Times of change?

At the Changing Lands Changing Hands conference in Denver, Jess Gilbert reminded us in his opening speech of the agricultural policies that were put in place with the New Deal policy in the depression of the thirties. Henry J. Wallace was the driving force behind a set of progressive and innovative policies, many of them, still existing today. One of the policies was aimed at land reform establishing 100 new communities from nothing all throughout the country. The state bought the land, built houses and health centers for poor shared croppers. A loaning program offered 100 to 150 families to buy the land, house and tools in one community. Much of the organization was coordinated in tens of different cooperatives per community.

The experiment ended in World War II but the places became strongholds in the civil rights movement of the sixties. What the example illustrates is how powerful a working combination of bottom up and top down can be; activism among the shared croppers and visionary leadership of the ruling elite. Our current time has been compared with the time of the Great Depression, for the severity of the financial and economic crisis. And so maybe the analogy also has to be, that this can be a time of progressive social change.

Not everybody here at this conference is a believer of such ‘sociologist talk’. At the end of one of the sessions, an agricultural economist said me that we can not get around the market forces dictating what farmers will do. “And I don’t see anyway in how that is going to change.”

The session was about farm viability and business transfer. Session presenters all stressed the need for financial management. “Farmers try to produce their way out of trouble” one of them said, but it is not production what counts, “it is financial management which makes the farm profitable”. The session was aimed at the ‘real’ farmer. Statistics were misleading, the agricultural economist said. It was said that the US has around 2 million farmers. Not true, according to him, maybe 200.000 could qualify as a farmer, if you would be able to distinguish them from hobby and small farmers as well as those who are registered for tax reasons.

And besides that, “all this fuss about corporations nowadays I don’t understand, these are still family farms” he said, “who put their business in business models to manage them”. These several million worth ‘family farms’ are, like any other industrial operation, a high capital investment, high sales volume and low profit margin operation. Future successors certainly cannot do without financial training.