Monday, March 5, 2012

The American Farmer

“Agriculture… is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness.”
  -- Thomas Jefferson --

At the beginning of our more perfect union better than 80 percent of Americans where farmers. Rural life was the norm.  Today, if I were to solicit that percentage, my Vegas money would be bet on a number close to five percent.  A smaller number could probably even be a safe bet.  The American farmer has gone from honorable and respected to distrusted and unneeded (or so it would seem).   This is somewhat due to the actions of the modern farmer, but mostly because of the inappropriate push for efficiency and an over educated society.  I know I just said that education is a bad thing, but hang in there!

I believe most people understand that America eats because a few of us grow the food, but I don’t know if people fully understand how few farmers there are.  Beyond the limited number of farmers, there is the reality that even fewer of the remaining farmers are able to call farming their only occupation.  Even among the largest of farmers off-farm work is common, especially for the farmers' kids.  I have a little plaque that reads as follows; “Behind every successful rancher is a wife that works in town.”  I like it because, one it was given to me by my sister, but second it is very true of me and Buttercup and probably always will be.  It does beg the question though, how many of today’s business men would be viewed as successful if the family business could only provide an income for one member of the family.  Jr. having to go work at the local gas station or super market is not a good indication of a strong family business. It also means he is not learning the family craft and ultimately not viewing the farm as a viable means of providing for himself or future family.  The value of farming has been brought to an all time low. Its profitability as well as its satisfaction have been decimated.  So much so that eventually the family farm will become unused or sold off and re-purposed.
Agriculture today is left to the scant few.  The farmer is viewed poorly, both by his society and the government.  Farming is a task to be avoided and left behind.  Farmer or doctor?  Farmer or accountant?  Farmer or teacher? Farmer or … ? .   We are but a few generations away from having no tangible ability to produce our own food.  We might be energy independent in ten years, but oil will no longer be our weakness… it will be food!  Mostly because we have glorified the big city occupations and discounted the importance and value of the farm.  We as Americans have bought the lie that we all need to be dentists and lawyers with gym memberships.  When in reality, we were better off as farmers, ranchers, and dairy men.  Not a one of whom needs a gym membership by the way.

Why is it then that Americans have turned their backs on what Thomas Jefferson called our wisest pursuit?  It was a slow burn, but today hindsight shows us that we managed to pull the real wealth, good morals and happiness out of rural living.  Today, farming (if one is not careful) has all the work and toil but none of the payoff.  The push for mechanization and super efficiency derails the natural capabilities of farming and buries the farmer in debt.  Government policy even makes the farmers life complicated and confusing.  For example, I just own a farm.  One that at some point in time produced corn crops.  Because of that I got a check in the mail from the agriculture department as a “thank you” for not growing any more corn!  I will receive one next year and for the foreseeable future.   It is in some instances more profitable for a farmer to quit farming and go get a job at the local car dealership. Once more it makes the law degree look even better to Jr.  So, in a push for inexpensive food and a more efficient farmer, we have made cheap food and unsustainable farming.  If we had left in place the value of a hard days work on the farm, it would then be valid for Jr. to make his $50,000 a year behind a tractor and not a desk.  After all, a farmer should be able to make a comparable wage to a city job.  The effort and risk of a farm job far out weighs a city job.  Yeah, in the end your Big Mac might cost a bit more, but I believe that the case has been made for a few less Big Macs in the American Diet.

Let me stop here and interject one caveat… I am not saying a farmer should be a high school drop out.  A business degree never hurt any business man.  Nor do I believe everyone should be farmers.  So to all my teaching, lawyering and other higher educated friends, I still love ya and need ya!

As it is today though, the farmer is a societally shunned, governmentally funded sink hole.  The trend is for the closing of a farm not the starting of one.  Not actually my words, but my tax guys.  This information, even though it may appear to be, is not lost on me.  I have dove head first into a non-profitable venture.  An occupation that at best will probably just break even… just!  Why, some keep asking?  What in the world possesses me then?  Simple!  As Jefferson pointed out, the true value (which is still very intact) of farming does not come across on a balance sheet. It defies ink and paper quantification. That is what society will quite often fail to understand.  Don’t believe me.  Come spend a few days out in North Eastern Kentucky, and then go home and put a value on the experience… A tangible honest days work, peace and quiet, the star lit sky, a slow sunset on the porch, the sound of new born animals, fresh zucchini, tomatoes, and eggs, kids free to play without fear of outside harm… If you added it all up, the price tag would be beyond the reach of the $100,000 a year city jobber.  The lawyer could not afford to pay for it all.  What would it cost to have everything that the rural life offers available to you in the city?  The reality of that, and this adventure, is that we stand at the edge of unlimited possibility.  For the true value and quality of life that awaits in agriculture is, “…real wealth, good morals and happiness.”

Buttercup and my present day attempt at reclaiming agriculture, as break even as it may turn out to be, might be what lets our children return to this wisest pursuit and make a living at it as well.  So even if all the value is only fully realized by our kids, we could not have done better.  Not to mention helping to continue to feed the rest of the land.

Your Welcome
Farm Boy

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