Friday, September 16, 2005
On Agriculture
Smallholder of Naked Villainy has a post up that inspired me to write. Read his post here.

His premise:

Government subsidies of the family farm don't help small farms - they
overwhelmingly go to big corporate businesses that are bad for farmers, the
consumers, the animals, the low wage workers, and the environment.

I don't know if I agree with this or not.

As you all know, I'm a farm girl. I'm a stockholding member of a corporate family farm, and proudly so. My family farms ~ 10,000 acres in Kansas, the vast majority of which is in Seed Wheat Production that provides the family seed business with product for sale and our customers with high quality seed to plant.

10,000 acres is sizable by most standards. However, the uninformed may not realize that only a little over half of this total is farmed in each given year because of the need to summer fallow to preserve moisture. Even so, it is still a quite sizable operation and we are known statewide. And, unlike Monsanto, we actually have a very good reputation for our fairness and quality.

But, I can't say that we don't fit Smallholder's villainous "big corporate business" definition.

I can tell you, however, that not a single member of the family or business ever acts in a way that is not consistent with excellent stewardship of the land and natural resources. It is true that economics are a big part of every decision - afterall, farming is a business as well as a lifestyle. But never is a decision not made that it doesn't weigh fully the impact on our most valuable asset - the land.

Let's be clear on just why this stewardship is so important to my family. My grandfather homesteaded this land. My grandparents survived the Dust Bowl on this land. There isn't a single member of my family who doesn't know these things and respect what has been passed to us. We have all sweated and bled, driven tractor for hours, fought off flies, and pulled on wrenches. But, yes, we are a corporate farm.

Why did we incorporate?

Can you say Death Tax?

The only way to preserve the assets acquired by one generation was to pass ownership of the corporation (which owns the assets) to the next generation. If my grandparents had not incorporated, it would have been the end of the family business. Upon my grandparents' demise, the assets would have been split between the two sons who would have had to pay the inheritance taxes on the land, equipment, buildings, etc. The only way they could have afforded this would have been to sell the assets. You can't plan a death, or being the beneficiary of a will. Do you bankrupt yourself and not feed your children just in case your parents die? Of course not. So the family farm was incorporated and now we inherit paper - stock.

There was a nontangible benefit of incorporation though that never gets talked about. That is, the very issuance of the stock meant that even the grandchildren had a vested interest in the business and in its survival. It meant more to sacrifice all of those summer vacations to hard labor, because I was part owner. And, to this day I am part owner in my father and uncles' livlihoods. They are the stewards that my generation is entrusting with the preservation of the business.

We are all a pretty vocal group, so if one of us questions the actions - the correct stewardship - of another, rest easy that it will be brought up by at least one person. Perhaps you doubt that I could ever question my father or my uncle? Don't doubt it. At the age of 7 I was voting in meetings, and never voting until the issue had been adequately explained to my 7-year-old brain. To their credit, they explained things over and over until all of us kids were satisfied. They answered our questions as equals, listened to our ideas, and otherwise treated us as full business partners. We were kids at home, but in a company meeting, we were equals. And to this day, nobody questions my right to ask questions or get involved.

Non-farm folk need to understand that the days of the big red barn are over. No sustainable farm has a horse, 2 pigs, assorted geese and chicken, and a multitude of row crops anymore. I'm not talking about "hobby farmers" who also have a day job. These days it is all about specialization and vertical integration. Grain prices over the decades have not moved up with costs of production and costs of living. Today's farmers have to do it cheaper, smarter, faster, and in compliance with EPA, USDA, and government requirements.

That is why a family of wheat farmers became seedsmen and started growing, conditioning, packaging and selling their own products. It was what we had to do to survive into the next generations.

Now, let's address the use of farm laborers. When I was growing up, we never had more than one hired man. Why? Simple! There was plenty of farm kid labor to go around. We were all working. We drove truck, dumped trucks, watched the markets, prepared meals, did paperwork, ran combine. However, as each of us went off to college, then graduated and started our own lives, we left gaps in the staffing needs of the family business. Moreover, there aren't a lot of farm kids for rent, if you know what I mean.

If you are a farm kid, chances are your family has you working on the family farm and frowns on your working for the neighbors. And, it isn't like you can just go to the local high school and recruit town kids. Farms are surrounded by dangerous substances and mechanical equipment. These sorts of dangers aren't something you can learn to avoid in a 2-hour safety meeting. It takes a lifetime of following behind your father and getting squirted with a grease gun. I'm talking about life-ending real hazards. So, being a business faced with a staffing problem, you look for applicants.

And in the Southwest, more often than not, the unemployed citizenry tends to be of an ethnic persuasion. Should we not hire them? We are very careful to make sure that our employees have the proper documentation. We do not exploit them. As a matter of fact, they often become disconcerted when they are told to take the day off with pay to go watch their kid's ballgame. We aren't all corporate blood-sucking goons. We are simply people who are trying to do the best they can with what they have, tending to the family birthright honestly for the benefit of the next generation.

Yes, my family has participated in government programs. There is no shame in that, and as a matter of fact, it plays into my stewardship arguments. CRP stands for "Conservation Reserve Program." At its most basic, it is a program that allows farmers to be paid not to farm parcels of land. My family chooses to enroll our most highly erodible soils in this program as a way to preserve them. Certainly we could find a way to farm them and minimize soil loss, but this is a better fix for everybody. The government doesn't subsidize us when we don't get rain and don't have enough seed to sell. The government doesn't pay us more when we stay up for 20 hours a day working to get the crop in the bin. It is a business, but we aren't making widgets.

To go back to the original premise, I can't speak for everyone. However, I can tell you that my family farming corporation doesn't hugely benefit from government subsidies at the expense of smaller farmers. Those smaller farmers are our customers and we know that our livlihood depends on their success. Consumers only benefit from having cheap and plentiful food. I don't see a downside to doing things cheaper and more efficiently. We don't have any animals, so I can't really speak to that. However, I will say that the animals we've had on the farm have been well cared for and not abused. Point of clarification though, they aren't treated as the high-minded, limp-wristed folks at PETA might desire. Hired hands earn a respectable living when they work for my family. They make better than minimum wage and are provided meals and paid days off. The environment? My whole family is concerned with stewardship, watersheds, erosion, and the extremely careful management of what is seen as our first, last, and most important asset.

There are good corporations out there farming. We aren't all evil mosquitos sucking the life blood out of the taxpayers, consumers, smaller farmers, animals, non-citizen laborers, and environment.

So, if I think so much of the family business, why don't I work there? Ah, you see, it goes back to economics. My uncle, my father, and my cousin already work there. Until my uncle retires, I don't feel it would be responsible of me to burden the family with my employment. Does that sound weird? They would never say I couldn't work there. It is my right and responsibility and they know that. But, the business can't sustain too many families. Only two members of my family actively studied in school with a mind toward the family corporation. My cousin has a Masters in Agronomy and I have a B.S. He went back to the farm after graduation while I got a job in the seed business in the corn belt learning how the big boys (Dekalb, Monsanto, Garst) do it. If I am needed by the family and ever go back, I will have plenty to offer. In the meantime, the business is in good hands.
posted by Phoenix | 10:31 AM


At 3:15 PM, Blogger The Maximum Leader said...

Very good post. I am sure the Smallholder will comment.


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