When farms become factories
Let me begin this post by admitting that I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. I am not an expert on farming. I’m don’t even have a novice’s level of knowledge about farming. Most of what I know about farming comes from visiting farms as a boy forty years ago. I’ve been reading articles and listening to pundits regarding the latest version of the Farm Bill and it seems that the more I read and study, the dumber I get. And maybe therein lies the problem. All I know is this: the Farm Bill is a great example of what is wrong with our country, and it exposes the fallacy of the entire argument over big and small government.
My mother grew up on a dairy farm in Newton, Iowa. Years later, after she and my father had settled in Chicago and birthed yours truly, we spent many a summer week visiting my grandparents on that farm. It was the Maytag Dairy Farm. They had a huge prize-winning herd of Holstein cattle that produced rich milk. Some of that milk was sold to local dairies, but much of it went into making world renowned Maytag Blue Cheese right there on the farm. As a boy, I loved visiting the farm. It was an entirely different world from the 1970s Chicago suburbs. Here, Mr. Jackson, the local farmer would be up at dawn tending to the herd, plowing a field, or at work in the milking barn.
I’d watch as the cattle slowly marched out to graze in the pasture. Then, later, I’d watch as they came back in to be milked. This was no Amish operation. The milking was automated. They would hook the cows up to a milking system and you could watch all that pure, white liquid flowing through glass tubes to a storage vat by the barn. The barns in the back held even more fascination in the form of John Deere farm equipment and stalls for the calves in the middle barn, and, in the barn in the very back, one or two ornery bulls.
The cheese factory was across the parking lot from the barn. Below the factory were the curing caves where the wheels of cheese could grow those blue, moldy, delicious veins.
My grandfather was not a farmer, per se, but he managed the cheese operation. Way back in the day, he had worked with Fritz Maytag (of the washer/dryer family) on cheese production and on selecting the correct bloodlines at bull auctions for breeding the very best milk-producing herd of cattle. The Maytag Dairy operation actually included a network of local farms to produce the milk. One of my favorite activities was going with my grandfather to visit these farms. The gravel would fly as we sped down narrow country roads that led to these farms, usually consisting of a wonderful house with a wrap-around porch, a few barns, a herd of black and white cattle, and acres and acres of crops and pasture. Each farm had a family name attached to it. You’d see fields of corn and soy beans, but you’d also see alfalfa and clover, too. From what I understand, these crops not only made for great, milk-producing grazing, but they also would replenish the soil with needed nitrogen.
Today, Newton is a very different place. The Maytag appliance factory has long since moved away. First, I believe it was sold off to Whirlpool and moved to someplace like Tennessee. Since then, I think it has moved on to Mexico. The Maytag Dairy Farm is much different, too. Gone is the prize-winning Holstein herd. Now, they just buy their milk elsewhere to make the cheese. The family farms are disappearing, too. Much of the agriculture has been taken over by big multinational corporations. Gone, too, are the crop rotations. Pretty much all farming in the Midwest is corn, with some soy beans thrown in. This mostly goes to make ethanol fuel, sweeteners, and other forms of processed food. In 1900, 42 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms; by 1990 that number had dwindled to less than 2 percent, and yet, there are so many more mouths to feed than in 1900.
Again, I’ve probably got a lot of the details wrong. Undoubtedly, a 4-H student would correct most of this, but I don’t think I would be wrong in saying that the days when farming was a family skill and craft have been replaced by a factory assembly line mentality. Midwestern farms no longer raise fruits and vegetables because those take manpower, finesse, and the right weather conditions. Now, they strictly raise sturdy crops that can be mass produced in great quantities by machine. Why raise clover and alfalfa when you can just put chemical nitrates in the soil and grow more corn? Even cattle is frowned upon because cows require acres of pasture that could be better put to use in producing more corn.
These changes have been legislated by years and years of annual Farm Bills, which decide who gets federal subsidies for growing what. This year’s bill cuts $16 billion from Food Stamp and school lunch programs and uses the money to fund crop subsidies and insurance for the largest farming operations. These large corporations are not hurting, by the way. They make huge profits, which are all the more guaranteed by these tax-payer funded subsidies and insurance. The subsidies get smaller as the farming operations get smaller. Little is available to the traditional family farm.
Here’s what else the Farm Bill says:
- High commodity prices and unlimited insurance subsidies that encourage farmers to plow up millions of acres of wetlands and grasslands to grow crops, but the bill cuts more than $3 billion from programs designed to protect and restore wildlife habitat.
- It includes two riders gutting common-sense rules that protect water quality and wildlife from agricultural pesticides. That’s despite the fact that more than 1,000 lakes and streams are already too polluted by pesticides to meet clean water standards.
- Again, it cuts SNAP (food stamps) by $16 billion (as much as 20 percent of SNAP purchases go to buy fruits and vegetables) and does not include as many incentives to encourage more fruit and vegetable consumption by low-income consumers. What’s more, the bill omits proposals to expand access to fruits and vegetables and takes the “fresh” out of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program for school children.
- A last-minute amendment to prevent states from setting their own standards for farm and food production will do far more than block a California law that requires more humane treatment of egg-laying hens. This proposal will block any state from setting its own standards for how crops and livestock can be produced.
- The bill repeals a program that helps farmers certify that their crops meet organic standards—at a time when demand for organic food is soaring.
But let’s face it. Farm Bills are bor-ing. My God, I tried to read about it and my eyes started glazing over. Even though it affects our basic food supply, lobbyists and legislators on both sides know that the American public neither cares about it nor comprehends its complexity.
Here’s the thing. Forget the conservative argument for small government. There’s no such thing. To listen to them, you’d think that if they win in November, all those D.C. lobbyists will have to pack up shop and go out of business because there will be no more money. That’s not the case. The lobbyists will do fine no matter who wins. That is because it’s not about big and small government. It just a matter of where the money goes. Will it go to government programs for the sick, needy, and hungry, or will it go to Wall Street corporations in the form of subsidies for big campaign donors: Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agra, Big Military, and Big Banks?
Believe me, the tax payers saved no money with this bill. The money just changed destinations and names. Give it to the needy, and it is called a “welfare entitlement.” Give that same money to the well-off in the form of direct grant payments, below-market insurance, direct loans and loan guarantees, trade protection, contracts for unneeded activities, and unjustified special interest loopholes in the tax code, and it is an “economic subsidy.” Potato, potahto.
As the Farm Bill proves, the government money stream will always continue to flow. It’s just a matter of where it ends up and who it helps.
But I morn the fact that the American family farms I grew up with are nearly as fictitious today as those players coming out of the cornfield. (The baseball field still exists. I’ve been there.) “Is this heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa.” The Iowa of my memory.