Saturday, July 4, 2015

A line in the dirt

August 1998

The farming profession has been struggling for years to ignore a growing polarization of our membership based on size. The big-small split can no longer be ignored, however. Unfortunately, talking openly about the differences between large operators and smaller farms inevitably deals with sensitive emotional issues not just of economics, but basic social values.

The demarcation between large and small has been vaguely drawn. Some have used $100,000 gross income, which gives a split of about 83% below and 17% above. The most recent line in the dirt has been defined by the Report from the Commission on Small Farms, which draws an arbitrary division at $250,000 gross farm income. This makes 6% of us “Large” farms. The kicker is this one-in-fifteen minority receives over half the gross farm receipts. The necessary ingredients are now in place for incendiary rhetoric and populist actions to redress what many see as the basic imbalance and, therefore, injustice, of this divergence.

This is exactly the issue many of us in the upper group don’t want to deal with. The broad principles of equality and fair play are ingrained into most all Americans, and we are not exceptions. Few of us consider ourselves as part of an economic elite, but in the eyes of many of our neighbors, as well, apparently, as our government, we are. Nor can we pretend to be just plain folks, when we have worked for generations to become exactly the opposite.

Part of our discomfort centers on the well-worn prejudice against The Big and Rich - defined as everyone bigger and richer than we are, of course. Since we have always been happy to ascribe all manner of evil intent and scurrilous behavior to these scoundrels, we certainly don’t want to be numbered among them now when we’ve gotten our own act together.

But does size carry with it fixed moral qualities? Maybe we are still essentially the same people we have always been, just more successful.  And if success necessarily corrupts, perhaps it’s time we warned those who are working diligently to be successful.

It could also be that the same virtues admired in “small” farmers - honesty, industry, cooperation, etc. - are the reasons we are now “big” farmers. What did we expect - that the personal values we preach would simply keep us even, or are they truly the keys to upward mobility?

My own conclusion from studying those above me on the ladder of success is they have achieved because of the nobler qualities they brought to bear on the problems of this work, not because they were more ruthless than their competitors. Uncooperative strategies may work in the short run (10-20 years), but will not withstand the abrasion of time. Virtue is truly its own reward, but it frequently makes other rewards possible as well.

Therefore it is important in the upcoming debate that large producers address the moral arguments as well the economic. Enduring success happens because of right behavior, not despite it. Nor is it arrogance or conceit to refuse to be cast as the “heavy” in a staged policy melodrama. While silence has been the seemingly gracious response to those who challenge the ethics of large farms, such a response allows the presumption of guilt to appear as fact in many minds, which takes a toll on agriculture’s public image, as well as our own self-image.

The truth is that there is no linkage to ethical behavior and farm size. This straw man argument is actually an effort for something other than personal competence to decide how America’s farms should be operated - if you can’t compete in open commerce, try to get the rules fixed in your favor. Hence, I predict that means-testing, targeting, and other economic discrimination will be suggested over the upcoming years before 2001. 

It won’t change the eventual outcome, however, as our cousins in Europe are finding out. Neither will it prevent the transfer of production to those areas, such as South America, that realize individual initiative should be fostered as the historically best way to produce efficiently. The geography of our land, the cultural heritage of our people, and the historical freedoms of our country are the reasons that large farms prosper in appropriate areas like mine (Central IL). To skew the economic equation to get a different answer will require modifying all these elements. 

Small farms are, and always will be an integral part of American agriculture. It may be they will not be competitive everywhere or guaranteed for everyone. To deconstruct American agriculture to some pastoral ideal will mean riding roughshod over individual rights and seizing what hardworking families have built over generations. 

The point is that the success of others in agriculture insures the opportunity for our success. When we discriminate against so-called large farms, we jeopardize our own future possibilities. 

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