Letter from Langdon: An Arm and a Leg
Even in years of high-profit, farm suppliers find a way to tighten the strap on small farmers. Pretty soon the price of keeping your farm will be an arm and a leg.
“In the early 1900’s with old timey methods, farmers was losin’ 30% of their crops to insects and disease. Now, with your modern herbicides, pesticides, insecticides-what have you-they’re losin’ 30%” — Ray McKinnon as the Accountant.
Maybe you missed this. I know I did. But the Academy Award for the best short subject in 2002 was a 40 minute dark comedy titled The Accountant.
Played by Ray McKinnon, the accountant helps cash-broke Southern farmers hang onto their farms by offering them financial counseling. Most of his advice involves cashing in on insurance policies. For instance, a neighbor’s mortgage on his new house cost “an arm and a leg.”
David O’Dell can pay off the mortgage and save their five generation farm for his boys by becoming a triple amputee in a faked farm accident. Staged by a professional, the Accountant says he will “keep you from bleeding to death before help comes.”
Upset by that prospect, an agitated David replies, “I can’t farm without my legs!”
Eventually the only viable alternative for David becomes his life insurance.
Farm markets go up and down, but farm operating costs only go one way. That’s why U.S. farms have consolidated into fewer and fewer farms, because the perception is that in order to get higher costs in line, farmers must spread them across more acres. The trouble with that is that with more acres, everything gets bigger, including the bills.
But that’s the way it’s done.
Early in the film, the accountant drives onto the O’Dell farm in a ramshackle Depression-era pickup truck, climbs out with a sigh, and proceeds to lecture David and his brother on Southern farm history:
“In the early 1900’s with old timey methods, farmers was losin’ 30% of their crops to insects and disease. Now, with your modern herbicides, pesticides, insecticides-what have you-they’re losin’ 30%.”
It takes a while for that to soak in.
In the world where farmers like the O’Dells once lived, old timey supply-and-demand markets compensated for lost production with higher prices. While that may have increased prices paid to farmers, it didn’t necessarily guarantee a profit.
But at least it made sense.
The other way, the modern way, sees higher costs with no way to recover those – other than with an arm or a leg or the self-defeating plan of growing more.
While the biggest of big farmers garner lower cost inputs through high volume discounts, most of us operate on more or less the same plain. Other than a little Walmart-style bargain hunting, whether it’s a bushel of seed or a gallon of tractor fuel, we all pay about the same price. And in the case of patented seeds, herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and what have you, rising costs and plummeting returns pass each other like express elevators headed in opposite directions.
Big corporate pesticide and seed agribusinesses (pharmaceutical and chemical corporations in disguise) manage to avoid profit margin bloodshed through reduced competition, patented seeds and pesticides, and off shore finagling.
American farmers may have to worry about foreign competition and falling prices brought about by corporate induced grain, meat, or oil seed supplies from South America, Mexico, or Canada, but multinational monopolies marketing to or buying from us have immunized themselves.
In 1956 the farmers’ share of an 18-cent, one-pound loaf of bread was 3 cents.
Today, corporations have failed to sell wary consumers on genetically modified wheat while the farmers share of a super-sized 2 pound loaf costing $2.79, is just 13 cents.
But because most wheat varieties today are still public varieties developed through land grant university research, the price of seed still reflects the reality of wheat prices.
It’s worse for corn and soybean growers because corporations control seeds for those crops through an unending cycle of 20-year genetic patents. When Monsanto’s patent for herbicide-resistant soybeans expired, they had already developed a new patent for the same old herbicide, claiming “new” soybean genes that were different.
But yields are the same. Appearance is the same. Herbicide tolerance is the same. Disease resistance is the same. And the government of the United States of America approved another twenty year monopoly.
This is the way it goes.
We’ve had four pretty good years on the farm. First prices we collect improve for things we grow, then suppliers raise input prices as a sort of toll on our success. Patented seed costs go up another $5, then $10. Pesticides and fertilizer tied to the price of petroleum soar.
Crude oil falls 60% but my costs never return to where they were.
They say it’s because they don’t have the capacity to increase production.
It’s like those nylon webbing cargo straps, the kind people use to tie down furniture and stuff in the back of a pickup truck, with ratcheting tighteners that click as they turn. You can get those straps tight as guitar strings.
I can almost hear my costs going higher, as margins get tighter–click, click, click–tying me down. .
The farm where I live was once owned by another farmer. One who killed himself during the Great Depression. The bank took it anyway.
I guess life insurance companies went broke too.
Eight years later my newlywed 20 year old parents bought it from the bank. Now it’s mine.
A tropical plant that thrived in warm places, corn is a staple. Southern corn bread, sometimes called pone, is basic food. Civil War soldiers on both sides fried it over campfires.
Farmers could grow corn that fed their animals and their families at the same time. It was a wholesome high energy food…something soldiers and old timey farmers needed.
Poor farmers grew corn and had it stone ground at a nearby mill a bag or two at a time. It was course ground, not fine like cake flour. Corn pone baked in a cast iron skillet was crunchy with a roasted flavor, prepared without sugar or wheat flour. Cherished as food, never considered a delicacy, seasoned with bacon drippings and a little salt.
In other words it was cheap.
But sweet iced tea was a luxury poor southern farmers could rarely afford. Ice was scarce as hens teeth. Still, on special occasions, they enjoyed the treat if they could get it.
It can be a soul searching choice when, suddenly, the experience of our grandfathers means nothing.
David O’Dell and others way of life has been turned on its head. Corporations promise bankrupt farmers a better life when they abandon their farms to “progress” and move on to city jobs.
But there is no better way of life for a farmer than on the farm.
The accountant predicted the future to David; “Your grandchildren will eat cornbread that’s sweet and drink tea that ain’t, and think it’s the Southern condition”.
And suddenly your condition, and your parents, and their parents condition, doesn’t add up.
Maybe that’s why David chose life insurance over corporate reality.
Richard Oswald, president the Missouri Farmers Union, is a fifth-generation farmer living in Langdon, Missouri. “Letter From Langdon” is a regular feature of The Daily Yonder.