All Commentary
Saturday, April 1, 1961

The Of the Hard Core Farm Problem


Dr. Karl Brandt, a member of President Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisers, has studied the farm problem in several coun­tries, as a farm manager, director of an agri­cultural cooperative, and in advisory capacity to governments and international agencies. This article is condensed from an address at the 67th Annual Convention of the Farm Equipment Institute at Dallas, Texas, Septem­ber 27, 1960.

For over two thousand years of history, in nearly all countries ex­cept our own, the farm problem has been at different times the cen­ter of such troubles that bloody revolutions have resulted from it up to this very moment. This prob­lem is today the testing ground for the irreconcilable philosophies that divide this turbulent world, name­ly, of freedom and respect for hu­man dignity on one side, and athe­istic materialism, the coercive economy, and political tyranny on the other. The systems of coercion begin invariably on the farms.

Even more challenging is the fact that in our country, with its peaceful social changes, 27 years of determined legislative and ad­ministrative efforts of the federal government have put us in many ways between the horns of this same old dilemma.

The over-all farm problem in all countries is not a cyclical or tem­porary affair but is almost eternal in nature and therefore is not amen­able to a real remedy or cure. It is part and parcel of the epic of man’s struggle for a fuller, more mean­ingful life. It is composed of con­tinually changing phases of the struggle for survival in, and grad­ual conquest of, a hostile and scant­ily yielding nature. It is a story of blood and sweat and toil, of the ad­venture of defeating the horsemen of the Apocalypse—famine, pesti­lence, war, and death—which are still stalking the people in many parts of this planet, atom splitting notwithstanding. In all of Chris­tendom this has meant through the centuries a valiant struggle for gaining the material wherewithal for meaningful practice of being kind to thy neighbor, for diminish­ing poverty, for creating abun­dance where scarcity and dearth were the common destiny. The farm problem is an integral ele­ment in the eternal process econ­omists call economic development and growth.

You may ask whether this is not pretty farfetched in this country with its recurrent problems of too much of too many things, particu­larly from farm production. My answer is that the emphasis on the combat against the frugality of nature and against adversity comes much closer to the essence of our farm problem than many people realize. Indeed, it is one of the truly unique achievements of the American people, that here on our farms in an environment of freedom and private enterprise they have won the ultimate victory for all nations on this earth in man’s battle against the scarcity of food, against hunger and malnutri­tion, so much so that today any nation can produce an abundance of food, provided its people under­stand what it takes to do it and are willing to make the proper effort.

Rationale for Planning

What then has happened that had such extraordinary impact on all economic processes? Quite a few people in this country have ready, plausible, yet totally erroneous, answers to this question. If I paraphrase and condense these answers with a little malice toward some, their leitmotiv runs like this:

After having taken from the In­dians one of the world’s richest pieces of a prolifically fertile na­ture, and having given away a good deal of it for nothing to the railroad magnates and other rug­ged individualists and ruthless exploiters of natural resources—who in their ghastly greed de­stroyed with ax and fire millions of acres of beautiful forests and washed into the Mexican Gulf or exported to other exploiters all the nation’s heritage of natural fer­tility of the land—the U. S. gov­ernment established the Land Grant Colleges, the Agricultural Experiment Stations, and the Ex­tension Service. Thereby the gov­ernment made farming on what was left over of the eroded and ravished land so productive that it must now proceed to ration all means of production, and control tightly the activities of all the farmers and enforce it by a tough penal code. This must be done par­ticularly because prices are not what they ought to be despite gov­ernment supports.

This is so because farmers, un­like all other people, are a different breed than all other people, and produce more and more as they progressively get less and less for their products. Measured by some formula of half a century ago, their income is low not only be­cause they maximize their output the lower the prices get, but be­cause all other people in the econ­omy are effectively organized as a conspiracy against the farmer with the labor unions controlling the in­come of U. S. labor, and the rulers of industries, transportation, and commerce controlling the income of corporations by “administered prices” to the detriment of the farmers in their helpless state of atomistic competition. In view of this effective conspiracy, millions of innocent farm people are driven off the farm by the rascals in all other occupations. Therefore, it is high time for the U. S. government to establish a tight and total con­trol over farm output and guar­antee each farmer a just and equitable income….

A Different interpretation

Let me give you briefly a slight­ly different view of what in the long run has happened in agricul­ture’s history and what continues to go on in these days. We have ample proof that at Thomas Jefferson’s time nine-tenths of the American people earned their live­lihood in farming. Around 1900, only 50 per cent of the labor force worked on the farm, and today, less than 10 per cent. This is most significant and illuminating.

What was the state of the U.S. economy then? This can be shown by the economy of many pre-in­dustrial countries which today are still where our economy was 185 years ago. In the underdeveloped economy—except for government personnel, armed forces, teachers, some general stores, and other merchants—nearly all economic activities are carried on at the farm. Food, clothing, shelter, farm and other tools, transportation, education, entertainment, and medication are all produced on the farm. Farmers build houses, barns, and bins in brick, wood, tile, mortar, thatch, and other ma­terials; they lay pavements, dig ditches, and canals, build bridges and dams; they raise draft ani­mals, tan hides, and card, spin, and weave wool and fibers; they process and cure any sort of food and bake bread; they slaughter, preserve, smoke, salt, and pickle; they produce wheels and wagons and sleds; and with animal draft power provide transportation on short and long distance with home-built wagons drawn by oxen or cows, horses, donkeys, or mules, camels, or buffaloes, reindeer, or llamas. Farmers provide enter­tainment at all festivals, nuptials, and after funerals, educate and train the young people, and treat the sick and the aging. So farm­ers are jacks of all trades, includ­ing the production of plants and animals, of lumber and firewood, of peat and gravel and sand, and naval stores. Naturally, what goes to market for cash is little. Hence, it is sheer nonsense to measure their real income in dollars, as it is done today by international agencies for underdeveloped coun­tries. This distorts the true in­come out of all proportion and serves only to stir resentment against the industrially more ad­vanced nations.

The economy functions in that stage within a structure of total decentralization and with vast numbers of small vertically inte­grated units. As development be­gins, one activity after another is segregated from many farms at a time. Hence, not only do new oc­cupations arise, but the skilled workers begin to operate promptly on a much larger scale than be­fore and at much lower costs and prices as well as much higher profits. Many specialized crafts ap­pear: wheelwrights, carriage and harness makers, blacksmiths, and more and more of all the others. Their lower prices expand the market, and their income expands the demand for farm products. If, originally, farmers were jacks of all trades, they gradually became jacks of fewer and fewer trades and thereby more skilled, too. Thus, by the division of labor farm operations become more andmore specialized and refined—un­til ultimately only crops and ani­mals are produced. Gone from the farms are the building trades, the processing of textiles and clothes, the slaughter and curing of meat, until finally even bread, butter, and most other foods are bought because the farm people’s time is too precious.

The Complications of Progress

This process of economic devel­opment is little understood. It amounts to a piecemeal disas­sembling and reassembling of the economy with growth of cities and the rise of industries, commerce, transportation, education, re­search, and a multitude of more and more refined services.

As more people become urban consumers, with a rising purchas­ing power, they are bidding not for more calories, but for a diet with more calories from products with a high value added such as sugar, milk, meat, bacon, butter, eggs, fruits, and vegetables, and less from starchy staples like corn, wheat, and potatoes. With a rising demand for their products in the markets the people remain­ing on the farm increase their output, and with it their produc­tivity and income. In order to do this, they have to equip them­selves with better tools, more me­chanical power, better plants and animals. In other words, they must increase the capital at their com­mand, and must perform with ever-increasing efficiency as farm managers and workers.

All of this is proceeding every day in our decentralized free en­terprise economy where people are not pushed from one job to an­other by the government or any­body else, but where they make their own choice and choose their occupation, their place of work and living, according to their own preference and the available op­portunities. In doing this the families evaluate the whole pack­age of working and living condi­tions, the opportunity of improv­ing their composite income in cash, kind, and amenities, the se­curity of their job and livelihood. Even in the backwoods they usu­ally know very well what other jobs pay, and they decide to take or leave the often better pay.

He who claims that in recent years several million farm people “have been driven off the farm” has to explain first who was re­sponsible for the shift from 90 per cent to 10 per cent from farm to nonfarm work in 185 years. Who drove them off? The answer is: nobody, except perhaps occasion­ally a nagging partner in mar­riage. Those who left did the sen­sible thing to contribute their service where it was needed mostas the country developed and the economy started and continued to grow. In our system of free peo­ple nobody has a right to deter­mine where the people live and where they work on what, except they themselves. In fact, so long as they ask for no support from us, pay their taxes, and are not delinquent as parents of minor children, we have no right to force them to be efficient or to increase their income, even if they prefer to live like a hermit or to sleep like Rip van Winkle.

Growth Involves Change

It is axiomatic that without the movement of people from farms to towns and cities, all industrial and urban development—the entire construction of a civilization on a continent that 100 years ago was still mostly wilderness—would have been impossible.

Moreover, in this long historical shift from farms to urban life and work lies the key to the secret in all modern democracies which puz­zles even political scientists and which few people understand: namely, the fact that the smaller the proportion of farm people in the electorate, the more they are assured of the good will of urban voters, legislators, and adminis­trators and their readiness to grant farm aid. It is not the polit­ical power of a farm bloc that guarantees this, but the subcon­scious memory of all people in Western industrial society that all of them originally came from the farm which solidly anchors their fondness and affection for the farm people. I call this the urban dwellers’ image of “Paradise Lost”: the farm as the forebears’ origin and the happy valley where life is imagined as having been simple, safe, harmonious, and peaceful. Mixed into such nostal­gia is a feeling of guilt toward those who were left behind in the heroic march of urban progress and are condemned to live in so­cial isolation, forced to do hard physical work for long hours, be­ing tied to tend to cows and other animals 365 days, exposed to the vicissitudes and hazards of weath­er and unstable international mar­kets. Hence, the urban voters have nothing against subsidies for the poor fellows on the farm, even if it means many billions of tax­payers’ money.

A Deep-seated Nostalgia

Irrespective of how far these thoughts are from reality, they are anchored deep in the nation’s soul. Fortunately, what has ac­tually happened on the farms is far more complex than the aver­age citizen can realize and the situation there is quite different from such nostalgic sentiments.

Our economy has grown in the long run at a very steady rate, and this growth has at all times been hinged to the rise in agricultural productivity, meaning the rate of output per man-hour. In recent years the rate of productivity gain on farms has not only left the population growth and the growth of per capita income way behind, but also the rate of pro­ductivity gain in the rest of the economy.

Agriculture is in reality the world’s oldest and greatest indus­try of year-round transportation. In this country our presently four million farms use and operate 470 million acres of cropland, and 900 million acres of grazing land, or a total of 1,370,000,000 acres from below sea level to high mountain plateaus. On the cropland every square foot has to be worked or passed with implements and tools, or loads of materials many times every year—indeed, for some crops up to 35 times—and where double or triple cropping takes place, even more often. And peo­ple and livestock and bulky com­modities have to be transported from town to farm and from farm to town.

Therefore, to a large extent the saga of progress on the farm is the saga of the fabulous evolution in the technology of transporta­tion. The American Indians had no domesticated animals, no ox, no donkey, no horse, and not even a cart with wheels. The Spaniards brought cattle, donkeys, mules, horses, and wagons; and other colonial powers to whom we owe our origin and early success brought more of them. From their beginning, American farmers, with the employment of ultimately over 30 million draft animals, took up to the beginning of this century some 450 million acres of cropland and some 700 million acres of grazing land into agricultural use and cleared in the process some 400 million acres of forest land with its moist soils. This cost three generations of gruesome toil, a piece of homework Soviet Russia still has to do in the future. But contrary to the ignorant indict­ment by politicians in the early thirties, this clearing of the wood­land was one of the great achieve­ments on which the European civilization was built also.

As the economy developed, draft animals became clearly too ineffi­cient in use of both cropland and manpower. Labor, especially, was too scarce and expensive to be wasted. In this century at long last, the internal combustion en­gine became the effective replace­ment to animal power—though first, and still predominantly, in this country. It provided individu­al motive power for the totally decentralized transportation in­dustry that happens to be identi­cal with agriculture. Progress was slow and halting; you could re­place the horse only by the com­bination of three motor vehicles: the tractor, the truck, and the car, because the horse had four or more gears. As oxen, horses, and mules were replaced, mineral fuel set free over 50 million acres of cropland and additional grazing land for other livestock and crops.

Mechanical Power

Today we have a fleet of 15 mil­lion tractors, trucks, cars, and combines, plus many millions of electric motors on less than four million farms. A recent estimate listed the mechanical power equip­ment of our farms at 115.6 million horsepower, all factories at 28.2 million horsepower, and all rail­roads at 88.7 million horsepower. The result is a gigantic increase in all transportation on the farm while transportation off the farm has mostly been taken over by others. With oxen, horses, and mules practically gone, there is more speed, more power, more versatility for the manpower on farms, having set free so much of it that, for decades to come, less will be needed to feed a rapidly growing population.

The value of the equipment of our farms including machinery and motor vehicles has increased in the last 20 years from $3 bil­lion to over $18 billion current dollars, but in terms of work ca­pacity and actual performance, immeasurably more. Of course, farmers buy more new machinery, not because they are new gadgets or do more fancy stunts, but only and exclusively if, and when, all costs per unit of work leave a clear net gain over the costs re­placed.

Improved Production Methods

Simultaneous with the vigorous mechanization, the production per plant and per acre of crops and per animal unit has been in­creased. Crop yields were boosted by better cultural practices, im­proved seed, more efficient protec­tion of plants against weeds, ro­dents, insects, worms, bacteria, and fungi, but first and last of all, by better feeding of the plants with more nutrients. Among the nutrients, the key factor turned out to be nitrogen. This vital ele­ment in the life-bearing proteins is mined with energy from the air by the world’s biggest nitrogen producing industry in this coun­try, where it serves as fertilizer, rocket propellant, and base for chemicals. And since plants fed with more nitrogen have rapidly increasing moisture requirements and burn up if they run short of it, farmers applied more supple­mentary irrigation to break this bottleneck. According to Euro­pean experience, one ton of nitro­gen produces 15 to 20 tons of grain equivalent. Our farm appli­cation of nitrogen has increased from next to zero in prewar years to over two million tons, while simultaneously sprinkler irriga­tion has spread into all states of the Union including the humid ones up to Maine. This was due to the decline in the price of aluminum pipe and motor pump units. The economic force that pushed this acceptance of better technology was again the increas­ing spread between the costs per unit of nutrient of water applied to the crop and the price per unit of product produced with it.

For animal husbandry the same has happened. Animals are only converters of feed. If one could produce cheaper feed by putting nitrogen in irrigated pastures, he could produce milk or beef at lower cost, and with more profit if the price did not drop too much. But in addition, hybridization, an­tibiotics, better feed mixtures, and other methods have helped to im­prove the input-output ratios.

Efficient Modern Agriculture

The aggregate impact of all this increased productivity is enormous and has become the envy of the world. With their unique managerial talents, their up-to-date equipment, and the unequaled services provided by the enter­prises and institutions of the rest of the economy, the American farmers have developed their giant business to the greatest chemical industry in the world, that of con­verting annually 280 million tons of roughage, succulent feed, and concentrates, plus a million acres of grazing forage, to animal prod­ucts. This is capitalism at its best, with the able capitalists in over­alls on the tractors, trucks, or hay-balers, or in the mechanical milk­ing parlor. Many people do not know it, but if government pay­ments and surplus purchases are excluded, U. S. farms earn $19 bil­lion, or way over 60 per cent of their cash receipts, from sales of livestock products. This is done with over 170 million grain-con­suming animal units and close to 100 million roughage consuming animal units, or as much “capital on the hoof” in live inventories as there is in machinery inventory, namely, $18 billion in each. This is one of the secrets of success of U.S. agriculture’s productivity: it has the capital, which it can depreciate, maintain, or expand. In the Soviet orbit and many other countries of the world the rulers squeeze every penny of capi­tal out of agriculture in order to invest it in publicly-owned indus­tries, to the consequence of low productivity and waste of natural resources. The greatest farm in­come support is rapid depreciation allowance for farm machinery and breeding stock under the revenue code.

Contrast Between American and Russian Farm Output

Let me sum up what this huge business of agriculture amounts to in terms of output. It produces in a year with no more than 8.5 per cent of the national labor force, or 7.4 million workers, over 200 mil­lion tons of grain, 3 million tons of sugar, over 20 million tons of meat and eggs, over 60 million tons of milk, 35 million tons of fruit and vegetables, or 315 mil­lion tons of edible products, plus 3.5 million tons of cotton, and nearly 1 million tons of tobacco. In order to measure the magni­tude of these figures I mention that after 40 years of a brutal experiment of collectivization So­viet Russia produces with 41/2 times the number of farm work­ers (33 million) one-third as much meat (7 million tons) as do our farmers; and even of grain, most of which they eat rather than feed to livestock, they produce only 60 per cent as much as our output. This in spite of an abundance of natural resources in Europe and Asia. One American farmer pro­duces food for himself and 24 others. A Soviet farmer produces enough for himself and 4 others.

Interference with Markets

Where then lies the hard core of our farm problem? What I have shown is that while the ur­ban people left behind what in retrospect sometimes looks like a lost paradise, but was in reality an enormous amount of sweat and toil, of drudgery and disease, our agriculture of today is an ex­tremely dynamic business world of its own. The government has called it into action in two world wars and then for the first war of the UN, that in Korea. In the three instances an assignment of all-out production was achieved with guaranteed high prices. But when the aftermath of World War I led to deflation and later to the great industrial depression, the Con­gress adopted a policy of farm in­come support in which fixed prices were maintained by government purchase and disposal at a loss, combined with acreage allotments and, in some cases, marketing quotas.

Since the support prices were deliberately set above the equi­librium level at which demand would equal supply and since the government made an open-end commitment to buy all that the market would not absorb, the farmers responded generously to the incentive. The allotment con­trol was defeated by intensifica­tion, i.e., by higher input. The marketing quotas were defeated as control measures by shifting the surplus to other commodities. Our farm legislation has about the same effect as if someone had jimmied the voting machine on which the consumers could vote for what farm products they wanted, and how much of them. In other words, the price signals are out of commission.

Two Million Commercial Farms

Of the four million farms, roughly two million full-fledged commercial units produce some 93 per cent of the marketed product. They have some adjustment prob­lems for a few commodities, par­ticularly wheat, but are not in any financial or income calamity. In fact, their business is by any standard relatively satisfactory, especially if we look at the regular and substantial gain accruing in their equity. These farms are one of the greatest assets this nation has and its technology is the greatest asset of the West.

But we have serious problems among certain groups of the re­maining two million small, so-called low income farms, particu­larly in some retarded areas like the Appalachians, the Piedmont, the Ozarks, and in the reforesta­tion areas of the upper Lake States. In general the two million small farms need outside employ­ment, mixing nonfarm and farm incomes. No one suggests their abandonment as living quarters. It would be a serious mistake, how­ever, to lump the two million heterogeneous units as suffering alike from too-small incomes. A large part of these are retirement and part-time farms which offer a most desirable form of rural ex­istence for people who have a se­curity insured by pensions, tax benefits, and a flow of part-time work income. The number of this type of farms will grow in the fu­ture. They constitute no social or economic problem.

Jobs in Town

There are other farms where the people must avail themselves of the nearby educational and training facilities to find better employment for their young peo­ple. It still remains true that only the people themselves can make the decision to move, to change to other occupations, or to undertake better farming practices. Indeed, they are on their way. While farm operators earned $11.8 billion net income from farming last year, the total farm population earned an additional $8.5 million net in­come from farm work off the farm and from nonagricultural sources. There is a serious legislative farm problem, definitely not an ad­ministrative one. Our farms are by and large in fairly good health, ready to feed 200-, 250-, or 300 mil­lion Americans in the future, and better than ever. The real farm problem concerns the question as to how one can liberate the Treas­ury from the burden of an impos­sible open-end commitment and a continuous misinvestment in more and more grain without doing harm to the farm community and all those who serve it. This disen­gagement from faulty legislation requires common sense, a warm heart, and a cool head. It requires an honest businesslike approach and due respect for the basic in­stitutions on which the American economy stands or falls and for the true stature of the farm busi­ness with its more than $200 bil­lion productive assets.

Two Ways to Sovietize

We have out-produced the So­viets many times over and have all the benefits of our productivity, but we cannot borrow from them a compulsory production control system which involves the carteli­zation of agriculture and all farm supply industries without ruining our prosperous farming system. There are two ways of becoming Sovietized: by conquest or subver­sion is one, by voluntary assimila­tion of their institutions is the other.

Unfortunately, we have in our midst too many self-styled friends of the farmers who know exactly what is good for other people and are yearning to wield just enough power to prescribe from some of­fice desk the recipe for the social medicine the people have to swal­low and the orders as to what they have to do or not do. For my taste there is too much affluency in tell­ing the farmers and their sup­pliers what to do and telling the customers what not to spend their money on.

If we fall for giving these peo­ple too much leeway, they will go at it and try to take the competi­tiveness out of our agriculture and with it its creative dynamic qual­ity. If I were farming right now, I would be tempted to say in these coming weeks every now and then a silent prayer: Good Lord, pro­tect me from my friends; against my enemies I can defend myself.

 

 

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Morality and Vigilance

Next to correct morals a watchful guardianship over the Con­stitution is the proper means for its support. No human ad­vantage is indefeasible. The fairest productions of man have in themselves or receive from accident a tendency to decay. Unless the Constitution be constantly fostered on the principles which created it, its excellency will fade; and it will feel, even in its infancy, the weakness and decrepitude of age. Our form of gov­ernment is superior to all others, inasmuch as it provides, in a fair and honorable manner for its own amendment. But it re­quires no gift of prophecy to foresee that this privilege may be seized on by demagogues, to introduce wild and destructive in­novations. Under the gentle name of amendments changes may be proposed which, if unresisted, will undermine the national com­pact, mar its fairest features, and reduce it finally to a dead letter. It abates nothing of the danger to say that alterations may be trifling and inconsiderable. If the Constitution be picked away by piecemeal, it is gone—and gone as effectually as if some mili­tary despot had grasped it at once, trampled it beneath his feet, and scattered its loose leaves in the wild winds.

Daniel Webster, July 5, 1802