Some disconcerting statistics are starting to crop up (pun) in the graphs that farmers and people who invest in the “futures markets” attend to. The cold spring, and more importantly the wet spring, has delayed a lot of planting, in some cases to an “unprecedented” degree.
The problem with getting off to a late start is that it makes the planter susceptible to an early frost. In northern lands a growing-season is a limited window-of-opportunity, and there are many crops which are basically useless even if they are 95% grown.
Corn, beans, and squash were basic Native American foodstuffs, and all required warm summers. The point at which summers became too short and too cool was the dividing line between the agricultural Indians that grew the “three sisters”, and the hunter-gatherer Indians to their north. Here in New England there was, when the first Europeans arrived, a noticeable difference between northern and southern tribes, largely revolving around the most practical way to avoid the bother of hunger, called in extreme cases “starvation” or “famine”.
Modern Americans are some of the most spoiled people on earth, when it comes to worrying at all about food. In America the poor and uneducated are strikingly fat, which leads to jokes about the sanity of Americans. People from other lands know what it is like to walk into a grocery store and see no food on the shelves. Americans cannot envision such a state of affairs, and many haven’t a clue where their food even comes from.
This is an amazing downfall from the situation in my grandfather’s childhood in the 1890’s, when over half of all Americans were farmers, and all had to deal with horses because the automobile hadn’t been invented. Americans have been orphaned from Mother Nature, first by entering the indoor reality of the mills and factories, and now by living life gazing into the screens of TV’s and computers.
Fortunately, perhaps because of the agricultural foundations of America, many Americans resist the movement into the indoors, and have a somewhat idealist drive to be outdoors-men, (even when it is obvious they are pretenders.) The original idea of a suburb, (which is in some ways the antithesis of a true farming community), was sold to gullible Americans because people wanted to escape the city and get “back to nature”. Then, when the children of the suburbs realized suburbs were nothing like farms, the children became Hippies who wanted to form “communes” and get “back to nature” in a more genuine manner. Such Hippies tended to bail out from their ideal communes, once they realized how much hard work was involved, and sought a better-paying life in a bank or making a new thing called “computers”. Once they got some of this better-pay, what did they want to do with the money? Move out a bit farther from the city, outside of the sterilized suburbs, and create a little, toy farm and get “back to nature”.
Every ten years America has a census, and one thing the census attempts to determine is people’s “occupation”. The census-taker asks you to fit yourself into a list of categories. One category was always “farmer”. But the category “farmer” will not even exist in the 2020 census. Farmers in some ways no longer matter, they are such a tiny minority. Is it any wonder that, if you bring up Jefferson’s ideas about “Yeoman Farmers”, many respond with a look of complete incomprehension?
This incomprehension strikes me as a bad thing. It is a form of ignorance, and ignorance isn’t good. In my small way I fight against such ignorance by running a Farm-Childcare where children can see what my grandfather took for granted. After ten years of dealing with modern youth I no longer am surprised when children, with innocent honesty, ask questions such as, “Why do you dig carrots from the dirty dirt rather than get clean carrots from the store?” or “Why do you get eggs from that hen’s stinky butt when the supermarket’s eggs are clean?”
My grandfather would have never asked such questions, as a child. He was not divorced from the outdoors to the degree we have achieved.
To some degree we have achieved a good thing, for we are not as cold nor as hungry, but in another way we have become stupid, because we do not have the same desire to work hard to avoid being cold or hungry. Many only experience hunger on purpose, when they diet.
We think food is a given. It most certainly is not. We think we have escaped Mother Nature. Again, we have not.
Even though the American census will no longer ask if people’s occupation is “farmer”, a surprising number of Americans still farm. They may not list it as their “occupation” on the census, but they devote time and money to their “hobby”. They produce tiny crops and sell at local farmer’s markets, yet people will pay double for what they produce.
Why? Because it tastes better. How much better? Well, when you can get eggs for $2.00 a dozen at a supermarket, some will pay $4.00 a dozen for “free range” eggs at a farmer’s market. That is how much better the eggs taste. The yolks are yellower and bulge up from the frying pan, rather than sagging flat, and the whites of each egg are of two consistencies, (thin and watery, and jelly-like), rather than the single, slimy substance which egg-whites turn into, when they sit in commercialized refrigerators for weeks and even months. But most importantly, they taste better. When people taste free range eggs they say, “Oh yes, this is what eggs taste like; I had forgotten.”
This is no big deal, if it is just one fellow selling an extra dozen eggs his six hens lay which he himself can’t eat, a few times a week. But, if it is thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of small fellows selling eggs, it adds up, and threatens a part of American Agribusiness called “Big Chicken”. Like “Big Oil”, they have a lobby in Washington, and seek to to protect their multi-million-dollar investments in non-free-range chickens by concocting complex legislation and thick sheaves of regulations that makes it a total headache for an ordinary bloke to simply sell a dozen eggs.
I personally have yet to deal with Big Chicken, but did experience the threat of Big Milk. Back when I was milking my goats I sold the raw milk (and some cheese we made of that milk), to people who wanted such produce. Then I learned such industry was highly illegal. In California the Federal Government had spent considerable dollars to arrange agents to come down hard on a store selling raw milk, as if they were selling drugs, or involved in child-prostitution. The hippies in a small store in San Francisco were flabbergasted when a veritable SWAT team charged into their New Age shop from all sides with drawn guns.
What was the crime? Apparently, in the entire United States, raw milk had caused seven cases of some serious illness. This was the excuse used to make a farmer selling his own raw milk illegal. Not wishing to face a SWAT team, I then looked into making my industry legal, and discovered regulations involved having hot and cold water taps in three separate rooms with tables and all pails made of stainless steel. I decided the investment, (a year’s income for a poor fellow like me), was not worth selling a little milk, and also decided the children at my Childcare would not benefit from seeing Federal agents (who ought be dealing with drug smugglers) swoop in and lead me off in handcuffs, so I stopped milking my goats, which was exactly what the Big Milk Lobby wanted. Apparently their slim profits were threatened by dangerous outlaws like me.
Jefferson likely was rolling in his grave. It was a perfect example of Big Government (AKA “The Swamp”) oppressing the Yeoman Farmer, which Jefferson detested. But taking things a step further, in terms of Americans feeding fellow Americans, it was suicidal.
You see, there is a thing that doesn’t care a hoot for government regulations, called “The Weather”. And it can reduce a crop to zero, and no lobby in Washington an stop it.
Currently agribusiness is deeply concerned because President Trump is increasing tariffs to China, and China might get mad and retaliate by refusing to buy our soybeans. This would be a sad situation for agribusiness’s soybean-producers, if they actually had any soybeans to sell.
They might not. If you look back to the graph I started this post with, and understand corn can’t be planted because the weather is bad, you should understand soybeans also can’t be planted, if the fields remain a sea of mud in pouring rain. In other words, we might have a very low production of soybeans this year.
In such a case the crafty politician-capitalists of China, thinking they might “leverage” a deal to get lower soybean prices, might be flabbergasted to discover there was no deal to be had, because America had no soybeans to sell.
Just as China assumes American agribusiness is so brilliant it will always produce a huge surplus of soybeans, the American people assume agribusiness will always produce full shelves in supermarkets. But Mother Nature can step in and turn millions of square-miles of farmland into swamps. This is what happened in Europe, when the Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age, and a terrible famine was the result.
However many young Americans are not only divorced from the dirt-poor farms their forefathers worked hard to farm, (and propelled their nation to greatness through farming), and not only do young Americans also fail to study history and see how the plenty of good times can be followed by the poverty of bad times, but they also don’t even know enough to store up extra food in their kitchen shelves for the next day, let alone for a serious famine. Many hardly use their kitchens at all, preferring to buy prepared food.
My grandmother behaved as if famine was right around the corner. She was always canning and pickling and salting the plenty of the present tense, because she knew the plenty of the present might fail. And she actually once saw plenty fail, when the stock market crashed in 1929. My Grandfather had to work without pay to keep his boss’s business from failing, but my Grandmother kept producing dinner on the table, because she had so much canned and salted and pickled.
Sad to say, modern wives are not so prepared. Some live such a day-to-day existence that, in their kitchens, they have not even a can of beans for tomorrow.
My advice is to stock up. It will not cost much. I’m not talking beef in freezers. I’m talking dry stuff, like flour and beans, cornmeal and dried lentils, rice and dried peas.
Throw in a few cans of tuna or chicken, and maybe some tomato sauce and salsa, and it just might be that you are sitting pretty as other Americans riot out on the streets.
And if you have an actual garden, and grow actual food, you may be in for a battle, if this summer continues cold and wet. But fight the good fight. Your small harvest may be far better than that of agribusiness, which I fear has forgotten the reality of honest dirt in favor of the swamp called politics.
I hope my forecast is wrong. But, if one is going to be an Alarmist, it is far cheaper to store up some food in your pantry, than to derange the entire economy by banning fossil fuels and erecting a wind turbine in your pasture and solar panels on your barn. You can’t eat good intentions.