Brace Yourself: A Wonkish Agriculture Deep Dive

An ancient wise man once said, “A calendar is a tool best used for kindling.” I don’t know many biographical details about this ancient wise man because I just made him up, but likely he was a beekeeper. Indeed, a nice glossy calendar burns well in a bee smoker, where it does much more good than it would hanging on my wall. In fact, I consult a calendar so infrequently I still have a 2020 edition hanging in my office–only six more years and the days of the week and month will match up again.

The thing about beekeeping is that the calendar doesn’t really matter. Bees use a calendar even less than I do. In the past, I’ve tried to jump the gun by doing early grafts for new queens, only to be disappointed by a cold snap that caused the bees to abandon the queen cells. And I’m sure glad I didn’t try it this year. The freeze we had before Easter weekend was devastating. It’s not even mid-April yet, and many commercial blackberry growers here have already filed complete losses on their early varieties. Several weeks of warm weather had the blackberries forming flower buds early. Then it got down to 26. Not good. 

And it’s heartbreaking for these blackberry growers. They won’t grow broke because of crop insurance, but any hope for a bumper year is dashed, replaced already by worry for next year. And though one bad year won’t break them, several in a row could. 

Which brings me to my second wise man: Charles Brannan (brace yourself–what follows could rival watching paint dry in terms of entertainment appeal). 

The Wonkish Part

Brannan was the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under Harry Truman. I’m not sure if he said anything quotable and pithy, but he did come up with the Brannan Plan, which was basically a plan for an unabashed farmer subsidy.

Under his proposed plan, which was never approved, when prices of commodities dropped below a fair price, determined by averaging prices from the last ten years, the government would pay farmers directly to make up the difference. The government, however, wouldn’t buy the surplus causing the price drop. Instead, the government would let the free-market determine prices. Thus, if farmers flooded the market with eggs, the government wouldn’t buy eggs and let them go rotten just to keep prices up. Instead, the consumer benefited from a flooded market of eggs, with lower prices per carton at the grocery store, and farmers received a fair price. Eventually, the ten year average would drop because of the lower free market price. In the meantime, farmers weathered the down market and had time to pivot to another crop without going out of business. That was the grand idea within the Brannan Plan. The idea is the basis for modern-day crop insurance, except the subsidy is now funneled and hidden through private crop insurance companies.

In Brannan’s day, as now, the word subsidy doesn’t play well. In the age of Joseph McCarthy, Brannan’s plan was attacked as socialism. But perhaps the most controversial aspect of the plan was the limitation on that subsidy. The plan would only subsidize production on farms for what a “family unit” could produce to avoid encouraging “large, industrial farming.” The conservative Farm Bureau and Grange opposed, wanting instead a “food stamp” plan which subsidized consumers’ purchases of surplus foods. The liberal National Farmers Union supported Brannan’s plan. And, yes, conservatives and liberals have now switched sides. Liberals often rail against subsidized agriculture and promote “food stamps.” Conservatives often lobby for more farm subsidies and bemoan food stamps.

The two biggest criticisms of agricultural subsidies today are (1) subsidies are based on production and acreage, so the biggest farms receive the most subsidies, increasing their ability to buy out small farms, and (2) subsidies benefit field crops, like corn, wheat, and soybeans, more than other sectors of agriculture, like livestock and produce. Brannan foresaw both of these problems. He wanted to solve the first with the aforementioned limitation on subsidies based on what a family could produce. He wanted to solve the second by subsidizing nearly everything, based on the fair price approach. 

With the decline in small family farms, I sometimes wondered what America would look like had Bannan’s plan been approved. But it never happened. Instead, the philosophy of Earl Butz, another US Secretary of Agriculture, eventually won out. His mantra to farmers was, “Get big or get out.”

30 thoughts on “Brace Yourself: A Wonkish Agriculture Deep Dive

  1. We have been experiencing 100 years of a slow turn toward big government, which isn’t what our founders were fighting for. China has purchased millions of acres of farmland, and so have corporations. It isn’t a truth that helps anyone with a brain sleep at night.

  2. A very interesting point to ponder, and not even remotely wonkish to anyone who cares about rural communities. Much the same forces at play in Australia. Round the edges, as it were, some small family farms are doing interesting things, some of them on a CSA model, others producing a niche, premium product for restaurants etc. But it’s a precarious existence, and not just because of the vagaries of the weather.

  3. Interesting read. I sometimes think the whole “Get big or get out” attitude caused a lot of problems including the prevalence of monocultures (which have certainly done more harm than good) and corporatization of everything to do with farming. However, I like to think the focus on CSAs, farmers’ markets, and eating local is helping/will help bring back family farms. What do you think? Am I dreaming?

    1. I think every little bit helps. It at least provides an alternative, not that it is an easy alternative, but farming has never been easy. We see a lot of people interested in doing the farmer’s market/csa route who get out of it after a year or two. It’s often a lot of hard work for little reward. But, that said, there are a few people who’ve stuck with it and been successful. After the initial excitement of doing something new wears off comes the pivotal moment. I’d say most of the ones who stick with it have a needed stubborn streak.

      1. Well, I must say I’m grateful my CSA farmers are stubborn then and have made a go of it! I think it helps when they partner with other local farmers to provide a variety of products. Mine has recently added organic grains and cereals. Yum!

      2. You know, if I had to really put my finger on the quality that ties most successful farmers together, it would have to be that stubborn streak, or grit, or dogged determination. And then, like your CSA, being willing to collaborate with other farmers and help each other out, makes a huge difference too.

  4. Thanks for sharing this! I did not know the history of subsidies and it’s really interesting and also somewhat saddening. I also wonder what it would be like if smaller family farms were the majority instead of the minority.
    Side note: the stupid cold snap killed all of our beans despite us covering them. Bummer!

    1. Ugh, that cold snap was pretty brutal. That is a good question about smaller family farms. The fact that farmers only make up about 2% of the population now means we’ve more or less painted ourselves into a corner. So many farmers have gotten out that our collective voice is much smaller than it used to be.

  5. I grew up watching the crassness of the Earl Butts philosophy. I watched as farms and because more commercialized and less family oriented. Farm animals have been increasingly treated inhumanly and farms and farmers have been getting treated like slaves to the industrial complex.

    1. Yeah, sometimes you wish you could go back in time and replay how things would have turned out. Certainly, there probably would have been negative unintended consequences to Brannan’s plan, but it’s interesting how he had the foresight to see the negatives that actually did play out, just like he warned.

  6. I learned something, too. Thanks for explaining how we got here. I wonder if it is too late for the wheel to turn a bit and change our strategic direction?

  7. Nice to see you getting a little political, not necessarily fun or funny which you are so good at, but as we all know, sure helps the medicine go down. We must all stop avoiding this work, imo, because as the saying goes— if you don’t do politics, politics will do you—and that’s exactly how we got in this mess.

    1. Thanks, that saying kind of reminds me of the time I went to a Pearl Jam concert one time, and Eddie Vedder said, “If you stand for anything, you’ll fall for everything.” That quote has always stuck with me.

      1. Actually, I think you may have misquoted—it’s ‘if you don’t stand for anything, you’ll fall for everything”—in that case, I agree.

  8. So many missed chances in US history. Glad U shared this one. No, it’s not too wonkish.

    I already knew about some huge missed chances (like the copouts on Reconstruction in the 1800-s) and another proposal from the Truman era that did not fly but should have.

    Brannan’s plan was new to me. It’s the earliest example I have seen of trying to channel market forces toward constructive outcomes, as in cap-and-trade for pollution or catch shares for fisheries. Brannan was ahead of his time, and there are still many people stuck in the delusion that societies must choose between total laissez faire and socialism.

    1. Yeah, at this point, you can only wonder how it would affected things. I’m sure it would have had unintended consequences too, but in hindsight it seems like it would have been the wiser way to go.

    1. Yeah, I’m not sure what’s going on. I’ve noticed for months when I like something using the comments panel or whatever it is called in wordpress editor, sometimes it is gone from where I liked a comment when I reenter the comments panel again later. But, then again, sometimes the likes do seem to stick, so I’m not sure what is going on.

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