I promised not to use his name because I wanted him to speak freely which is not easy to do these days when society is in such conflict. He is a fortyish farmer, articulate, engaging, a delight to talk to. He and his brother grow upwards of 5000 acres of corn and soybeans, much of it rented. The first time I met him, several years go, I remembered him saying that a farmer needed to spend two hours a day on the computer, hedging and marketing his grain. Talking to him a few days ago, I recalled his remark and he smiled. “Make that 8 to 9 hours today,” he said. That included time he spent marketing for other farmers who evidently recognized his skill in this regard.
I was aghast. Just think of that: a man who considers himself a farmer spends his working day almost entirely in electronic grain marketing. His brother “tends to the farm machinery.” They employ five people and “we pay them very well because it is really difficult to find people who have a real work ethic.” (None of the hired help has gone to college and it occurred to me that here was an opportunity to make a good living without spending a hundred thousand dollars to get a degree. Are there any guidance counselors pointing this out?)
Meeting this farmer again, I decided to take advantage of his experience to ask my favorite question these days. “I keep sticking my neck out and saying there’s going to be crash in farm land prices. Is that the case in your opinion?”
“Not yet,” he said. “Unlike the crash in the 80s, much of the land expansion now is being done with cash, not borrowed money. If prices drop, most farmers are in a better position to ride it out.”
“But accountants who handle farm business tell me that while farmers are paying half or more down with cash on new land purchases, the borrowed money is still about the same amount because the land prices are so much higher than they were in the 80s. And, say the accountants, the farmers are very heavily in debt from updating machinery.”
“In some cases that’s true,” he said. “And that new big machinery, by the way, is often just a bunch of junk. Breaks down all the time.”
Then he got down to business. I wasn’t taking notes so these are not his exact words, but the gist of what he was saying. “Things are changing much faster in farming than hardly anyone realizes. We thought we saw lots of change in the last decade of the 1900s. But from 2000 to 2005 we had as much change as in the whole preceding ten years. Than in the next three years we had as much change as in the preceding five. Now, in the last two years that pace of change continues. It’s breathtaking. The guy who owns 400 acres outright and rents another 400 and is content to farm with old, outmoded machinery is in a solid position if a downturn occurs— especially if there’s a spouse with another job. The farmer who is farming a thousand acres and trying to move up to 2000 or thereabouts is at risk. The fellow going from 2000 to double that is even more at risk. But the farmer who has 5000 acres and is going for more, the ones on the high side who are good money managers and have been expanding with cash more than credit, and have good landlords interested in the operation’s success, not just in making money, these are the farms that will continue to grow larger. What we are looking at is the end of farming as we know it, replaced by giant investor-financed land trusts and worked by salaried employees. The real financial winners will be the descendents of the present landowners, the inheritors of these trusts, who may never even set foot on farmland or have any direct connection with it. Sort of like families who inherit oil fortunes.”
I asked him if he thought there was any really big movement in the opposite direction, in small scale, local, organic food, which he has also dabbled in.
“I think this will always be a minority thing. Most people care nothing about food except the price. If the organic or local food is higher priced, they won’t buy it.”
Trying to keep the conversation light and friendly, I said I thought that if I could live another 40 years, I could point my finger at him like a shriveled old man is prone to do, and say: “See, you were wrong.”
He smiled and replied: “I’ll be about 80 then and I will point my finger at your memory and say: “See, you were wrong.”
Will this country allow the land to go into giant trusts where the workers are all employees of inherited wealth? This would mean that what we think of as free enterprise capitalism will dissolve into the ultimate kind of socialistic plutocracy. If it goes that way, I am glad that I’ll be dead.