No Such Thing As “The American Farmer”



​Whenever I hear a commenter or politician (or sometimes even myself) refer collectively to “The American Farmer,” I know what follows will contain a lot of hot air. There ain’t no such thing as the American farmer. I don’t know how many farmers are out there at the moment but no two of them are the same, even within the same line of commodity production. There are grain farmers (and there’s tons of difference between corn, rice and wheat farmers), dairy farmers, hog farmers, sheep farmers, vegetable farmers of all kinds, irrigation farmers, dryland farmers, organic farmers, chemical farmers, greenhouse farmers, urban farmers, market farmers, horse farmers, fish farmers, cattle farmers, hop farmers, small fruit farmers, orchardists, part time farmers, full time farmers, make-believe farmers, pot farmers and street corner farmers.

​The extreme variation is why it is so difficult to unite them all into one organization. No one has ever been able to do that. They are often in competition with each other and though they’d never admit it out loud, when corn yields are low in Iowa, the corn farmers of Ohio can’t help but be just a tiny little bit gleeful because the corn prices will be up.

​There are scores of farm organizations as a result of the diversity. Farm Bureau, National Farmers Organization, and Farmers Union are three that try to gain members from all walks of farming life. Farm Bureau has traditionally been the organization of choice for the fatter cats and Farmers Union and NFO safe harbor for those struggling to make their next land payments. From Farm Bureau I once got a letter scolding me for what I wrote. From Farmers Union, I got an award. Farm Bureau is by all counts the biggest general farm organization, but ironically, this may backfire one of these days because its policies have for years favored “get big or get out” and now the big farmers are starting to swallow up other big farms which means fewer Farm Bureau members. And the biggest corporate farms like the little artisanal farms don’t have much interest in joining any traditional farm organization. So the Farm Bureau has started a new public relations drive which piously proclaims that it is for all farmers, even (ugh) small, part time, organic ones it has snubbed for years and is even extending a welcome to non-farmers to become friends of farmers. Just one big happy family all of a sudden. I actually think that is a good idea, another sign that the face of farming is changing. I know some astute Farm Bureau members and maybe they will have the good sense to push small scale artisanal farming the way they support that agricultural nightmare, corn ethanol.

​Even within the same category, farmers vary all over the place in personality, life style, and political philosophy. If you are a big-time investor in land and are looking for a good farmer to run your farm empire, you should try to get one of those you just ran out of business by driving up the price of land, if you can find one that doesn’t despise you too much.

​Farmers are generally like most other human beings, and unlike the way farm magazines portray them standing staunch and stalwart our in a field like the Angel Gabriel on judgment day, farmers love to sit around in cafes lying about their corn yields. Some can play a mean game of golf, go crazy at football games, read books, be active on hospital boards, keep peace in the neighborhood and an eye out for thieves almost as effectively as the sheriff deputies can.

​Most thousand- acre- plus farmers tend toward conservatism and vote Republican but don’t take that for granted. One of the biggest farmers (8000 acres and counting) I know is a staunch Democrat. He says he always makes more money when a Democrat is president. On the other hand, a young, part-time farmer I know who is having the time of his life turning a few acres into a calendar perfect picture of the farm of 1950, is a confirmed Republican who thinks farming with chemicals is the best way. Compare him to another farmer in these parts who with his wife makes a living market farming about three acres and who leans philosophically toward Buddhism.

​Most big grain farmers truly believe—really really really are convinced beyond all argument— that they are doing it right with all those acres of corn, wheat, and soybeans, neat and lush and weedless (sometimes), the soil worked to perfect seedbeds, with exactly 33,450 kernels per acre of corn planted per acre (I exaggerate only a little), stretching across the horizon. GMO crops are just fine by them. On the other hand the little micro-farmer with his ten acres of organic, artisanal crops is just as firmly entrenched in the opposite opinion. GMOs are satanic. Those big stretches of perfectly worked soil are to him or her an invitation for erosion gulleys that will swallow cars. I talk to both sides every day and the difference between them I fear is too profound to ever change. Maybe farming is a religion. Everyone knows they are right.


Gene, thank you for response back. I did not realize you had replied to my question on your schedule. I will see when I can make it over to Ohio.


Ken, far as I know right now, I will be at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference ( in February, I have health issues to worry about and can’t say for sure.I am always at the Jandy Farms Garlic Festival outside of Bellefountaine, Ohio in August. If you want to send me a book with return postage to 10785 CH 58, Upper Sandusky, Ohio 43351, I will gladly sign it. Gene

I meant non-legume crops like corn, tomatoes and peppers. Sorry for the typo.

I do believe there is some hope. Some of the sons and daughters of big grain farmers are not convinced they are doing the right thing. They make decisions based on making a living but keep a keen eye out for alternatives. I just spoke with one the other day saying they use to have non-GMO corn and bean markets but they dried up and now use GMO reluctantly. Another mentioned how by mistake they had missed spraying an area of cover crop clover after planting corn and that was the best corn they grew that year with no weeds, just clover between the rows.

Just recently I saw where there is a company based on university research that has developed a microbial product to produce nitrogen in the soil for no legume crops. Wouldn’t that change the face of the Ag market!

To all have a happy and safe new year.

PS: Gene, would you list your schedule of book signings or appearances for 2016. I would love to take the time to go to one of your appearances and meet someone I truly look up to.

That last paragraph (about big grain farmers being totally convinced that what they’re doing is right) has really got me thinking. I know enough big grain farmers (and retired big grain farmers, etc.) to know it’s true, but it seems to defy reason. Is there anything those big grain farmers would object to? Can anyone really believe that every possible profit maximizing shortcut at every turn is always good? The big grain farmers I know best have strong beliefs about their communities, the next generation of farmers, the value of farming communities generally, societal problems that are partly the result of changes in rural communities, etc., but they don’t ever seem to tie any of those beliefs to practical farming choices. Of course, if a farmer is serving regular commodity markets, there are a lot of choices he can’t really make, not if he wants to remain profitable enough to stay in business. Maybe that reality blinds the big grain farmers from even looking at the bigger picture questions related to what kind of seed to use, how to control weeds, how to house or feed livestock, etc., etc. Of course, the organic crowd has huge blindspots, too, but they seem to mostly be of a different sort.

Happy New Year to all

And some farmers are ranchers, although don’t ask me what the difference is:-)

Farmers are just people and thus no two are the same. And it is good.

Farming is beyond religion. We need to eat to live. We do not need to believe to live. .

Have a gentle new year and keep an eye out, in the northern areas, new year’s eve for aurora borealis from the recent CME. Like the full moon on the 25th, Nature puts on a great show.

It seems appropriate that we have so many different types of farmers, because we have so many different types of soils, geography, fertility, slopes, rainfall, etc. The idea of organizing them brings the herding cats notion to mind. Their most common characteristic is being rankly independent. I’m afraid an “American Farmer” is more of a tax status than a single simple group. Things sure are a mess out in rural America, just like the cities and suburbs.
I’m thankful for having an engaging lifestyle centered around the practice of traditional agriculture and restorative, improvement forestry. It is not easy out here as you know Gene. Earl Butz was the get or get out guy and he was wrong for all the reasons Wendell pointed out at the time he said that. Happy New Year Mr. Gene, you’re a friend of the land and all farmer’s, whether they know it or not.

There are even more types of farmers than you mention, Gene, some even think that organic and GMOs are not incompatible, and may even be a blessing in some cases. It’s really more about how genetic engineering is implemented than the technology itself.

There’s a similar split of unions in France, with the FNSEA/JA catering for mostly big conventional farmers, and Confédération Paysanne for the small fry with social and environmental concerns, organic or not. There’s about 5 generalist unions, many more for specific organic or biodynamic or regional quality labels, and of course many professional organizations for each sector of farming, like poultry. I think the unions don’t get representatives in the local (“département”, a subdivision of regions or provinces, not as in usDa) ag committee if they score less than 15% at the elections, so minor unions don’t have a voice in the official ag policy.

Happy New Year in coming!

I thought I knew every town in Ohio – didn’t know Peoli. I agree – well said Gene and Marsha.
I just finished counselling a farmer in western Canada.. He was clawing and scratching to farm more acres to make a living thinking that bigger was the answer to better. I have him farming 1/2 as many acres and nearly double the net income from where he was.
The powerful ag marketing machine has us going down a road that makes everyone rich except for the guys and gals that make it all possible. The folks on the land.
If we don’t change our ways we will all end up as serfs again.


Marsha (aka Homegrown) December 30, 2015 at 9:32 am

So well put, once again, Sir! Farm Bureau here in SE Ohio tripped over themselves to advocate the shale infection we now have. Shame on ’em. I say that on behalf of my great grandparents who sharecropped near Zanesville, bought their first farm (played out and they brought it back) with a mule and a rifle (110 acres), and my Grandad, who also bought a played-out farm and restored it (only 10 acres, he had a full time railroad job, was the head of the crew on that infamous troop train wreck near West Lafayette). What little land he had was sacred to him. My little 7 acre patch in the cradling armpit of a ridge her near Peoli, is sacred to me. American farmer. If they want to help us, they need to leave us alone.

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