SEEDS OF FAMINE
The farmers farm the crops, and the businessmen farm farmers. Investors harvest taxes, but their partners pick them clean. The businessmen go bankrupt, the government loses millions, farmers owe 831.3 billion (an increase of 160% in just twelve years), and farmworkers get paid less than anybody. Everybody's leaving the countryside; there are fewer people out there now than at any time in the last 100 years. Why are they leaving? Is agriculture for losers only? Do we even know how to farm?
And It Is Divine did a field study to find out.
THE CRISIS IN FARMING
Family farming, the cradle of the American way, is in trouble. In the last 23 years, the number of farms in the U.S. has declined from 5.4 million to 2.9 million, and the number of farm workers from over 9 million to fewer than 4 million. Each week nearly 2,000 family farms go out of business. In the last 50 years, more than 40 million people have left the countryside for the cities and their suburbs - a migration that has transformed the nature of American farming.
Although 95% of the farms that are left are still worked by families (with maybe the help of one or two hired hands), the way of life we remember when we talk of the "family farm" is already dead and gone. Even 30 years ago, it was a common thing for country families to make a part of their living from farming, and part in some other way. The farm equipment they used, though it would have amazed a farmer from another part of the world, was small enough that farmers were still very close to the soil, to nature, the crops, and every animal they kept.
In the 1940's, a sociologist named Walter Goldschmidt did a study on two towns on opposite sides of the California Valley. He found in comparing Dinuba (the town on the family farm side) with Arvin (the town on the corporate farm side) that Dinuba had a higher standard of living, better physical facilities like streets and sidewalks, more parks, more and better schools and churches, more stores with more retail trade, and twice as many social clubs and civic organizations as Arvin.
The economy of the last three decades has changed all that. Farm surpluses of every sort have held the prices a farmer could get
for his crops to absurdly low levels. The cost of living has soared. Forced by the dwindling difference between farm profits and the cost of living (and also by the difficulty a small farmer has in getting credit), farmers had no choice but to expand - from an average 191 acres per farm in 1945, to 394 today.
Meanwhile, real estate speculation, special restrictions on farm subsidies, tax-loss speculation, and suburban sprawl have combined to force the price of land up and up. In California's San Joaquin Valley, the price of irrigated land used for orchards and groves rose 54% from 1965 to 1969. In California an acre of such land cost about $3,000 in 1972; even in southern Illinois, an acre of farmland can cost $1200 these days. In Texas a rancher says he knows of no land in the 250 mile stretch from Houston to Dallas priced low enough for farming.
So farmers had to go in debt to buy land, and that meant they had to get more out of the land to pay the interest on the mortgage and still make a profit. There was only one way left to make fanning pay: they bought bigger, more expensive machinery that put them even deeper in debt, to till the land more efficiently. They planted "high yield" hybrids. They used more fertilizers and pesticides. They mechanized the care of the livestock - to the point where one man can now take care of 60 to 75 thousand chickens (it used to be that 3,000 chickens was a big operation!), or 5,000 head of cattle. There was no place in the new, more efficient agriculture for small farmers or part-time farmers or for most of the migrant workers and hired hands - and so began the great exodus to the cities.
The New Farmer is a manager and a businessman; he has to be. It was hard work and management ability, not a green thumb or a way with animals, that made the difference between the farmers in Iowa who made $25,000 plus in 1971, and their neighbors who made less than $6,200 on nearly identical acreage and investment. These things are important; a farm big enough to make a living on can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the 3 to 4% return on that investment is a good deal less than the interest on a mortgage or a bank loan. One or two years of crop failure can do terrific damage to an investment of that sort.
Since the mid- 60's, the new American agricultural revolution - which is really nothing less than the conquest of the farm by the marketplace - has reached new heights that spell, to many farmers, the first stages of disaster. The farmer of today, who has for the most part inherited the sail and survived the transition from the more easy-goin', nature-lovin' days, is being challenged by the power of agribusiness and the competition of tax-dodgers. And as the trend to bigness in farming accelerates, squeezing out the farmers who don't know beans about business in favor of the businessmen who don't know beans about farming, the trend toward mechanized, technologized, chemical-dependent fanning grows with it. The evidence is growing, too, that this may be the biggest mistake that fanning ever made.
FARMER BROWN, INC.: FOR HIM, ITS A "GROWTH INDUSTRY"
Somewhere around 1964, the big corporations in a half-dozen fields that had little or nothing to do with farming began looking at agriculture in terms of the population explosion. What they saw lit dollar signs in their eyes: an enormous growth in our need for food before the year 2000.
The corporate investors figured that farming was probably not too different from auto manufacturing or steel production, where the bigger the outfit gets, the cheaper it can produce. With the modern management, improved technology and the money that big corporations have to put into development - how could the corporate investor go wrong?
And so they started buying up farms, or buying land and farming it, or planting on some of the hundreds of thousands of acres they already owned: industrialists and conglomerates like American Cyanamid, Union Carbide, Boeing, Kaiser Industries, Dow Chemical and Tenneco - oil companies like Getty, Atlantic Richfield, and Standard of California - railroads like Southern Pacific and Penn Central - insurance companies like John Hancock and Hartford Life - and many more besides.
From the very beginning, agribusiness looked at fanning in a fresh and original way. Many corporations were already holding land and waiting for its value to go up; making some extra money by farming it came almost as an afterthought. The corporations also invested heavily in the relatively profitless sectors of the farm economy - such as tree crops and cattle fanning - where they saw they could take a big profit on the tax breaks Congress had created to help the poor farmers out. Their biggest activities were, and are, in the Southwest - Texas and Arizona - and especially in California, where large tracts of farm land are easy to come by, specialty crops are easy to grow, and migrant labor is plentiful and cheap.
Nobody really knows how heavy the impact of agribusiness has been - nobody has ever succeeded in putting the total picture together. It's clear that farms owned by agribusiness account for only a small percentage of the total American farm output. But in the crops that agribusiness has bought into, its impact has been enormous. And in California, where in 1971 4% of the growers owned nearly 70% of the land and 8% hired more than 70% of the farm labor, agribusiness has taken center stage.
THE SURPLUS PROFITEERS
Farming actually pays so badly that if that was all there was to it, agribusiness might never have happened, despite all the rosy forecasts for the long-term future of food production. But there are two tricks by which a smart agribusinessman can turn an available return of 1 or 2% on an investment
in farming (you could do better in municipal bonds) into a hefty 8 to 10% if he knows what he's doing. (If he doesn't know what he's doing, those very tricks can bankrupt him.) These tricks are tax-loss farming and leveraging.
Tax-loss farming is a simple method for dodging the 50 to 70% income tax which the government slaps on the corporations and people who make it to the top income brackets. The idea is to invest your income where the government can't tax it right away - preferably where it will even earn you a profit. To get your money back, you wait a few years and then recover as much of it as possible by selling things that you can list as capital gains - because capital gains are taxed at only half the normal rate. If you make several hundred thousand dollars a year - as nearly every big corporation does - this alone can save you tens of thousands of dollars. But if you're hungry for an even bigger profit, you borrow more money, do the same thing with it, and write that "loss" off against your profits, too. That's leveraging.
Now, if you've decided that tax-loss farming is for you, the next thing to do is to find a general partner. His function is to own all the farm assets that can't be used for tax-loss purposes, and to manage your farm for you. You spend your tax-loss investment in developing and maintaining his orchards, vineyards, dairy herds, or herds of breeding cattle, or on stud fees, livestock feed, farm management services (that's your general partner's commission) or any combination of these. In return, you get a share of the profits. When you sell out, you do so (on paper) by selling the orchards, vineyards, breeding cattle, or breeding draft horses you were caring for. That's all there is to it.
A few clues about the size of tax-loss farming: farm "losses" cost the U.S. Treasury $840 million last year. Many or most of the big agribusinesses have been, or are now, involved in the sorts of farming where tax-loss farming is possible. And a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey in 1968 found that two-thirds of the wealthiest 66,000 "Carmen" reported farm losses on their income tax.
To the family farmer, tax-loss farming is a disaster. The savings to the tax-loss investor from evading the taxes in this way are so great that even a farm that loses money can be a good investment. But the competition of a farm that doesn't have to make money can ruin the family farmer, because he has to make a profit to live on. Tax-loss farming has given the citrus and almond farmers such a rough time that they've gotten Congress to abolish those tax-loss privileges. An oil company's tax-loss venture in cling peaches caused such a surplus in the crop one year that many farmers ended up with their peaches rotting on the trees for lack of a buyer. And tax-loss farming has also helped to create chronic surpluses in apples, apricots, avocados, eggs and walnuts.
To the critics of agribusiness practices, Tenneco is the perfect example of what's wrong. Tenneco, of course, denies everything. And It Is Divine spoke to researchers, economists, and almond farmers to find out why the company has come under attack; the company itself was reluctant to discuss the matter, but gave as an assortment of printed materials packed full of Tenneco's redeeming qualities.
Again, the basic system is simple. Vertical integration means that a company owns the facilities that are needed for two or more of the stages involved in producing something for the market, and that these stages are sequential. In Tenneco's case, the company not only grows almonds (on 1,850 acres in 1969 - quite a bit for such a special food), but they also can almonds fresh from the farms under the Sun Giant brand and distribute them nationwide. Planting and raising the trees counted as a tax-loss (until recently when the laws were changed), but more importantly, Tenneco was able to grow so many almonds that the price went down. Since Tenneco-the-canner buys considerably more almonds for canning than Tenneco-the-farmer grows and sells, Tenneco-the-canner saved considerably more money on the new, lower price than Tenneco-the-farmer lost. The same can't be said for the independent almond growers; not having any canning operations of their own, they lost their shirts.
Being the 30th largest corporation (or thereabouts) in the United States has its consequences, and Tenneco has gone to some pains to point out that crops such as dates, Arizona grapes, and California strawberries, are instances where the company does not grow the crop itself, and the actual growers have benefited from Tenneco packaging, marketing and advertising. It's true. But where Tenneco does grow its own, it still tends to pick the specialty crops whose prices would be easy for Tenneco to manipulate - crops that offer tax advantages more often than not.
The professional farmers who are driven out of business by well-heeled amateurs farming the tax laws aren't the only victims in the game.
Tax-loss investors themselves are often taken for a ride by particularly unscrupulous general partners. General partners (who are often agribusinesses themselves) usually get
a guaranteed profit written into their contract with the tax-loss investor. The guarantee is the general partner's protection against the surpluses and low prices that ruin the family farmer, but it leaves the general partner with little incentive to do a proper job of farming or of keeping the expenses down. A Los Angeles tax adjuster estimates that, between poor farm management and the general partner's take, probably half of all tax-loss farmers come up losers.
An extreme example of this is the Calderone-Curran Ranches, Inc., which recently offered the chance to investors to own their own herd of ten purebred cows, and make money selling the calves. The difference between the price tag ($28,570) and the worth of the cattle (a mereS4,000) was the Ranches' guaranteed payment for breeding and caring for the animals, paying the staff, arranging financing, making the offering, and paying their salesmen commissions. But that's not all: all the bull calves, and 50% of the profit from selling any remaining calves, became the property of Calderone-Curran Ranches, Inc., under the terms of the contract. To make the investor a profit on a deal like that, his cows would have to breed like rabbits.
Dramatic failures are common among the tax-loss schemes of the last few years, most of them due to the mistakes of ignorant investors and incompetent general partners - using land for the wrong purposes, rotating crops improperly, breeding and feeding cattle poorly, forgetting to allow for bad weather, taking foolish risks…
When the Black Watch Farms became the Black Watch Scandal late in 1970, 585 tax-loss investors suddenly discovered they were due to lose 540 million among them. Black Watch had promised them a 52,000 return per cow, had pledged to replace any cows lost between the ages of six months and nine years, and had hired a computer to keep track of the cattle. But the management lacked experience. Because they'd bought worthless cattle (sight unseen) and failed to cull (weed out) poor animals from the herd, far fewer calves than normal had been born. Records had been badly kept, rendering the computer useless, and costs had skyrocketed. When Black Watch filed for bankruptcy, 23 independent farms and ranches sued for 51.5 million Black Watch owed them and had never paid. And 30,000 cattle, their ownership and fate unknown, stood abandoned on 70 ranches.
FAMINE IN AMERICA?
It's been a cliche for decades that by growing high-yield hybrid crops, cultivating them with machines, laying the fertilizer on thick and heavy, and bringing in the pesticides whenever something goes wrong, we've achieved the highest farm productivity anywhere ever. American farming is, in fact, the most labor-extensive and capital-intensive in the world. We employ only one farmer to feed 52 Americans and 10 or 12 foreigners - but we make that possible by using about four times as much mechanical and chemical energy in cultivating the land as we get out of it in food calories -and even that figure doesn't count in the enormous amounts of energy that go into manufacturing farm equipment, manufacturing pesticides and fertilizers, and packaging, storing and distributing the food.
It's a stark contrast with more primitive countries - even places like China - where they get more out of their farmland than they put into it. It's something to think about the
next time you hear of a brown-out, or notice that the price of gasoline is up, or hear about an oil crisis in the Middle East!
And of course, big farms and agribusiness lead the way, farming the biggest tracts of land with the biggest, fanciest machines, the heaviest doses of pesticides and fertilizers, and the best and newest hybrid crops that the labs and breeding projects can provide. It's not because they are better farmers, or more ahead of the times, nor is it because they are especially evil. In businesses of other sorts, "biggest, newest, and using the most expensive equipment" usually means "most productive, efficient and competitive' as well - and big farms and agribusiness probably owe their character to the fact that businessmen and executives have the same sense of economics in agriculture.
Industrialized farming probably wouldn't even be possible without our enormous monocultures - mile upon mile of a single crop, billions upon billions of plants, all of the same hyperspecialized breed, with nearly identical genes. The incredible inbreeding of these hybrid supercrops has kept the farmers solvent and at the same time has given us our record yields, our farm surpluses, and our agricultural exports. In fact, since we depend on those exports to make up for the deficit in our balance of payments each year, it's those miles upon miles of identical plants that are keeping America in business.
But these gigantic monocultures are also the perfect set-up for agricultural disaster. The Irish made that mistake with potatoes, the basis of a prosperity that once sustained an island population of eight million. Just like us, the Irish carefully selected for high-yield varieties - but that inbreeding meant that the Irish potatoes all had the same weaknesses as well as the same strengths. So when a fungus to which the potatoes had little or no resistance appeared on the island in the 1830's, the result was catastrophe. Ruin and famine walked the land; two million died and two million emigrated in the course of a single decade.
Our own monocultures have already had a taste of disaster. In 1953, a wheat rust took 65% of the Durum wheat crop; it was back again in 1954 to claim 75% of the Durum wheat and 25% of the bread wheat. Likewise in 1970, a blight destroyed the high-yield hybrid corn crop of the southern United States.
These inbred hybrids lose their vigor, too. In fact, the only method we have for sustaining our high yields is to come up with a new hybrid every few years, and to keep breeding for resistance to the current range of pests.
All it takes is a mutation, or a new genetic recombination, and suddenly a fungus, a crop disease, or an insect pest will turn rampant and ruin the crops of fifty thousand farms. The danger has been getting worse as we have begun to export our hybrids and our monoculture techniques. Not only are we running an increasing risk of global crop failure, followed immediately by a global food crisis, but the hybrids we export are replacing the enormous number of native crop varieties-and every time one of those varieties becomes extinct, we lose another source of the genetic variations we need to develop new hybrids. H. Garrison Wilkes, assistant professor of biology at the. University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Susan Wilkes have called for immediate steps to preserve some of this genetic diversity on the land where it already grows. Otherwise, they warn, we're working our way closer and closer to the day when the hybrids we depend on to feed the planet become useless to us, and we have nothing to replace them with.
THEY'RE SWATTING EVERYTHING THAT MOVES
Modern high-yield hybrid crops are so specialized they can't possibly exist in the wild. They need fertilizers, room to grow without competition from the weeds, and protection from insects and disease just to survive. Controlling insects and disease is even harder when these plants are grown in a modern monoculture, because the pest has only got to go a few inches to get from one victim to the next.
American farming no longer has the manpower to go out and weed by hand, or manually thin the diseased plants out from a thousand-acre stand. The modern solution is to cover our crops with half a billion pounds of insectides, herbicides and fungicides a year - chemical flyswatters that kill everything but the crops. We even sterilize the soil to a depth of several inches (inadvertently) with fertilizer applications that run as high as 150 to 200 pounds an acre.
The net effect of all this is that we have succeeded in cutting our losses due to pest damage from about two-fifths of the average farmer's crop to about one-third of it. We spent about $35 million on pesticides in the 1950's, and we saved about $9.9 billion in crops (USDA estimate). It looks like a good deal - but considering that those insecticides are broad-spectrum poisons, it might not be.
Nearly everyone is familiar with at least some of the cases of men and wildlife suffering injuries and deaths from unintentional overdoses of insecticides. Cesar
Chavez made pesticides a major concern in the grape and lettuce boycotts because of their poisonous effects on farmworkers and hungry Americans alike, and at least one of the pesticides he campaigned against, Monitor 4, has since been prohibited from use on head lettuce.
What's more surprising, these same pesticides are actually making the pest problem worse. When a farmer sprays his crops with an insecticide, for example, besides killing off the problem insect, he kills off the natural predators that were keeping that insect in check - the birds, the bats, the fish, the frogs, and all the other insects. Among the problem insects themselves, the survivors are the ones most resistant to the poison, and
they pass their resistance on to their offspring. Thus, with each spraying the problem insects come back tougher, meaner and faster than ever. Insect experts call this "target pest resurgence."
While the problem insects are temporarily gone, other insects that can live on the crop, freed both from their own natural predators (who have been killed or driven off by the insecticide) and from the competition of the problem insect, move in on the crop and have themselves a feast. Often they continue to be a major problem even after the original problem insect and all the predators have moved back in. This is called "undue secondary pests."
Each time the pests come back, the farmer has to use more pesticides and use them sooner in order to control a steadily growing numbez of insect pests and crop diseases. Eventually, each chemical in its turn becomes so useless for pest control that the farmer has to switch to a new one - and each new pesticide costs an estimated $4 million to $8 million to develop.
Few farmers have any idea how much of a pesticide they should use, so, encouraged by the pesticide salesmen, they nearly always use too much. Robert van den Bosch, a professor of entemology at Berkeley and one of the original researchers in this area, has found that cotton growers have been overusing insecticides by a factor of 50% or more.
The annual cost of insecticides to the California cotton industry is about $15 million; the insecticides save about $20 million worth of cotton from insect damage. Bosch calculates that the damage caused by target pest resurgence and undue secondary pests - including damage to adjacent crops - plus the losses arising from the injuries and deaths of honeybees, fish, game and people - all add up to at least $11 million or $12 million a year. This means that the California cotton farmers are already losing at least $5 million a year more than if they stopped using insecticides altogether. Bosch says that the San Joaquin Valley could save $10 million to $15 million a year through better pest control methods, but ,when we spoke to him last,he reported that a number of small California farmers have already gone bankrupt from their pest control expenses, and that pest problems there are snowballing.
THE 150 POUND GREEN THUMB
Out in the cornfields of southern Illinois, a team of scientists associated with the National Institute of Health and with Washington University in St. Louis have been studying the farmers' use of fertilizers. The area they've been working in is so wet that the fields are drained by tile pipes four feet below the surface so that the roots of the corn plants can get oxygen to breathe. The scientists' concern is whether the fertilizers are actually fertilizing, or whether they're running off into the streams.
Everything seems to encourage the farmer to use more. The cost of nitrogen fertilizer runs about 5 to 7e a pound; the price of a bushel of corn varies between 90¢ and $1.70. Using extra fertilizer doesn't grow that much more corn when you're already using I50 pounds per acre and getting 120 bushels in return - but if 160 pounds will get you 121 bushels, you make a profit. And although 150 pounds per acre is about right for the area, the scientists suspect that a lot of farmers are using much more.
The scientists on the project say that the fertilizers are running off and polluting the water, at least in the stream that flows through that area. Others are inclined to disagree. What the truth of the matter is will have important consequences for the future of farming in this area, not only because nitrate pollution makes the water undrinkable, but also because it causes the kind of pollution, called eutrophication, that killed everything in Lake Erie but the algae.
Many organic farmers recommend that artificial fertilizers and pesticides, too be banned from agriculture entirely. Such a ban could be made to work; agricultural economists figure that if it happens, farm income will actually rise.
But other informed farmers and scientists aren't so sure a ban like that would be wise. "Straight manure on peaches or walnuts causes a zinc deficiency, too," says farmer Sam Tyson of Modesto, California. "I'm looking for substitutes, but for right now I still use some commercial fertilizer on my orchards."
A LITTLE HELP FROM OUR FRIENDS
If you look down the middle of the San Joaquin Valley from the air, the difference between the east and west side is pretty clear. The east side belongs mostly to the family farmers who dug irrigation systems to water it long ago, and settled down to raise orchards and vineyards.The west side, lacking the surface water for cheap irrigation, landed in the hands of rich farmers and agribusinesses who could afford the expense of installing pumps. Most of the west side is used for field crops.
In recent years, moved by corporate persuasiveness, the government has spent millions to construct reclamation projects (such as former Governor Pat Bzown's California Aqueduct) that bring water from miles away to irrigate the western side of the valley. The farmers on the east side were quite upset by this; the 1902 Reclamation Act holds that no one can receive federal irrigation water for more than 160 acres (320 if your wife files under her own name), and that federal water is available only to resident farmers - but here were the big non-resident agribusinesses using state and federal irrigation water on far more than 160 acres each. A number of the big farms have been taken to court, but since the state provides some of the water and since the status of a corporation under the law is less clear than you'd expect, the courts have simply decided sometimes for the big fazms and sometimes against them. The hostility of the family farmers remains.
The area is divided into irrigation districts; each district consists of all the farms
watered by a single source. The farmers in each district have to get together and vote on how to share the water among themselves, and the courts have ruled that the vote cast by each farm should be weighted according to its assessed valuation. In at least one district, a single big outfit has more than 50% of the assessed valuation, and therefore controls the water supply for the entire district. The little farmers aren't too happy about that, either.
What it seems to boil down to is that community togetherness is important to the family farmer - but that the big farms and agribusinesses, because they're run as businesses, are a lot more concerned with money and the competition, and a lot less concerned about sharing with neighbors. In a family farm community, all the neighbors might join in building a new house; a beginning farmer in New England told us how his truck broke down once on a back road in the pouring rain, and half the neighborhood turned out to get it running again. For an agribusiness, helping the community tends to get classed as "public relations," and those moments of spontaneous warmth are not very common.
If the family farmer hires one or two farmhands, he has a personal relationship with them right up to the day that they're mechanized out of work. It is agribusiness that has led the way in "eliminating undependable and costly farm labor" - that is, putting the migrant worker out of work. Agribusiness sponsored the development, which cost millions, of the moneysaving machine that replaced the tomato pickezs, and then ,when it found that the machine bruised the tomatoes, agribusiness spon sored another million-dollar project to develop a hard tomato the machine wouldn't bruise.
More recently, agribusinesses have been the principal targets of the United Farm Workers' grape and lettuce strikes. This was so not only because agribusinesses provide most of the employment for migrant farmwozkers in California, noz was it just because the nationally known brand names used by the agribusinesses made them easy targets for boycotts; the lack of a mare personal method of settling grievances, combined with anti-Chicano prejudice, was a big factor in creating the strike. The UFW's victory over the grape growers will be short-lived, because - true to form - grape harvesting is rapidly being mechanized. Once again the migrant workers have fallen victims to progress.
THE SUDDENLY UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Financially speaking, the new age of agribusiness may indeed have scored an occasional success, but agriculturally speaking, it has proved such a bust that right up until last fall most people assumed that it was on its way out.
It was a far cry from the high hopes of the corporate investors, eight short years before. Over a dozen of the biggest had fallen hard - like Pic 'n Pac Foods, Inc., the strawberry producer which in its final year before bankruptcy actually lost $4.5 million on sales of $10 million - or Great Western Ranches, Inc., which only a few years ago owned a four - million - acre complex of orchards, ranches, recreation land and timber; it went bankrupt in '71. Most of the survivors had either cut back their operations, changed their strategies, or gotten out completely. Tenneco is almost unique in its persistent determination - and even Tenneco is changing its emphasis more and more from farming to processing and distributing foods, a far safer investment.
Where did they go wrong? One important problem was money: because they were lacking in farm experience, neither the farm managers nor the top corporate officers understood the necessity of frugality. Their mistakes were all the worse because agribusinesses tried to start their operations ona scale far exceeding anything that had ever been tried before, running an budgets that ran into thousands of dollars per day. As they squandered their money on flashy new machinery, unnecessarily high levels of fertilizer and pesticide usage, and advisors and management who added nothing to the real productivity of the operation, the corporate farms simply slid deeper and deeper into the red.
A second problem was organization. It was easy enough to lay plans to cultivate on a gigantic scale, but in actuality the agribusiness people soon learned that the bigger the farm - past a certain level - the more confusion and waste was certain to arise.
Then there were the labor disputes with the United Farm Workers, which ended up with some of the agribusiness farms paying higher wages than anybody (even if those higher wages were more humane). The problem extended to the managerial level, too: while a farmer in charge of his own land will work long hours for a low return to see that the necessary jobs get done, hired
management is more likely to insist on fixed pay scales and overtime, and be a little more easy-going with the boss's money.
But the biggest problem turned out to be developing a feel for the needs of the farm. A fanner who knows his land, his crops, his pest problems, his animals, and his weather develops a set of intuitions for the right way to farm which count for a lot in the face of uncertainty or crisis. Somehow the agribusiness management never did seem to develop that knack.
Despite the discounts available to large purchasers of farm supplies, and despite the lower interest rates on loans available to agribusiness, the corporate farms rarely rose to the efficiency or profitability of medium-sized family farms. Most of them stayed solidly in the red.
But the story is far from over. With the sale of 422 million bushels of grain to the Soviets last August, President Nixon ushered in a new agricultural era in which, for the first time in decades, farm exports became the cornerstone of our balance-of payments strategy. Crop prices soared; soybeans, which sold for $2.50 a bushel two years ago suddenly passed the $9.00 mark. Farmers chortled with glee, because for once instead of tightening their belts they saw they were going to get fat. But agricultural prosperity meant something else to agribusinesses - a chance to resume farming without being wiped out by their losses before they achieved a competitive efficiency. At least a few of the experts were predicting that the corporations would return for another try.
And the long-term future of farming? Nobody we talked to was predicting whether agribusiness would play a part in it or not. Renewed prosperity might make of this time a turning point for our farmers. Up to now, the history of American agriculture has been one of the biggest money squeezes ever - a squeeze so bad that the farmers who kept farming were in no position to try to keep the farm communities alive, or even to respect their own land as it deserved.
A farm is a place of living things in delicate balance, and to ignore that balance or to work against it (as we do with pesticide overkill, fertilizer run-off, and agribusiness farms too big to be efficient) has simply turned out to be the hardest, most expensive way to farm. A farm community is like that, too, and to work against it, to make enemies of farmers and farm workers, turns out to be more trouble than it was worth.
The experts say that, in the long run, we have to switch from monocultures, broad-range pesticides, and excess fertilizers, or face the prospect of a farm disaster in a year not too far away. A lot of our farm machinery will have to go too when the fuel shortage really starts to pinch. And that means that people will be going back to the land to farm again.
"It's not such a bad future, really," said Conrad Heins, an organic chemist at the Denver Research Institute, whose sideline is studying pest control. "Once your basic needs are supplied, like rural electrification and sewage, you could have a lovely life out there." If you know how to farm, that is.
Now that the American farmer is entering into a new time of prosperity and security, we hope he will turn his attention to learning to farm in harmony with nature and the community. It could be the secret of feeding the globe.