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No Butz About It

Saturday, July 17, 2010

How a long-ago Secretary of Agriculture became the demon of industrial food critics; and how those critics get the last half-century of agricultural history wrong.

First Lady Michelle Obama has refused to plant corn in her famous White House organic garden. That's a direct result of the attack on corn and modern agriculture, led by local and sustainable food advocates, small farm groups, food writers, and the producers of film documentaries. The only kind of corn that would be grown in any garden, organic or not, is sweet corn, and sweet corn is the only thing that makes July survivable in hot Midwestern summers, but never mind. The organic garden is a political exercise, and corn is in bad odor with environmentalists, the New York Times, and Michael Pollan.

According to the narrative, we farmers plant far too much corn; in particular, too much of the kind of corn livestock eat. And we do this even though corn is really cheap.

What’s more, corn has become an industrial product like polypropylene or stainless steel; it's no longer really food for any creature, great or small. Corn sweetener receives more bad press than methamphetamine, so the Obamas will eat no fresh sweet corn dripping with butter and sprinkled with salt. (President Obama can seem peevish at times; I'd prescribe sweet corn, twice a day, for the week or so that corn from the garden is at its peak.)

Earl Butz was often wrong, but he was right about one thing: our long experiment with controlling production has invited competitors to take up the slack.

The fact that the Obamas are denying themselves a summer treat would be of little concern, except there are other problems with this story. The first is that it doesn't reflect well on farmers. If we keep planting corn every year even though it never reaches profitable prices, then we farmers are stupid. Even at the risk of appearing irrational, farmers rarely challenge the story. It serves us well to argue from poverty when farm bills are written and subsidy levels decided, when stories appear about the subsidies received by farmers, and when we negotiate with the guy down at John Deere or with the landowner whose farm we want to rent.

Because the agenda of corn's critics is advanced if farmers buy into the story, it doesn't serve their ends to paint farmers as idiots. A scapegoat is needed. Hence, farmers plant too much corn because… because… because Earl Butz told us to!

Children of the Corn

Butz, for those who don't remember, was Secretary of Agriculture for Presidents Nixon and Ford. He famously told farmers to plant "fence row to fence row.” He was no fan of acreage retirement programs: these programs were the main tool in the farm policy toolbox for 60 years, designed to control crop supply to keep prices stable, thus helping us farmers. And he was an ardent advocate for farm exports. He lost his job in 1976 after telling a racial joke.

In the 2007 documentary “King Corn,” Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis interview an aged Butz, and describe how, in their view, Nixon-era farm policies led directly to overproduction of corn and a subsequent rise of obesity in the United States. On camera, Butz is unrepentant, still convinced that paying farmers not to plant was "the stupidest thing we ever did." The former secretary is proud of the fact that food costs have plummeted as a percentage of the average American's budget, and reminds Cheney and Ellis that Americans are wealthier today because food costs have declined.

According to the narrative, we farmers plant far too much corn, in particular too much of the kind of corn livestock eats.

Greg Critser, in his book Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, blames Butz for the use of high fructose corn sweetener, which, according to Critser, has made Americans obese. Richard Manning, in his 2004 screed Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization, claims Butz is responsible for large corn crops and low corn prices.

Farmer Tom Philpott, writing on the occasion of Butz's death, perhaps best describes the conventional wisdom. According to Philpott, Butz presided over massive cuts in farm subsidies, and more importantly the end of land retirement schemes used to control supply. Philpott describes farm policy from the 1930s until Butz as a sort of Nirvana for both farmers and consumers, as it paid farmers not to farm and kept corn prices high. Butz attempted to end land retirement programs and worked to increase farm exports. This, according to the narrative, was done at the behest of large agribusiness, and led to cheap corn fed to cattle, confined animal operations, corn sweetener in soda pop, and the decline of the small family farmer.

Obviously, farmers produce less when the government pays them not to produce. But most of the criticism of Butz centers on that famous bit of cheerleading. Farmers some 40 years later are producing too much corn, leaving corn prices too cheap and Americans too fat, because Butz urged us to plant fence row to fence row, and told us to “get big or get out." Butz proclaimed as oracle, and farmers as easily led.

In a recent piece in the New York Review of Books, Pollan credits Butz with single-handedly increasing corn yields:

Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz shifted the historical focus of federal farm policy from supporting prices for farmers to boosting yields of a small handful of commodity crops (corn and soy especially) at any cost. The administration’s cheap food policy worked almost too well: crop prices fell, forcing farmers to produce still more simply to break even.

Pollan is describing a backward-bending supply curve; Butz, a Purdue University-trained economist, is rolling over in his grave.

The Price Is Right

The problem with the story is that it bears almost no relation to the truth. The critics of conventional agriculture are not fans of increased yields, of course, and blame farmers' productivity for ills ranging from diabetes to wars. How Butz is responsible for those increased yields is never made clear. Farmers now have better seeds, better machinery, and better means of controlling pests than they did in 1970. All of these things have been a blessing for mankind, and none of them results from anything Butz did.

Farmers respond to economic signals, and planted more corn in the early 1970s because prices were high, the highest they have ever been, in fact, with inflation-adjusted prices some three times today's level and double the levels of 2007 and 2008. In 1973, we purchased a tractor, our first tractor with a cab, air conditioner, and a radio, with the revenue from approximately 4,000 bushels of corn. A comparable tractor today would take the revenue from 40,000 bushels of corn.

Corn sweetener receives more bad press than methamphetamine, so no fresh sweet corn dripping with butter and sprinkled with salt will be eaten by the Obama family.

Butz was popular with many farmers, but a speech from some U.S. Department of Agriculture politician in Washington was not the reason that our farm, and thousands of farms like ours, plowed up the pasture and planted it to corn. We did it because prices were high, so high that farmers saw income levels never seen before or since. (Incidentally, it’s also a given in this Butz-driven criticism that we're planting more ground to corn than ever before. In the last few years, American farmers have typically planted about 85 million acres to corn. In 1931, American farmers planted 109 million acres of corn.)

That's not the only problem with the narrative. Acreage retirement programs were small in the early 1970s, but by the middle-1980s we had the biggest land retirement program in history, the infamous payment-in-kind (PIK) program, which saw 50 percent of the Corn Belt idle. Land retirement held on for the next decade, ending only with the 1995 Farm Bill, a whole generation after Butz left office. We continue to have 35 million acres or so of farmland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. We still aren't planting fence row to fence row, even after all these years.

We can't even blame corn sweetener in soda pop on Butz. Sugar import quotas, which had been in place since the early 1800s, were repealed by the Nixon administration. They were reimposed in the early 1980s, which increased the price of sugar, made high fructose corn syrup cheaper than sugar, and led to the widespread substitution of corn sweetener for sugar.

Living in a Global Market

After leaving office, Butz was convicted of tax evasion for failing to report income. By now, he would be forgotten by almost everybody, if his bigotry and dishonesty hadn't made him such a perfect foil for the just-so stories told by the opponents of industrial agriculture. If there had been no Earl Butz, the organic and sustainable food movement would have had to invent him. Caricatured as careless of the environment, seeing large-scale agriculture as morally neutral, and totally oblivious to the niceties of political correctness, Butz epitomizes everything seen as immoral in the present food system. Even his name lends itself to ridicule.

But, for all his faults, Butz realized that we were and are in a global market.

Former Agriculture Secretary Butz was unrepentant, still convinced that paying farmers not to plant was ‘the stupidest thing we ever did.’

In the time since Butz left office, South American soybean production has increased from near zero to a level equal to U.S. production. The South Americans have quadrupled production since the early 1980s. Without touching the rainforests, Brazil can and will increase land devoted to the production of corn, soybeans, and wheat.

China and India rapidly increased food production in the decades since Butz left office, and are investing in farm land outside their borders to help guarantee adequate food for their growing populations. It won't be enough, and both countries will grow as markets for imports of food.

The Black Sea area of Eastern Europe is growing rapidly in grain production and has the potential to increase both yields and land under production; biotechnology and commercial fertilizers offer great promise for increasing grain production in Africa.

It might be better in the long run to end farm programs altogether, rather than have the U.S. taxpayer support the income of every farmer everywhere.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that gross domestic product outside the United States will increase by $40 trillion in the next 20 years. Income elasticity for food purchases outside the United States is 0.57, meaning more than half of all increased income is spent on food. Americans spend about a trillion dollars a year on food. This means the world will add a market the size of the U.S. domestic market each year for the next 20.

World food demand is projected to double in the next 50 years. The rest of the world is scrambling to meet that demand, but too many in the United States pine for the days when government policy took millions of acres of the most productive farmland in the world out of production.

Butz was often wrong, but he was right about one thing: our long experiment with controlling production has invited competitors to take up the slack. It is no coincidence that the growth in South American production occurred at the same time that we in the United States were retiring land.

Agriculture is a global industry, people are hungry, and if we in the United States turn down markets, either through misguided government programs or a whole-scale rejection of modern methods, our farms and farmers will be replaced by producers in South American, Africa, and Eastern Europe.

Blake Hurst is a Missouri farmer.

FURTHER READING: Hurst discussed a “Green Menace” within agricultural aid to Haitians, provided a glimpse into the soul of farming in “Give Thanks for This Harvest” and reviewed a book about indigenous white farmers during South African land reform in “‘The First White Farmer Had Been Murdered.’” Last July, Hurst wrote “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals,” countering opponents of industrial farming. In an American Enterprise Outlook, C. Peter Timmer questions the existence of “A World Without Agriculture.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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