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No Such Thing As “The American Farmer”

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Whenever I hear a commenter or politician (or sometimes even myself) refer collectively to “The American Farmer,” I know what follows will contain a lot of hot air. There ain’t no such thing as the American farmer. I don’t know how many farmers are out there at the moment but no two of them are the same, even within the same line of commodity production. There are grain farmers (and there’s tons of difference between corn, rice and wheat farmers), dairy farmers, hog farmers, sheep farmers, vegetable farmers of all kinds, irrigation farmers, dryland farmers, organic farmers, chemical farmers, greenhouse farmers, urban farmers, market farmers, horse farmers, fish farmers, cattle farmers, hop farmers, small fruit farmers, orchardists, part time farmers, full time farmers, make-believe farmers, pot farmers and street corner farmers.

The extreme variation is why it is so difficult to unite them all into one organization. No one has ever been able to do that. They are often in competition with each other and though they’d never admit it out loud, when corn yields are low in Iowa, the corn farmers of Ohio can’t help but be just a tiny little bit gleeful because the corn prices will be up.

There are scores of farm organizations as a result of the diversity. Farm Bureau, National Farmers Organization, and Farmers Union are three that try to gain members from all walks of farming life. Farm Bureau has traditionally been the organization of choice for the fatter cats and Farmers Union and NFO safe harbor for those struggling to make their next land payments. From Farm Bureau I once got a letter scolding me for what I wrote. From Farmers Union, I got an award. Farm Bureau is by all counts the biggest general farm organization, but ironically, this may backfire one of these days because its policies have for years favored “get big or get out” and now the big farmers are starting to swallow up other big farms which means fewer Farm Bureau members. And the biggest corporate farms like the little artisanal farms don’t have much interest in joining any traditional farm organization. So the Farm Bureau has started a new public relations drive which piously proclaims that it is for all farmers, even (ugh) small, part time, organic ones it has snubbed for years and is even extending a welcome to non-farmers to become friends of farmers. Just one big happy family all of a sudden. I actually think that is a good idea, another sign that the face of farming is changing. I know some astute Farm Bureau members and maybe they will have the good sense to push small scale artisanal farming the way they support that agricultural nightmare, corn ethanol.

Even within the same category, farmers vary all over the place in personality, life style, and political philosophy. If you are a big-time investor in land and are looking for a good farmer to run your farm empire, you should try to get one of those you just ran out of business by driving up the price of land, if you can find one that doesn’t despise you too much.

Farmers are generally like most other human beings, and unlike the way farm magazines portray them standing staunch and stalwart our in a field like the Angel Gabriel on judgment day, farmers love to sit around in cafes lying about their corn yields. Some can play a mean game of golf, go crazy at football games, read books, be active on hospital boards, keep peace in the neighborhood and an eye out for thieves almost as effectively as the sheriff deputies can.

Most thousand- acre- plus farmers tend toward conservatism and vote Republican but don’t take that for granted. One of the biggest farmers (8000 acres and counting) I know is a staunch Democrat. He says he always makes more money when a Democrat is president. On the other hand, a young, part-time farmer I know who is having the time of his life turning a few acres into a calendar perfect picture of the farm of 1950, is a confirmed Republican who thinks farming with chemicals is the best way. Compare him to another farmer in these parts who with his wife makes a living market farming about three acres and who leans philosophically toward Buddhism.

Most big grain farmers truly believe—really really really are convinced beyond all argument— that they are doing it right with all those acres of corn, wheat, and soybeans, neat and lush and weedless (sometimes), the soil worked to perfect seedbeds, with exactly 33,450 kernels per acre of corn planted per acre (I exaggerate only a little), stretching across the horizon. GMO crops are just fine by them. On the other hand the little micro-farmer with his ten acres of organic, artisanal crops is just as firmly entrenched in the opposite opinion. GMOs are satanic. Those big stretches of perfectly worked soil are to him or her an invitation for erosion gulleys that will swallow cars. I talk to both sides every day and the difference between them I fear is too profound to ever change. Maybe farming is a religion. Everyone knows they are right.
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