Friday, July 3, 2015

Nobody roots for Goliath

January 1998

Wilt Chamberlain was right. However, I had always found this quote to be a teensy bit self-pitying until a few months ago.

I was at the local tractor dealer buying parts. Another man at the end of the counter was talking to the dealer. He was a typical-looking guy, wearing standard farmer clothing. I nodded when he looked at me, but could not place him at all.

Then the parts guy whispered to me, “That’s ____ ____” - one of the Cash-Rent, Big-Operator  Boogeymen who were invading local communities like Visigoths. Involuntarily I looked at him again, trying to see what Pure Evil looked like.

Amazingly, he had changed. He no longer looked commonplace. How had I missed the scheming expression of contempt on his surly face? Now that I knew who he was, I knew how he should look.
I was aware of the pettiness of my reaction, but the threat that he represented to me and mine somehow justified it in my mind. While not one of my better moments, my  response was nearly automatic, surprising me with its speed and intensity.

The “Big Operator Story” is now an almost obligatory part of conversations in my area. Because our topography lends itself to seemingly unbounded economies of scale, both “outsiders” and locals are ramping up into sizable farm operations. They are also exerting intense pressure on competitors via strong rental bids.

I farm 1100 acres and frankly, want to keep farming them. Regardless of my intellectual or moral commitments to individual rights, when push comes to shove, those values struggle to compete with self-interest. But when I analyzed my thoughts that day as I looked at the stranger, I was struck by the illogic of some of my own ambitions.

Like many medium-sized farms, Jan and I have always been interested in expanding. Nonetheless, I am beginning to see some hidden costs that can accompany large-scale growth. I still support open competition and the rights of individuals to grow professionally. However, there are a few odd consequences that seem to accompany swift growth. 

Rapid success puts strains on your friendships within the profession. Not only can I (shamefully) dislike an a outsider for no reason other than his operation size, it is also easy to envy an old friend who has grown while I have not.

These unhappy emotions can make farmers uncomfortable around successful comrades. Through no fault of their own, their success demands comparison to yours, it seems. Rather than be seen to be small-minded, it is frequently easier to avoid winners. Once that path is chosen, even long-standing friendships can wither from neglect.

This may not be unreasonable. Most of us have experienced an uncomfortable moment between friends of differing incomes. If your growth raises your consumption patterns above most of your compatriots, it is hardly surprising that social bonds dissolve. As farm operations diverge, less common ground is shared. Problems are unshared, perspectives are irrelevant. For instance, how do you join in a conversation on combine repair when you trade yearly and use only dealer warranty support?

The result is that 900 lb. gorillas seldom mix well with the rest of the zoo. In fact, in a conversation with a 5000 acre operator I met at a national meeting, he opined that sometimes big operators fit in well only with other big operators.  A similar solution is to have most of your friends outside the profession.

Large operators can become invisible as employees become the public image of the operation. One large farmer near me hired real jerks who hogged the road with the huge equipment, slopped over boundary lines, and let the shattercane spread. I had no reason not to dislike the guy.

In the “home” community large operator success can bring dividends to others (dealers, coops, vendors). In those areas where they simply farm the ground, they bring little and take away a lot. Many residents resent it. A curious solution to this problem is to have large operators based in many communities, effectively canceling each other out.

None of these problems imply that the large operator is acting improperly or unethically. Neither, however, are those who must compete. At least in my area, based largely in cash grain, large operator success necessarily means less success for others - there are only so many acres to farm.

While our profession strains to maintain a genteel quality to this Darwinian struggle, it is brutally serious to all. Therefore, if you think that professional success will in itself bring respect and admiration from competitors, you may be disillusioned.

But does it matter what others think? If , through growth, your operation has generated desired wealth, who cares, right? This answer gets more vague as our professional community shrinks and rural social structure fades. One thing I do know, however, is working in an indifferent, if not hostile, environment is a joyless shadow of what farming can be. Efforts to include as many others as possible in growth could be more humanitarian for all.
Of course, no farmer plans to be unpopular and disrespected. However, it may be a likely consequence, unfair and unrelated to your personal character. This is as much a price for growth as hard work, sacrifice, or risk. Realizing this fact up front, bearing it with good grace, and taking advantage of every opportunity to give back may be the most effective response.

Farming is outgrowing its culture in some ways. Those who are leading this trend are best able to contrive replacement institutions - social bonds,  professional associations, community support mechanisms, etc. - or find some way to help the existing structures evolve to cope. Failure to do so may wring much of the pleasure out of success, and eventually undermine it. 

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