Posts tagged with: farming

A Reuters article highlights the fact that U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack is praying for rain to help relieve droughts in the Midwest. The drought is having a significant impact on farmers and their crops. The negative affect will of course inevitably lead to higher food prices as the supply is cut. Experts say it could be the most severe dry spell since 1950.

The lack of rain and heat is really a simple reminder of our lack of control over the created order. Even with all of our technological advances and gadgets, we are still dependent on God. Sometimes it seems our culture and society has forgotten the source of life. Secretary Vilsack recognizes the need for prayer, and often times, governors, especially of farm states, will issue declarations for citizens to pray for rain.

God of course uses rain and droughts to get the attention of His people. The Old Testament is full of teaching on God’s use of droughts and rain to teach theology, obedience, judgment, and favor.

On the Ricky Skagg’s album Ancient Tones, there is a song titled “Give Us Rain.” Part of the lyrics to the tune certainly speak to us today,

Grandpa raised a family on a worn out cotton farm
Borrowed money on his word, he never did nobody harm
Sometimes he’d get discouraged when a dry spell came around
He’d go out in the cotton field and he’d kneel down on the ground

Give us rain on this dry old ground today
Give us rain, wash the troubled times away
I believe you’re faithful, I’m not meaning to complain
But Lord we sure could use a little rain
Lord we sure could use a little rain.

We can’t say for certain what the lack of rain means, but we know that God can give us rain. We can use the reminder that we are a world dependent on God and His goodness for our life and sustenance.

Last week, PowerBlogger Andrew Knot and I wrote posts about American sugar policy and farm subsidies, respectively. Now, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as the Catholic Relief Services and National Catholic Rural Life Conference, have come out with a joint letter on the 2012 farm bill that just passed the Senate. Among other things, they urge Congress to reduce agricultural subsidies, and limiting crop insurance to small and medium sized farms.

In 2010, the government gave out $96 billion in farm subsidies. As I pointed out last week, the median farmer’s income is already 25 percent higher than the median American’s. Furthermore, most of the farm money is going to a small number of the farmers. Big farms tend to get a much larger share of the handout than small and medium sized farms do. American agricultural policies represent welfare and protectionism for the already well off.

The USCCB’s letter can be read here.

This morning I found that a commenter on my post about government failure in feeding the poor in India had complained that we should not trust “corporations who own the government.” I think this is a point worth further consideration. After all, I would argue that in the United States we have lousy agricultural policy. We essentially still have policies from the Great-Depression era aimed at manipulating prices, and business interests predictably engaging in a form of regulatory capture.

Jordan Ballor and Ray Nothstine wrote a good piece in Acton Commentary on the issue of agricultural policy here. I particularly like their discussion on Abraham Kuyper:

What the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper said of the manual laborers of the nineteenth century is equally true of agricultural workers in the twenty-first. “Unless you wish to undermine the position of the laboring class and destroy its natural resilience,” he warned, “the material assistance of the state should be confined to an absolute minimum. The continuing welfare of people and nation, including labor, lies only in powerful individual initiative.”

When you look at the numbers, the simple fact is that most of the farm subsidies are given to large farms, not the small farmer whose image is used by those lobbying for welfare.  I highly recommend Veronique de Rugy’s Washington Examiner op-ed on this issue. She points out that the median farming household earns a wage 25 percent higher than the median American household. Are these the people who need welfare? (more…)

Detroit has has been plagued by the economic downturn more than most cities, and has struggled to recover. However, sometimes gloomy economic conditions breed innovation. That is the focus of Jordan Ballor’s “Let Detroit’s farms flourish” which appeared in the Detroit News.

Ballor explains that residents are putting vacant lots to use by urban farming:

These areas of growth, in the form of cooperatives, community programs and individual plots, represent a significant avenue for the revitalization of the city. The benefits of urban farming are manifold. Otherwise unproductive vacant lots, which have been estimated to number close to 100,000, are put to an economically and socially positive use. Urban farmers learn skills and discipline necessary to have long-term economic success.

For some, urban farming is a necessity, for others, such as the youth, it may be a new opportunity to keep them off the streets; however for everyone partaking, it is form of creativity and responsibility rooted in the Bible:

In these kinds of efforts we see the spark of human creativity and responsibility shine through in the face of adversity. This creativity reflects in a human way the creativity of the divine. The biblical account of creation includes the blessing to humankind, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the Earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28). This blessing has been understood to refer to human cultural work in all kinds of areas, including the cultivation of the land and the raising of crops. We find God’s specific injunction to Adam to reflect this aspect of cultivation quite clearly: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:16). And as the Bible begins with human beings caring for a garden, it ends with restored humanity living in a city, the New Jerusalem (Revelations 21).

Unfortunately some Detroit residents are discovering that everyone isn’t encouraging their innovation and desire to farm. City regulations are preventing some from succeeding:

There are perils, of course, and perhaps there are none greater than the political culture of regulation, entitlement and corruption that has marred the city for decades. The city government must not crush this nascent urban gardening movement through superfluous regulation and the instinctive reflex to government control.

This has already happened in the case of Neighbors Building Brightmoor, which maintains gardens on city-owned lots. Reit Schumack, who heads up the group, says that new city regulations will, among other things, prevent him from organizing a youth group as he has done in the past to grow food and sell it at a farmers market. “It’s a beautiful self-sustaining program where 15 kids are busy the entire growing season, make money, learn all kinds of skills, and really, I can’t do this. This is forbidden, what I’m doing,” Schumack recently told Michigan Public Radio.

Let’s hope that Detroit sends a message of hope and encouragement to its residents. In these struggling times, innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit should be encouraged. Detroit’s past has been plagued by a corrupt overregulated political culture. Instead of stifling growth, Detroit should seize upon this opportunity to demonstrate that it is going to take a new path towards creating a political environment that allows it to flourish once again.

Click here the read the full article.

Are the Old Continent’s farmers showing that they have a real entrepreneurial spirit and serving as role models of courage and innovation during the Great Recession? Surely not all of them, but there are some inspiring examples to be found in Central and Southern Europe.

This is somewhat surprising as Europe’s agricultural sector is usually among the most traditional, least open to market innovation and product flexibility, and heavily reliant on EU funding to keep the sector competitive. Alas, European leadership in international food trade has been slowly whittled down in the last 3-4 decades.

Some European farmers, however, are resilient and are pulling rabbits out of hats these days by risking and investing heavily to implement creative new forms of business on their farms – many of which had been on the brink of failure.

It is primarily the French and Italians who are showing their true entrepreneurial spirit and vocation to agriculture. They appear to be some of the most tenacious and creative. Just like the Michigan dairy farmer, Brad Morgan, the protagonist of Acton’s documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur, these farmers have turned to undervalued and completely overlooked assets to build lucrative profit-making ventures that often double and triple their old incomes. They have begun reshaping the way their traditional industry operates, and at a time when Europe has lost its competitive edge to cheaper food suppliers from Africa and South America.

Making matters worse has been the total evaporation of their once abundant workforce. In France, for example, rural industry employees currently make up a mere 3% of the nation’s workers, when it once boasted over 40% at the turn of the last century (cf. August 2010 Time article “How to Save Rural France”). And figures for those farmers who have registered as operating “professional” establishments in France’s campagne have dropped from 2,000,000 to 350,000 in the last fifty years. As noted out in a 2006 Acton commentary (“French ‘Security’ and Economic Reality”), this is not at all surprising: the vast majority of France’s youth dream of careers as civil servants, or want to secure life-long union protected contracts, and furthermore claim to generally dislike or distrust free market economics.

A final blow to European farming may come in a few years when the industry’s most heavily relied upon system of public subsidy – the Common Agricultural Policy – is set to undergo reform in 2013. And no one is quite certain what the consequences may be, as EU finance officials nudge the sector to become more competitive and market orientated.

Just what are they doing?


While some major industries in France, like auto manufacturing, have received generous public subsidies to remain competitive, French farmers are beginning to rely on their entrepreneurial spirit and genuine vocation to agriculture to turn their sector around.

They are achieving this by doing exactly what entrepreneurs are called to do: take risks through investment and creatively diversify their business offerings to customers.

For example, entrepreneurial farmers in the southern Ile-de-France grain producing region have utilized the bucolic beauty of their wavy golden fields and soft rolling hillsides to create profit-making ventures. The same beauty that inspired France’s great impressionnistes, now lures thousands of international vacationers to their prime holiday centers built out of once dilapidated grain storage facilities with glorious hill-top views.

It is these same farmers who are using abandoned wheat and barley fields as horse riding tracks. They are converting their dusty old barns into equestrian club houses. Others, like Rabourdin farms in Brie, have added premium beer making facilities to their production portfolios and now attract thousands to their own micro brew facilities and connoisseurs can order their products on-line.

While interviewed for the same Time article, agricultural entrepreneur Bernadette Porchelu said that for her Basque-country farm to succeed “it required a lot of work and investment.”

“But now,” she says, “We are hustling to keep up with the demand and have more than doubled our income. When we first decided to make this move, everyone said we’d fail. Today I wonder how most farms will survive if they don’t undertake similar diversification –which may be why some of our visitors include fellow farmers asking us how we made it work.”

It’s not just the French

One of Italy’s leading agricultural entrepreneurs hailing from Rome, Annibale Gozzi, says that while France is making headlines with its creative agrotourism, Italy is not lagging too far behind.

He says that “neither can Italian farms keep up with fierce international competition in food production…Manual farm labor in other parts of the world is ten times cheaper than in Italy and we simply cannot compete even with our tremendous advances farming methods and technology.”

“We too have been forced to try different things and strive for the full integration of our products, services and assets.”

Those farms that are most successful, like Gozzi’s own agrotourism south of Rome, Villa Germaine, are the ones that have become full-scale “multi-function” operations in addition to producing traditional agriculture.

Referring to his own agriculture establishment as an example, Gozzi says he has risked huge amounts of capital to maximize his farm’s business to include “integrative products and services” such as farming courses, horse riding, premium viticulture and olive oil production, tuffa cave wine and cheese tasting facilities, as well as a full-service hotel and restaurant. His establishment now even regularly hosts business luncheons and wedding receptions with lavish menus featuring his own fresh meat and produce.

He says he does this with dedication and pride, a dream to “do a first-class job for what I love”. Gozzi’s thriving business at Villa Germaine not only has allowed him to maximize his farm’s assets and profits, but truly exemplifies what it means to combine entrepreneurial spirit and tradition all in the same business.

He adds that Italians are catching on to but this type of inventiveness, “but it is still much more appreciated by foreigners and France is clearly leading the way.”

Why they really do it

Vastly increasing revenue has been a driving factor for the survival of European farmers – especially knowing their major public financial support may dramatically change in a few years’ time and as their industry is being swept away by international competition.

Even if Europe’s few remaining die-hards simply had more public financing, it doesn’t mean they would come out on top. It has not worked for decades and surely it does not provide the answer to their future.

Rather, we must follow the lead of those real entrepreneurs who in the toughest economic times are true to their vocation and come up with ingenious solutions to their sector’s woes. If there is a future at all, they are providing viable alternatives. And to do so, they must not only be highly creative. They must also be willing to take risks –a courageous attitude undertaken by those who genuinely live out a vocation and exhibit a real passion for their trade.

(This article is the first of a regular monthly series dedicated to entrepreneurship in Europe.)

Here is an question: Where do a lot of socially liberal, anti-capitalists,left-leaning, organic, environmentalist, vegan, social democrat types who enthusiastically support government regulation and nationalized health care go to find a sense of community?

Answer: Free Markets
To be more precise: Farmer’s Markets.

Spring is in the air and so I headed off to the first official day of the farmer’s market in Grand Rapids on Saturday. As you can imagine farmer’s markets not only have an abundant supply of fresh vegetables and meats–but lots of liberal bumper stickers and flocks of “counter cultural” folk who tend to look the same, and love to talk about sustainability, free range chickens, grass finished beef, and the evils of capitalism.

Yes they love to go to farmer’s markets to buy local, drink fair trade coffee, and meet up with their friends and comrades. (To be sure there are a lot regular folks and farmers who also go to the farmer’s markets, less to make a political statement, and more to buy and sell wholesome foods at good prices).

But the irony-or rather tragedy–is that if the left had their way, then agriculture would be even more controlled by the government than it is now, and local growers and farmer’s markets would be regulated out of existence.

Already small local farms face a myriad of rules and regulations that make it difficult to compete with large agricultural corporations. Many people who love to promote the “buy local” movement, too often lack a coherent understanding about how markets and regulation work and while their bumper stickers praise small, local businesses and entrepreneurs, their voting patterns support the exact opposite.

Luckily there are some coherent voices who understand the relationship between local markets, wholesome food, and political and economic liberty. One of them is Joel Salatin, Mr. Salatin runs Polyface Farms in Central Virginia. He has a lot of interesting insights into farming, family businesses and freedom.

Unlike many in the organic movement, Salatin realizes that government and bureaucracy are part of the problem. In an illuminating article, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal in Acres Magazine he documents the struggles small farmers must face to get their food to market. You can also find the book here: Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal

Salatin tells how the law requires farmers to have their cattle butchered at a USDA approved site and not on their own farms, however he writes:

When I return home to sell these delectable packages, the county zoning ordinance says that this is a manufactured product because it exited the farm and was re-imported as a value-added product, thereby throwing our farm into the Wal-Mart category, another prohibition in agricultural areas. Just so you understand this, remember that an on farm abattoir was illegal, so I took the animals to a legal abattoir, but now the selling of said products in an on-farm store is illegal.

People who praise “local-ism” need to realize that for local farmers and businesses to flourish–and for small organic farmers to be able to compete–we need free and competitive markets and not government intrusion that only benefits those companies big enough to send lobbyists to Washington or their state capitols.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 5, 2008

From the latest issue of Wired

Illustration by Dan Marsiglio–Wired.com

In one of this week’s Acton Commentaries, Ray Nothstine and I juxtapose a static, sedentary dependence on government subsidies with a dynamic, entrepreneurial spirit of innovation.

The impetus for this short piece was an article that originally appeared in the Grand Rapids Press (linked in the commentary). I have two things to say about these stories and then I want to add some further reflections on the world of agricultures subsidies.

First, I found the article’s “hook” to be quite shoddy and lame. The blatant attempt to “shock” the reader into a reaction of disgust that a billionaire like Dick DeVos, yes, “that Dick DeVos,” got a whopping “$6,000 in federal farm subsidies from 2003 to 2005.” That’s roughly $2k a year for three years.

Unsurprisingly, DeVos’ spokesperson didn’t know anything about it. It’s ludicrous to think that a guy with as much on his plate as Dick DeVos would have any time for what is essentially pocket change for a billionaire. Does the fact that DeVos got a subsidy even though he campaigned on eliminating government waste make him a hypocrite?

Judge for yourself, but I think these payments say more about the government’s inefficiency and waste than they do about DeVos’ integrity. People of all income brackets pay tax professionals to maximize their returns. For the very wealthy, it’s simply a process that’s on a bigger scale, that’s much more thorough, and with many more loopholes than when you or I go to H&R Block. The more diversified your holdings, the more likely there are a plethora of tax breaks for you to exploit. The breathless lede to this story was simply off-putting to me, especially given the rather clear political undertones of the insinuations.

“Simplify, man.”

What’s the real lesson? As a recycling hippie once told The Simpsons‘ Principal Skinner in a quite different context, “Simplify, man.” Simplify the tax code and eliminate all these special interest loopholes.

But the complaint about the story’s hook is really a minor quibble compared to my second point. In a companion piece, Lisa Rose Starner, executive director at Blandford Nature Center and Mixed Greens says that farm subsidies are essentially about “social justice.” That’s right, subsidies are about social justice. They’re about the social injustice of subsidizing a product so that people from poorer nations around the world, who would like to do more than simply engage in subsistence farming, can’t compete in a global marketplace because prices are artificially deflated. So, our subsidies are feeding the rich at the expense of the poor in more ways than one.

Of course, the pat response is that other nations are subsidizing too, so our subsidies are just leveling the playing field. To be sure, the world of agricultural business is a complex one, as many of the commenters on our piece point out. Direct farm subsidies are just one thin slice of the government’s intervention into agriculture. Perhaps they’re the most obvious, but they may also not be the most insidious. As one astute reader wrote to me, “The web of market interference in ag is broad and complex.”

Simplify, man.

Update: The Detroit News ran a version of the original piece here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, April 26, 2007

Biotech giant Monsanto has added its considerable influence to the push to restrict or ban labeling of dairy products as free from added rBST, a hormone commonly used to induce cows to produce more milk.

Christopher Wanjek, a columnist at LiveScience.com, reports that Monsanto thinks that such advertising practice “scares consumers into thinking there’s something unhealthy about its human-made recombinant bovine growth hormone.”

As I related earlier this year, Julianne Malveaux headlined a similar campaign against such labeling. The claim is that the labeling is deceiving people into buying something more expensive that doesn’t have any added safety. From the perspective of Malveaux and Monsanto, companies that use “no rBST” labeling are profiting from fear-mongering. (Fellow HuffPost blogger and progressive Kerry Trueman lambasts Monsanto here. No surprise that Trueman picks on a “multinational biotech behemoth” like Monsanto rather than Julianne Malveaux and the National Organization for African Americans in Housing.)

But as Wanjek’s (and Trueman’s) piece points out, the potential harm to humans caused by added rBST hormones isn’t the only relevant factor: “For animal welfare reasons alone, consumers have the right to know how their milk is produced.”

The ultimate in natural milk is of course untreated, unpasteurized, straight-from-the-udder, “raw” milk. The FDA and various local and regional governments have been cracking down on the sale of raw milk, arguing that the threats to consumer safety necessitate such harsh action.

Perhaps the most famous case recently came to media attention last year when an Amish farmer got into trouble over violations of a milk ordinance. Arlie Stutzman was busted in a raw milk sting operation, but claimed that his religious beliefs required him to share the milk he produces with others.

“While I can and I have food, I’ll share it,” said Stutzman. But a spokeswoman from the Ohio Department of Agriculture said, “You can’t just give milk away to someone other than yourself. It’s a violation of the law.”

That seems like a classic case of the government overstepping its boundaries and insinuating itself into a relationship characterized by free exchange and association. From Stutzman’s perspective, he’s simply fulfilling his divinely ordained responsibility to be a productive and obedient servant of God, helping others by the fruit of his labor.

Maybe Stutzman should have to disclose in some fashion, perhaps via a sign or a label, that his milk is raw, just in case some unsuspecting and rather silly city slicker should unwittingly buy milk from him thinking that it is treated.

But that’s precisely the sort of disclosure about the source and production of the milk that Malveaux and Monsanto want to prevent companies like Land O’Lakes and Stonyfield Farm from making. To be fair, Stonyfield isn’t in an any more admirable position, since it (contra Monsanto) wants the FDA “to immediately withdraw approval of rBST.”

The FDA shouldn’t be siding with major milk producers to squash competition from Amish farmers. And neither should it be taking sides in corporate marketing disputes about the merits of using or not using rBST. Let the customers have the information and decide for themselves.

Just say “No!” to corporate welfare. That’s a pretty good motto, I think.

And it seems that one form of corporate welfare, the vast system of farm subsidies, is getting some increased critical mainstream coverage. In today’s WaPo appears a story with this headline: “Federal Subsidies Turn Farms Into Big Business.”

I’ve seen quite a few stories in this vein over the past few months, exploding the mythical image of the down home family farmer. Here are some unintended consequences of the subsidies: “The very policies touted by Congress as a way to save small family farms are instead helping to accelerate their demise, economists, analysts and farmers say. That’s because owners of large farms receive the largest share of government subsidies.”

And here’s what farmer John Phipps has to say about the subsidies: “It’s embarrassing,” Phipps said. “My government is basically saying I am incompetent and need help.”

Phipps got $120,000 in subsidies despite the fact that he “harvested nearly 170,000 bushels of corn and soybeans last year on two square miles of fertile soil. He grossed nearly $500,000, putting his farm in the nation’s top 3 percent.”

These subsidies are big money, as “last year the government paid out about $15 billion in income support or price guarantees.”

Why does somebody like Phipps take the money even though it’s not a necessity? Because not taking it would put him at a great competitive disadvantage: “I’m not proud of it,” he said. “I would like to have the moral courage and financial clout not to take them. But if I don’t, I won’t be able to compete when it comes time to bid for land.”

Our own Kevin Schmiesing has some good things to say about agriculture and subsidies. Kevin says that in policy debates, “Our focus should be not so much on the preservation of the farm as on the preservation of the dignity and self-respect of the farmer. That federal subsidies will further that goal is a questionable proposition indeed.”

And for other cases of egregious corporate welfare, look no further than the construction of sports stadiums.