Last week I pointed out that the most important step in preserving
the family farm is making the moral argument that the family farm is a
seedbed of the essential virtues of American citizenship. We should
remember that nobody in his right mind would commit to family farming
over the generations if all he cared about was money. Cultivation of the
earth bears more important fruit than mere profit, and this is why so
many of our citizens have stubbornly clung to farming as a way of life
despite great economic hardship.
But a renewed farming sector must make economic sense, and not just
moral sense. As I said last week, there is no compelling economic
necessity preventing the survival and flourishing of this critical
institution. We need not adopt short-sighted socialist policies to help
it. We will, however, need to expect from our farmers the ingenuity,
flexibility, and prudence that are so typically American, and which have
for three centuries permitted Americans to create and exploit economic
activity where governments or people with less energy have not seen it.
The farm sector does not have to lapse into non-profitability, and
its preservation need not require that we substitute the artificial
profitability of socialized agriculture for real profitability, or try
to replace the return that ought to come from the marketplace with
transferred tax revenue from the government. We do face this temptation
now, and we must not give in to it. Nor should we allow the good sense
and careful judgment of farmers to be replaced with the bureaucratic
decision-making of government. We must not permit the present crisis of
American agriculture, which needs to be addressed with emergency
measures, to become an excuse for returning to government-dominated,
government-controlled agriculture. We don’t need socialism anywhere in
American life, and we don’t need it in agriculture any more than we need
it anywhere else. It does not work in the long term — ever.
On the economic level, we need to concentrate first on restructuring
access to capital so that it is based on an approach that respects the
requirements of family farms. We also need to sustain and increase the
ongoing search for alternative uses and developments for agricultural
products. American farmers have the unique advantage of living in the
most technologically creative and advanced society on earth. New uses of
agricultural products and of the land itself will generate the new
demand that is required as the basis for viable farming life in all its
None of these things will help, however, if farmers do not begin to
take advantage of the new paradigm for business overall that exists in
this country. To see this more clearly, let’s begin by recalling the
form that economic crisis tends to take for farmers. It is a sad truth,
but the trouble usually comes when farmers produce too much of a good
thing. As a result, prices can become so depressed that extraordinarily
bountiful crops cannot be sold for a return that even pays for the costs
of production, much less provides a profit.
This is the serious danger growers face. While rejoicing that God has
blessed them with abundance, they must cringe at the fact that
overabundance, in the end, can lead to the failure of 30 or 35 percent
of the family and small farms in this country. This means that each time
around we can have fewer and fewer people who are preserving this vital
sector. Farming is not exempt from the challenge to regulate production
so that it avoids not only producing too little, but also too much.
How can economically destructive overproduction be prevented? Some
people want to avoid it by putting the heavy hand of government in
charge of the whole business, and deciding who is going to plant, and
what fields will lie fallow. But the whole genius of the American
economic system is our understanding that government’s decisions about
how to produce wealth tend to be much less intelligent than those made
by free men and women seeking to build lives of dignity and prosperity.
Farming should be no exception, and attempts to substitute government
fiat for the intelligent judgment of free citizens will produce bad
economic results, while stultifying the farm sector which is supposedly
being protected. Our farm policy should aim rather at encouraging the
development of independent and voluntary associations in the farming
community to help farmers make the right decisions … for themselves.
I believe that one step must be decentralizing and diversifying the
distribution of capital to the farming sector, so that farmers are free
to take the risks and make the investments that make sense to them, and
not to national banking interests. In addition, a key to solving the
problem of overproduction in particular is to encourage farmers to
understand that they are business people like others. A business person
who finds that a previously profitable activity is starting to fill up
with too many suppliers will diversify, if he wants to survive
economically. He will investigate whether there is demand for another
product that he can produce more profitably because there are fewer
producers. A farmer who is determined to remain on the land will do the
same thing, shifting the particular kind of cultivation to something
more remunerative so he can preserve the more important patterns of his
life on the land.
One of the great problems in agriculture is how to identify new
demand, communicate effectively with it, and learn how to meet it. Many
farmers are starting to realize that we live in a world where that kind
of communication is more possible than ever. The explosive developments
in communications technology and practice, and above all the Internet,
will bring us very soon to the point that farmers will be able to
protect themselves from falling into the trap of planting the same crop
as everyone else and destroying their prospect for a living profit.
Farmers will learn increasingly that there are always demands for other
products, and that they simply need to identify and communicate with
that demand to receive a much better return for their investment of
money and labor.
By harnessing creative entrepreneurial techniques of this kind, we
can revolutionize the prospects of people who are working on the land.
But not — NOT — if we turn to a socialist agriculture that actually
reinforces the tendency to do what doesn’t make sense in business terms.
Socialism discourages everyone from striving to make the best judgment
possible about how to invest his resources. We need to encourage our
farmers to seek excellence in such decisions, so they can
achieve the economic success necessary to preserve the overall way of
life that can be found only on the farm.
Farmers must, of course, rely on government to do the work
internationally that they can’t do for themselves. Government inevitably
has a role in this area, because international relations is the
government’s business. But we must insist that our government cease
sacrificing the interests, not only of America’s farmers but of all
America’s workers and business people, to utopian ideas of
internationalism and trade relations that don’t work in the best
interest of the American people. The people, markets and nations of the
world do indeed have much to offer us. The role of governments
generally is to concentrate on working out fair terms of exchange for
its citizens, and so our government has a particular responsibility to
make sure that international trade is fair to American citizens.
Instead, for too long the American government has tried to feed the
American farmer on empty promises of the wonderful benefits of free
trade. But what our internationalist bureaucrats call free trade has
turned out to be bad for farmers, bad for workers, and bad for most
American businesses as well.
But what would we expect when we permit economic choices that should
be made by the free people of a great nation to be made instead by
committees of internationalist bureaucrats who have too little respect
for the real processes by which wealth is produced and exchanged in
freedom? At home and abroad, the particular issues of the day are all
reflections of the one question that America must answer for the world
– are the people fit to govern themselves? As the farmer has tended the
seedbed of liberty in times past, so now again in America he must
produce a new crop of the spirit of enterprise and initiative, of
intelligent cooperation and surprising innovation, if he is to help
America to throw off the dead hand of the bureaucrat and the planner,
and breathe again the bracing air of freedom. An invigorated,
innovative, and independent farming sector will preserve the moral
climate of farm life, and will be an example to all American citizens of
the happy union of economic prosperity and moral virtue. Indeed, a fruit
that will last.