Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Farming for cash

Farmers get their food from the grocery store.

Pulling this from a review of Dimitry Orlov's new book:

Dmitry Orlov’s Excellent New Book
James Howard Kunstler,, 9 June 2013
By contrast in the USA even farmers don’t have kitchen gardens. This is not a myth. I live in an agricultural backwater of upstate New York where dairy farming modeled on industrial agri-biz reigned for decades (it’s in steep decline now) and as a rule the farmers do not grow gardens. They buy balloon bread, Velveeta, and Little Debbie Snack Cakes at the supermarket, just like the insurance adjusters and other office drones, and whatever leftover part of their farm is not planted in corn is occupied by an above-ground pool, or the carcasses of retired all-terrain vehicles, or the miscellaneous plastic crap associated with raising children in a “consumer” culture. When even  farmers don’t grow any of their own food, you can bet that a lot of knowledge has already been lost. American supermarkets operate on a three-day resupply cycle. The system is much more fragile than most Americans probably suppose. My guess is that few even think about it.
This not even all that new.

Farming in Texas 1938 (Dorothea Lange: source)
Here we have one from North Carolina, near Chapel Hill
Sharecroppers 1939 (Dorthea Lange)
It is not a shot you see that often, because usually other issues are being explored, but you will notice in both cases, crops are planted right up to the very edge of the home.  There is no home garden.  In the case of share croppers, this was often "encouraged.".  It forced the farmer to buy his food from the owner, and maximized the cash output of the land.  But in the difficult times of the depression, small landowners often felt they needed the cash, often to pay (pre-deflationary) tax rates.
Farming for cash started very early in North America.  It was noted that King Philips War (1676) kept the New Englanders from being able to sell their food crops to the cash crop (tobacco) growing Virginians.  George Washing was unusual in switching away from cash crops, and going to cereal crops to sell to his fellow Virginians.  But it was a choice he made based on the availability of cash in the system because of tobacco production. So even farmers that were growing subsistence crops in the colonies were in effect part of the cash crop system, and had to look at the opportunity cost of a garden, versus raising more cash crops.  In the Soviet Union (related to the extended quote above) they had large gardens because it was the only portion of their output that the collective farmer was allowed to keep, and it was their major source of additional cash.  Obviously there is a middle ground.  Transportation costs can make the price of shipping food high enough that it may very well be worth while for the farmer to have a garden.  But it is a dangerous assumption to think that our farming forefathers were not involved in the cash economy.


PioneerPreppy said...

There have always been small crop farms mixed in with the cash crop farms. The small crop farms have mostly disappeared during the energy boom and were largely ignored before that.

I have long held that small farms are the next entrepreneurial wave as energy prices rise. For the past few years I have seen local produce begin to become much more economically viable as transportation costs rise.

russell1200 said...

Pioneer: If you go back into the 13th century, your typical field hand in England was for-hire rather than a serf/peasant attached to the land. There were of course, individual land owners who worked their own land, but in general, if you are small enough to work your own land, you are too small to survive through times of drought. Fixed costs give a huge advantage to the larger farms when their are poor crops. They also have an odd effect in that there is a tendency to add workers even after the marginal return (for each worker) starts to drop.

Which is a long way of saying that I think a lot of what we look back on as small farms were likely some form of share cropper or hired hands, with the big exception being in the United States when there was open land to settle, which allowed for all sorts of (historically) unusual practices that did not turn out to be sustainable once the frontier closed.

Except for historical specialists, we don't remember a lot of the big issues of those days. The Carolina Piedmont was full of small holding farmers. Their issues, which included the lack of cash available to the area led to both the Regulator movement, and to North Carolina being slow to ratify the Constitution. North Carolinians did not vote for George Washington on the first go round (nor Rhode Island) because they had not yet accepted the Constitution. It was only after Congress put out a series of 12 amendments (10 of which were accepted by the States) toward the end of the first congress that North Carolina, feeling that good will had been shown, voted in the Constitution with the amendments. North Carolina is a very good indicator of what the small holding farmers were thinking at the time because it was the only state that was dominated by them politically.