The Myth of the Self-Made Yeoman


No figure is more endearing and enduring in agriculture than the lonely plowman out there on the horizon who raises himself by his own bootstraps to financial success. Only problem is, there is no occupation more dependent on the cooperation of society and nature to achieve success than farming.

We like to say that every farmer today feeds 155 people but to do that, he or she needs an army or two of support troops supplying the information, fuel, seed, fertilizers, pesticides, machinery and what have you, not to mention another army getting all that food transported and distributed to the consumer. Even then, we are totally dependent on the weather. Also, although we seldom think about it, maintaining a society where 155 people can afford to buy a farmer’s food output requires the work of the entire population. Even in pioneer times, when a farmer did supply many of his own inputs, he was far from lifting himself by his own bootstraps. He needed a wife to help lift too. Sometimes he wore out more than one of them on his way to “success.” He also often wore out a couple of farms— got rich because he took advantage of the virgin fertility of the soil without replacing it. But even in the best of circumstances, he was not the stalwart capitalist of the backwoods. For example, on the frontier he was inclined on all occasions to beg the government to build more forts and bring more troops to protect him from the “savage red man” whose land he, with plenty of help from the government, was stealing. When I study history, I come away completely baffled over why rural America has made such a righteous religion out of capitalism. Farming has never been a capitalistic enterprise and never can be.

A close acquaintance, very successful in farming by money standards, is much admired locally because “he made it all on his own.” What that means in this context is that he did not inherit much wealth, the usual way farmers get rich. But he will be the first one to tell you that he is not a self-made man, freely admitting with a big grin on his face that he is successful because he learned how to “farm the government” as well as the land. He is one of only a very few large-scale farmers I know well who usually votes the Democratic ticket because, he says, the Democrats almost always pass out more subsidies than the Republicans do. His honesty is so refreshing.I also enjoy the confidence of staunch politically-conservative farmers who are honest enough to admit, at least privately, that they are not self-made men. When one of them realized I was more sympathetic to his situation than he thought, he told me about his adventures in farming with such honest frankness that it left me astonished. He said things no one should tell journalists, but maybe novelists. I will omit the details, but on more than one occasion he and his partners made mistakes of judgment that nearly plunged them into bankruptcy. “All I can say,” he concluded, grinning wryly, “is that without government help, we would have gone under.”

“Self-made” successful farmers are a complicated bunch and that’s why I like them even if I don’t like everything they do. Neither the adulation they receive from conservative Farm Bureau types nor the criticism they get from liberal-progressive Farmer Union types does them justice. They sometimes sound ignorant because, not having gotten much formal education, they murder the English language when they talk. But they can outwit the collected brainpower of the entire Department of Agriculture. Sometimes they use bad grammar as a disguise to lull the suit and tie crowd into thinking they are stupid. As one rich farmer I worked for years ago in Minnesota told me in the broken German-English he used to fool salesmen and government agents: “Alvays let de udder guy t’ink you are dumber dan he is and you got him every time.”

Most historians see the astronaut in his spaceship vainly rocketing across the endless skies as the tragically heroic symbol of the century now passing. But when all the stardust has settled, I have a hunch a more appropriate model will be the industrial farmer in his monster tractor fruitlessly plowing across the endless acres.


The discussion here leaves out the core “farm problem,” that free markets chronically fail for agriculture, on both supply and demand sides, resulting, almost always, in cheap prices. This was fixed in the New Deal (Price Floors & Supply Reductions, also with Steagall Amendment of 1941,) as is always needed. Congress reduced (1953-1995) and ended (1996-2023) these programs. The US the dominant farm exporter of major farm products, has been losing money vs full costs (USDA-ERS) for decades, forcing farmers to subsidize agbiz, including CAFOs. Some capitalism. Farmers need profit, but with price ceilings and reserves on the top side. So “Big Ag” is misleading, as it lumps farmer victims with agbiz exploiters. The subsidy issue is a myth, as the subsidized farmers make less, (including subsidies) than, for example, non subsidized vegetable and fruit farmers, (% of parity, including subsidies). By losing money and then livestock, we then lost grass/alfalfa/clover/oats/barley, parmanent pastures on fragile land & diverse rotations. Survivors have had more and more off farm income, sometimes 20 times more than farm inc., for tax loss farming, (i.e. 4x bigger write-offs per acre if identical farms).

This is a late addition to this post but I am finally getting caught up on my reading. Again I think it comes down to local/regional economies and all of us paying for the true cost of things. As a general rule (there will always be exceptions to the rule) we all tend to be nicer and more honest when we deal with people face to face and have to deal with the consequences daily for our actions and business practices. I also think this would play out in how we treat the land. Just my two cents.

Russ, Bob Evans would surely agree with this quote about capitalism and farming from my acquaintance with him, but that’s not the person who was quoted widely (about ten years ago)on that thought. I’ll give you another hint: that person was the head of a very large agribusiness company, which is why his remark was so surprising.
My next book, “A Sanctuary of Trees” is finished and to the publisher (Chelsea Green) and will be out next year early, not in time for Christmas this year. But love ya for asking and giving me an excuse to mention it. . Gene

I’ll go with Bob Evans. From your writings, he certainly seems to have had the clarity and blunt honesty to have made the statement.
And he was a first rate capitalist and agribusinessman.

As an aside – what is the status on the next book. I’ve got some Christmas shopping coming up.

What a wonderful bunch of comments. I am so edified by ALL of you. Someone should bind these comments up and make them required reading for first year economics students. Not to confuse the issue, but I bet all of you will be surprised at the identity of the person I was almost quoting who first boldly and flatly stated that farming is not about capitalism and never was. I am not going to name that person here because I don’t want to ruin a post I am writing which will appear here week after next. Make a guess. Hint: It is someone you’d least expect, a number one, first rate, American capitalist and agribusinessman. Gene

I went back and reread Gene’s blog, and all the comments, and mellifera synopsized things well. Some of our agribusinessmen are pretty full of themselves. Factory workers must be lazy and pissed their inheritance away.

Thanks for helping people find food, mellifera. There’s a lot of pieces in that puzzle.

They’ll use hoophouses and inversion fans if there is a “program” for it, trust me.

Thank you for saying this!

I work in a university lab in Florida that breeds blueberries varieties specifically for use in Florida. The commercial blueberry industry in Florida exists because the state poured money into the university breeding program for 30-40 years to develop blueberry varieties that could perform well in our weather conditions. (All commercial varieties before the Florida breeding program were from Michigan, Maine or New Jersey– no good for Florida.)

Every so often we go out and visit a grower and see how the berries are working out for them. They’re great guys and all, but many of them are pretty full of themselves about how “I’m hardworking and everything I’ve got I worked for yadda yadda.” Right. There’s no recognition at all that without lots of guv’mint funding, they wouldn’t even have a crop to grow. Yeah, they worked hard. Lots of people work hard. (Single moms. Graduate students. Slaves.) Let’s acknowledge the reasons that all that hard work actually comes out to something, like all the financial investment that the entire country is giving them. If the farmers are making it all on their own, then what am I slaving away in a lab never seeing the sun and trying to raise a daughter on $28K a year for?

A couple winters ago we had lots of cold snaps in the blueberry & strawberry growing areas. The farmers spray water to keep the plants from freezing. They wound up using more water for several days than the entire city of Tampa– not for irrigation, just freeze protection. It dropped the water table precipitously. Sinkholes opened up inside peoples’ houses. When those homeowners took issue with farmers having destroyed their property, the farmers threw a fit about lazy city folks who just don’t “get” agriculture. I guess that’s right. I just don’t “get” why farmers feel like they have a God-given right to use up so much water that they’re literally making holes in the landscape when just using hoophouses or inversion fans would do the job, plus give bird and excess rain protection to boot.

Anyway, my opinion is that yeoman farming is an historical freak of nature. Let’s look at the times where it occurs in human history: after the Black Death, and after clearing all the native Americans off the continent. Hmm. You typically only get yeoman farming after depopulating entire countrysides. I think that’s a pretty good argument that yeomen aren’t exactly self-made. Yeoman farming is a good thing; but we need to recognize that it ain’t natural, both farmers and other citizens, and not take it for granted that it’ll always be around just because.

Interesting how any of Gene’s blogs touching on economics or fiscal subjects generate a huge number of responses. Guess it shows that we are all hurting somehow or other (both financially and socially) and that we all have a deep mistrust of the entities we perceive to be the root cause of it.

As for me, I agree wholeheartedly but I tend to think that the more you get in their faces the more they react and turn nasty. Somehow we have to sneak up behind ’em and kneecap them before they know it! Any ideas?

Any farming and government discussion always comes back to the question of scale doesn’t it!?
I think there’s a lot in what Dave said that bears on what John is thinking…

For instance:
unless you are on the board with a whole lot of leverage, the average joe of us can’t fire the CEO of monsanto or other big businesses…we can try to feel independent from them by not buying their products, but once a business gets big enough it starts affecting all of us whether we buy in or not….
(GMOs, polluted watersheds….and the list goes on and on and on…..)

On another note….
I recently read an interview with Lynn Miller (founder of the Small Farmers Journal, but then I’m sure you guys already knew that!)
When asked what he thinks the solution is…what he thinks the average fellow needs to do towards positive agricultural reform…his answer was:

read a book. a whole book.

In other words, like buggy ridge farms pointed out….our agiculture goes the way of our culture, and the other way around too…..

(So it’s good you have a bookshop for us all, Dave….)

maybe I was replying to Dave? hard to see on this small screen.

Well put Chiara! I could not agree with you more. You basically summed up 80% of our problems in the USA. The other 20% could be address by improving the family structure and having parents be more responsible toward their children’s upbringing.

What a great group of people writing to this blog! I enjoy reading these opinions very much.

Socialism and capitalism are both theories, neither of them will work because of fatal flaws in human nature. Some of us are extremely lazy, others of us are murderers. Most of us need to be protected from those two extremes. That’s why we have governments, and hopefully the governments are elected. Unfortunately, democracy requires an educated, involved public, and for some reason, people tend to chase shiny objects.

I don’t want either the government, or a big business, to run my life. I just want a chance to make a life, pretty much like everyone else: to pit my wits and ambition against others without losing compassion for those others. We need each other.

John, you should worry equally about your bank and your government. There was a day in 1929 when people tried to “fire” their bank. It worked out that their bank WAS their government. In the ’30s they had the Pecora hearings, and came up with something called Glass-Steagall, so businesses couldn’t cause the collapse of our economy. It worked out pretty well. In the late nineties, there was a bill passed by Congress, and signed by Bill Clinton called the Gramm, Leach, Blilie bill, which basically repealed Glass-Steagall: it was going to turn us back into capitalists again. Just like the roaring twenties, we were going to rock the world. I really don’t remember reading about Gramm, Leach, Blilie in the papers back then. If you go back into the newspaper archives, we were obsessing about where Bill’s weenie had been. We tend to chase shiny objects. Small government people like to blame the current financial crisis on Fanny Mae, and Freddie Mac, and Barney Frank, and rampant socialism, but it was really caused by Gramm, Leach, Blilie allowing capitalism to run rampant. Read a book called “The Smartest Guys in the Room”, which is about the collapse of Enron in 2001. Barney Frank didn’t have anything to do with Enron; it was all about creative bookkeeping. Today, if Chase bank (or several other banks) went belly up, we would have to bail them out, or start giving our depressions Roman numerals. Taxes are what you pay to live in a civilized country. Without taxes you’ll be in Yemen or Somalia, and it will be one long depression. Taxes could be more fair, though.

I think the problems are scale and monopolies, not Capitalism per se. My little privately-owned bookstore in a small town with 2 other competing bookstores is capitalism, with a small “c”, as it should be. The government, starting with Reagan, stopped regulating banks through the Glass-Steagall act, and now our democracy is bought and paid for by giant monopolies. If they started enforcing the law again, as Carter did by breaking up Big Phone and as the Supreme Court did by breaking up Big Oil… and if a constitutional amendment was passed taking money out of our election system and rescinding “Corporations Are People”… a huge number of jobs would be created and capitalism would no longer be a threat to us and our natural world. One can hope…

This post was very timely for me. Last Sunday at church, I had some responsibilities that involved the Luke 12 passage that contains the parable of the successful farmer. The one who decided to tear down his old barns and build bigger ones to store his large harvest. The one whose plans seem rather benign if not downright admirable. “I’ve got more than enough. I don’t need anymore. I’m going to enjoy my good fortune.” But he ends up being labeled as foolish because by the next morning his heirs are in charge of the fortune. I have heard that your good friend Mr. Berry has pithily summed up the whole curious story by observing that the land owner made the mistake of planning to be prosperous when he should have planned to be dead. All of that to say that the allure of being considered a “self-made” success is very powerful but it never ends well if physical possessions are confused with true wealth.

What an interesting and insightful group of comments and commentators. You are a master stirrer of the pot Mr. Logsdon.

John…how can you fire the bank that holds your mortgage?

Easy. You open the phone book (or a google search page) and locate 6 or 7 banks in your area (or further away if you prefer but I like to deal locally when I can). Call or email them and explain the situation. They will quote you a deal right over the phone or email in most cases. You pick one you like better than your present situation, drop by to do some paperwork and in less than a week your old bank is history. If all of the other mortgage holders do the same thing (which they should if things are bad enough) the bank fails in about 6 months and goes begging to the taxpayers, where they should be firmly rebuffed (but won’t be….) or, if things go better, the bank you transferred to drops by and buys them out, putting their remaining assets under better management.

It isn’t perfect, perfect isn’t one of the options…

Yes, tea is in order! (and then I’d better go finish harvesting my field corn before the deer do it all for me…)

Okay I’m back.

CAPITALISM: “It is generally defined as the economic system where the means of production are privately owned, operated for profit from investment, and in competitive markets.”

Can we all agree on this Wikipedia definition?

If we can it is pretty easy to see that capitalism is an insufficient and incomplete system for human beings….just based on what human beings are…and what grass is, and wheat, and pigs, and sunshine, and rain, and weather. Try as we may, we must operate within a system which allows each of these to operate within their natures….

Woa. I just used the word “natures” on a blog comment.

three things:

means of production are privately owned

operated for profit

in competitive markets

Are privately owned means of production bad? No.
Is profit bad? Strictly speaking, no.
How about competition? No.

But is an economy based soley on these three things sufficent for human life and responsible stewardship? I would argue not. They do not take into account mankind’s end, his resonsibility towards the dignity of his fellow human beings, and they center the economy on symbolic value rather than real goods…making it more possible for a few to do broad sweeping actions of good or ill…and leaving the rest foundering. (see: current economic situation).

An economy which makes it more usual and more possible to learn and perpetuate the trades which provide one with food shelter and clothing (an agricultural one) seems more intuitive….

In Sum: I would like to see an economy that has more to do with needs than wants….

This reminds me of a visiting lecturer we had at college…
The professor was suggesting that instead of government, all we needed was private insurance companies….
Trouble is the insurance company gives not one damn about the common good.

John…how can you fire the bank that holds your mortgage?

Certainly friendship is not friendship without some mutual good (in the other?) which we are seeking and benefiting from…the idea of exchange, or something for something is not strictly capitalism….

I suppose we all ought to revisit our undergrad and grad classes now…and define capitalism since we are simply circling about its attributes…..

I’m going to go off and brew some tea and think about that……

I find this all very sad and very disappointing. No, I’m not “making it” but I keep trying and I haven’t given up yet. I refuse to follow the path of taking up arms against my neighbors as a way of bridging the gap, or asking someone else to do that for me.

I think there are a lot of misconceptions here about what capitalism is and isn’t, maybe some of them are mine, so part of this is a dispute over definitions. To me, *voluntary* is the crux of the matter. Do I get to make my own decisions, accept my own consequences, and associate with those I choose to associate with, cooperate with those I choose to cooperate with, farm in the way I best understand it? If yes, fine.

Do I get sucked into a soul-less coercion based bureaucracy which has no interest in let alone concern for my interests or the welfare of my land? Am I to be forced into “programs” and taxes? Am I to become a serf on my own land? Am I to pay “enforcement” and “compliance” officers to ensure that my neighbors don’t make their own free choices either?

Count me out.

As it stands I have nearly paid the voluntary debt I incurred with the “evil financiers” of the banking world, and I’m pleased with the transaction which has allowed me the use and benefit of my land for several years prior to having all the money to pay for it. It is debatable whether this is a good way to do things, but I certainly don’t blame them, in fact I’m mildly grateful in a neighborly sort of way, though, of course, they profited too.

On the other hand I will be re-purchasing the property 2 or 3 more times over my lifetime from the state and county in the form of property taxes and while the bank will have nothing to say to my children the county and state will still be here threatening them with confiscation of the land should they not re-purchase it over and over until the end of time. Basically I bought from the previous owner the privilege of renting this land from the government until such time as they decide someone else is more deserving.

Why would I be more concerned about the bank than about the government? Why would I be more concerned about the capitalist who plays fair and gives good value in return than the government which would make me tenant on my own land? Why should I be more worried about a business I can “fire” than about a government I can’t?

Sorry, I’ll stop ranting now…..

Smart woman that wife of yours. Thanks for the book recommendation – looks like a good one.

Bottom up is the only way change will ever be real, but for some reason, we continue to have more faith in the next “great” elected officials and the mainstream media who will create change from the top down and tell us what to do.

What a convenient reason for people to excuse themselves from stressing themselves over learning facts and living in a manner that supports their beliefs; someone else can figure it all out and tell us what to do. Then, we can all be distracted from the reality of our actions by investing our energy into arguing about why it won’t work. Thereby ensuring that business goes on unchallenged by Americans as usual. Literally.

As Americans watch from armchairs, the energy they could be investing in bottom up change will instead be invested into criticizing what’s offered. The next great leaders will never get the details right, changes will never be legislated or implemented and things will carry on as they always have. Our energy will be wasted in complaining and simple actions available to us (like evaluating and changing our purchases to support our beliefs) will remain unconsidered. Meanwhile, our freedom and free will erodes a little more each day without anyone even noticing.

Apparently, people want cheap food and technology more than they want future generations to thrive. It only takes a good distraction to convince us to comply.

I suppose it all depends on what we mean by capitalism… and then this starts to sound like one of my grad-school seminars. Yikes. One thing it definitely requires is competition, though, and competition requires maximizing short-term profit, potentially at the expense of long-term survival. Farming can’t last long that way — not that we haven’t tried it in this country (see: Dust Bowl) — but it can’t survive more than a few generations on those terms. And the inherent risks of farming — the weather does what the weather does — make some kind of cooperation almost mandatory; once that meant a village, now it means insurance companies and the government. But the deeper point, capitalism aside, is that nobody can really go off into the wilderness and succeed in any meaningful way completely unassisted. Even the Swiss Family Robinson had a shipwreck to cull from, and they didn’t have to last all that long. We all need other people. It’s deeply unfortunate (to put it dryly) that we’ve lost sight of ways of helping each other that don’t begin with appeals to the federal government; I’d far rather see cooperation come from the bottom up. But it has to come from somewhere.

Eliot Coleman wrote, “The small organic farm greatly discomforts the corporate/industrial mind because the small organic farm is one of the most relentlessly subversive forces on the planet. Over centuries both the communist and the capitalist systems have tried to destroy small farms because small farmers are a threat to the consolidation of absolute power. Thomas Jefferson said he didn’t think we could have democracy unless at least 20% of the population was self-supporting on small farms so they were independent enough to be able to tell an oppressive government to stuff it. It is very difficult to control people who can create products without purchasing inputs from the system, who can market their products directly thus avoiding the involvement of mercenary middlemen, who can butcher animals and preserve foods without reliance on industrial conglomerates, and who can’t be bullied because they can feed their own faces.”

Gene, have you and Eliot ever met? I think you’d get along great! (And I’d love to me a mouse in the wall during such a meeting…)

“capitalism… basically the idea of private ownership and voluntary trade…”

I used to think that, too, John. But Wikipedia set me straight. You neglected the twin devils of “profit from investment” and “profit from labour.”

Things have gotten way out of hand with the notion that little bits of coloured paper can gather together in bank vaults and somehow multiply. Financial capitalism is a big part of the mix, and is something you left out.

The exploitation of labour is also something that little-c “capitalists” don’t like to mention. If it were just you, Farmer John, buying a new tractor from retained earnings so he could work the back forty, that wouldn’t be too bad. But that’s a form of capitalism that hasn’t really existed for at least 50 years. Now, you borrow for your tractor, and your land, and your seed, and everything else. That’s where financial capitalism rears its ugly head. And if you’re “making it,” you probably employ transient, seasonal labour for as little as you can.

Don’t be so sure you’re out of danger, Charles.

I think it will happen way before 2032.

In fact, the slow-motion train wreck is already in progress, since at least 2008. If you live to be 90, I’ll bet you’ll see most of the good parts happening!

My wife made a good point a while back that relates to this post. My leanings are toward valuing tradition over science or ideology–alot of things sound right or look good on paper, but just don’t work in reality. I’m more impressed by hearing about something that has worked for somebody or, even better, generations of somebodies. Anyway, I was talking about my agricultural ideas for an ideal future for us, retirement as “homesteaders”, just us and about 15 acres. She made the point that I gravitate toward historically proven models. Although my homesteading model was very Americanesque, throughout human history that is not a model that has gotten people through centuries of boom and bust, warming and cooling periods in history, drought, war–so on and so forth. Historically, most people lived in villages.

A very fascinating book, with a fair amount of agricultural history, is LIFE IN A MEDIEVAL VILLAGE by Joseph and Frances Gies–there is also some agricultural history in LIFE IN A MEDIAVAL CITY by the same authors.

I am enjoying the discussions also Beth. We recently gave up a small agribusiness operation to become really small farmers and get back to basics. 100 acres in this area is considered a very small farm. We now farm 20. I no longer go into the FSA office for my annual hand out. We have quadrupled our crop and forage yields to where we can now grow all our own food and feed another 70 families should we wish to become a CSA. Debt is gone. Profits are up much higher than on 100 acres. Life is good and we have much more family time. I agree, farming was never intended to be a money making enterprise. We are preparing for hard times to come. USDA programs have really not worked for the good of everyone and if one watches the news lately, the Dust Bowl has returned.
The number of small farmers have increased dramatically in recent years but as the middle class has gone, so have the middle class of farmers. This is not good as food prices will continue to rise as less are involved in the prodcution of food. I am glad we grow most of ours.

Love these discussions! Seems to me that farms were originally intended to be a way to ensure the survival of a family and perhaps its servants, as a single family could rarely do all the work without help. Engaging in “trade” was considered demeaning and real wealth was recognized to be the land and what it could produce. In that respect, I have to go along with Gene’s comment that farming was never intended to be capitalistic (assuming you define capitalism as a socio-economic system that favors individual rights). On the other hand, farms were never intended to fit the socialistic model either. Farms were about survival, feeding and clothing your family with what you produced or occasionally what you bartered for, and it took more than one individual to make them productive. I suspect, as things go from bad to worse in terms of the economy and the decreasing availability of oil products, that we’ll get back to that original definition…

thetinfoilhatsociety November 2, 2011 at 10:34 am

Chiara you are so right.

The day capitalism, as it is now understood, entered the farming community is the day real farming died. Agribusiness is what now exists for the most part. Farming involves being at boot level – and sometimes eye level – with TRUE wealth – the land. Agribusiness involves large air conditioned vehicles, airplanes, computer programs, subsidies, and debt.

What Chiara eludes to is tenant farming, which was a viable method of farming and small holding in Europe for many hundreds of years, and found its demise beginning as far back as the 1500’s when Henry VIII decided that a cash crop, wool, was more important to his personal wealth and power than his subjects. Of course, there was also that little bit about ‘needing’ a son and lusting after the Church’s wealth. This lust of course was fueled by the sudden influx of gold and silver to the Spanish via the New World; the resulting money unbalanced the power structure of Europe. These factors all interacted together to destroy a system that had been mutually beneficial for both land holders and land users. The end result of loving gold more than people reverberates down the centuries and affects each one of us directly today.

Even in the ‘golden days’ of tenant farming, there was no unbridled capitalism as we know it. Guilds had exclusive rights that were procured via royal decree to produce goods and services; their products were protected by law and they were diligent in making sure guild members had the skills and knowledge required to produce quality goods. They did this in order to maintain that exclusive right, because it protected their livelihood.

It is also worth mentioning that barter was the basic way of conducting business – A sheep herder would receive back so much spun yarn in trade for his wool; the spun yarn could be traded for fabric or goods from yet another merchant; those goods in turn could be used to pay rents or taxes to the landlord. The poor acquired permission to ‘wool gather’ in the fields of the sheep and helped with household chores in return. Money was not, for most of society, the means of trade. Everyone understood that the land was the source of their sustenance and was the source of wealth.

It is the primacy of money over wealth that has been the downfall of our worldwide system. Capitalism, in its strictest sense, simply doesn’t work. One cannot value money over land, livestock, and people without destroying the true wealth –which is the land, livestock, and people. Only when society at large realizes this, and concurrently realizes that wealth requires work, will the disaster we face begin to be mitigated. I do not hold out much hope for that though. Not as long as there are TV’s everywhere.

I suppose honesty is disappointing. We are not a society prone to examining our own truths. I don’t see the spirit here as giving up at all, just acknowledging that what we define as a “capitalistic enterprise” is not truly how we are farming collectively.

I appreciate the attempts to address the nuances of the relationship between conventional farmers, sustainable farmers, the public and the government. It’s a complicated stew and one not easy or simply defined.

If every farmer tried to market their goods directly to niche markets at full price, I can’t even imagine the chaos. Believe me, I’m not being negative, my whole future is riding on the hope that I will be successful in going my own farming way.

While I don’t know that I agree with all the points raised, this essay does raise some interesting points about farmers in society. Older American tracks regarding the yeoman farmer as one of the vanguards of civilization, and civilization and urbanization are in fact not possible without farming, as much as that irritates we farmers. We haven’t always been able to strike a happy balance in that.

Some of the same theorist hold that aboriginal hunters, as opposed to farmers, are really the only independent societies.

“By the way, why can’t we ever sell our land for what the government says its worth?”

At least in some places, you wouldn’t want to. Agricultural lands are often kept at unrealistically low prices for assessment purposes.

Another thought:

Would capitalism sanction working a farm for your entire life while renting and not owning it?
Farming certainly would. By the end of your days, if farmed responsibly, you will have made the land better for the next generation, and imparted to your children and neighbors, and apprentices knowledge and experience that will ever provide them and all those they teach with food, shelter, and clothing…
In other words: what is equity that it has become this God we spend our lives slaving away for at soul sucking jobs in smart sterile cubicles when the sky, the earth, and the sun remain as ever, waiting outside our workplace window?

All I can say is that if it wasn’t for taxes on my land, I could be totally self sufficient. This is the reason I lean a lot towards local republicans.
By the way, why can’t we ever sell our land for what the government says its worth?

“Farming has never been a capitalistic enterprise and never can be.”

John, and others, I think there is a lot in that sentence to be more closely examined…and perhaps Gene can flesh out more of what he means….I think he’s dead to right, although it’s bound to make a lot of us conservatives uncomfortable.

Capitalism is part of the truth (private property, social advancement, etc) but certainly not the whole truth. The market has little to do with justice and a lot to do with profit…Perhaps the problem with capitalism as the be all end all is simply that it proposes profit as a proper end….when it is really, at best, a means….

Farming concerns itself with actual values: so much wheat, so much hay, so many fattened hogs, so many Winter squashes, so many tons of horse manure….capitalism concerns itself with money…which while useful, is never an end in itself, and certainly does not perpetuate itself organically…50 lbs of oats will always do the same for a horse or a human inflation be dammned….we certainly can’t say the same for the dollar bill in our pocket…and if we really want to set a fire, let’s just examine that really hard for a bit!

You could most definately say that in our culture, we chase after money as if it had absolute value…and therein lies so much of our trouble….

Farming decisions often fly in the face of smart money decisions….the whole life itself is intended for sustenanance not “make-it-big-ness”. For instance, right now instead of seeking much needed money from outside work, we are spreading manure out on our new CSA field, which has been conventionally farmed for years and which we are trying to turn into an organic vegetable quilt. We are doing this now not because our bank account allows it, but because the snow will fly soon and now’s the time according to all of nature, our particular field, and the weather.
Two things circle about in my mind though….on the one hand, a farm ought to be able to sustain itself to be a real thing…on the other hand, hell yes the government ought to invest in true stewardship of its lands…and that means some kind of subsidies….
Are we to frown upon the alpine farms of Switzerland because they are all subsidied…as if those greens slopes and those flower boxed chalets are not real because they are not solely self made? The man who is scything his hay and sending it careening down the hillside for his cattle, who works tirelessly all day and falls into his bed at night beautifully exausted, do we call him a loafer? Or perhaps the subsidies wrongly allow traditional agriculture to translate into industrial ag type benefits…in other words if you participate in a traditional agriculture versus an industrial agriculture you have little right to expect cable tv, processed foods, and money for ballet lessons…you’re payment comes in a different coin….
I certainly wouldn’t want to confuse the help of an interconnected rural community with government subsidies…but I do think you don’t want to miss Gene’s tone of irony here…

In sum,
going back to real values (farm products), versus things which signify values (money), any decision made based solely on the removed and remote impetus of money exibits a complete (and un-thorough) loss of faith in the realities we cannot see. That’s living with half a lung.

Subsidies are just one side of the coin; they just supply cash flow money. The real wealth of modern farming comes from the tax structure. That’s why rural people tend to be conservative republicans. I’ve not met a “rags to riches” farmer who hasn’t either inherited a boatload of rags or married one: it’s the most critical decision to be made. Once you accomplish that, the government will take care of you. The largest welfare vehicle in our country is the IRS. If you remember back in the eighties under Reagan’s tax cuts, the largest growth sector in “agribusiness” was in farm management companies: people outside agriculture (doctors, lawyers, accountants) bought land and hired people to hire the farmers. Great way to lose money on paper, and land appreciated, and got taxed as capital gains, and got passed to the children as a “family farm”, tax free to a point.

Not having achieved being born wealthy or marrying well, it has always grated my ass that my taxes were going into the pockets of people who could have bought me on the day they were born. This summer, a baseball fan caught a home run hit by Derek Jeeter; it was Jeeter’s 3,000th hit or something. The fan was a really good person, and gave the ball to Jeeter instead of hawking it for cash. Consequently, the Yankees gave the fan a pair of tickets for the rest of the season, which caused the fan a problem: he had to pay taxes on those tickets’ value, and he hadn’t been born wealthy, and had student loans, and little cash. The irony was the Steinbrenner boys had just inherited the Yankees from their deceased father, a franchise worth hundreds and hundreds of millions dollars, tax free (Bush tax cuts); they probably couldn’t even appreciate the problem they created for the fan. They were rags to riches people. Just like farmers. They ain’t big Warren Buffet fans.

Mr. Logsdon,

I find several of your recent posts so disappointing. This last in particular. I’ve always enjoyed your writing and your attitude as such a great example of hope, ingenuity, independence… but it sounds like you’ve given, or are in the process of, giving up.

Sure, a farmer still needs others; customers, family, suppliers, neighbors, friends but since he can be the first of these in every category he is more independent than those who are dependent upon others for every breath, every sip of water, every bite of food.

Farming has never been a capitalistic enterprise and never can be.

Furthermore, it is a very big leap from the claim that we need voluntary positive interactions with others to the idea that capitalism (basically the idea of private ownership and voluntary trade) is not feasible and that farmers cannot succeed without manipulating the coercive power of the state to force these other people in to assisting them…. and that seems to be what you’re saying of late.

I’m not arguing that history hasn’t had its share of myths, just that you seem to be over reacting. I wouldn’t claim that there has ever been a purely free and capitalistic agriculture, but I think it is clear that we’ve moved a long way from that desirable state. A farm cannot be properly run, nor can the cultural practices surrounding it be maintained, by a collective or a committee. The USDA and the USSR have each given it a try with disastrous results in both cases.

PS – I tore up the front lawn this year Charles to plant to a much larger garden!

You hit the nail on the head Charles! I would also go as far to say that if you get the government out of farming, we will see many more small farmers, local agriculture and communities thrive once again. I worry about my kids and grandkids and the world they are going to inherit. The Dust Bowl is back. I am 57.

When Petroleum, the glue that holds the food chain together at every link, has been eaten away, snaps, then it is every family for itself, not as farmers, but as gardeners. It would be well for us to start early practicing by tearing up the front lawn and planting cabbages and so forth. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor are half effective food growers. When? Somewhere between now and 2032, about a generation.
What me worry? I am 83.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s