Thursday, December 21, 2006

Big Farms and Foggy Language

Gaul, Cohen and Morgan have another article in their series in the Post on farm programs. This one focuses on the disjunct between our mental picture of farmers and the reality:

"Today, most of the nation's food is produced by modern family farms that are large operations using state-of-the-art computers, marketing consultants and technologies that cut labor, time and costs. The owners are frequently college graduates who are as comfortable with a spreadsheet as with a tractor. They cover more acres and produce more crops with fewer workers than ever before.

The very policies touted by Congress as a way to save small family farms are instead helping to accelerate their demise, economists, analysts and farmers say. That's because owners of large farms receive the largest share of government subsidies. They often use the money to acquire more land, pushing aside small and medium-size farms as well as young farmers starting out."
It's fair, although using John Phipps, who has an interesting blog, as an example might be a stretch, but he gives good quotes. There's the usual blurry (from a biased viewpoint) language. Discussion of "corporate" farming. I think it's true that most "corporations" involved in farming are composed mainly of farm families (and their city relatives). But I doubt that's the image evoked in people's minds. There's also mention of "income", but no description to say whether this was the gross income of the farming operation or the net income the farmer got, two very different things, particularly for someone like a dairy farmer.

And as my ag teacher pointed out many years ago (my high school actually was phasing out its ag instruction--the teacher took over driver's ed, which was inappropriate inasmuch as he was the most nervous man in the school (may have been after effects of war service)), income can be ambiguous for other reasons. Dairy farmers (IMHO the only "true" farmers) in particular have lots of capital invested in land and equipment and animals. When you're accounting for the invested capital on your books, you should really charge the operation for the interest the capital could be earning. In other words, if a man has 600 acres of land worth $4,000 an acre, he has $2.4 mill capital. If he sold, and bought bonds he could earn a comfortable 5 percent on his money, or $120,000 a year just clipping coupons (except that they've done away with coupons on bonds and only us old fogies understand it). But if Gaul, Cohen, and Morgan say the guy has $150,000 income, they don't point out that he's only earning $10 an hour for his labor (using a 3,000 hour year).

No comments: