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Thoughts On Economic "Inevitability"

by Gene Logsdon

Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer -- Click image for full-screen view (179 KB)
Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer
Photo by T.L. Gettings, Rodale Images. Full screen [179 kb]

Sometimes I believe that all the lessons of life can be learned at home. Just this morning I heard a nationally renowned agricultural economist on the radio make a prediction that I have a hunch will embarrass him greatly if he lives long enough. (Perhaps all our attempts at predicting the future would embarrass us if we lived long enough.) He said that an agriculture of huge grain farms and huge animal factories was "inevitable." He did not state that observation as his opinion, but as a fact that sentimental old fools like me had better get used to. He also seemed to think that inevitable carried with it the notion of forever.

I wonder if he would have made that prediction had he known deeply the history of any one place.

I need look no farther than right here in the fields of home to learn a lesson in not making grand prophecies like that. As long as I can remember -- 60 years -- the land around me, including my own, has been devoted to grain and livestock farming. But in the mid 1800s, sheep were the principle agricultural commodity. My great-grandfather went to work for one of those sheep ranches, which were then growing in acreage dramatically especially on the native prairie parts of our county, where there were fewer trees to whack off. Had there been agricultural economists in those days, I can imagine them saying with all the pomposity due their royal offices, that huge sheep ranches were "inevitable."

But economic conditions are more fickle than an April whirlwind. Within a generation, money was finding different pathways to follow. The sheep ranches became quickly "obsolete," (in America obsolete means unprofitable) and farmers like my great-grandfather bought the land and converted it to smaller, more diversified, and much more "efficient" grain and livestock farms. So profitable was this kind of farming that great-grandfather before 1900 had consolidated some 2,000 acres into his operation. Get big or get out, of course.

Once again, I can hear the economists of that era stating with absolute arrogance that more and larger grain and livestock farms were "inevitable." But great-grandfather's sons inherited that land and parcelled it out to their numerous offspring into 160-acre family farms, because that was the most "efficient" way to apply manpower for profitability. At that time, all sorts of economists sucking up to the public trough were saying that the continuation of small family farms was not only inevitable but "the great victory of the American system." Now that these little farms have been displaced by big cash grain farms and huge animal factories, the same economists are braying that the situation is "inevitable."

Obviously, the lesson of history is otherwise. Changing economic conditions make it just as possible that agriculture could revert to small, intensive garden farming coupled with small intensively grazed animal farms, or to something hardly dreamed about now, like a preponderance of algae and fish aquacultural farms.

Prophets of "inevitability" based on progression from small to large or from frontier to city might ponder the farm that borders mine on the east side. Without deep, abiding, neighborhood memory, no one today would suspect that those cornfields once grew an airport! The land went from forest to sheep ranch to grain cultivation to airfield and then against all worldly wisdom back to livestock and then to cash grain. Perhaps the next stop on the stumbling steps of history is as a golf course, which happened to some of the old sheep pastures several miles away at Harpster. This airport, next to our farm, was known as "Rall Field" after my mother's family who owned and farmed the land. Rall Field was something of a commercial enterprise in 1930, when, in our society's biased way of thinking, farm "hicks" should hardly have known what an airplane looked like, let alone operated an airfield.

The airport is remembered not for reasons of historical progression, but because of a humorous story that went with it. On Sundays, planes would fly in from Bucyrus and Marion and other towns in the area and take people for rides. Some of the planes, in fact all of the planes, were fragile, homemade affairs guaranteed to supply the "hicks" with plenty of weekend excitement.

The story goes that the owner-builder of one such plane, possibly not trusting the crate himself, hired a pilot to fly it from Bucyrus, where he kept it, to Rall Field for an afternoon of rides. Arriving at the field before his plane got there, the budding airline executive noticed that there was a dead furrow across the upper end of the landing strip. Such a little bit of a ditch would not be visible from the air, and it might cause enough of a bump to damage the plane to a pilot unfamiliar with Rall Field.

So the earliest and only air controller our township has ever known, placed himself over the worrisome old mark of the plow and as the plane hove into sight, began waving his hands and pointing down at the ground to make sure the pilot would pass well over the dead furrow before touching down. But the pilot interpreted the waving hands in just the opposite way. It seemed strange to him that his boss wanted him to set the plane down so near the end of the runway, but it was obvious, from the increasing ferocity with which he waved, that such was the case. Down he came, as close to his screaming, purple-faced signaller as possible without hitting him. When the plane hit the furrow, it nosed over and crumpled up like a paper accordion, but the rate of speed was so slow that the pilot walked away unhurt.

Rall Field did not last long. Albert Rall, applying his pencil stub to his daybook he kept handily in his bib overalls, calculated that corn and cows were a good deal more profitable than airplane rides, at least for the time being.

Another even more graphic example of how "progress" is not always from forest primeval to farm to strip mall comes from Mississippi. The first officially recorded 300-bushel corn yield was grown in that state, much to the chagrin of the Corn Belt. That was back in 1952 and how well I remember the excitement and the chagrin. How the farm magazine rhetoric flowed at the announcement of that record-smashing yield. Soon of course, 300-bushel corn would be common, said all the asshole economists, and if Mississippi could do it, the Corn Belt with the help of increased fertilizers and chemicals and hybrid vigor, yawn yawn, would soon ring up a 400-bushel yield. The word "inevitable" was flung around very loosely on that occasion too.

Today, forty some years later, the field that grew the first 300-bushel corn is a forest again! Furthermore yields of 300 bushels per acre have been achieved only in three or four more isolated instances. Ironically, it would appear now that if 300-bushel yields are to become commmonplace, as predicted, it will happen on biointensively-managed raised-bed garden plots, not large scale agribusiness farming. There are contrary gardeners doing it now.

More from Gene Logsdon: The Case of the Shrinking Penis

All Rights Reserved/© by the author. Permission to use must be obtained in person from Gene Logsdon (419) 294-2002, or in writing from Indiana University Press, 601 North Morton Street, Bloomington, Indiana 47404-3797. Logsdon writes from his farm in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, and is a frequent contributor to Ohio Magazine. This excerpt is from Logsdon's new book-in-progress, You Can Go Home Again, to be published by Indiana University Press, in early 1998. Logsdon's previous books include The Contrary Farmer, available from Chelsea Green Publishing Company, and At Nature's Pace, published by Pantheon. You can order Logsdon's books from Amazon.com Books.

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