Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The gospel of helplessness...

Marcia Taylor at DTNag notes even high prices aren't cheering grain farmers for long.
Renters are anxious about the morning after. "What's going to happen to our rents once prices crash?" asked a producer around the Kansas City-area. Some landlords want two or four-year contracts, other farmers said, but that can lock in high costs without potential income to pay it. Pass on the deal, however, and your neighbor is more than willing to farm the land.

"The mood has gone from 'Happy Days Are Here Again' to 'We Need Help," said an agricultural broker with grain clients nationwide. "Now the breakevens for corn are $3.50 to $3.70." He thinks growers need more tools to help hedge the costs of diesel and fertilizer, as well as their commodity grain. But futures contracts for fuel are too big for individual producers to use ("You'd need to consumer 42,000 gallons of fuel a week to make it work," he said. "A lot of my farmers use 4,200 gallons a year.") Hedges for fertilizer are even more unworkable. [More]
The ritual response to from the ag media to such agri-whining is patronizing placation: soothing words about being cautious and risk management and prudence.

Gag! Lookit, guys, if you are in the grain business and you think we need help right now, you are a victim of the gospel of helplessness that has passed for holy writ for too long. Subsidized farmers have been trained into an identity that will not allow for competence or confidence.

Like Grima Wormtongue whispering in Theoden's ear, we have been told by our organizations, our government, and our neighbors we are the "slow children" of the American economy - charming and deserving, but not fully capable of managing our affairs. This of course gives a reason to be for these voices, because if we were to grow up and live economically adult lives, we wouldn't need enablers.

This pernicious and debilitating doctrine has come to full flower. As I look at actual profits from my farm triple what they were just two years ago, a chorus of imagined despair rises around me. Producers smack in the middle of the greatest boom in history have no words of excitement or enthusiasm lest they be rightly identified as prosperous people who don't need outside charity.

And truly, they are not happy. And never will be, if they mistakenly fear self-reliance as high doom of capitalism, when it is actually the greatest gift. Our posture as hapless dupes and helpless pawns is so ingrained in our self-image we are desperately searching for corroborating evidence of hard times, however illogical.

Nuts to that! I am rejoicing, and like Theoden, choose to seize this chance for us to return to our true identity - a full partner that does not simply take from our fellow Americans, but gives back more in return. A nation dragging through a inglorious war, racked with economic frailty, and desperate for social comity deserves better than mewling from the people they have lavishly supported for too long.

It is way past time for the sector enjoying the biggest boom in the economy to stop fixating on ourselves and our needs and ask what we can do for our customers, neighbors, and nation.

Instead of our plaintive wail, "I wanna tell you my story" we should offer instead words of powerful encouragement. Farmers - the link between our people and they land we inhabit; the anchor of reliable productivity is not weakened or fragile. It holds fast and can moor our nation in troubled times. While all else may be uncertain in America, that fact should be our message.

America's farmers are here to serve, for a change. The backbone we have vaingloriously claimed to be is stiffening and picking up some load at long last.

Theoden awakes and the gospel of helplessness is proven a craven heresy.


Anonymous said...


Below you said that most successful farmers owe that success to "accidents," from which I can logically only infer that you intended to juxtapose said accidents against "competence."

Are you now seeking something which you ealier implied does not exist, at least not in critical measure?

Anonymous said...


Please take the above comment in the manner in which it was intended: arch, yes; snarky, no.


John Phipps said...


Luck got most of us into farming; competence keeps us in. I picture it as generational - my father's competence became my good luck.

Good fortune can eventually be overcome by bad practice, however. I have seen a thousand acre inheritance lost in twenty years, for example. An extreme case to be sure, but a powerful lesson nonetheless.

This is a gross generalization, of course, but it delineates for me what I can take credit for and what I should simply be thankful for.

Regardless, our profession is not populated by incompetents, and my point is it strikes me as good time to own up to it at least.