Up on the Farm

Now that I’ve sung the praises of Main Street the place, let me talk about Main Street as a state of mind. When  I use Wall Street and Main Street in the same sentence, what I’m really comparing is equities vs. commodities, stockbrokers vs. farmers. I know Main Street is composed of merchants, not farmers, but it’s a useful handle to describe the heartland. 

When I lived in Kansas in the 1970s, the farmers drove Cadillacs. Many people have this idea of farmers as hayseeds, but these guys had ag science degrees from Kansas State. They knew about economics, weather forecasting, and hedging in the futures markets.

Now there’s no question that many of those farmers who used to shop on the main street in Chapman, Kans. aren’t in the farming business (yes, it’s a business) anymore. They may have lost their farms to the banks when the commodity markets crashed in the mid-’80s, prompting artists like John Cougar Mellencamp and Willie Nelson to sponsor the FarmAid benefit concert.

Or they may have sold out to agribusiness. In farming, as in many other businesses, it’s getting harder and harder for the little guy to make it, unless he’s got an angle, like a fancy organic label that he can market to the rich city folks. According to the Guardian, more women are trying their hand at small-scale farming in the U.K.: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/mar/05/ruralaffairs.features)

Agricultural policy is something I’d like to learn a lot more about. I learned a little while working for a London-based consulting firm called Third World: EEC in the summer of 1981. Dr. Peter O’Neill and Uma Ram Nath, who run Third World, did their best to educate me about sustainable development and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union, but a lot of it was over my head.

The thing I came away with that summer is that the Brits thought CAP was a sweetheart deal for French farmers. Of course, when I told my student friends that I was working for Third World, they thought I was a groupie with the reggae band: http://www.amazon.com/Ultimate-Collection-Third-World/dp/B00005KBBC/ref=pd_sim_m_title_4

Despite my ignorance about global agricultural policy, I’m certain it’s going to be restructured while Pluto is in Capricorn. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is crushing farmers in Mexico, while in India, small farmers have been committing suicide in droves because they can’t make a go of it.  As a financial writer in a country that pays a lot of lip service to free markets, I’ve heard plenty about Japan’s “stupidity” in protecting its rice farmers.

It never seemed like a mistake to me. Anyone who has ever read Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth” knows the value of land can’t be tallied only using dollars or yen. There’s a lot of psychic wealth involved, for both the farmers and the nation as a whole. In the case of Japan, where there’s not a lot of land, the government extends farmers the kind of  preferential, even reverential, treatment that some Western nations give to religious institutions.

I don’t subscribe to any end-of-days theory, whether in the Bible or the Mayan Calendar. I do like to follow cycles though, and I think the farmer is going to be in the catbird’s seat pretty soon — whether it’s from raising corn for ethanol, speculating in the futures markets, or being able to grow food for his family during a time of shortages. But he probably won’t be spending his money on a Cadillac, unless it’s a hybrid.

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