Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Good Time to Be a Beginning Farmer...

I do believe that it is a good time to be a beginning farmer, but I actually want to take it one step further. I think now is a great time to be a small-scale diversified crop/livestock beginning farmer (or veteran farmer). I have mentioned before that I'm not real big into letting myself fall into the trap of an "economic downturn", but on the other hand if everyone wants to have one than I may not have a choice. That is why I think it is such a great time to be a diversified farmer. Here is why I think that...

Lately I have enjoyed checking MarketWatch.com, not because I have any vested interest in the stock market, but rather because I love watching the price of oil fall (it is down to $53.92 as I type, but I'm sure it will change). Since I have been checking the oil every so often I have also checked out some of the articles on the page. One such article I read was this one, "We'll Be in Great Depression 2 by 2011". I can't really comment at all on any of the things that Mr. Paul B. Farrell has to say, nor do I really want to, but his article does make me appreciate the farm.

As I have read through American history of the Great Depression (especially Iowa's part in it) and seen documentaries like, "The People in the Pictures: Stories from the Wettach Farm Photos" I am constantly reminded that the depression altough still painful for many farm families wasn't nearly as bad as it was for others. In fact many of the Iowa farm children of the depression era talk about how they didn't really even know there was a "financial crisis" (to use today's term).

Why were the effects of the depression lessened for those on the farm? Because they had the bounty of the farm to provide for their families! Of couse the same wouldn't be true for all of today's farm that have moved to the industrial specialization side of agriculture, but for the diversified farms...

Today's diversifed farms (like ours is working towards) would be able to supply the family with beef, pork, produce from the garden, eggs, fruit, and even milk if they needed to. So, even if it may be a bad time to start a farm from an "economic crisis" point of view, at least we will have some food to eat if it does become Depression 2. But, I'm not saying that it will...

15 comments:

Yeoman said...

You raise an interesting point of history.

In some areas of the country, the Depression was a disaster of epic proportions for farmers. But this was in part because the Depression was also accompanied by a massive climatic blip which was disastrous to agriculture in some ares. The 30s were very hot, and very dry. They would have been hot and dry without the Depression, and would have been a disaster in any event, but the Depression made it worse.

On the other hand, for those who had farmland that was not impacted by the drought, and owned it, the more agrarian nature of agriculture meant they were able to weather the storm fairly well. In the few remaining agrarian Western nations, such as Finland, the Depression was hardly noticed.

An impact, however, was that the Government's policies designed to help farmers brought in the big agriculture we have today, which long term arguably hurt farmers. Those policies were disastrous to tenant farmers in the South, as they encourage the property owners in practices that drove them off the farm.

Yeoman said...

Also, fwiw, I think the claims we're heading into a Great Depression are grossly overblown. We're only barely over what economist regard as full employment now, so we're not even having a severe recession by historical standards.

Still, I can't help but hope that absentee land owners here will dump some ag ground they're holding, to our local advantage.

Ethan Book said...

Yeoman - I knew someone would bring up the weather thing also having an effect. I'm sure someone could also argue that the severity of the weather was increased by the tillage practices and even the row crop farming of certain areas.

The thing about the government policies coming in is also an interesting point. I'm finally making my way through "The Omnivore's Dilemma" now and it almost seems as if Mr. Pollan liked the New Deal agriculture policies much more than what we currently have.

One more thing ... I agree with your assessment that we aren't heading to a depression. I did watch a land auction the other day and the bidders were very subdued. They sold 52 acres (about 30 tillable) for $2700 per acre. But, the highest bid was actually $2,350 ... the bidder raised his price to what the family wanted to that he could buy it.

Rich said...

Didn't the term Great Depression apply to the financial crisis, while the Dust Bowl described the drought related crisis that occurred at the same time?

The droughts of the Dust Bowl combined with the plummeting of grain and livestock prices due to the Great Depression really hurt the farmers of the Great Plains.

If a farm didn't have a huge debt load it could survive (if it could generate enough cash to pay the taxes, etc.)

But if a farm had much debt, and its cash flow slowed, it would quickly be in trouble.

The same idea would apply today, borrow as little money as possible, grow as much (or all) of your livestock's feed as possible, and maintain a reserve of cash and feed.

Steven said...

A 91 year old friend here in Missouri remembers the Depression well. Just the other day we were talking about it and how farmers were better off than "city folk". He said that through it all he never went hungry. But, he can remember selling wagon loads of potatoes for 2 cents a pound. His family farm had 20-25 cows to milk (not all dairy breeds), chickens, row crops, a thresher, a big garden, a small orchard, and a flock of sheep. He will tell me stories all day about how they farmed, selling cream to the creamery, etc. but he can't imagine why I'd want to do that when I have this "cushy job" sitting behind a desk.

Yeoman said...

"I'm sure someone could also argue that the severity of the weather was increased by the tillage practices and even the row crop farming of certain areas."

I'm sure that has been argued, and interestingly, prior to the Dust Bowl era, the opposite was, as people seriously believed that "rain follows the plow".

It doesn't, of course, although agricultural practices can have an impact on the weather, if very wide scale. It definitely was the case, however, that large scale dry land farming set up a perfect storm, in terms of a natural disaster. That land was perfect grazing ground, and the plow should never have touched it.

Even up here, in Central Wyoming, we run across old small homesteads that went bust in the Depression. No way they could be farmed now, and they shouldn't have been then.

Yeoman said...

10:49 AM, November 19, 2008
Blogger Steven said...

A 91 year old friend here in Missouri remembers the Depression well. Just the other day we were talking about it and how farmers were better off than "city folk". He said that through it all he never went hungry. But, he can remember selling wagon loads of potatoes for 2 cents a pound. His family farm had 20-25 cows to milk (not all dairy breeds), chickens, row crops, a thresher, a big garden, a small orchard, and a flock of sheep."

Perfect example

Up here, ranchers did okay if they weren't carrying a heavy debt. Some ranches expanded, buying the land from those that failed.

A real oddity is that ranchers who had come in to town during the good years that preceded the Depression, and which followed the introduction of automobiles, were forced back on to their ranches during the Depression. After cars came in, ranches around here, many of which were owned by Irish immigrants, went to the "Irish" style of agriculture, in which the farmer/rancher lived in town and commuted. In Europe, this made sense, as you didn't have your house on valuable farm ground. But here it was a wasteful practice. The banks, as a condition for extending loans, made the ranchers move back on to their places.

"He will tell me stories all day about how they farmed, selling cream to the creamery, etc. but he can't imagine why I'd want to do that when I have this "cushy job" sitting behind a desk."

Man, I hear you there. People think that if you work in an office, it's all skittles and beer, having no idea how soul crushing and mind numbing working indoors, with no sun, no weather, and no interest, is. I split my time (like you), but even though I've been doing that for many years now, I still find it to be the case that full time agriculturalist think that my cattle raising is just some sort of odd hobby, and that I'm really living the high life in town.

As a total aside, I wonder how often those of us with a town professional job here are confronted with the "how's work" question from our full time farmer friends? I know it's just being friendly, but I always hate to receive the question, as I don't want to think about my town job nor do I want to discuss it, when I'm getting to to what I want to be doing.

Steven said...

This 91 year old, his name is Corky, is always asking now... with a smile, "Do you really think this will pay off?" He's referring to us fencing in 10 acres of prime row crop ground and planning to fence in more one day. I try to humbly tell him that we'll just have to keep at it and learn all that we can about raising and marketing food. I think he truly thinks we're crazy :-) I asked him last week if he would have taken a job at 26 years old, setting letters for the local newspaper. He smiled and said "Well I can see how doing this stuff on the weekends could help get your mind off your work." So I guess he'll always see it as a hobby.
It's really too bad that he doesn't seem to understand where my drive comes from because he lives on a 1/3 of my great grandpa's original farm. He never had kids either....

Yeoman said...

"Steven said...

This 91 year old, his name is Corky, is always asking now... with a smile, "Do you really think this will pay off?" He's referring to us fencing in 10 acres of prime row crop ground and planning to fence in more one day. I try to humbly tell him that we'll just have to keep at it and learn all that we can about raising and marketing food. I think he truly thinks we're crazy :-) I asked him last week if he would have taken a job at 26 years old, setting letters for the local newspaper. He smiled and said "Well I can see how doing this stuff on the weekends could help get your mind off your work." So I guess he'll always see it as a hobby.
It's really too bad that he doesn't seem to understand where my drive comes from because he lives on a 1/3 of my great grandpa's original farm. He never had kids either...."

There's a real "What they dreamed, we live, and what we dream, they lived", aspect to American life.

In the 19th Century, you can find plenty of writings in which the authors were eager for the Frontier to end, and were outright hoping that all sorts of big cities were going to spring up. Life was going to be super nifty as soon as all the Indians were on Reservations, all the cowboys off the range, and all sorts of new towns and cities everywhere, they thought. It didn't happen anywhere nearly as quickly as they hoped, but it did eventually occur.

Starting even back that far, however, some began to lament the urbanization of everything. Now that we've achieved it, we see what a hollow achievement it was.

The thing perhaps we can appreciate, that they could not, is that the connection with the land is so vital for humans. In the end, we're a rural species. They lived it, and so they perhaps couldn't see what not having it was like. We can. To put it another way, it'd be hard to convince a cow that being stuck in a pen would be bad, given the food and all the pen might offer. The cow in the pen knows better.

That, and generations of rural people have been told that life off the farm is easy. They're still told that, and a lot of them believe it. I've lived in both worlds, and truth be known, working in an office is far harder, at least psychologically, than any agricultural work I've ever done.

Finally, the generation two and three generations back were so sold on the idea of success in the cities that they really urged their kids to leave the farm. A few people I know who had grandparents of that generation have found that their grandparents were shocked when they'd opine that they wished their grandparents had kept the farm. "But we sold it for you" tends to be the answer. They're almost hurt to think that their progeny would have preferred they keep it.

Turning this back around to the Great Depression, something that's interesting to note is that so many Americans still had some rural roots at that time that the impact of the Depression was lessened a bit as a result. It was still possible to return home to the farm, even if it was crowded, and not starve.

I don't think we're anywhere close to a new Depression, and I don't think it's going to occur. But if we were to be hit by such a thing now, this would be no longer true. As most Americans are now two or three generations, or more, removed from the farm, they'd have nowhere to go at all.

Yeoman said...

"Well I can see how doing this stuff on the weekends could help get your mind off your work."

I can't tell you how many times I've heard that, or "This must make for a nice break from the office".

I know it's well meaning, but it is deflating. But it is also demonstrative of people's mindsets. Here in the office, I'd never hear "working here in the office must get your mind off your cow work". Occasionally I'll hear, "oh, does your family still have cows?"

Steven said...

I don't have such a rosie outlook on the economic situation as Ethan and Yeoman. At least in that, I can see it as a possibility that MAJOR changes could occur in the future that would cause us to become more independent and require that we know how to feed ourselves rather than buy at walmart. Just the other day they were saying on the local news how the Illinois government couldn't pay it's bills. It was taking them 12 weeks to get a check out and local pharmacists were thinking about closing their doors because so much of their revenue comes from the state. Same story for a local group of health clinics. All this because the tax base has shrunk a little. What if the tax base shrunk alot? I just think that at this point, anything is possible.

Dave_Flora said...

Ethan can give his supportive speech about the "economic downturn" myth to the 600-odd local steelworkers that lost their jobs right before Christmas.

I'm sure it's inevidible that a country experiences this kind of "shrink" when they've moved too far from what really matters...food and water, but it's still a tough thing to have to go through. The university I work for lost about 12 percent of their state funding this year, and will probably lose as much again next year, which may mean that I won't have a job. Of course, that would only hasten my move up to the farm, but I sure hope it happens in the Spring when there's time to plant and harvest.

Whatever happens, we're in the best country in the world for adapting to change, and some change in how we've been doing things will probably do us all good.

Let's hope we don't lose too many folks along the bumpy road.

the books said...

Dave- Sure there are places that are going to go through some tough times ... the agricultural world went through them in the early 80's when other parts of the financial world were just fine.

I do understand people are losing jobs a pace that is not normal right now ... but, I also do not believe things are/should get as bad as people are talking. I also wonder if things would be so bad if our media wasn't calling for a doomsday? Just my thoughts though and I don't have to know everything or be right all the time.

Yeoman said...

Following up on this a bit, I only recently started reading "The Worst Hard Time" about the Depression era/Dust Bowl era, in the Dust Bowl.

The author there neatly makes the point that farming in the SE Colorado, OK panhandle, N. Texax, etc., region had only just spread into the virgin prairie right around 1914, and there was a wheat boom on. The wheat boom, fueled by the Russian Civil War (no exports globally for Russia) caused massive speculation in wheat, financed by loads of farmer debt.

They were hurt in the Great Depression, as they had a very heavy debt load, falling prices, and they were farming a grassland.

Yeoman said...

I've really changed my mind on this, the more reading I do on it, and I'm now convinced that the Great Depression was really hard on a large segment of the farming population. It was a disaster in the wheat belt, and really rough on cattlemen, according to what I've read. A lot of farmers ended up leaving the land.

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