I’m not what you’d call a Bible thumper, but I do like to quote it on occasion, inserting an appropriate passage into the conversation in a sonorous voice that makes me sound wise. The passage that I have found most hopeful and most unhopeful at the same time is about how the meek shall inherit the earth. It’s in Psalms and evidently important enough that Matthew repeated it in the New Testament. However the only people I’ve seen inheriting the earth have been the wealthy whom I would hardly refer to as meek. As a young man I realized that what I wanted most out of life was a farm of my own, but I was so poor that only meekness would work for me. That made me fond of the biblical saying. However I was out of luck. I could hardly ever bring myself to act humble no matter how broke I was.
But as I now try to make an argument for a future in which small garden farms and pasture farms replace the huge acreages of industrial agriculture and animal factories, I am cheered to have the Bible on my side for a change. What I’ve been writing for the last 30 years without actually realizing it is just that: the meek shall inherit the earth. How can I be wrong with the Bible on my side?
As I read the farm news closely every day, the signs are everywhere. Industrial agriculture is losing its grip on the land. It just is not cost effective, if it ever was, and subsidies play more of a role in keeping it going than ever before. Industrial economics requires ever increasing expansion to keep up with the built-in increases in costs and ever increasing number of consumers. Years ago I wrote, in Farm Journal magazine, about Marvin Grabacre who grasped the situation perfectly.
Assiduously following the dictates of industrialism, he was well on his way to becoming the last farmer left in the nation by 2025 if he lived that long. He finally owned all the farmland east of the Mississippi that a monster tractor could fit on and not fall off of. When it became apparent that half of the nation’s farm acreage “was just not a viable economic farm unit anymore,” he bought out his last competitor west of the Mississippi. “Get big or get out,” he was fond of saying.
Old Marvin died of a heart attack in 2018 while he was fuming over ways to maybe sell California where drouths were turning his vast acreage into desert, and buy Crimea or maybe part of China. Marvin Jr. took over but he soon began wondering if his father’s game plan was going to continue to work. In the Ukraine for example, some of the investors in 500,000 acre farms there were selling their stock as fast as they could. Vladimir Megamoneylevich, an admirer of the Grabacres, was finding that half of Russia was just not a viable enough economic unit and had purchased Poland which was selling cheap right then. Megamoneylevich, like Grabacre, was known for his technique of making bigger fields out of big fields with tricks like running rivers, the Volga for instance, underground so he could farm right over them. When in an interview he was asked why he had purchased Poland, he replied: “Uberminsk ta loudervichnikoff,” which roughly translated, means “get big or get out.”
But Megamoneylevich was in trouble, too, like other monster farms. In Ukraine they were declaring bankruptcy right and left and China’s big push to move all the people off the land and into cities to make big farms was not working out very well. [If you think this is only humorous absurdity and not also factual absurdity, just go online at farmlandgrab.org and see for yourself that the rest of this paragraph is not made up.] Black Earth Farming, all 1,200 square miles of it, reported a loss of $26 million dollars in 2008 and $39 million in 2009. More recently, it unveiled a loss of $18 million in 2013 compared to earnings of $7 million in 2012, the only profitable year in the company’s nine year history. Mikkail Orlov, after having sold off his Russian farming operations and shifted focus to Zambia, came back with a 4,888 cow dairy in Chechnya. Black Earth Farming sold 28,000 hectares of farmland in Russia to a company owned by Ukrainian oligarch, Oleg Bakhmalyuk and U.S. grain trader, Cargill. Kinnevik, the investment group which is the biggest investor in Black Earth Farming, revealed that it is selling its Polish farm to cash in on gains in land prices and bankroll other opportunities in emerging markets because it can’t make a $32.6 million interest payment.
Marvin Jr. saw all this and knew he had to do something to revamp his bottom line. But what? That’s when he got his great idea. By 2020, people were clamoring for land of their own and it occurred to him that if he could sell off his acreage by re-packaging it into small parcels of four to twenty acre mini-farms he could make a fortune. He tried to multiply his 900,000,000 acres of American farmland by twelve thousand dollars per acre but could not keep track of all the zeros. For sure, he would be the world’s first multi-trillionaire. He started un-grabbing.
And so it came to pass. That old Bible had it right. The meek inherited the earth and a period of peace and plenty occurred like nothing ever seen before. Marvin Jr. did save Iowa for himself however and found that it was small enough so that he could actually turn a profit some years. He would smile then and say “Get small or get out.”