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Monday, December 1, 1986

A Reviewers Notebook: The Farm Problem

When Nikita Khrushchev came to America in 1959, he visited an Iowa farm. He was well aware that American agriculture was a great success story. But he never knew why.

The magnitude of the success story is apparent in the figures that are scattered through the 20 essays taken from The Freeman for publication in a book called The Farm Problem (Foundation for Economic Education, 144 pp., $5.95). In 1800 some 90 per cent of the U.S. population were non-city people, making their livings as farmers, hunters, or backwoodsmen. In 1960, when Karl Brandt was collecting statistics for his essay on “The Hard Core of the Farm Problem,” only 10 per cent of the people were still on the farm. In 1983 Clarence B. Car son, for his essay on “The Trouble With Farming,” had the 1980 census to consult. The total number of farms in the U.S. had declined from 6.1 million in 1940 to 2.8 million in 1980. Farm population had declined from 30.5 million in 1940 to 8.8 million in 1980. The number of hired farm hands, which stood at 2.6 million in 1940, had been cut in half (1.3 million) in 1980.

With fewer and fewer people farming more and more land on bigger farms, the agricultural yields were tremendous. One American farmer was feeding himself and 24 others. In Russia the collectivized farmer feeds only a total of five. The 1981 corn crop in the U.S. was the biggest ever. The 2.7 billion bushels of wheat constituted another record.

The figures representing an incredible plenty can be spun out in all directions. George B. Mueller, in his “The New Agricultural Revolution,” says that “as farmers we are presently investing twice the amount industry averages in capital tools per man.” This puts food on the typical American’s table for less than 17 per cent of his wages. Says Mueller, “rather than looking upon agriculture as a serious problem, we should consider it our biggest success story.”


We have had dust bowls, but never famines. It hasn’t been that way throughout recorded history in other countries. Edmund Opitz, in his “The War on Poverty Revisited,” tells us that a French famine wiped out a million people, five per cent of the country’s population, in 1709. The potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s claimed some 1.5 million lives. A famine in China in the late 1870s killed 15 million. India is now making use of improved strains of grain, but it has only recently escaped from the condition that cost one and a half million lives in the 1943-44 Bengal famine.

If Moscow had not had oil and gold to trade for wheat, there would have been acute starvation in Russia in nine out of 20 dry years between 1963 and 1983. Sven Rydenfelt, the Swedish economist who gives us this information, thinks that it is a cop-out for the Communists to blame everything on the weather. In Czarist times they had dry weather, too, but they also had wheat in exportable quantities. The “planning” of agriculture in socialist countries outside of Russia has, as Rydenfelt makes plain, resulted in a general impoverishment.

Africa is the worst example. David Osterfeld, in his “African Famine: The Harvest of Socialist Agriculture,” says that government marketing boards in most of the famine-threatened African countries have forced the peasants to produce without profit. Unable to get more than a fraction of his crops’ actual value, the African peasant loses all initiative. Ethiopia is particularly reprehensible—over 60 per cent of the country is arable, but only 10 per cent is cultivated. Nobody with a hoe in his hands sees the point of producing anything beyond subsistence levels.


Statistics tell a story, all right, but there is nothing like personal experience to ram a point home. Howard Baetjer Jr., a graduate student at Boston College in 1983, took time out one summer to work as a field hand on a Nevada alfalfa ranch. They used laser beams to level the fields in the parched territory where he worked. The laser allows the rancher to get the ground absolutely even as it drops off at exactly the right rate. The laser light, pitched at the proper angle, is read by a sensor attached to a huge machine with a scraping blade and a reservoir of topsoil. When the ground rises up, the sensor tells the blade to shave the area down. When the ground drops off, it tells the machine to dump some soil.

A laser-planed field means that irrigation will be perfectly even. The alfalfa will soak up the water without waste. A hundred years ago nothing but sagebrush would grow on an average Nevada 40-acre field that now yields enough hay to feed 70 cows for a year.

Our politicians, chivvied by the more inefficient farmers who ought to be looking for jobs in industry, try to deal with the tremendous plenty by establishing price supports and limiting the number of acres to be planted. It doesn’t work—the American farmer, with new seeds and fertilizers at his disposal, has always been able to defeat the government’s purpose by growing more and more on less and less ground. The failure of the government programs is stressed in most of the essays in this volume.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.