Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
It’s cold outside, people. Winter is here, and while it’s right on time, it means quite a bit of staring-out-the-window daydreaming for those of us used to gawking at the geese and the deer and hawks from their natural habitat: outside. Oh, there are still animals to feed and water to check, but many of the other chores have to wait.
I get antsy in the winter. Here it is, the first true subzero temps we’ve had in West Missouri, and I’m already getting cabin fever. But patience must be had. We’ll get some warm days here and there, although a long February and probably March looms cold and dreary. Patience. Patience.
In weather like this, my thoughts turn to two poles: one devoted to planning and anticipation for the spring and summer to come, the other stuck on the past. It’s the past—and with it, a reflection on the duality of farm life—that I can’t get out of my head today and that I’d like to share with you.
My ruminating got started by a great piece written by James Fallows for The Atlantic. Fallows’s article is about American attitudes and reverence for the military, despite the fact that very few of us actually have anything to do with the military itself. It’s worth a read.
What I can’t stop returning to is a passage where Fallows makes a comparison with the American farming sect:“Now the American military is exotic territory to most of the American public. As a comparison: A handful of Americans live on farms, but there are many more of them than serve in all branches of the military. (Well over 4 million people live on the country’s 2.1 million farms. The U.S. military has about 1.4 million people on active duty and another 850,000 in the reserves.) The other 310 million–plus Americans ‘honor’ their stalwart farmers, but generally don’t know them. So too with the military. Many more young Americans will study abroad this year than will enlist in the military—nearly 300,000 students overseas, versus well under 200,000 new recruits.”
In a way, this is odd territory for those of us who live and work out here in the middle of Farm Country. We are farmers. We know farmers. We are surrounded by farmers and farming operations. That’s the way it has always been, at least since our ancestors occupied the place we call home.
Yet we are also members of broader American society. Most of us work off the farm to support our families. The younger (and even some older) members of our community carry around smartphones and travel miles to eat sushi. We have a notion of Times Square in New York, South Beach in Miami, and the Vegas Strip.
I’m struck by the question of how this all happens. How can such a large part of the American economy — that’s agriculture — be so hidden to the larger society? How can so many Americans speak so highly of American farmers when they know so little about our lives and our communities?
For the sake of comparison, I’m going to pick on the gigantically popular ratings monster that is the NFL. Football games consistently rank among the most-watched shows on TV. Sports radio stations abound. There are all kinds of podcasts related to pro football, college football, and high school football. Millions of people play fantasy football and gamble on various aspects of the game. Super Bowl Sunday might as well be a holiday in American society.
And while agriculture is much more calm and stark and slow than the gladiatorial spectacle that is football, it’s interesting to look at the numbers. I’m going to list some revenues for our Missouri-based teams here for your information. First, the Kansas City Chiefs’ franchise value and revenue, as reported by Forbes. The Chiefs come in 24th in a league of 32 teams, with a 2013 revenue of $260 million. The St. Louis Rams, on the other side of the state, came in at $250 million in revenue. That’s $510 million in combined revenue for a state with two big cities and two NFL franchises.
So, let’s compare that number with Missouri agricultural revenue. I’m going to choose cattle sales, since it’s our farm’s economic engine. It’s too early yet to get USDA economic reports for 2014, so I’m going to make some estimates.
First, you have to estimate how many calves were sold in 2014. The Missouri Agriculture Statistics Services, a part of the USDA, reports that 1,820,000 beef cattle reside on Missouri farms. If we assume that most of those momma cows would birth a calf, and that slightly more than half would be sold (some female calves are kept back to either increase herd size or replace aging animals), we’re left with approximately 1 million calves hitting the market.
Now for prices. I’m going to use an average price in 2014 of $2 per pound for calves. This is a historical high, and for a good chunk of the year, calves sold for even more than this for a lot of reasons: smaller national herd size due to drought and grassland conversion to cropland, continued strong demand for beef on the international market, etc. So, if you convert the sale of calves at something like 600 pounds each (some sell at higher weights) at $2 per pound with 1 million calves sold, you reach a whopping $1.2 billion in cattle revenue in Missouri.
I’m not surprised that the amount of money generated by Missouri agriculture is much higher than that of the state’s two NFL franchises. But remember, I’m only talking here about a single aspect. Calves are just one part of the beef system, which is just one part of the big picture of farming in Missouri. I haven’t included the sale of corn or soybeans or cotton or rice or hogs or dairy or wood products or poultry. I haven’t even included the sale of older cows or finished beef ready to be sold as steaks and burgers. Remember, too, that Missouri is a diverse agricultural state and not the king of any of these farm products. Iowa and Illinois we are not.
By now, you’re probably wondering about the need for going through this mental exercise with me. Is it really interesting or important or even accurate to start threading together a comparison of the military with agriculture and football? What’s the point? I’m still trying to figure it out myself.
Part of the answer, such as it is, has something to do with a couple of arguments that have stuck in my memory—maybe because they don’t quite ring true for me.
The first one is a repeated conversation I’ve had with several middling-to-older age farmers right here at home, my dad included. I have heard them say, independent of each other, how much better off the football program at our public university—that’s the Mizzou Tigers—could be with a few roster spots reserved for small-town and farm players. Maybe they would never see the field, the thinking goes, but they would improve the “morality and culture” of the otherwise troubled group of young adults we root for on Saturdays.
The second comes from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, whom I heard at the National Rural Summit in 2010, as well as on other occasions, lay out his version of why rural America provides a much larger proportion of military careerists than other Americans. Vilsack’s line is an attempt to debunk a long-held belief that, in the modern era of a volunteer military, it’s not that rural Americans join the armed forces because we lack economic opportunities. It’s that rural Americans have a superior sense of “service” compared to other Americans. Vilsack has made it a repeated theme in his public comments to explain that while only 16 percent of Americans come from rural areas, 40 percent of American military service members come from rural areas.
What I’m concerned about is the notion of “exceptionalism” with respect to all three communities: the military professionals, the farmers, and even the footballers. We erect a fortress of reverence around each in our society, making criticism and questioning tantamount to betrayal or even treason. In trying to reconcile these seemingly confusing themes, I’m left with a few thoughts:
1.) American farmers, like American military professionals, are generally good folks. The vast majority are good people who provide important roles and sacrifices for our communities. That role should be celebrated.
2.) Outside of their work—I’m talking about their personal lives here, not their service—American farmers, like American military professionals, should not be put on a pedestal above Americans.
3.) It is wildly unfair and creates a lot of society-wide problems to hold certain populations—in this case, farmers and soldiers—as “superior” to others.
At the end of the day, I hope we can move past these preconceived notions of moral superiority. In returning to the Fallows article, I would hope we can break through some of the same misunderstandings and romanticisms of farmers as morally superior beings.
Let me be 100 percent clear: We should celebrate and revere our nation’s farmers. But we should also be able to question our paths moving forward. That’s our task as members of a democratic society. Some of us might need to spend more time and effort getting to know the people who raise our food. Others of us, those who try our hardest to raise good food and generate a strong economy for our communities, might need to spend some time listening to the people who buy our products. Maybe there’s something to learn if we take the time to talk to each other—normal humans, responding the best we can.
That’s all I’ve got. Happy New Year! Let’s see what happens in 2015.
(Top) Photo by Flickr/andy logan
(Second) Photo by Flickr/andy logan
(Third) Photo by Flickr/CAFNR
(Fourth) Photo by Flickr/Larry
(Bottom) Photo courtesy Bryce Oates
Bryce Oates is a farmer, a father, a writer, and a conservationist in western Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig some potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.
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