Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What is a Farmer?

When we hear the word “farmer”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?  I don’t know about the young but for us older folk it’s probably one of the classic images like Grant Wood’s iconic painting of a stern-faced guy with a pitchfork, or some jolly rubicund character astride a tractor.  Whatever, it’s a man who personally tills the soil, with his sons and maybe a hired hand, on land that he himself owns and probably his father and grandfather did too.

There was a time when this image was accurate.  A farmer was a man who was his own boss, responsible to no-one but himself, who would thrive, or not, as a consequence of his own skill and effort.  Such farmers made America.  Fourteen years after Independence, when our total population was less than four million, farmers made up 90% of the work force.  Half a century on, when Martin van Buren was president, the population had more than quadrupled, but farm families still accounted for more than half of it, and farmers still formed 69% of the work force.  When C20 dawned, the number of farms had swelled to nearly six million, and their average acreage was only 147.  In 1920, the total farm population stood at just over thirty million, an average of only five people per farm--in other words, less than a century ago, the vast majority of farms were still small family affairs.  And it was not until as late as 1935, within my own lifetime, that the number of farms in the United States peaked at nearly 7 million.

I’m not pretending it was utopia.  I’m not discounting what the Communist Manifesto called “the idiocy of rural life” or the narrow-mindedness and disdain for intellectual pursuits that all too often accompanied it (though there are some striking exceptions, like the farmer-poets of Iceland).  But what it meant was that the ship of state was kept steady by the independence and voting power of people who genuinely were free citizens in a free commonwealth.

But after that, the small family farm started a relentless downhill slide.  Today, while nearly 90% of farms are still family-owned, less than a quarter of them produce gross income of more than $50,000 (imagine how much is left when they’ve paid expenses).  Of the total acreage devoted to agriculture in 2012, a mere 10% was divided between 55% of farms, while more than 50% of the acreage was owned by only 10% of farms.  Only about 1% of the U.S. population is now engaged in agriculture.

The economic forces that operate in a capitalist society were, as usual, the cause.  Making big money in farming depends, as in other industries, on specialization and economies of scale.  Back in C19, farmers didn’t specialize.  They couldn’t afford to.  The infrastructure was such that they could sell their produce only within a radius of a few miles, so they had to grow, and/or breed, a little of everything.  You could go to a farm pretty well anywhere in the continental U.S. and it would be growing a range of things, mostly the same things.  Crops were small and diversified.

You can’t blame the GMO/pesticide kind of farming for the present very different state of affairs.  But the GMO/pesticide kind of farming is the inevitable consequence of that state of affairs.  To maximize profits and for economies of scale to kick in, you need monocultures—thousands of acres growing a single crop.  When you utilize acreage in this way, you may be increasing your profitability, but at the same time you’re expanding opportunities for pests, the weeds and insects that thrive best in whatever conditions suit that particular crop.  You inevitably come to depend on pesticides, because if you let the pests get on top of you, they’ll rip through thousands of acres and before you know it you’ll be in bankruptcy court.  The old type farmer might say, “Well my corn took a beating this year, but the cabbages did just fine.”  He didn’t have all his eggs in the same basket.

Trouble is, the more weeds and insects of the same species that you have, the greater the chance that some members of that species will get favorable mutations that give them resistance to whatever pesticide you’re using.  So by using pesticides you’re actually selecting in favor of the resistant weeds—you’re killing off their competition, the majority of the pest species who don’t have resistance.  But what else can you do?  You could go organic, but once you’re committed to a monocultural style, that’s economic suicide.  Seriously, have you ever tried using organic pesticides?  I have, and they just don’t work as well.  

So you up the ante, spray more and more often—all you’re doing is increasing the selective pressure.  You start looking for new and more deadly pesticides.  You’re on a treadmill and it’s very, very hard to get off.   Unless, that is, you’re prepared to change your whole way of life.

It’s easy for a small farmer to turn organic.  Because he’s diversified, he can always make up on the swings what he loses on the roundabouts.   The big monocultural farmer can’t afford to do that.

In our developed world, then, economic forces are the horse and GMOs/pesticides the cart.  But in the rest of the world, it is and will be the reverse, and GMO firms lose any claim they might have thought they had to the high moral ground.

We’ll take a look at how that works in my next post.

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