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Messy, Painful, Bloody and Dirty
September 2, 2009 11:32 PM   Subscribe

Critics of modern farming practice have swayed popular opinion in recent years. Now farmers are talking back. Farmer Blake Harris takes critics of farming to task for misrepresenting his trade. Another farmer says it's not so simple.
posted by chrchr (41 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't know. Blake's "just a family farmer" stance flew out the window as soon as I read that his crops are corn and soy.
posted by queensissy at 11:54 PM on September 2, 2009 [5 favorites]


The problem with trying to have a decent debate about agriculture here in Australia - and no doubt it's worse in the US - is the astonishingly entrenched vested interests involved.

Agriculture here has long been at the forefront of both lobbying, corruption, and getting fantastic representation on every issue from government. They really represent "best practice" for lobbying here, and they're very successful.

Of course, this means every time someone wants to talk sensibly about agricultural policy, they must contend with the indomitable howls of a very smooth political machine. Which means ferretting the legitimate arguments from the strong resistance to either minimising profits or abolishing some of the craaaaaaazy market distortions and subsidies currently in place.

Farmers in Australia often cry poor, but it's often not representative, or simply a relative poverty, compared to the glory days of the seventies where they got paid by the government practically for just being farmers.
posted by smoke at 11:58 PM on September 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


Also, I feel compelled to point out the inherent irony of a so-called libertarian organisation like the AIE barracking for one an area with one of the most entrenched government subsidies and market-distorting practices going.

I look forward to their spirited defense of healthcare subsidies.
posted by smoke at 12:07 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


It can work both ways, too, smoke.

I was once at the State conference of the youth wing of one of Australia's [cough] major political Parties where a speaker was making a long, involved speech about the importance of industry protection for Australian farmers and the requirement for subsidy so that they could compete in the global marketplace.

After about fifteen minutes of drone there was a heckler from the back "well why can't the lazy cunts get real jobs?" I've never heard the pro-agribusiness arguments dealt with so succinctly.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 12:20 AM on September 3, 2009


The AEI has got be one of the most intellectually and morally bankrupt think tanks in the country. They under wrote or seemed to influence every failed step and incompetent policy initiative of the Bush White House, with clearly disastrous results. Among the golden nuggets that pour forth from this transparently hypocritical joke of an organization: The Iraq war, Deregulation of the financial sector, TAx cuts for the wealthy, oil companies, Pharma companies so on and so forth. "Cutting-edge" thinking is what come out of this neocon shithole of pompous insecure cowards and chickenhawks and frankly I wish it was leveled to the ground.
posted by Skygazer at 12:54 AM on September 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


Blake's argument seems to be that industrial farming produces more food with less labour than organic farming. I don't think any organic farmers would disagree.
He suggests farrowing crates are OK for sows, because without them some piglets might be crushed by their mothers. So? I think the argument is that the guaranteed cruelty of confining every sow is worse than some piglet deaths.
I don't argue that food prices would rise with organic methods, but there is certainly a middle ground.
For example, I understand using hormones in pigs can result in 20% extra profit through faster growth/reduced total feeding. Great. But why is the hormone pork at the supermarket $3.99 per kilogram and the hormone free organic pork $20 a kilo?
Just because going 100% toward organic ideals might be costly, doesn't mean you can't take some steps to having a more sustainable, lower cruelty operation.
posted by bystander at 1:33 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ohh...and the turkey drowning thing is bullshit.
posted by bystander at 1:35 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


importance of industry protection for Australian farmers and the requirement for subsidy so that they could compete in the global marketplace.

What shit me, at the moment, is the environmental subsidy, for want of a better term, that farmers can get. Drought assistance. There are many areas were people are farming completely marginal land, essentially at the edge of the desert. And the desert's growing. Goyder's Line's moving south. These farmers can be living on drought assistance money for years and years - and, every now and again, a brave soul suggests "Hey, these aren't really arable areas any more, farming just isn't going to work there. How about we buy these chaps a nice house in the city, instead?" They're immediately shot down as being un-Australian - how dare they suggest farmers move off the land, that outback towns be left to die?

In most cases, the towns are dying anyway - it's better to kill them quickly and humanely than watch the low, slow starvation.
posted by Jimbob at 2:09 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


While I don't doubt Blake Harris is a successful farmer, he's a really bad writer, and doesn't have his facts straight. Aside from his telling myths as facts (turkeys drowning in rain? Really?), he just uses words wrongly, such as "nitrogen producing," instead of the proper term "nitrogen fixing," which I think they teach you in middle school, right around the time you take Earth Science or do that token unit on Native Americans.

I'm right on along with him on the notion of genetic modification being a potentially great thing, but a lot of his other analyses of the current situation show little deep thought. For example, fertilizers preventing top-soil erosion seems good and prevents pollution into the river, but the production of the fertilizer and the fertilizer itself impacts the planet just the same.

I do think it's unfair to point a finger at him for being a corn farmer though. He's producing what sells, and he's been told by various interests and informed by technology advances that corn is a sort of wonder plant. It'd be like blaming someone who assembles SUVs for the auto industry, when it's clear the problem really lies with screwed up legislation that incentivizes the wrong production.
posted by explosion at 3:54 AM on September 3, 2009


I'm right on along with him on the notion of genetic modification being a potentially great thing

Yes, it has such a potentional. One can look at the natural genetic modification of grass into corn or the modification of grass that holds its ripe seeds VS dropping them and then the humans selection of those more desired traits over time.

I do think it's unfair to point a finger at him for being a corn farmer though. He's producing what sells,

What "sells" or what, with the government payments, he'll make a profit on?
posted by rough ashlar at 5:40 AM on September 3, 2009


The OP appears to be getting the guy's name wrong: in both the last link and the penultimate link it's "Blake Hurst", not "Blake Harris". And I think the reason to point fingers at him is that his combined family is getting millions of dollars in government subsidies as Tom Philpott said in the last link, not particularly because he's a corn farmer.

Also, I think that Philpott missed one of the big issues, shortages of water. Much of the American South-West, particularly parts of California, that are the most productive farmland were originally desert or near-desert and I think that the situation is similar in Australia.

Everyone keep your fingers crossed that this recent Australian discovery is real and industrially scalable. If it is, it will change the world, especially for desert countries, and maybe help us shrug off some of the effects of global warming. (Much of the original research was done in the U.S., though.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:48 AM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


I don't know. Blake's "just a family farmer" stance flew out the window as soon as I read that his crops are corn and soy.

What kind of crops do you think family farmers grow? And if they change crops, do they cease to be a family, or what?

Also, I think that Philpott missed one of the big issues, shortages of water. Much of the American South-West, particularly parts of California, that are the most productive farmland were originally desert or near-desert

Well, that guy doesn't live in the southwest.
posted by delmoi at 6:45 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


I liked his point about the farmer being seen as a passive non-agent, caught between capitalism and the market. However, wouldn’t it be better to reframe organic innovation as going forward rather than backward in time? It’s not a doctor using a stethoscope rather than an MRI, it’s a doctor using some sort of low-energy yet effective MRIoscope. Or something. IANYD.

Also, queensissy, family farmers grow corn. Corn sells. They’re not evil, you and your meat eat their corn. Yes, we should grow less reliant on corn, but get over it.
posted by Think_Long at 7:03 AM on September 3, 2009


Oh wow:
Let’s have a look—shall we not?—at the Environmental Working Group’s commodity-subsidy database. it’s the black book of right-wing Farm Bureau types. According to his bio, Hurst farms in Atchison County, Mo. EWG informs us that farmers in Atchison drew in a cool $131 million in government commodity payments between 1995 and 2006. That’s good enough for 11th place among Missouri’s 50 counties. Drilling down, we find that Hurst himself took home $242,600 in that period; and three close relations took in $400,000, $388,000, and $347,000, respectively. That’s a cool $1.4 million in U.S. treasury cash for the family over 12 years.
posted by delmoi at 7:04 AM on September 3, 2009


It's not that growing corn makes him not a family farmer, it's that growing corn makes you one of the leading sucklers at the government's tit.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:05 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


That’s a cool $1.4 million in U.S. treasury cash for the family over 12 years.

. . . ahem . . . well, I didn't say it wasn't a wealthy family farm . . .
posted by Think_Long at 7:22 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I read the Blake thing some time ago, and my immediate impression, partway through, was that he hadn't actually read The Omnivore's Dilemma at all, simply because his tone and attitude toward it seem so incredibly inappropriate. I thought TOD was pretty sympathetic to small farmers, taking the time to explain the neat little economic trap they're in; the market leads them to pursue a highly industrialized style of production, which ultimately harms their own collective interests and even re-enforces the trap.

Blake's spends so much space bashing people he perceives as his opposition that he doesn't have space to make an argument, per se, but he seems to believe that industrial farming exists for good reasons and is delivering what the public wants: cheap, consistent food. And I'm sure that's true. But if/when demand for other types of food grows, then he and farmers like him will have good reasons to do things differently, and to deliver something else that the public wants. Why does that prospect make him so angry?
posted by Western Infidels at 7:42 AM on September 3, 2009


Why does that prospect make him so angry?

Because he's getting filthy stinking rich on the current plan.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:45 AM on September 3, 2009


delmoi, I hope you continued reading after that...
Now, hold your howls of outrage. These are corn and soy farmers. They buy tremendous amounts of fertilizers and poisons; they buy pricey GMO seeds from Monsanto; they’re paying huge notes on those combines, which they have to maintain and supply with diesel; and they’re selling their produce into a grain market largely controlled by two companies (Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland) that for most of those years paid them less than the price of production. In other words, your $1.4 million payment to the Hursts didn’t likely stay long in family bank accounts. More likely, it quickly passed into the coffers of Monsanto, John Deere, Mosaic (the fertilizer giant two-thirds owned by Cargill), and other input suppliers. (Of course, in the past couple of years, corn/soy farmers have seen lower subsidies and higher grain prices—borne up by another government program, corn ethanol.)

You see, while their friends at the American Enterprise Institute might mock them as such, it’s not the Hursts who are “welfare queens” here. It’s their agribusiness suppliers and buyers. And we can’t really debate the food system until we acknowledge their massive vested interest in it—and their vast political power, which they’re not shy about using to maintain their income streams.
Attacking farmers for operating in a way that might make a profit doesn't really seem like the way to go about this at all. If you read some of the articles, you'll note the massive influences that play into the delimma. The greater debate is how to make farming both sustainable, profitable, and sufficient for demand. Since farmers to actually have a brain many are looking for ways to operate that are more efficient and environmentally friendly, but they can't afford to loose money either. Do you think that people who are dependant on the weather for a living don't care about climate change?
posted by Feantari at 7:51 AM on September 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


Two very important things that these people don't deal with here:

First, the system is inefficient at its core. Fully 65% of corn grown in the U.S. goes to feed livestock. Meat is much more ecologically expensive to grow as a food source than plants are. (I'm a meat-eater, BTW. I'm just saying these guys' "efficiency" arguments are a little disingenuous.)

Second, they don't seem to have a problem with GM seed hegemony leading to a very dangerous decrease in biodiversity. Sure, Monsanto's newest corn may be the shizzit. It may grow the biggest, best-tasting (?), highest yield out there. But if 80% of the total crop is that cultivar, and that cultivar proves to be susceptible to this year's blight, then we lose most of our food production. (Even Nature uses numbers, not quality, to survive long-term.)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:08 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Blake Hurst's article struck me as a very coherent statement of the widespread farm-industry misconceptions about what organic and sustainable farming is and is not, which have plagued the organic movement for fifty years. I doubt it will move us forward much, since organic advocates will argue against detailed points, and conventional advocates will continue to reiterate that there will never be enough manure and that turkeys drown in the rain, as if somehow it is required that sustainable agriculture be the same thing as old-fashioned agriculture, or that it be done as stupidly as possible.

What's exciting in the sustainable farming movement is not the "back to old times" attitude. There is some of that, and where it crops up it's pretty easily recognized as delusional bunk. What's exciting about it is the premise that by thinking about systems (ecosystems, economic systems, and their interface in a global agronomic system) on a large scale, and also by attending to the smallest details of the soil itself, we could construct an agricultural system that's as productive or more so than the factory system, and that is also sustainable in the long term. This movement desperately needs people like Mr. Hurst shooting down harebrained ideas and suggesting alternatives. The best progress in any of this has always been made by farmers, figuring out what works.

His attitude is one that all of us should share -- that the starting point is conventional agribusiness, and anything that is less productive overall is a non-starter. But on his side, he needs to (and it seems to me like he does) recognize that conventional agriculture is not as good as it could be. It still requires huge fossil fuel inputs. It currently requires herbicides and sometimes pesticides. He makes a great point of having reduced his own use of herbicides, without sacrificing production. So he agrees, although possibly just because herbicides cost money, that reduced herbicide use is in itself a good thing.

Fisheries management is one place both sides of this issue could look for guidance. Alright, not most fisheries management, but I'm thinking of the lobster industry in particular. Nothing really happened until lobstermen themselves decided to protect their own livelihood, by limiting traps and trap efficiency, and strictly protecting breeding females. For years, this stuff was solely enforced by the lobstermen themselves. No government panel or oversight board could have made them do it. Farming will not change for real until farmers begin to agree with the broad goals of sustainable farming, and start to figure out better ways to achieve those goals. And farmers are some of the cleverest and most creative sons of bitches you could ever hope to meet, so when they do, I think they'll get it done.

For those of you who want to move this along -- try to find common ground with people like Mr. Hurst, and that means especially trying to listen to their arguments when they're making sense. A lot of this article makes sense -- it just comes to conclusions that I think are too narrow.
posted by rusty at 8:14 AM on September 3, 2009 [5 favorites]


He suggests farrowing crates are OK for sows, because without them some piglets might be crushed by their mothers. So? I think the argument is that the guaranteed cruelty of confining every sow is worse than some piglet deaths.

Read between the lines. A piglet crushed to death by their mother is a piglet that won't enter the production line. It's lost revenue.

I worked on a local farm for a couple of years. Mostly baling hay and building barns. Met lots of family farmers in the area. I noticed two constants...They always complained about how bad business was, and they always carried bull-choking rolls of cash with them. Not sure what that said about family farming.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:11 AM on September 3, 2009


Factory farming is despicable.
posted by chance at 9:14 AM on September 3, 2009


His constant references to the 1930's and before in his lengthy introduction just showed him to be as misinformed as the businessman he hates on so much; it may be the case that said businessman really was spouting the stoopid parts of the left(we'll never know from such a biased retelling), but Mr. Hurst has clearly been reading too much hippy 70's literature back from when we were just starting to learn how to interface with nature in a modern, scientific way.

Modern organic, sustainable farming and permaculture, et. al. compared to pre-petroleum methods is like comparing horse and buggy to modern automobiles. My methods of farming(small-scale, less than 1 acre) have little to do with how my (great)grandfather would have farmed, and more to do with having learned from the aggregate of many cultures around the globe combined with modern science and a healthy dose of creativity necessitated by the environmental boondoggles we are witnessing at the hands of his "modern" agriculture.

He's even missing the point of these two methods being black or white, because surely they are not. Like much of life, these methods exist on a spectrum, with organics and conventional ag not even being on opposite ends, but rather each being somewhat moderate compared to other outliers and with IPM(Integrated Pest Management) among other methods, bridging the gap between the two.

He does have some salient points, but until Mr. Hurst can construct a rational, informed argument from the start, I think most of us can dismiss him as no better than a man defending his one-sided interests. I buy things made with his crops, I vote with my dollars; my(and the businessman's) opinion matters. Whether overly-cautious or merely supportive of our truly small farmers(think CSAs) we have a say in this.
posted by a_green_man at 9:20 AM on September 3, 2009


Well, that guy doesn't live in the southwest.

Believe me, he and everyone else in North America, and throughout the world, will notice if irrigation has to be severely curtailed on farms in the American Southwest. An enormous amount of the food used domestically in the U.S. and exported, and hence a significant percentage of the world food supply, is produced in that region.

But that was just an example anyways. You must have heard of water rights issues in the past. The Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted and hence wells all over the Midwest are having to be dug deeper and deeper. There's the Georgia-Florida-Alabama water wars. And all that's just in the U. S., there are similar problems all over the world and much worse pollution issues in most places.
posted by XMLicious at 9:29 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Attacking farmers for operating in a way that might make a profit doesn't really seem like the way to go about this at all. If you read some of the articles, you'll note the massive influences that play into the delimma. The greater debate is how to make farming both sustainable, profitable, and sufficient for demand. Since farmers to actually have a brain many are looking for ways to operate that are more efficient and environmentally friendly, but they can't afford to loose money either. Do you think that people who are dependant on the weather for a living don't care about climate change?

How about we throw at the farmers some of the same bromides that are so popular with their political allies? That might be helpful!

"They can't afford to lose money either"

If you can't make money in a business, too bad, you get to go bankrupt like the rest of us. Oh, I see, at that point you like to get some tax payer subsidies, all the while you get to complain about the city welfare queens, who are so often those shifty lazy minorities. Aah, what a fine business. If I owned a printing business, and I was not making money, could I then keep demanding subsidies in ever escalating amounts? I guess not, because that would be socialism, unless of course it's for the farming business, then it's virtuous self-sufficient capitalism generating a righteous profit for the enterprising business owner. Regulation? environmental rules? "Get the government off my back!"... off your back, but putting money into your pocket. Money that comes from taxes often paid by those immoral queers whose rights you'll be happy to vote away. How about instead of using your political power to deny rights to your fellow citizens, you use that power to change corrupt farming industry practices so that you can actually both make money and preserve the environment on which all of us - yes, that includes you - depend.
posted by VikingSword at 11:31 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


They always complained about how bad business was, and they always carried bull-choking rolls of cash with them. Not sure what that said about family farming.

It means that farming is a capital intensive business and a lot of suppliers want cash on the barrelhead. And that cash is often backed with a line of credit at the bank. I just dropped over seven hundred dollars on feed and, until my wife gets paid, I'm filling the gas tank of my truck from the gas cans in the shed and around the yard.

IOW, a large amount of cash on hand doesn't equal profit. It might be what you need to break even or lose less money on greater sums of sunk capital.
posted by stet at 11:41 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


There were so many strawmen in Blake Harris' piece that I had to close the tab out of fear of a grassfire.
posted by lekvar at 11:44 AM on September 3, 2009


Organic farming uses more water per calorie of food produced then industrial methods. Going one day a week without meat or dairy while eating a non-local non-organic diet does more to reduce water and energy usage than eating local and organic seven days a week.
posted by idiopath at 11:48 AM on September 3, 2009


>"Finally, consumers benefit from cheap food. If you think they don’t, just remember the headlines after food prices began increasing in 2007 and 2008, including the study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations announcing that 50 million additional people are now hungry because of increasing food prices. Only “industrial farming” can possibly meet the demands of an increasing population and increased demand for food as a result of growing incomes."

While I agree that consumers benefit from cheap food, the reason why people go hungry is a complex problem with political, social, as well as agricultural facets. It is not simply that the world is not producing enough food, you've also got to look at distribution, storage, war, etc.

That whole idea of organic farming as "going back to the 1930s" is such nonsense. This is a movement for sustainable food, not some roleplaying fetish.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 11:49 AM on September 3, 2009


He pretty much lost me when he said:
Pollan, who seemed to be aware of the nitrogen problem in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma, left nuance behind, as well as the laws of chemistry, in his recommendations.
and then went on to say:
Until we learned to produce nitrogen from natural gas [...] the ability to artificially synthesize nitrogen.

(Emphasis mine)

Chemistry, it seems, is not the farmer's strong point either.
posted by kcds at 12:13 PM on September 3, 2009


If you can't make money in a business, too bad, you get to go bankrupt like the rest of us.

1) IANAF

2) That's exactly the point where subsidies start because it turns out the government wants to have food production in the country.

As I said before, getting pissed at someone because they get government subsidies is not the way to go about fixing the problems. If you are going to do that you have plenty of other people to go get pissed at due to the numerous direct and indirect subsidies out there. Plenty of policy changes need to be made to get things to a sustainable point, and yes that is hard to do against the massive lobbying effort against changes, but to just assume that everyone who gets government subsidies just wants more of the status quo seems a rather narrow view and doesn't really get to the actual problem.

It's probably also not a fair assumption that all farmers will be happy to vote away rights, abuse polital power and what not.
posted by Feantari at 12:17 PM on September 3, 2009


I was using "you" as a general way of referencing farmers, not you - I never assumed you were a farmer. And yes, not all farmers are right-wing rednecks. We can say not all farmers are X - this applies to all groups of people, there are always exceptions. My point however still stands: most rural people and farmers vote conservatively - look at any political map. And if someone doesn't fall into this category, then obviously my remarks don't pertain to them.

Of course there are tons of special interests getting special treatment. "The other guy does it as well" doesn't constitute a pass for the farmers abuses. "Turns out government wants to have food production in this country"? You don't say. That couldn't have anything to do with the very farming lobby wanting it that way? Of course we could cut out the bullshit and do some studies which show how to achieve food security and what it actually takes to do so, and then we may talk about what the government wants and should want. As is, if the goverment policy and "wants" are simply dictated by the farm lobby, then I suggest what the government "wants" is a laughable measure of merit. So yeah, I resent the subsidies - and the existence of other subsidies (which I may also oppose) doesn't make my resentment any less justified. I may have had a more benign view of these, were it not that it's the same assholes who repress the rights of others. If you take subsidies, at least make yourself less odious in other ways - otherwise I want you out of business. You're welcome to be a bigot, but on your own dime.

And don't think for a moment that this resentment cannot translate into some measures down the road, which will bring some much needed reforms for the farmers. Budget deficits and debt levels are only growing. There will come a day, when all subsidies will be examined, otherwise you'll have riots in the street. And farmers are numerically not a very large group, so they'll lose out in a democratic contest, no matter their lobbyists. You'd think they'd be aware of the need to make allies and not enemies. We shall see.
posted by VikingSword at 12:48 PM on September 3, 2009


VikingSword: The historical examples of nations that punished their farmers for political reasons are... not pretty. One of them, at least, is going on right now in Zimbabwe.
posted by rusty at 2:15 PM on September 3, 2009


I don't really care for the way that the second article starts off by 'positioning' the farmer and then the magazine. I don't see how turning the business of providing food into an issue of social identity helps. It's just turning it into a religious issue.

I side with the farmer, though, partly for ideological reasons: I am deeply mistrustful of any middle-class arguments that food prices need to go up or that food production needs to be made less efficient. I think that feeding everybody is the most important concern. It's just way too easy to say that we need to pay more for food when you're already near the top of the heap and it won't make any difference to you.

Manipulating food prices has always been a great way for the middle-class to profit. Nobody at all seems to want to analyse the motives behind the push to return food production to the dark ages and who really benefits. It's certainly not the poor, who are seen as a problem at best, and at worst an actual obstacle to saving the environment. That's not healthy thinking.
posted by chrisgregory at 3:11 PM on September 3, 2009


Drilling down, we find that Hurst himself took home $242,600 in that period; and three close relations took in $400,000, $388,000, and $347,000, respectively. That’s a cool $1.4 million in U.S. treasury cash for the family over 12 years.

Fucking welfare queens.

Do you think that people who are dependant on the weather for a living don't care about climate change?

I can't speak to the situation in the US, but the main farming lobby group in New Zealand spends a lot of its time and quite a bit of money flying climate change deniers and the like into New Zealand, run protests and political campaigns to undermine polluter pays initiatives and the like. So yes, I do think a lot of farmers don't give a flying fuck about climate change.
posted by rodgerd at 3:40 PM on September 3, 2009


An enormous amount of the food used domestically in the U.S. and exported, and hence a significant percentage of the world food supply, is produced in that region.

One problem is that such food production run in marginal areas with massive subsidies drives farmers in more sensibel regions out of business. First world subsidies, protectionism, and food dumping actually destroys farming that is run in more temperate areas that are actually well-suited to cultivation by reason of actually having a rainfall.

VikingSword: The historical examples of nations that punished their farmers for political reasons are... not pretty. One of them, at least, is going on right now in Zimbabwe.

Environentalists: Just like Stalin and Mugabe!

Thank you for your well-thought-out contribution. Perhaps you can run along to call someone Hitler in another thread.
posted by rodgerd at 3:44 PM on September 3, 2009


VikingSword: The historical examples of nations that punished their farmers for political reasons are... not pretty. One of them, at least, is going on right now in Zimbabwe.

I don't see reforms as "punishing". The agri business as it stands today in the U.S. (and much of the world) is simply unsustainable, on almost any level. It is unsustainable environmentally, economically (as a business), fiscally (subsidies) and politically. Change is inevitable, one way or another. What I (and many environmentalists, though I don't want to speak for anyone) are arguing for, is controlled change, so that we can put in place a food production infrastructure that's viable environmentally and economically, rather than change that will be the end result of catastrophe and collapse (the dustbowl of the 30's was a small preview). Now, additionally, there is a political dimension to this, and perhaps I should not have waded in with that aspect as it complicates the discussion immensely, but unfortunately it's all tied up and bound together - agricultural policy and business looks the way it does precisely because of the political power of the farm lobby. That power will have to be broken (democratically), and I'm arguing that fiscal necessity will bring that about. Given that the debt growth is unsustainable, it is a mathematical inevitability that the subsidies will have to be examined, and when push comes to shove, in the context of a democracy, it will be impossible for 2% of the population to keep receiving outlandish subsidies while huge numbers of people's most basic needs are not being met - unless we want a revolution. And with all due respect, Zimbabwe is not a good comparison to the situation here or the EU, Australia and other highly agri-developed nations.
posted by VikingSword at 4:47 PM on September 3, 2009


rogerd: When the rhetoric is eerily identical to Stalin and Mugabe's, don't be all butthurt when someone points it out.

I quote:

I may have had a more benign view of these, were it not that it's the same assholes who repress the rights of others. If you take subsidies, at least make yourself less odious in other ways - otherwise I want you out of business. You're welcome to be a bigot, but on your own dime... There will come a day, when all subsidies will be examined, otherwise you'll have riots in the street. And farmers are numerically not a very large group, so they'll lose out in a democratic contest, no matter their lobbyists. You'd think they'd be aware of the need to make allies and not enemies. We shall see.

We shall see who survives The Purge, comrade!

I'm relieved to note that no one in any position to meddle with our food production policies thinks this way. I agree that the priorities and the ways and means need to change, but not because farmers are conservative, or because they're "welfare queens." That's ignorant when it's applied to the inner city poor, and equally ignorant when applied to working farmers.

-------

VikingSword:

(Thanks for the reply, which is a lot more useful than your Heroic Defender above :-))

The agri business as it stands today in the U.S. (and much of the world) is simply unsustainable, on almost any level. It is unsustainable environmentally

I entirely agree.

...economically (as a business), fiscally (subsidies) and politically.

That's a much harder case to make. Ag is economically sustainable. If subsidies disappeared, food prices would rise, and imports would increase. That's all. Politically, a sudden spike in food prices would be a lot harder to manage than some grumbling on the left about unsustainable farm policies. Subsidies that keep food prices low are not the stuff of rioting in the streets. High food prices are.

...it will be impossible for 2% of the population to keep receiving outlandish subsidies while huge numbers of people's most basic needs are not being met

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Those subsidies simply offset more money the rest of us don't pay for food. If you cut the subsidy, the price rises. In fact, this would hit the poor disproportionately hard, since they have the least financial flexibility and right now don't pay much of the taxes that go to fund the subsidies. Subsidizing grain prices ultimately is me and the rest of the middle and upper classes helping to make food cheaper for the poor. I think our subsidies are helping to make the wrong food cheaper, but that means I think the subsidies should be retargeted, not eliminated. If anything, I'd like to see them increased and greatly broadened.

...agricultural policy and business looks the way it does precisely because of the political power of the farm lobby.

Kind of. But mostly agricultural policy looks the way it does because of Earl Butz, who implemented large changes in American farm policy that mostly dismantled New Deal price supports in favor of production-based subsidies. The idea was to keep prices low and encourage increased production by having the government make up what income farmers needed after selling their crop at a loss. And the political will to do this came precisely from high food prices. If you haven't seen it, the documentary King Corn explains this really well, and actually interviews Butz himself.

We've had three eras of farm policy in the US: unrestrained "invisible hand" capitalism, which ended with the disaster of the Dust Bowl and huge piles of grain rotting while people starved. Then came the New Deal price support policies, which supported the farmer but ultimately led to high food prices. And the current era of subsidy payments per unit of product, which have kept food prices low but have devastated the family farm, the integrated multi-product farm, and most of the money from which ultimately goes to ConAgra, ADM, and Monsanto. There's no simple answer to this, but we ought to at least be trying to come up with some ideas, and I don't see much movement in that direction in Washington so far.

What doesn't have anything to do with any of this is the conservative streak of farmers in general. Farmers are conservative because conservatism works in farming. If something works, you don't change it, even if a change might work better. Farmers look at the risk of losing an entire crop as unbearable, and tend to stick with what they know works. This is, in farming as a whole, a good thing and perfectly understandable. Read Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres and/or The Greenlanders for an excellent insight into the conservative nature of farmers.

If anything, we'd be a hell of a lot better off if we hadn't spent the last half century "modernizing" farms in ways far more radical than the rest of human history's agricultural progress put together. If we'd had some truly die-hard conservatism, we probably wouldn't be up the creek we are now.

That doesn't mean I like the social conservatism, or the Know-Nothing bent of the current American right wing. But it tends to come as a package. We ought to at least be taking advantage of what good there is in everyone's philosophy.
posted by rusty at 8:59 AM on September 4, 2009


Factory farming is despicable.
posted by chance at 12:14 PM on September 3 [+] [!]


It's government subsidized modern day serfdom, is what it looks like to me, with the Feudal landlords being, the banks, ADM, Monsanto, John Deere, Cargill and the High Fructose Corn Syrup food processors (Sodas, Ketchup, snacks, fucking everything...)who put that shit in every effin' processed foodstuff they possibly can. Most corn that is is grown (80 or 90 %, I forget the actual figure, is inedible corn dust and simply the raw material, like sand, or oil or iron ore at the very beginning of an industrialized process. It's amazing and truly awesome the yields that come from this type of corn seed and the attendant fertilizer that needs to be pumped right in to the ground.

I recommend this funny, poetic, bittersweet, wonderful, unshrill, unassuming, quiet little documentary to anyone who wants to see how (sadly) it all works: King Corn (YT trailer). But it just works as great documentary film-making, as well.
posted by Skygazer at 9:34 AM on September 4, 2009


oh d'uh. Rusty in the comment above mine already mentioned King Corn, in regards to Earl Butz, the sec. of Agriculture for Nixon and Ford, who amazingly is still around and gives just a fantastic interview explaining the underpinnings of the policy that he helped implement. If I remember correctly, he's not entirely pleased with the results either, but anyhow it was great and funny (heartwarming even) to see his surprise and admiration (he's in his 80s, and frail) at these two young guys barely out of college, interested in (enough to track him down and ask for an interview) and making a film about farm and agriculture policy in the late 60s / early 70s. You could see in his face that he's not exactly being chased around to give interviews and probably hasn't been for decades. It was cool. MOre of these old government officials should be interviewed in all sorts of areas of American policy implemented in the 60s and 70s and 80s. They're frank and honest and have a great perspective and a wealth of knowledge to share and bring to the table (Fog of War comes to mind in that regard as well.) Anyhoo...
posted by Skygazer at 9:55 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


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