Farm  Success Brings Farm Failure


After years of belittling organic farming, some chemical farmers are exploring the possibilities of getting into it. Can’t blame them. Conventional grain is selling around $3.60 a bushel and in some cases even lower because of the glut. Alan Guebert, in his excellent national column, Farm and Food File, suggests there is enough corn and soybeans in the bin right now to last us through next year. At the same time organic grain is selling around $8.00 a bushel and some 40% of it is imported. I was talking recently to John Bobbe,  the executive director of the Organic Farmers Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM) and author of Marketing Organic Grain about all this. “I am getting several calls every week from farmers looking to get into organic grain farming,” he says. “Some are calling it the ‘rush to gold’.”

So we should all be rejoicing at organic farming’s success, right? Afraid not. The worry now is first of all that farmers wanting into the gold rush don’t really appreciate what they will have to do. Almost all organic certification requires specific rotations that include small grains and legumes that have to be marketed too if the operation is going to be profitable. Most conventional farmers don’t want to go that route (which is partly why there is a glut of corn and soybeans right now). As has been the case so often, farmers who try to transition to organic when prices are high don’t have the commitment that it takes and want to go back to conventional when conventional market prices rise.

But even where that is not the case, oversupply in organic markets is definitely a possibility and I heard the concern voiced more than once at the last conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. “Right now, with so much of our grain imported, the concern is not immediate, but it happened a few years ago and could happen again,” says Mr. Bobbe. “I studied under Harold Briemyer, [the famous economist at the University of Missouri], and I remember him saying how farmers have a non-instinct for self-preservation. Because of their independent nature, they invariably fail to do what would help them the most. They would gain far more if they would cooperate with each other in marketing.”

But farmers would rather go it alone. Historically, they always, always, overproduce. Success in producing abundance means failure in selling it at a profitable price. The irony of the situation is that what we hear mostly in the news is how American farmers must produce more to feed the starving millions and, as “sundancer55” replied to last week’s blog, trying to do that is a good way to go broke and we can’t feed the whole world anyway. All this kind of talk about feeding the world only benefits the agribusiness suppliers and leads to surpluses. Historically, farmers have formed cooperatives whose purpose is to keep supply in line with demand. But effective cooperatives rarely last long. The Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association was very effective in keeping lots of member farmers in business by limiting the amount of tobacco they were allowed to grow. But eventually newer farmers decided to take advantage of the good prices the Burley Cooperative achieved and grow more than their allotments. They refused to join and cooperate. That spelled in the end of the cooperative.

OFARM is an attempt to sell organic grain cooperatively. It represents six coops, each with a professional organic grain marketer who is buying and selling every day  and understands how the market operates. So far so good. A study by Iowa State’s Aldo Leopold Center says  that members of these cooperatives are netting 22% to 40% more for their grain than those going it alone.

“It comes down to whether farmers looking to organic for salvation decide to do the right things working with their neighbors or go the route of ‘non-extinct for self preservation’,” says Mr. Bobbe. “If they choose the latter, it will mean big trouble in the future for all organic farmers.”

I am not very hopeful. Humans almost always go for competition rather than cooperation. Someone puts up a stand to sell strawberries along the road. The stand makes money. Soon stands blossom all up and down the road and none of them make any money.  A publisher comes out with a book on how to grow strawberries and it sells very well. Soon every publisher from here to the nearest black hole comes out with a similar book, none of which are profitable. It is an impossible situation because everyone should be free to grow whatever they please. The consumer is supposed to benefit but that results in a nation grossly overweight.


@ makedoanmend: I agree, we’ve been doing this “farming thing” for a while now, all right, but when it is turned into something other than just farming (by corporate ag) we don’t have the same results. We are being lied to on a grand scale, and in more ways than one, of course, but this will give you some idea of what I’m talking about.

The farm to table fable, is what I call it! Be sure to go all the way to the bottom of that article and then click on the link which says “For more, read Reiley’s Farm to Fable series”. It’s startling but excellent reading. It’s more about where we’re going than where we’ve been, and it’s not a nice clipshot.

There is a few research centers that use flies but i think they might grow their own but i’m sure a contract deal with one might get your foot in the door

Well the reason that isn’t the case is a lot of folks involved in agriculture would rather plant a crop that doesn’t break fences, get into bogs or neighbor’s gardens or die for any old reason at all, unlike livestock. The folks that do enjoy doing such work with livestock, aka, “cowboys or cowgirls” traditionally don’t get paid all that well.

Yes I know what you mean, my excess free-range pastured chickens definitely taste differently from store bought chickens. Cooking them is another story; I’m trying whatever cooking methods I can other than low and slow confit or moist heat which usually ends up as chicken- vegetable soup to prepare my excess free-range roosters for human consumption. They are delicious but are, in my experience, uncompromisingly teeth breaking tough if prepared like a store bought fryer chicken. If I could find enough customers actually willing and able to pay $40 for such a bird I’d probably be able to become debt free in short order. However, when all expenses including: purchased feed, my time and effort and the loss of sleep while patrolling for predators are considered,that is actually a fair price, in my opinion.

Maybe its time to stop supporting farms and farm produce, or the farming industry. Maybe its time to support farmers. Actual farmers who work the land and, given half a chance, will allow nature to blossom whenever and where ever it can. People who love what they do. Some don’t call their life’s work in such shallow terms as a job or an investment. Farming used to be a way of life. Hard, often cruel but somewhat satisfying at times – especially when community was a way of life also.

No, do not give a nation’s money to land owners. (And it is a nation’s currency, not a government’s currency. Governments come and go, the people aka the nation control their democracy which is supposed to control their legisilators which manages the currency on behalf of the nation – in theory.)

A competent, hard working farmer shouldn’t lose her or his livelihood because of temperorary market conditions. It really ain’t rocket science. We’ve been doing this farming thing for awile now.


Is it really all that hard to support the people who feed us? We support them by buying their produce, but sometimes nature doesn’t play by market rules. All markets can be manipulated. A simple national sinking fund to level nature’s and financiar’s whims can help. When not needed, the farmers do not use it.

Cut the complexity. Cut the gravy. I believe a rather famous American once said something along of these lines: We all hang together, or we hang seperately.

Cooperation ain’t perfect because humans are perfect. Anyway perfect, if possible, would be rather boring. However, a bit of security for us working folk wouldn’t go amiss these days. I can live poor. I can’t live stressed and processed.

Gary Burnett, the subsidy checks are the tip of the iceberg. Another instrument of cash delivery is the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, which hands out cash to install green water ways and filter strips to correct issues the farmers caused tearing out fence rows and woods, and tearing up the ground in the fall, and of course the new manure handling systems for the factory farms. The artificially high prices of grains caused the loss of soil, plus the over application of fertilizers, so we get the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, and our freshwater lakes are slime ponds of toxic algae. The new buzzwords from the S&WCD is ‘cover crops’, to stabilize the nutrients in the soil. Last summer, the lake where I live had it’s beach closed because of e coli and toxic algae, which somehow mysteriously appeared after heavy rains. The lake’s natural water source is spring water, and it’s famous for having some of the cleanest water in Ohio. I noticed this week a posting at the lake informing people that an algaecide had been applied to the lake, because March had been unusually warm, and last year’s algae had reappeared. I’m sarcastic enough to wonder who paid for the algaecide: the ODNR, or the Soil and Water Conservation District. There is literally a sacred cow in play here.

@ CJ: I think the requirement is that it takes from 5-7 years for the soil to “come back to life” and be considered free of toxins. Don’t remember where I read that for sure but there is likely information online about all of those questions. Of course, this doesn’t happen by itself, the farmer has to “work” the land to restore it by adding things like azomite, nitrogen and various other minerals to bring it back to fruition.

Dr. Don Huber has some excellent information regarding plants, and I’m sure he delves into soil restoration, too.

@ James M. Thomas: The reason the average Joe thinks grass-fed beef is “tough beef” is because they don’t have the first clue how to prepare it. It’s a totally different thing than pampered, store-bought, injected with God knows what beef. There are many cookbooks available (and probably a few online cooks) who can tell you that it is not the meat, it’s the preparation. It’s all about knowing what you’re doing.

I find the same issue with pastured chickens, if and when I can find them, which is very rare without paying $40 for a medium sized chicken, which I refuse to do – so we go without. But when I can find them, they require different cooking methods and times, just like pastured beef.

I grew up on pasture raised beef and know that what I’ve said is absolutely true.

@CJ There is a process conventional farmers go through to get the “organic” stamp by the usda. In most cases it takes 3 years of “not spraying” etc. before you can label or market your products as “organic.” Which leads me to think that if a conventional farmer wants to switch, it would surely take some dedication. This is because those three years will be brutal to the farmer’s bottom line. During that time, they will be growing organically without the inputs needed for dead soil. The problem is that those grains will not bring the premium “organic” price. Less yield, low prices. And who knows what could happen to commodity prices in 3 years.

1st time to comment! Love the blog!

I’m wondering if it is even possible for chemical farmers to switch to organic farming on the same land. Wouldn’t their soil be contaminated from their past crops? Just because they don’t spray chemicals on the current crop, is it still considered organic if the soil is filled with chemicals?

Steve, your question is very penetrating and I agree with what you are suggesting. I think for an economy to function it must be partly capitalistic and partly socialistic, which it certainly is in America. The irony is that the richest parties use socialism to get even richer and then proclaim that capitalism is the only economic approach that works. Gene

Tom, thanks for the correction. Gene

Grain farming at least for the larger farmers is support by the USDA its about as much a
Socialist system as can be found.The myth of the ‘independent farmer against the elements’
is still promoted but its a lie.Check out EWG’s website for all the money these ‘independent’ folks are getting from the Taxpayers.

Your historic reference to the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association is incorrect. It failed in the 1920s when non-member farmers expanded production at the inducement of buying interests. It remained dormant until 1941 when the New Deal USDA revised the program and put in production controls which the original coop did not have. The Burley coop failed in recent years because of the import of Burley raised in third-world countries on farms developed by American cigarette manufacturers.

Gene, Thank you for your thoughtful articles on farming, and living, in America. Your mention of the individual farmer’s choice to be on their own and not be part of a collective raised two questions for me. 1) Doesn’t the lone farmer facing nature and society to make a living for his family represent capitalism and being part of a cooperative is somehow socialistic? 2) In graduate school, back in the 70’s, I was told about an idea/concept called “The tragedy of the commons” where a single person goes against an agreement of the others in the community, to make their own profit their raison d’etre, rather than helping their neighbors, as they promised they would. Somehow doesn’t this working together raise the specter of communal effort leading to communism or at least socialism, anathema to our capitalistic representational democracy?

Farming seems to me to be out there where everyone can see it and, historically, the farmer is the lone individual against nature and the world, and we all need them to succeed if we are going to be able to continue our non-agricultural specialized professions. Historically, European tradesmen saw the benefit of banding together as guilds or unions, to protect themselves against unfair competition and to protect their buyers against bad products and/or bad practices and unfairly high charges for the product. I don’t believe American tradesmen have been as willing to form these collective groups, especially with regard to agricultural endeavors. Maybe it is time for us tor reconsider our social contracts with our society. The success of some in a community tends to make it easier for others in that community to also be successful, doesn’t it, or shouldn’t it?

I wonder if some of this is because farmers have become specialized. When you have a diversified farm, you’re not chasing the markets to the same extent. If the raspberry prices aren’t so good, blackberries or cherries are up. You don’t have the severe overproduction problems of so much corn you store it on the ground, as in the picture above, because your land is also planted to wheat, pasture, nut and fruit trees, not to mention pumpkins and watermelons. Anybody seen any data on how the average CSA or pick-your-own operation is doing financially? Most of them follow the diversified model.

All those soy, corn and wheat farmers could learn about holistic management. Grasslands and prairies are incredibly resilient and enduring, and the grazers keep it in grasses all on their own. Grasslands are co-evolved systems for both plants and animals. It’s a natural system that really works. If we repurposed 75 percent of the world’s trashed cropland and restored it from agriculture back to functioning prairies with their full animal cohorts, we could accomplish that turnaround in the soil within fifteen years. We would then sequester all the carbon released since the beginning of the industrial age and end the global scorching threat within 20 to 40 years. As Lierre Keith says, “…the planet wants to be grassland and forest. It does not want to be an agricultural mono-crop. We just need to get out of the way.” 🙂

lots of backyard chicken people buy soldier flys….

Real simple why grain farmers keep producing grain even with low prices and
over production.Gov’t Money.

It seems to me, according to the best of my recollection, that feeding grain and soybean meal to pigs, poultry and finally grazing animals such as cattle and sheep is how farmers dealt with over-production in the past. Because it was easier to confine animals to feed them grain and to machine harvest forage sufficient to keep them healthy enough to continue eating and getting fatter is what lead to the now vilified feedlots or in modern vernacular CAFO’s (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) Now that grain-fed beef is reported as giving us all kinds of disease and not being good for ruminants in the first place the result is that CAFO’s are on the most wanted list as environmental enemies. Grass-Fed ruminant meat is the “new” healthy alternative. Except for the fact that folks who are per-conditioned to succulent and downright soft grain-fed meat, which they call :”TENDER BEEF”, in my experience, tell me when they sampled grass fed beef they considered it as:”TOUGH BEEF”.

Now eating grain and beans directly as human food is advocated by Vegan lifestyle advocates who seem oblivious to the implications of everyone being a Vegan. Note what what happened in the dirty thirties dust bowl era when erosion damaged former grasslands converted to grain lands tremendously. In the opposing court as I indicated are the advocates of the Atkins diet or similar Paleo diet lifestyles wherein grass-fed domestic meat or wild game or wild fish or free-range poultry are paired with lots of vegetable consumption as the way to vibrant health, complete with glistening well-defined six-packs and attractive body shapes, on the humans at least if not on the grass-fed livestock. For that diet and lifestyle grains are mostly, if not entirely, eschewed as being counter productive for human health. Now what exactly is a farmer supposed to do to meet these conflicting demands of society?

Then there are folks who can’t eat much meat because of gout or as in my case hemachromatosis but, if as an alternative, they eat much carbohydrate such as grains and starchy foods such as potatoes instead of meat they have to deal with diabetes. So what is the consumer supposed to do to be both environmentally responsible and healthy? Maybe we would all be better off if more people in general raised more of their own food. Even if folks didn’t feed themselves totally from what they grew they would at least appreciate more how much effort is involved in providing food for humans.

However, I still think that the invention of petroleum powered combines is what really set the grain over-production wagon on its un-braked downhill course. I seriously doubt that if all grain was still produced with a tremendous amount of hand and animal labor as per processes described in Gene’s books that farmers would face over-production difficulties. Well, let me clarify, even if grain was overproduced with manual and animal labor, folks would be too tired from hoeing, harvesting and storing grain to complain about it. The beasts of burden involved would probably burn off the calories from the grain they ate to be much bothered with too much grain induced fat in their bodies.

In spite of over-production of grain someone must be still making money from “cheap” grain however. For examples, ethanol production uses up some grain for making gasoline additive to help deal with grain surplus and allegedly help combat climate change, yet a bag of corn at the feed store is still around $15.00 for fifty pounds. Such a price per 50# bag means if I buy grain for my poultry and livestock it will be more expensive for me to produce meat , milk and eggs than buying milk, meat and eggs at the store. To counter this state of affairs I’m still working on producing my own livestock feed so I don’t have to buy it, but on a small acreage it is difficult for me to balance livestock numbers with what feed, including pasture, I can produce, even with livestock and poultry losses to predators such as raccoons, coyotes, badgers, and loose dogs. Besides those bags of feed at the farm supply store look so pretty and promise such improved performance for my livestock and poultry that it simply has to be really good for them, right?

If there is one hard fact to go by about farming is to never ever get into anything when the
price is high.Get in when the price is low you can get in cheap and be ready for better times,when the price is high it’ll cost a bundle to get in and the only place for prices to go is down.

the only crop farmers can’t overproduce is flies and that is only because no one has yet found a market for the first pound of them. By the way I have plenty to sell if anyone has someone willing to buy.

I do applauded the attempt at more organic grain. If it is coupled with lower input costs, farming fewer acres, and relying on a diversity of markets then farmers have a chance.
That might just put the “joy” back into farming. I think the bigger hurdle is not markets or prices but the cost of land. Many of the “new” farmers are stopped by the overhead of overpriced land.

About co-operation. . . . Canadian prairie farmers had a National Wheat Board that marketed grain for the producers. The government previous to the present one disbanded it by fiat. Curt Gesch

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