Down on the Farm
The world through the eyes of Farm Week
February 3, 1983
I have long regarded American farm aid programs as an instance of politicians bribing their voters. No economic sector, apart from war industries, is as reliant on government support (in the form of low-cost loans, price guarantees, and infrastructure investments) as agriculture, yet farmers still pose as heroes of American individualism and rugged independence.
I couldn't resist tidying up the original a bit before posting it here.
For all their broadening influence, the scattering of days I spent on my grandfather’s farm as a boy in Beardstown no more made me a farm boy than a package tour makes one a Parisian. I have no money invested in pork belly futures, nor do I lie awake at night fretting about outbreaks of Setoria brown spot or pod and stem blight; my pods and stems are immaculate, as even my casual friends will attest. And while the news that Turkey bought two million bushels of U. S. corn in the hope of capturing the Middle East egg market buttresses my opinion that the world is an interesting place, it has no immediate personal relevance.
In spite of my remoteness from things agricultural, however, I await the arrival each week of Farm Week as eagerly as a dentist awaits his broker’s call. Farm Week is a newsletter published by the Illinois Agricultural Association (the conglomeratized Illinois Farm Bureau) out of Bloomington, Illinois. In its editorials, Farm Week hews the Farm Bureau party line, which may be summarized (only a little unfairly) as Free Enterprise, Free Trade, and Free Help When Those Don’t Work. However, it is in its news columns that it really reveals itself. Farm Week links more than 40,000 of Illinois agriculture’s best and brightest in hamlets like Loami and Polo with the commodity markets of Hong Kong, the corridors of the State Department, even the back rooms of research labs where such mysteries as “silent heat” in hogs are plumbed.
Naturally, one’s eye is caught first by news of the more exotic aspects of farm life. Without Farm Week, I might have dwelt forever in ignorance of the fascinating battle waged among the USDA, the National Pork Producers Council, and the American Meat Institute over whether the product “turkey ham” might more honestly be labeled “ham-cured turkey thigh meat.” Or why farmers prefer one-pole utility lines. Or what rights one enjoys vis a vis balloon chasers. Or—since the modern mechanized farm is crammed with corn augers and other instruments of mayhem which would make certain South American colonels pale—how to wrap detached fingers in iced towels. As one especially helpful Farm Week how-to piece put it, “The proper recovery of severed body parts is critical to reattachment.”
Any naif who expects the news in a farm paper these days to be irremediably local would be disappointed by Farm Week. Illinois corn and soybean farmers export more than half of their crops. Farm Week thus offers more foreign news in its eight pages—Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Sydney, Geneva, Peking, Moscow, Port au Prince—than the typical Illinois urban daily newspaper does in eighty.
True, it is a smallish globe which Farm Week seeks to encircle. The coverage of the USSR seldom strays beyond the nation’s chronic failure to meet its crop production targets. Mexico, one reads, is aiming for grain self- sufficiency, while Argentina is alleged to have “leaked” grain through the U.S. embargo of the Soviets. Haitian refugees washed ashore on the pages of Farm Week because of fears that they might bring African swine fever into the U.S. in uncooked food scraps made from infected animals—an aspect of the international refugee problem which the daily press, to its shame, has overlooked entirely.
Indeed, there is little in the pages of Farm Week to remind one of those simpler days when farmers would plow a little, plant a little, butcher the odd hog, and, when he yearned for riper amusements, vote Democrat. For example, farmers live on borrowed money, with the result that one reads more in Farm Week about LaSalle Street than about Main Street; when a farmer talks about putting his money into a piggy bank these days, he probably means the hog futures market.
But even these mysteries pale next to farm programs. The farmer lives in more intimate relation with Washington than any other citizen save perhaps the welfare mother of legend—to whom he has been unflatteringly compared. The ties that bind include RCPs and RAPs, MBTs and FmHAs, target prices and paid set-asides, deficiency payments and loan plans. Reading Farm Week is like reading Le Monde equipped only with high school French; one gets the general drift of things, but the details are hidden by clouds of meaning. It may be that the survival even in these barren days of what H. L. Mencken once called “the complex fiscal imbecilities of the cow State John Baptists” owes itself to this very fact. As any congressman will attest, close scrutiny of farm programs causes a dull ache behind the eyes which causes one to pass us quickly as possible into the clearer air of cost-plus military procurement contracts or the fevers of the M-l.
Of course, government price supports and kindred subsidies such as the newly unveiled “PIK” program (under which farmers who agree not to plant corn next year will be paid with corn they planted last year) are typically advanced as necessary protection for the family farm. The family farm, as we know, is our nation's bulwark against corporate agriculture and the prospect of OPEC-like cold- cut embargoes. Maybe it was once, but these days many a family farm in Illinois is the worth as much as a mid-sized manufacturing firm, which of course is what it is.
The problem is that the biggest threat to the family farm may just be family farmers. Consider the vexing problem of surplus. Farm Week is filled with talk of surplus. Predictions of record harvests. Woeful summaries of unsold crops carried over from previous years. The latest mastications from traders about the effects of surplus on prices. Proposals to convert surpluses to alcohol. How to ship it, where to store it, how to finance its storage. Like the slag heap in Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, the heaps of unsold corn loom over the small towns of the Midwest, threatening to obliterate each of them in one last, crushing cornslide.
And how did farmers come by this unhappy plenty? Soil has something to do with it, and the blessing of weather. The rest of the world has enjoyed an unnatural freedom from disaster, so that both U.S. customers and its competitors are growing more of what they need. That plus a strengthening dollar abroad, improved productivity among foreign farmers . . . the news is unrelievedly bad.
In fact the universe for which Farm Week is a baedeker is a surprisingly dismal place. Farmers feed off calamity. Nothing so cheers a farmer like news of disaster—a drought in the steppes, a wet spring in Brazil, famine in Asia. A premature frost which reduces honest Iowans to begging at the bank suppresses supply and thus helps boost prices for those whom nature has spared. This is not to say that a farmer in Illinois prays that there be a cutworm outbreak in India. It is to say that he does not pray that there not be one.
Often what nature fails to provide, the farmer, ever industrious, seeks to supply himself. Acreage set-asides, under which participation in certain price support programs conditional upon reductions of planting of major crops, have done little to shrink surpluses. Farmers usually set aside only their least productive acres, hoping to reap good crops—and profit—off their best land in the event of a price upturn. “They can’t resist attempts to swindle each other,” Mencken wrote, recalling a similar failure to reduce cotton harvests back in the ’20s. “Instantly every party to the agreement began planting more cotton in order to profit by the abstinence of his neighbors.”
One soon wearies of such sordid dealings, however, and turns with relief back to contemplation of the ways in which life on the farm, though still indisputably rural, had ceased forever to be rustic. Only someone who hasn’t been paying attention will be surprised at ads for computer terminals in Farm Week. But what are we to make of the offer, available exclusively to Farm Bureau members, of Wilson golf balls at just $10.50 the dozen? Even Mencken would be confounded at hearing a farmer complain of a cow pasture as the ruination of a good golf course. ●
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