Los Ojos, 22 July 2018
You can’t get away from the bumper stickers – at least it seems like it to me. Any place you go where people who care about local agriculture gather you’re bound to see at least one of them. The one that springs to mind is my favorite: “Farming is public service.”
While I appreciate the underlying sentiment, that farming as a profession is underappreciated and underpaid, these stickers aggravate me a little bit. Not only because that kind of virtue-signaling is just obnoxious, but also because I’m not comfortable with the implication that farming is some sort of noble, self-sacrificing, sacred calling. I recognize that this is in part just because I don’t really believe in “sacred callings” of any type (as those of you who know me will recognize, I pretty much scoff at anything that’s supposed to be “Important”). But I also have a substantive objection: farming is not public service. It’s a profession, a way to make a living. At least, that’s what it must be if we expect it to continue. The word sustainability covers many sins, but the first thing that it has to mean is that for whatever you’re doing to be sustainable, you must be able to make a living doing it. If we expect young people to take up agriculture, we have to be able to show that it will sustain a family; not only that, but that it’s a decent living and a decent way of life, not just an endless round of drudgery that ultimately leaves you poor and physically broken. It is absolutely unreasonable to expect a bright kid to take up the profession when the popular narrative of farming includes a life of hard work, poverty wages, and ultimate failure. Farming is a noble profession, but to present it as public service helps to perpetuate this narrative, that taking up agriculture is at best making a sacrifice for the greater good. Presenting your profession as a sacrifice is not a recipe for recruiting the best candidates, folks. Public service is important, but the best attorneys are not in the public defender’s office. Best intentioned, maybe, but not best. To paraphrase Stanley McChrystal, there may be a place in heaven for those who tried hard, but in this world results are what matter.
The other implication of those bumper stickers is that farmers somehow deserve some kind of public assistance – presumably for the great sacrifice that they’re making. It fosters a nasty sense of entitlement and an unhealthy attitude towards the business side of the business. If your business is only profitable after you factor in government money (disaster relief, crop payments, matching funds for infrastructure projects, etc.), then your business is not profitable – it's living on public assistance. The variety of farm programs also make it difficult to realistically evaluate capital investments and lead to a lot of foolish spending. Small producers have been known to complain bitterly about the subsidies that big ag companies receive; in many senses, they’re right: we, as a polity, have chosen to pursue policies to keep food cheap. If food reflected the true cost of keeping a producer in business – the profit margin necessary in a good year to insulate against bad years, for instance – food would be much more expensive. These cheap food policies are a wonderful thing when you’re in front of the register at the grocery store; you’ve already paid, in tax dollars, for much of the food that you buy. The small producers have a point, though, as this collection of subsidies and regulations distorts the marketplace, favoring established competitors and stifling innovation (i.e. they hurt the little guys).
At the same time, though, small local producers often seem to favor the same types of subsidies, protections, and regulation at their own level. You can see this expressed in things like exclusionary rules at farmers’ markets: only farmers from X county allowed, or only those who raised their market animals from birth, for example. These rules are generally framed in the name of transparency and consumer protection (“people come here to get local produce”), but their true intention is apparent in another sentiment you often hear: “we have to keep those %0&&@#^ resellers out. No producer can compete with a reseller.” This may be true, but if it is, it’s worth asking why – the reseller’s products had all the same input costs as the producer’s, plus at least one additional: the middleman (the reseller himself) certainly isn’t working for free.
Small producers are probably right that they can’t produce as cheaply as those that the reseller is buying from – economies of scale are a hard fact of life – but trying to compensate by simply excluding resellers misses the point that in a world of ubiquitous, convenient supermarkets, you’re competing with low-cost produce just by showing up at a direct-marketing venue. So what producers mean is that they can’t compete on price – but I'd just point out that price is not necessarily the relevant element of competitive differentiation. The customers who show up at a growers’ market have already gone out of their way because they’re looking for something they can’t get at a supermarket. Small producers have to compete on something other than price: quality, or emotional connection (just because it’s not tangible doesn’t mean that it’s not real). Producers can compete with resellers – the key is to offer a better product or a more compelling marketing story (not terribly difficult, in the case of a reseller). If they’re not doing either of those things, then they’re not offering value to customers, and to simply exclude resellers (or whatever other competition) from the venue is to deny the customer choice and value. That kind of thinking also seems to me to regard the marketing venue as being there to serve the vendor rather than the customer. That sort of protection just sits badly with me – it seems very much the same as the unwelcome market distortions I talked about above.
Point is, we are not public servants, and our farm is not a public utility. We are a business. We don’t need to be subsidized or want free help: we just want to produce great food and exchange it at a fair valuation. I’m not afraid to compete, because I’m confident that we’ll win. We can’t raise pork as cheap as Smithfield or Edwards, but we can raise it just one hell of a lot better – better animals, better treated, better prepared. And that’s our value proposition in a nutshell: raise a better product and charge what it’s worth.