Tuesday, July 23, 2019

A Circuitous Route to Farm Survival--Cather, Stephens, and Somerby

Among the books in our house when I was growing up were three or four by Willa Cather, including My Antonia..  I've read it several times, but unlike some people I know, my wife for one, I don't have a great memory for the contents of what I've read.

Bob Somerby has his blog, The Daily Howler, which I follow.  He's often repetitive and usually idiosyncratic, predictably criticizing journalism and liberal pieties, although from a liberal background.  (He was a roommate of Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones at Harvard who has never forgiven some journalists for their criticism of Gore.  Also taught school in Baltimore for years, leading to sharp criticism of educational panaceas and the misuse of statistics.)

Yesterday he wrote a piece picking up on a Brett Stephens op-ed in the Times, in which Stephens uses My Antonia to discuss immigration.  The book is based on Cather's childhood, spent in Nebraska among immigrant families, mostly Czech, with the central character the "Antonia" of the title. It's a rich picture of immigrant and farm life on the Nebraska plains which I recommend. I also recommend both the Stephens piece and the Somerby piece.

Somerby has a quote from the book, which reads in part:

"There was a curious social situation in Black Hawk [the local market town] All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town to earn a living, and, in nearly every case, to help the father struggle out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family to go to school..

What I'd point out is it's the 1880's, not now, and farmers are being supported by off-farm income! Most people don't realize that most American farmers do rely on off-farm income today.   Usually, when that's discussed, it's treated as a revelation and an indicator of how bad the farm economy is. But maybe it's time to reconsider.  (BTW, back in the day most FSA clerks (program assistants) were the daughters and/or wives of farmers, or former farmers.)  I think what's going on is the same logic as my father used when he notoriously came home and told my mother she was going to have a flock of chickens (mom held that grudge until she died).  The logic--diversification reduces risk.  That's true whether you're talking investments in stocks and bonds, or agriculture. Hens and dairy have different economic cycles. But an even better diversification is a nice steady income in town, whether it's 1880 or 2019.

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