent poll conducted for the National Corn Growers Association.

A nationwide survey conducted for the National Corn Growers Association found broad public respect and trust for family farmers and support for corn as food, feed and fuel. Ninety-five percent of those polled find farmers to be trusted messengers on issues such as agriculture, corn products and ethanol – and ethanol itself was supported or strongly supported as a good fuel alternative by 65 percent.

Respondents also spoke out about what they saw as the top benefits of corn-based ethanol. Thirty-four percent mentioned reduced dependence on foreign oil [so small it can't be detected], 19 percent mentioned the creation of new jobs [tens of billions in subsidies to give farm states like Nebraska a grand total of 1,000 new jobs] and 16 percent liked it for its environmental benefits [of which it has none].

I'll bet the word "corn" was never put next to the word "ethanol" in that poll. You can also bet that the wording was loaded to get answers they could publish. For example, using the word "family" next to the word farm.

Farmers can't be trusted on food and fuel issues anymore than oil companies can. It is a fact of human nature that the profit motive clouds judgment:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding."--Upton Sinclair

Following is a quote from a Nebraska corn farmer from a recent article in CNN (I don't link to it because it has no comment field):

"The food versus fuel argument is, you know, not my decision," Jeff Shaner told us. "It is the market decision. If in five years the market is telling me to go with switchgrass, we'll go with switchgrass. ... Whether if be corn or soybeans or whatever the case may be, I just hope I am flexible enough to realize it and change what needs to be done in order to be successful."

That's right. He will plant grass instead of food if that's where the money is.

The small family farm is a small business, no more deserving of charity than any other small business. Farmers are businessmen, nothing more, nothing less.

And when the farm lobbyists threaten that your food supply will be in jeopardy if you don't subsidize farmers, understand that your food would cost even less if a lot of these marginally profitable farms were bought out and run by companies that are capable of making a profit.

I doubt that your image of an American farm involves a series of steel buildings filled with cages of chickens laying eggs onto a conveyor belt. That's an egg farm. I recently watched an episode of Dirty Jobs where the film crew visited an egg farmer. The show's host scooped up tons of chicken offal off a concrete floor with a front-loader tractor under the elevated chicken cages while said chickens continued to crap on him. Not real interesting, but dirty.

I also doubt that your image is of a heavy equipment operator. Ever see the documentary called King Corn? As far as I could discern, there is little difference between a corn farmer and any other operator of heavy machinery except farmers drive their machines in a straight line. Check out some of this John Deere equipment that helps them do that.

Here is a short list of adjectives (in the order they appeared in my head) that you can stick in front of the word farmer: organic, tobacco, cotton, wheat, corn, soybean, chicken, pig, egg, and dairy. There are also tree farms but we usually call those people foresters, although a tree farm is not by any stretch of the imagination, a forest. Note that you don't have to actually produce food to be called a farmer nor will your crop necessarily be used for food now that government mandates for biofuels exist.

On the surface, farming sounds like a great way to make a living. Imagine a small business where all you need is some land and a tractor. You have no boss, no office cubicles, no commute, and depending on what kind of farmer you are, you might get to take winters off! Sign me up!

I had two uncles who thought farming sounded like a great lifestyle. Both purchased farms and gave it a go. Both also worked part time jobs to stay fed, and both gave up the farm after a few years. As a child I recall watching a show (that was boring even to a child) called Green Acres. It was a comedy about a city slicker and his socialite wife moving to the country to become farmers. It's a recurring theme that continues to this day as the resurgence of farmer's markets attest. People will forever decide to test the waters of that fantasy that keeps them going as they sit behind that cubicle in the office.

My late next-door neighbor started out in life as a farmer. He was born and raised on a farm that didn't have electricity. One day he broke his back lifting something a little too heavy. He gave it up and moved to the city, like 98% of the rest of us. His name was Farmer Breakfield, seriously.

Small farmers incessantly complain about how little money they make, even though they are some of the biggest subsidy recipients in the country. Razor thin profit margins are a fact of life in market economies. Mature industries drive profit margins down as businesses compete for consumer dollars (if government does its job to bust monopolies). The consumer is king, not the business owner. Book sellers, grocery stores, petroleum blenders, computer retailers, and on and on all have razor thin profits.

Ever watch any of the logger episodes (Swamp Loggers, Ice Loggers, etc) on the Discovery channel? They also operate on razor thin profit margins. The only difference between small book shop owners, or small loggers, and small farmers is the size of their lobbies.

If you want to be your own boss and own your own business in the country, maybe you should just accept the compromises that come with that decision, or move to a city and get a job like just about everyone else does. There is no need to preserve rural communities. American citizens are all free to move to where the jobs are like I did, and most others do.

Life is one giant power struggle. Only politicians have access to the public larder. Only politicians can access that larder to buy votes. Government support of corn ethanol is bribe money to buy farm belt votes.

Farming is a necessary evil to keep us fed. From an environmental perspective few occupations are worse. A corn field is one species away (corn) from being as biologically impoverished as a mall parking lot. The less agriculture we do, the better off this planet is.

[Update 10/7/09]:

Just stumbled on this piece of footage promoted by Growth Force, which is a fitting name for an organization dedicated to forcing corn ethanol onto fellow Americans. You will find a pro football player standing behind a flatbed truck. Wonder why they picked a guy with the name Chad Greenway?

In any case, much of what he says turns out not to be true, which isn't his fault. He didn't write the script. He starts with a statement that sums up why xenophobic rhetoric cajoling us to strive for energy independence via corn ethanol works so well:

"... it's an us against them kind of world ..."

He goes on to tell us why it's a myth that corn ethanol has raised the price of food. The proof offered is a vague reference to a non-existent correlation between dropping corn prices and increasing fuel and food prices. Corn and fuel prices dropped at about the same time, as the 2008 commodities speculation bubble collapsed.

Food price changes (up and down) lag feedstock price changes because they have to draw down already purchased grain stocks. They also move much more slowly than commodities prices. You can't suddenly double the price of your eggs to cover losses from feed prices that tripled. Unless your competitors all did the same thing, at the same time, your eggs would be left to rot in grocery stores. And it's illegal for good reasons (thanks to anti-collusion laws)to get together with your competitors to fix prices. Odd that he didn't mention the Congressional Budget Office report saying that corn ethanol raised the cost of food about $9 billion last year.

He points to a bushel of corn and tells us it can produce "three" gallons (almost) of clean (not true) renewable (not true) ethanol (while pointing at "three five-gallon" containers). He tells us that this bushel (56 pounds) will produce 17 pounds of distillers grains (while pointing at a container that contains about 50 pounds of distillers grain). He concludes by telling us that our home grown energy potential (corn ethanol) is "practically limitless" (also not true).


  1. The farm fantasy has taken on a new dimension:,0,2987190.column

    "..But no reality show or Internet photo gallery can compare with the most unexpected Internet craze in recent memory: FarmVille. Launched on Facebook last June by the video-game developer Zynga, the social game now has nearly 60 million users, making it the most popular game on Facebook and, according to Zynga, the fastest-growing social game of all time.."

  2. Hi Russ, I am so excited to make your virtual acquaintance. I found your blog here by reading a comment you made at Grist.

    I am very concerned about the condition of vegetation around where I live, in New Jersey, and in neighboring states as well. I first noticed the trees were showing symptoms of irreversible decline in the summer of 2008 - this past growing season, annuals and aquatic plants also started to exhibit signs of damage.

    I believe given the universal impacts on all types of foliage, that the composition of the atmosphere must be the reason. Ozone is known to be toxic to species that photosynthesize (and humans) but that has been around for decades. The poisoning I see is so abrupt and widespread though, that I wonder if the recently mandated addition of ethanol is the primary cause.

    It's been really difficult for me to find a government agency, academic, or forester to take this seriously. The extent of denial is amazing to me - it's like pretending the coral reefs aren't bleaching, when they plainly are.

    I would really appreciate it if you would take a look at where I post photos and links to scientific research, and let me know what you think. I'll be reading from your list but if there is any particular information you know of that might be relevant I would be most interested.



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