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Home Economics - Analysis of U.S. Agricultural Policy

If economy means "management of a household" -- which is the only thing that it can mean -- then we have a system of national accounting that bears no resemblance to the national economy whatsoever; it is not the record of our life at home, but the fever chart of our consumption. Our national economy--the health of which might be indicated by our net national product, derived by subtracting our real losses from our real gains -- is perhaps a top secret.

One reason for this is the geographical separation that frequently exists between losses and gains. Agricultural losses occur on the farm and in farming communities, whereas the great gains of agriculture all occur in cities, just as the profits from coal are realized mainly in cities far from where the coal is mined. Almost always the profit is realized by people who are under no pressure or obligation to realize the losses--people who are so positioned by wealth and power that they need assign no value at all to what is lost. The cost of soil erosion is not deducted from the profit on a packaged beefsteak, just as the loss of forest, topsoil, and human homes on a Kentucky mountainside does not reduce the profit on a ton of coal.

We have a system of national accounting that bears no resemblance to the national economy whatsoever; it is not the record of our life at home, but the fever chart of our consumption

If this peculiar estrangement between losses and gains, between products and their real costs, is institutionalized anywhere it is in our ubiquitous word, resource. One definition of this word is close to the meaning of the Latin root of the word, resurgere, to rise again. In this sense, a resource is a dependable, which is to say a constant, supply. A resource, in this sense, rises again as a spring rises, refilling its basin, after a bucket of water has been dipped out. And this is what the topsoil and what the human culture of farming can do under the right "household management," the right economy. They replenish themselves. They are self-renewing. They can last as long as the earth and the sun. The right economy, of course, is right insofar as it respects the source, respects the power of the source to resurge and so does not use too much.

But there is another, an opposite, definition of resource: "Means that can be used to advantage." That is the definition of the word as we now use it. Now, with us, everything is looked upon as a resource of this kind, even people--the state of Kentucky, for example, now has a Department of Human Resources. With us, a resource is something that has no value until it has been made into something else. Thus a tree has value only insofar as it can be made into lumber. Our schools, which are more and more understood and justified as dispensers of "job training," are thus based on the implicit principle that children have no value until they have been made into employees.

Under the right economy, the human culture of farming is replenishing, self-renewing and can last as long as the earth and sun.

Common sense suggests that it is not possible to make a good thing out of a bad thing. We can see that it is not possible to prepare a good meal from poor food, or to produce good food from poor soil, or to maintain good soil without good farming, or to have good farming without a good culture--a culture that places a proper value on the proper maintenance of the natural sources so that the needed resources are constantly available. We can see, thus, that food is a product both natural and cultural, and that good cooking must be said to begin with good farming. A good economy would value our bodily nourishment in all of its transformations from the topsoil to the dinner table--and beyond, for it would place an appropriate value on our excrement too, and would return it to the soil; in a good economy there would be no such thing as "waste," bodily or otherwise. At every stage of its making, our nourishment would be a "finished product" in the sense of being "done with.'

We must also notice that as the natural energy approaches human usability, it passes through a declension of forms less and less complex. A potato is less complex than the topsoil, a steak than a steer, a cooked meal than a farm. If, in the human economy, a squash on the table is worth more than a squash in the field, and a squash in the field is worth more than a bushel of soil, that does not mean that food is more valuable than soil. It means simply that we do not know how to value the soil. In its complexity and its at least potential longevity, the soil exceeds our comprehension. We do not know how to place a just market value on it, and we are not going to be able to learn how. Its value is inestimable; we must value it, beyond whatever price we put on it, by respecting it, by taking good care of it.

In a good economy there would be no such thing as "waste," bodily or otherwise.

The industrial economy, on the other hand, reduces the value of a thing to its market price, and it sets the market price in accordance with the capacity of a thing to be made into another kind of thing. Thus a farm is valued only for its ability to produce marketable livestock and/or crops; livestock and crops are valued only insofar as they can be manufactured into groceries; groceries are valued only to the extent that they can be sold to consumers. An absolute division is thus made at every stage of the industrial process between "raw materials," to which, as such, we accord no respect at all, and "finished products," which we respect only to the extent of their market value. A lot could be said about the quality of the "finish" of these products, but the critical point, here, is that in the industrial economy, value in the form of respect is withheld from the source, and value in the form of price is always determined by reference to a future usability; nothing is valued for what it is.

But when nothing is valued for what it is, everything is destined to be wasted. Once the values of things refer only to their future usefulness, then an infinite withdrawal of value from the living present is begun. Nothing (and nobody) can then exist that is not theoretically replaceable by something (or somebody) more valuable. Things of value begin to be devalued. The country that we (or some of us) had thought to make our home becomes instead "a nation rich in natural resources." The good bounty of the land begins its mechanical metamorphosis into junk, garbage, silt, poison and other forms of "waste."

In such an economy, no farm or any other usable property can safely be regarded by anyone as a home. No home is ultimately worthy of our loyalty. Nothing is ultimately worth doing. No place or task or person is worth a lifetime's devotion. That "waste,' in such an economy, should include several categories of humans--the unborn, the old, "disinvested" farmers, the unemployed, the unemployable--is simply inevitable. Once our homeland, our source, is regarded as a "resource,' we are all sliding downward toward the ashheap or the dump.

Once our homeland, our source, is regarded as a "resource,' we are all sliding downward toward the ashheap or the dump.

If in agriculture we replace the standard of productivity with that of constant supply, and think of the farm land and the farm people as resources in the sense of their ability to rise and replenish themselves again and again, then a number of dangerous and widely credited fallacies become apparent. I want to talk now about six of these:

1. That agriculture may be understood and dealt with as an industry.

This is false, first of all, because agriculture deals with living things and biological processes, whereas the materials of industry are not alive and the processes are mechanical. That agriculture can produce only out of the lives of living creatures means that the farmer is necessarily a nurturer, a preserver of the health of creatures.

Second, whereas a factory has a limited life expectancy, the life of a healthy farm is unlimited. Buildings and tools wear out, but the topsoil, if properly used and maintained, will not wear out. Some agricultural soils have remained in continuous use for four or five thousand years or more.

Third, the motives of agriculture are fundamentally different from the motives of industry. This is partly accounted for by the differences between farming and industry that I have already mentioned. Another reason is that, in our country and many others, the best farms have always been homes as well as work places. Unlike factory hands and company executives, farmers do not go to work. A good farmer is at work even when at rest. Over and over again, experience has shown that the motives of the wage earner are inadequate to farming. American experience has shown this, but is perhaps nowhere so dramatically demonstrated as in Soviet Russia, where small privately-farmed plots greatly outproduce the communal fields. And, finally, the economy of industry is inimical to the economy of agriculture. The economy of industry is, typically, an extractive economy. It takes, makes, uses, and discards. It progresses from exhaustion to pollution. Agriculture, on the other hand, rightly belongs to a replenishing economy that takes, makes, uses, and returns. It involves the return to the source, not just of fertility, of so-called "wastes," but of care and affection. Otherwise, the topsoil is used exactly as a mineable fuel and is destroyed in use. Thus, in agriculture, the methods of the factory give us the life expectancy of the factory--long enough for us, perhaps, but not long enough for our children and grandchildren.

The motives of agriculture are fundamentally different from the motives of industry.

2. That a sound agricultural economy can be based on an export market.

We should begin, I think by assuming that a sound economy cannot be based on any market that it does not control.

And we should assume, further, that any foreign market for food ought to be temporary, and therefore, by definition, not dependable. The best thing for any nation or people, obviously, is to grow its own food, and therefore charity alone would forbid us to depend on or to wish for a permanent market for our agricultural products in any foreign country. And we must ask too whether or not charity can ever regard hungry people as "a market."

But the commercial principle itself is unsafe if it is not made subject to other principles. One of the principles that should everywhere condition the commercial principle in agriculture is that of subsistence. Commercial farming, that is, must never be separated from subsistence farming. The farm family should live from the farm. Just as the farm should be, so far as possible, the source of its own fertility and operating energy, so it should be, so far as possible, the source of food, shelter, fuel, building materials, etc., for the farm family. Thus the basis of the livelihood of the farming population is assured. In times such as these, when costs of purchased supplies are high and earnings from farm produce low, the value of whatever the farm family produces for itself is high and involves substantial savings. What is exported from the farm, in whatever quantity, is properly regarded as surplus--not needed for subsistence.

We must ask whether or not charity can ever regard hungry people as "a market."

But the subsistence principle should operate at every level of the agricultural system. The local consumer population in towns and cities should subsist, so far as possible, from the produce of the locality or region. The primary reason for this, in the region as on the farm, is that it is safe, but there are other reasons also. It would tend to diversify local farming. It would support the local farm economy. It would greatly reduce transportation and other costs. It would put fresher food on the table. It would increase local employment. And what would be exported from the region would, again, be regarded as surplus.

The same principle would then apply to the nation as a whole. We should subsist from our own land, and the surplus would be available for export markets, or for charity in emergencies.

The surplus should not be regarded as merely incidental to subsistence but as equally necessary for safety--a sort of "floating" supply usable to compensate for both differences and vagaries of climate. Because of droughts, floods, and storms, no farm or region or even nation can be forever assured of a subsistence, and it is only because of this that an exportable surplus has a legitimate place in agricultural planning.

3. That the "free market" can preserve agriculture.

The "free market"--the unbridled play of economic forces--is bad for agriculture because it is unable to assign a value to things that are necessary to agriculture. It gives a value to agricultural products, but it cannot give a value to the sources of those products in the topsoil or the ecosystem or the farm or the farm family or the farm community. Indeed, people who look at farming from the standpoint of the "free market" do not understand the relation of product to source. They believe that the relation is merely mechanical, because they believe that agriculture is or can be an industry. And the "free market" is helpless to suggest otherwise.

The "free market" values production alone. And this exclusive emphasis on production, in agriculture, inevitably causes overproduction. In agriculture, both high prices and low prices cause overproduction. But overproduction leads only to low prices, never to high prices. It could perhaps be said, then, that on the "free market' agricultural productivity has no direct or stable relation to value.

The "free market" values production alone. And this exclusive emphasis on production, in agriculture, inevitably causes overproduction.

When this is so, agriculture overproduces, and the surplus is used as a weapon against the producer to beat down prices, either in the service of a "cheap food policy" for domestic consumers, or to make our agricultural produce competitive in world trade.

In a time when urban investment in agriculture ("agribusiness") stimulates a higher productivity than the urban economy can provide a market for, then the rural economy can be protected only by controlling production. Supplies should be adjusted to anticipated needs, and those needs should always include surpluses to be used in case of crop failure. Such an adjustment can be only approximate, of course, but since we are dealing with an annual productivity, yearly corrections can be made. Thus the sources of production can be preserved by preventing runaway surpluses and the consequent low markets that destroy both people and land.

The "free market" is economic Darwinism, with one critical qualification. Whereas the Darwinian biologists have always acknowledged the violence of the competitive principle, the political Darwinians have been unable to resist the temptation to suggest that, on the "free market," both predator and prey are beneficiaries. When economic ruin occurs, according to this view, it occurs only as a result of economic justice. Thus Mr. David Stockman could suggest that the dispossession of thousands of farm families is merely the result of the working of "a dynamic economy," which compensates their losses by "massive explosions of new jobs and investments...occurring elsewhere, in Silicon Valley." That these failures and successes are not happening to the same people, or even to the same groups of people, is an insight beyond the reach of Mr. Stockman's equipment.

By his reasoning it may readily be seen that the proverty of the poor is justified by the richness of the rich.

The "free market" idea is the result of a lazy (when not felonious) wish to found to human economy on natural law. The trouble with this is that humans are not of nature in the same way that foxes and rabbits are. Humans live artificially, by artifice and by art, by human making, and economics will finally have to be answerable to this. Unbridled economic forces damage both nature and human culture.

There must be a decent balance between what people earn and what they pay, and this can be made possible only by control of production. When farmers have to sell on a depressed market and buy on an inflated one, that is death to farmers, death to farming, death to rural communities, death to the soil, and (to put it in urban terms) death to food.

There are, I suggest, two human laws of economics, very different from the laws, both unnatural and inhuman, that govern the "free market":

Money must not lie about value. It must not, by inflation or usury, misrepresent the value of necessary work or necessary goods. Those values must not, by any devices of markets or banks, be made subject to monetary manipulation.

There must be a decent balance between what people earn and what they pay, and this can be made possible only by control of production. When farmers have to sell on a depressed market and buy on an inflated one, that is death to farmers, death to farming, death to rural communities, death to the soil, and (to put it in urban terms) death to food.

4. That productivity is the only necessary standard of production.

By and large, the most popular way of dealing with American agricultural problems has been to praise American agriculture. For decades we have been wandering in a blizzard of production statistics pouring out of the government, the universities, and the "agribusiness" corporations. No politician's brag would be complete without a tribute to "the American farmer" who is said to be single-handledly feeding 57 or 75 or God knows how many people. American agriculture is fantastically productive, and by now we all ought to know it.

That American agriculture is also fantastically expensive is less known, but is equally undeniable, even though the costs have not yet entered into the official accounting. The costs are in loss of soil, in loss of farms and farmers, in soil and water pollution, in food pollution, in the decay of country towns and communities, and in the increasing vulnerability of the food supply system. The statistics of productivity alone cannot show these costs. We are nevertheless approaching a "bottom line' that is not on our books.

From an agricultural point of view, a better word than productivity is thrift. It is a better word because it implies a fuller accounting. A thrifty person is undoubtedly a productive one, but thriftiness also implies a proper consideration for the means of production. To be thrifty is to take care of things. It is to thrive--that is, to be healthy by being a part of health. One cannot be thrifty alone. One can only be thrifty insofar as one's land, crops, animals, place, and community are thriving.

The costs are in loss of soil, in loss of farms and farmers, in soil and water pollution, in food pollution, in the decay of country towns and communities, and in the increasing vulnerability of the food supply system.

The great fault of the selective bookkeeping we call "the economy" is that it does not lead to thrift. Day by day, we are acting out the plot of a murderous paradox: an "economy" that leads to extravagance. Our great fault as a people living in this economy is that we do not take care of things. Our economy is such that we say we "cannot afford' to take care of things. Labor is expensive, time is expensive, money is expensive, but materials --the stuff of Creation--are so cheap that we cannot afford to take care of them. The wrecking ball is characteristic of our way with materials. We "cannot afford' to log a forest selectively, or to mine without destroying topography, or to farm without catastrophic soil erosion.

A production-oriented economy can indeed live in this way--but only so long as production lasts.

Suppose that, foreseeing the inevitable failure of this sort of production, we see that we must assign a value to continuity. If that happens, then our standard of production will have to change, indeed will already have changed, for the standard of productivity alone cannot assign a value to continuity. It cannot permit us to see that continuity has a value. The value of continuity is visible only to thrift.

5. That there are too many farmers.

This has been accepted doctrine in the offices of agriculture--in governments, universities, and corporations--ever since World War II. Its history is a remarkable proof of the influence of an idea. In the last forty years this idea has supported, if indeed it has not caused, one of the most consequential migrations of history: millions of rural people moving from country to city in a stream that has not slackened from the war's end until now. And the motivating force behind this migration, then as now, has been economic ruin on the farm. Today, with hundreds of farm families losing their farms every week, the economists are still saying, as they have said all along, that these people deserve to fail, that they have failed because they are the "least efficient producers," and that America is better off for their failure.

It is apparently easy to say that there are too many farmers, if one is not a farmer. This is not a pronouncement often heard in farm communities. Nor have farmers yet been informed of a dangerous surplus of population in the "agribusiness' professions, or among the middlemen of the food system. No agricultural economist has yet perceived that there are too many agricultural economists.

The farm-to-city migration has obviously produced advantages to the corporate economy.

The absent farmers have had to be replaced by machinery, petroleum, chemicals, credit and other expensive goods and services from the "agribusiness" economy, which ought not to be confused with the economy of what used to be called farming.

But these short-term advantages all imply long-term disadvantages to both country and city. The departure of so many people has seriously weakened rural communities and economies all over the country. And that our farmland no longer has enough caretakers is implied by the fact that as the farming people have departed from the land, the land itself has departed. Our soil erosion rates are now higher than they were during the Dust Bowl.

The agribusiness economy ought not to be confused with the economy of what used to be called farming.

At the same time, the cities have had to receive a great influx of people unprepared for urban life and unable to cope with it. A friend of mine, a psychologist who has frequently worked with the juvenile courts in a large midwestern city, has told me that a major occupation of the police force there is to keep the "permanently unemployable" confined in their own part of town. Such a circumstance cannot be good for the future of democracy and freedom. One wonders what the authors of our Constitution would have thought of that category, "permanently unemployable."

Equally important is the question of the sustainability of the urban food supply. The supermarkets are, at present, crammed with food, and the productivity of American agriculture is, at present, enormous. But this is a productivity based, at present, on the ruin both of the producers and of the source of production. City people are unworried about this, apparently, only because they do not know anything about farming. People who know about farming, who know what the farmland requires to remain productive, are worried. When topsoil losses exceed the weight of grain harvested by five times (in Iowa) or by twenty times (in the wheatlands of eastern Washington) there is something to worry about.

When the "too many" of the country arrive in the city, they are not called "too many." In the city they are called "unemployed" or "permanently unemployable."

What will happen if the economists ever perceive that there are too many people in the cities? There appear to be only two possibilities: Either they will have to recognize that their earlier diagnosis was a tragic error, or they will conclude that there are too many people in country and city both -- and what further inhumanities will be justified by that diagnosis?

Both parties to our political dialogue seem to have concluded long ago that the dispossession and disemployment of people by industrial growth are normal and acceptable. The liberals have wished to support these people with welfare giveaways. The conservatives have instructed them to become ambitious and get jobs. Both are ways of telling the underprivileged to go to hell--the only difference being in the speed with which they are advised to go.

What will happen if the economists ever perceive that there are too many people in the cities? There appear to be only two possibilities: Either they will have to recognize that their earlier diagnosis was a tragic error, or they will conclude that there are too many people in country and city both -- and what further inhumanities will be justified by that diagnosis?

6. That hand labor is bad.

This, too, is accepted doctrine, and it will be found to be one of the chief supports of the doctrine that there are too many farmers. The forced migration of farmers from the farm will be easier on the general conscience if it can be supposed that bankruptcy and dispossession are ways of saving farmers from work that is beneath their dignity.

We can only assume that we are faced with an unquestioned social dogma when so astute a writer as Jane Jacobs can say without blinking that, "Cotton picking by hand is miserable labor; driving a cotton picker is not." A great many questions would have to be asked and answered before this assertion could be allowed to stand. Wes Jackson is certainly right in his insistence that the pleasantness or unpleasantness of farm work depends upon scale--upon the size of the field and the size of the crop. But also we obviously need to know who owns the field. We would need to know the experience and the expectations of the workers. We would need to know about the skill of the workers and the quality of the work. After consideration of such matters, we can say that probably any farm work is miserable, whether done by hand or by machine, if it is economically desperate--if it does not secure the worker in some stable, decent, rewarding connection to the land worked. We can say that hand work in a small field owned by the worker, with the expectation of a decent economic return, is probably less miserable than mechanized work in somebody else's large field. We can suppose with some confidence, moreover, that hand work in the company of family and neighbors might be less miserable than work done alone in the unrelieved noise of a machine.

The fact remains, of course, that millions of hand workers have been and are being replaced by machines, and that the farmers now losing their farms are to some extent being so replaced. Many people apparently assume that this process of "labor saving," the substitution of machines for people, can continue indefinitely, and to the unending betterment of the human lot. Even so, we must continue to ask about the possible necessity, the possible goodness, and the possible inescapability, of hand work.

My own suspicion is that, especially for the private owners of small properties such as farms, hand work may become more necessary as petroleum and other "industrial inputs" become more expensive. Increasingly too, I think, farmers will find it necessary to substitute their own hand labor, in such work as carpentry and machinery repair, for more expensive city labor.

But I suspect also that a considerable amount of hand work may remain necessary for reasons other than economics. It will continue to be necessary in the best farming, because the best farming will continue to rely on the attentiveness and particularity that go with the use of the hands. Animal husbandry will continue to require the use of the hands. So, I think, will much of the work of land restoration, and we are going to have a lot of that to do.

Judgment from our epidemic of obesity and other diseases of sedentary life, and from the popularity of the various strenuous employments of the "physical fitness movement," the greatest untapped source of useable energy may now be in human bodies. It may become the task of a future economy to give worthy employment to this energy and reward its use.

The greatest untapped source of useable energy may now be in human bodies. It may become the task of a future economy to give worthy employment to this energy and reward its use.