November 24th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

We Didn't Used to Have Farm Policy, Per Se

The building of the trans-continental railroad is one of those events that clearly divides history into two clearly different parts. There is before, and then there is after, and after, everything is different than it was before. There is no aspect of American life that wasn't changed in some way by the building of the trans-continental railroad, and American farm policy is one of them. America didn't used to have a farm policy, per se. We had farmers. Even as late as the mid 19th century, most people in America and the rest of the world were still growing their own food, and selling the few left-overs to a handful of specialists to do the few non-farm jobs like blacksmithing and what-not, and even most of them had grown up on farms. So the idea that the government had to teach farmers how to farm would have been ludicrous on the face of it. Everybody knew how to farm. Having the government teach people how to farm would have been as silly as having the government teach people how to walk; most people were probably farming before they even started walking.

The building of the trans-continental railroad marked the high point of America's transition from a farm economy to an industrial economy. It couldn't have happened without a growing industrial society, and it was industrial America's greatest triumph. However, it was also the single greatest fraud ever perpetrated on the American public by any business. Compared to the directors of the original (not the current, but the original) Union Pacific railroad, Ken Lay and Bernie Ebbers look like Arnold Schweitzer. They started it as a corrupt system of bribes to congressmen in exchange for government land and money subsidies. When the bribe money ran out, they financed additional bribes (and the actual construction of the railroad, almost as an afterthought) through a series of stock swindles that were nothing more than the world's largest Ponzi scheme, pyramid scheme. As inevitably happens to pyramid schemes, eventually they ran out of suckers to sell more railroad shares to, and the whole thing collapsed under its own weight. Miraculously, they had finished the actual rail construction first, so there were assets for new investors to pick up for pennies on the dollar, but the private investors and banks who'd poured in most of the money got basically zip. It crashed the banks, it dumped many thousands of people onto unemployment, and the secondary effects rattled through the economy for years.

In previous economic downturns, whether they were better or worse, this hadn't been the crisis that it was at the end of the 19th century. Since virtually everybody lived on farms, the few people who didn't, returned to their families' farms. People were poor, and the economy suffered, but hardly anybody starved and hardly anybody went without a roof to sleep under. But because of the transformation of the US economy, the cities were now full of people who'd never lived on a farm, who didn't know anybody who owned a farm, some of whom had never even lived in America until right before the collapse, and they were starving in the cold. But the government had an idea what to do about that. In no small part because of the railroad, the Indian Wars were finally over; there would still be isolated pockets of ineffectual resistance, but as a military force the native nations were finished once and for all. So the government had gazillions of acres of grassland, from Oklahoma to Montana, from central Colorado to western Missouri, with hardly anybody living on it. If it would grow grass, then obviously the climate and soil were right to grow wheat and corn. They had all these unemployed people who weren't doing anything better, and they had the rails to get those people out to the Great Grass Sea (along with some basic hand tools and an initial seed loan) basically for free. Since semi-wild herds of horses and cattle that had escaped onto the Great Plains during the Civil War had thrived, all they had to do to supply would-be farmers with a couple of cattle and a couple of horses was send someone out to round them up for next-to-free. So they expanded the Homesteading program, giving away tons and tons of free land to anybody willing to go out there, set up a farm, and grow their own food.

It seemed like a win-win situation. America got settlers to nail down the land recently stolen from the Indians. Unemployed people got food, houses, and jobs. The people who stayed back in the old farm belt could divert their effort into growing crops that take more expertise than basic cereal grains, and trade them to the new farmers out on the plains for cheap wheat and corn. And more importantly, America got more family farmers, and it is a fundamental assumption in American politics that family farmers are good for democracy. Yes, it sounded like a good idea at the time ... and it might have been a good idea if it weren't for the fact that these people were city people, who had no idea at all how to run a farm. They didn't understand that soil fertility is a finite resource that has to be renewed. Instead of rotating crops, they grew the same crops over and over again thinking that that way they could build up some expertise in that crop. Instead of spreading the manure from their animals as fertilizer, they burned it as fuel. And then, as if to guarantee that the land got wrecked, they plowed the land up and down the hills, instead of along the contours, thinking it was safer for their draft animals that way. So every time it rained, more of their topsoil (and not a little of their seed) washed downstream into the Missouri river and out into the Gulf of Mexico. It took them less than 25 years to completely and utterly destroy the land. The stage was set for two somewhat unusually dry years in a row to weaken their increasingly sickly ground cover that was clinging increasingly precariously to their increasingly washed-away topsoil ... and the whole middle of the country dried up and blew away on the wind, in the Great Dust Bowl. They had managed to replace the economic collapse of the end of the railroad stock bubble with an even worse economic collapse.

It didn't take long to figure out that total ignorance was the cause of the Dust Bowl. But for all that some of them hit the road to try to find jobs back in the cities their parents had come from, what the whole country really wanted was to keep those people out there on the plains, to find ways to save their farms. So they set out to cure the root problem of ignorance, and they worked the problem hard. They hired as many experienced farmers as they could, mostly people who'd grown up on farms but who couldn't afford farmland of their own (and whose parents were still using theirs), and sent those people out as Agriculture Agents, to go door to door in every rural county in America to give practical advice on how to save their farms. They put together training manuals for good farming practices and sent them to every school, to set up subsidized and encouraged Future Farmers of America clubs in places that had never before thought of having one. They donated federal land, and construction money, to any rural county willing to partially fund any kind of a college (the famous Land-Grant Colleges) on the condition that those schools also have an Agriculture Department. And they assigned the US Department of Agriculture the job of hiring the best agricultural scientists in America to write a brand-new, state of the art, can't-fail set of plans for running a farm, the Manual of Standard Farming Practices.

You may be conditioned to think that government programs can't work, but that's because you don't know the history of the 1930s very well. This plan worked like gangbusters. It did what nobody has been able to do before or since, it saved family farms all over America. Too bad that the same mechanisms were abused by greedy corporations and their hand-picked scientific-credentialed idiots, only a generation later, to destroy the family farm just as thoroughly as they had once saved it. That story, tomorrow, so until then, don't ask me about the Green Revolution, the various crop subsidy and price support programs that we've had over the last two generations, Farm Aid, or the multitudinous government regulations that have managed to take an already nightmarish situation and make it even worse. I promise, I'll get to that.