Farm Crisis, Then and Now?

After 37 years we’ve rented out much of our crop land to a neighbor. We started farming in 1981, the beginning of the “farm crisis” started by, you guessed it, government intervention.

The failing Soviet socialist system created demand for our grain and that drove up prices. Our exports kept them from starving and made farmers rich here. Then our government, that thrives on hatred and conflict, imposed the grain embargo that basically made our grain worthless. I remember seeing corn at Aredale priced at 99 cents per bushel the year we bought most of our farm.

Even at rock bottom land values, corn was only an expensive hobby. It was a blessing to us. It was hard to choose which farm sale to attend and the bargains helped a young family enter farming with an advantage not seen in good times. Besides that, seeing all the late model and unnecessary equipment on these sales was a good lesson in frugality.

Grandpa and his brother bought this farm in 1920. They were bankers and always had tenants on the farm who rented on shares. Once Grandpa said the tenant had not included the ensiled end rows in the shared harvest, but he needed the help so he let it go.

We borrowed from Farmers Home Administration to get started. Joel Eslinger was the only committee member who believed we could make it on the farm and he convinced the others to give us a loan.

When I got to Iowa my farming background was as a surfer in California with a spinach patch, then a commie back-to-the-lander in Northwest Montana with gardens too big to manage. My experience logging gave me a tiny background in mechanical things. Dawn came from a nerdy and principled family and she loves animals. How do I put a value on that contribution?

If there was a most predominant cliché in farming it was that hogs were the mortgage lifter. We made do with buildings that needed a bulldozer, but we repaired them. We remembered how to step around the holes in the concrete under the soup when we fed the sows. The kids helped with the pigs. It was fun.

Grandma was in the nursing home so Grandpa needed me and that is what brought me here. I was reading a local paper and saw that there would be a conservation tillage meeting with a guy named Ernie Behn. He was a ridge-till evangelist and I was sold even before I seriously considered farming. Less work, higher profits, and no bad farming habits confirmed our course.

The savings in less tillage and with doing the job of raising pigs that many find distasteful, made us prosper. The timing of our entry into farming was dumb luck but should be an illustration of the way things work on a larger scale.

We couldn’t convince the government to boycott Soviet grain sales. We can’t have the President sanction Iranian oil exports. We can’t have the government put a $7,500 incentive on every electric car we sell. We can’t mandate what refiners must put in the fuel they sell. We can’t slap arbitrary tariffs on our competition.

We did have a subsidized FmHA loan and farm program payments, so I can’t say the interventions didn’t help us. But I suspect there are other factors at work in these major policy decisions. The winners are few and the losers are many.

We are thankful for the help we got from taxpayers (more so from neighbors). But if we could go back in time and eliminate all these distortions in the market, and if only the best qualified filled each position in the economy rather than the most influential, wouldn’t those many contributors have benefited from a more equitable spreading of the wealth around, as Obama wished?

The farm crisis that many see developing today will not be caused by too little government.

2 responses to “Farm Crisis, Then and Now?

  1. “. . . and if only the best qualified filled each position in the economy . . .”

    The best qualified rarely go into government service. And who is to decide which people are the “best qualified”? That’s the conundrum.

  2. The market should decide. If a worker does his job to satisfy and make the business profitable, well yeah.
    Working for the government is a different matter.
    I called the Iowa State horticulture department to inquire about possible bad effects to millet from 2,4-D sprayed for dandelion seedlings. He couldn’t get it through his head that they were seedlings and not in a lawn and not established… “we only recommend spraying them in the fall.” I doubt he would last at McDonalds. But his tenure will probably give him a luxury retirement someday, depriving someone of a bit of savings for their own.

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