Wednesday, July 09, 2008

"Get Big or Get Out"

Yesterdays post on the current/impending crisis in the pork industry and how we got to this place made me want to read a little more about Earl Butz. (As an aside, according to a post on Allan Nation's blog pork prices could hit $10 cwt.) Since Americans don't spend a lot of time discussing Agriculture Secretaries in their high school history classes I didn't know much about Mr. Butz until I watched the "King Corn" documentary. In the movie the two guys went and visited him and talked about some of his policies that helped keep food costs low for the consumers. Even though the movie is about the over abundance of corn in our food, and Mr. Butz helped that along, they seemed to soften up as they talked with him because they could see what his intent was ... to a point.

Anyways, since I didn't know to much about Mr. Butz I did what any self-respecting twenty-something raised on computers would do ... I looked him up on Wikipedia! He served as the Secretary of Agriculture from 1971 - 1976 under Presidents Nixon and Ford and according to Wikipedia had a sometimes bumpy ride. It seems like he liked to run his mouth a little bit and that eventually caught up with him (he resigned a week after making some comments).

There are plenty of people out there that believe the ideas of Mr. Butz, "Get big or get out", "From fencerow to fencerow" farming, and his never ending encouragement for farmers to produce more and more have led to the obesity of America and more. I may not go so far as saying that today ... I'm no scientist ... but, he did make some radical changes in farm policy that are still with us and effecting us today.

I do agree with people who say that the policies of Mr. Butz did lead to the agri-corporations we have today, but for the sake of fairness and to present both sides of the story I will post this quote from an article by Sara Wyant of the "High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal":
For a lot of today's "Baby Boomers," President John F. Kennedy symbolized the hopes and dreams for those lucky enough to live in America in the early 1960s. A few years later, Earl Butz became a cabinet member and delivered a similar sense of promise and optimism for those wanting to make a living off of the land.

During his five years as agriculture secretary, net farm income more than doubled over the previous 10 years and farm exports tripled. He engineered a massive grain sale to the Soviets in 1972 and the Soviets essentially bought up the U.S. grain reserve.
Do any of you have any thoughts on Mr. Butz or his policies?


Yeoman said...

I was unaware of Butz (about the only ag functionary I'm somewhat familiar with is Willis Cochrane), but, from what I'm reading here, I'd note that Butz, and his ilk, represent a certain "big" type of thinking that characterizes being impressed with numbers, and not people. Had they lived in 1776, they would have been British Empire Loyalists.

People of this mindset are impressed with scale, but seemingly not too impressed with people. Policies should be about how to live, and how we want to live.

It's easy to condemn our current era, as it's always easy to condemn the era in which we live in comparison to a mythical past, but I do think it's clear that there was some sort of shift in how Americans viewed the world after World War Two. This is true of other Western nations as well, although not in the same way. Prior to the end of the Second World War, there seems to have generally been a concept that the best society was the one in which the greatest number of people shared in the nation's wealth, and were self sufficient. That meant that most people wouldn't get rich, and indeed, there was some opposition to people getting too rich. Some time after the war, perhaps starting in the 50s, but perhaps as late as the 70s, that shifted to where it seems to be assumed the best society is the one that gets people the most stuff, and that getting lots of money is good because it gets you lots of stuff.

That's the essence of what Butz seems to represent. "Get big" assumes bigness is a virtue. Cochrane held the opposite view, and served under Kennedy (who often ignored him), and wanted to suppress farm growth.

Probably neither are wholly correct, but it does seem fairly obvious that the "get big" mentality, which has spread to everything, has made Americans much more dependent on outside entities, and now outside nations, for everything and hasn't resulted in universal bliss.

Berry may have said it best in his book title, "What Are People For?" The best agricultural policy isn't the one that makes big farms, with big production, leading to big everything (and big subdivision), but the one that seeks to put people in control of their own lives, at home or on the farm.

gadfly said...

It was commendable of you to offer a "balanced" quote in support of Butz, but I'd like to offer some context. My introduction into Dairy farming was working for two brothers who were working the farm that had been in their family for two hundred years. Both had graduated high school and moved into taking over the farm during the time when Butz was introducing his radical "get big or get out" policies. I never discussed Butz with them, but I talked to both of them alot about what farming was like when they were growing up and what it was like today. They grew up in a family that made a middle class income, with fellow small dairy farmers stretching up and down their road (many of these people milking very small herds to supplement town jobs with some extra income while staying close to the land). By 2004, these gentlmen were the last of the breed, and they both lived in conditions that most Americans would consider destitution. I later worked as a breeder in Central New York, and saw the same story over and over. The "Get Big or Get out" mindset has destroyed the traditional farming way of life. The only reason it has seemed to work so well is because there has been a steady influx of desperate hispanic workers to keep the factory farms running. An old retired farmer once told me: "It used to be you could make a living with either a 1000 laying hens or 20 dairy cows." These days, if you aren't organic, you can't make a living with a small scale, family run dairy farm. Even a lot of the big boys I have worked for have told me that they would prefer to farm the way they grew up farming, in communities with neigbor farmers, instead of sitting in an office all day, running what is essentially a factory.

That quote referring to the great upswing in "farm income" is looking at aggregate income that factors in the great big farms run on cheap imported labor (I love the hispanic workers, but they shouldn't be up here thousands of miles from their own families raising food for Americans)that destroy the environment and ruin the quality of life for both farmers and livestock alike. It's a shell game. The get big or get out model has not worked for the majority of farmers.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...