Farm Follies: The Cheese Stands Alone (With Its Hand Out)

Horse-drawn, two-furrow plough.
Horse-drawn, two-furrow plough. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On August 23, the US Department of Agriculture announced its plan to purchase 11 million pounds of cheese, at a cost of $20 million. The cheese will be “provided to families in need through USDA nutrition assistance programs,” but the real purpose of the purchase is to reduce excess cheese inventories, “assisting the stalled marketplace for dairy producers whose revenues have dropped 35 percent over the past two years.”

Economics 101: When so many people produce so much of the same thing that the supply of that thing exceeds the demand for it, prices fall. When prices fall far enough that not all the producers can turn a profit, some of them go off to do other things. Prices then rise as the market moves back toward “equilibrium” between supply and demand.

Farming 101: When so many people produce so much of the same thing that the supply of that thing exceeds the demand for it, prices fall. When prices fall far enough that not all the producers can turn a profit, the producers claim that farming is extra super special and that it’s the government’s job to make it profitable so that no one who wants to farm must instead go build houses, drive trucks or mop floors to make ends meet.

That’s why each and every American pays more than $300 to farmers each and every year before actually getting any edible farm goods — and then pays artificially high prices for those goods. The Agricultural Act of 2014 provides for $956 billion in government subsidies for farmers over 10 years, including “price supports” and other jiggery-pokery to keep prices above their natural market level.

I come from a farming family. My grandfather started out as a “share cropper,” eventually farming several hundred acres of his own. I spent my formative years living on a subsistence farm and working on others’ commercial farms. My father retired from a dairy operated by a farmers’ cooperative. If anyone should appreciate the extra super specialness of farmers, it’s me.

But I don’t.

In 1940, a single farmer fed 19 people (and my mother went to town on a horse-drawn wagon — yes, really; her family didn’t get a truck until after World War 2). Today, a single farmer feeds  eight times as many people (and probably drives a nice shiny pickup truck), even though the US population is only two and half times what it was back then.

Modern technology and methods mean fewer farmers can feed far more mouths. That’s a good thing that frees up labor to provide other desirable goods and services, not a “problem” to be offset by having government tinker with the market and attempt to guarantee someone’s “right” to make a living as a farmer at everyone else’s involuntary expense.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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  • JdL

    It’s a shame that something this basic, and this obvious to anyone who has not been snowed by American schools, needs to be said. But it does.

    • JdL,

      Well, if I hadn’t had to hold myself to op-ed length, I might have gone into the history a little bit.

      The whole idea of the stout yeoman farmer as the backbone of America was prominent among Thomas Jefferson’s ideas (not just his, but he’s a good prominent marker post).

      And of course America’s Puritan-informed religious trends through the 19th century and beyond tended to emphasize the basic goodness of rural people versus the inherent wickedness of the cities.

      Farmers were a big part of the late 19th century populist movement, e.g. the Grange and so forth.

      And in the 1920s, the farm lobby popped up agitating for “parity” — the idea that farming should be, by government guarantee, perpetually as profitable as it had been during its most recent high point of circa 1910.

      It was probably inevitable that the New Deal and later programs would co-opt all of those notions. It’s said that Social Security is the third rail for American politicians — touch it and they die — but ag subsidies are at least the very slippery staircase down into the subway station. Trip and fall and they may break their necks.