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.”

Beware of Beginning Olive Growers

One of the occupational hazards of working in a government agriculture office is the increased likelihood of encountering, if not being cornered and trapped by, a beginning olive grower. At our ag center, every agent who provides some form of government-sanctioned farming assistance–from the Farm Service Agency to Cooperative Extension, NCDA, Soil and Water District, and even the Forest Service (olives growing on trees)–has been ambushed once or twice by our local would-be olive grower, a serial ambusher whose ability to hold hostages through the spoken word is downright frightening. 

At first sight of his car pulling into the parking lot, the ag center reverberates with the sound of office doors closing and the clatter of government employees diving under desks, only to be followed by a hushed silence as the olive grower traverses the hallway in search of a victim to waylay. Sometimes a benevolent soul, usually a career public servant seeking to prank a new hire, will assist the olive grower in his search for the best employee to answer olive-growing questions. 

One morning, as a new soil conservationist, nary had I yet leaned back in my chair and kicked up my boots before the local field crop agent, who was set to retire in two weeks, guided the olive grower into my office. “Good morning, Stephen,” said the agent, “I’d like to introduce you to Tyler Wilson. He wants to start growing olives and has a few questions.”

To be honest, I was caught by surprise, completely unprepared for any discussion on olives. Had I had time to open my mouth, I would have admitted I knew little about olive culture, only enough to doubt they would grow well in our climate and soils. Thankfully, I didn’t betray my ignorance because I was quickly informed that the foothills of North Carolina was a prime olive-growing region. Tyler Wilson told me so himself. 

Tyler told me a lot. He talked non-stop for two hours about olives and was possibly the foremost expert in the olive-growing industry, despite the fact that he had yet to plant his first olive tree. Eventually, I feigned the symptoms of food poisoning and politely declined Tyler’s offer to drive me to the hospital to continue our chat. The last time I saw Tyler in the ag center, he was interrogating our janitor about the best sanitation practices to prevent disease in olive orchards. And judging by our janitor’s dazed expression, I would say Tyler’s long-winded discussions about olives should probably be outlawed by the Geneva Convention

How to Talk Foothills

“You ain’t from around here, are ya?” Despite my best attempts to learn local vernacular, I’ve been interrogated with this question a lot over the last ten years. I’m from “down east” where people put vinegar on barbeque and eat cohn on the cob, so locals here can tell I’m a flatlander whenever I open my mouth to eat or speak. My in-laws have tried to rehabilitate me with only meager success. 

My wife’s clan hails from Shelby–really Patterson Springs to be exact, or Pleasant Hill Church Road to be more exact. Using precise levels of exactness is a good way to endear yourself to locals. However, mispronouncing a place is a tell-tale sign of a newcomer, if not a downright insult to inhabitants. If you’re new to the Shelby area, you’d best learn to say Cherryville (Churvuhl), Mooresboro (Moesburo), Polkville (Pokevuhl), and Rutherfordton (Roughton) properly. Casar (Kayzer) is the benchmark pronunciation. Most out-of-towners have no idea how to pronounce the small Cleveland County town, population 296. Nearly all newcomers guess Caesar like Caesar salad. Make that mistake in Casar, and you’ll be fed to Knobby, the local sasquatch.

Throughout the foothills, the aw sound is widespread. While walking through the woods, you might see a frawg sitting on a lawg. Or inside watching tv, you might take a fawn call while watching Game of Thrawns. The drawn-out aw often takes the place of the letter o

Occasionally, it’ll be included with an i, too. Look no further than the word hill itself. Natives to the foothills pronounce it with a little extra emphasis and stretching. For instance, a Foothillian might say, “Did you go sledding down that hillawl?The bigger the hill, the more drawn out the pronunciation. The same goes for addition of the awl in God, or Gouawld. The more drawn-out the pronunciation, the more Baptist the speaker is or the bigger the swindler he is. Sometimes both apply.  

The best way to learn the foothills dialect is to listen to my wife’s popaw, Lowry. He’s eighty-five and was born and raised in Shelby. He speaks old-school foothills, which is reflected in his use of the letter r. Confusingly, he drops the r in some words and adds it to others. For instance, he refers to Charlotte as Shalut, but says wash as warsh. He often adds ar to the end of words like fellar. Then he’ll turn right around and remove the ar by saying something like backerds instead of backwards. To me, a former flatlander, none of this makes a lick of sense. In fact, as Lowry might say, it’s got me buffaloed, which is his go-to term for baffled. 

Lowry calls coke, as in Coca-Cola, dope, which he claims was once common terminology in Shelby. However, I tried ordering diet “dope” from a local eating establishment in Shelby, and the teenage waitress threatened to call the police.  

That said, talking foothills does have one perk. We used ain’t down east, but up here it’s also used in cain’t. Personally, I kinda like that because my mom (an English teacher) used to make me put a quarter in a jar every time I said ain’t. She strictly enforced this policy till I went bankrupt, after which I still avoided using it in her presence for fear of future reparation. At least now as an inhabitant of the foothills, I can say ain’t by hiding it cain’t and not run afoul of my mom.

In Defense of the Small Truck

Last week I complained about large pizzas getting smaller. This week my gripe is about small trucks getting larger. I had hopes when Ford reintroduced the Ranger that the small truck might reemerge from car maker exile. The old Ranger was more or less the equivalent of a go-cart with a truck bed, a nimble little truck that when stuck could easily be unstuck by gently rocking back and forth in the driver’s seat. There was no need for an extreme four-wheel-drive package because the Ranger was so lightweight you could tie a tissue to the antenna and the truck would sail away. But the new Ranger is not small, and Ford even admits as much. They market it as a “mid-size” truck, which means it’s the same size as a mammoth truck a decade ago. 

Furthermore, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but most trucks nowadays are just minivans in disguise. Take, for instance, my neighbor’s SuperCrew King Ranch. I can’t remember the last time I actually saw it do anything ranch or farm related. My neighbor’s actually afraid to put stuff on the back for fear of scratching the truck bed. I kid you not, the only farm-related task he uses it for is bragging (he’s a nice guy, who hopefully doesn’t read this blog, but he’s one of those annoying farmers who spends half his time complaining about the financial hardships of farming and the other half gloating about how big and expensive his equipment is.) My little four-cylinder Tacoma has done more farmwork in a day than that waxed-up behemoth parked under his carport will do in an eternity. 

Granted, there are times I’d like a little more heft to my truck, particularly when a loaded livestock trailer is defying the braking power of my brakes and pushing me downhill so fast I’d need a parachute to stop. But isn’t that part of the thrill of owning a small truck? Never knowing when your bumper might pull off is another, or when your tires might blow out because the load on the back makes your truck look like a lowrider. 

my truck loaded down with honey supers

Maybe one day my wife will buy me a big truck, but even then, I think I’ll keep my little Toyota despite the fact I’ve had multiple inquiries from complete strangers wondering if I’d sell it. Apparently, the used small truck market is hot right now because the new small truck market is non-existent. You’d think car manufacturers would catch on, but, then again, these are the same companies who gave us the PT Cruiser and Pontiac Aztek.  

 

A Two-inch Change You Can Believe In

I can remember a simpler time, a time when large pizzas were large and not paltry mediums in disguise. Yep, the modern large pizza is merely 14 inches in diameter, instead of 16 inches like it was back in the era of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles birthday parties. A two inch difference may not seem like much, but when you do the math it means the modern large is 24% smaller than large pizzas in the cowabunga era. I’m not sure when the shrinkage happened exactly, but it really takes the prestige out of scarfing down an entire large pizza by myself. Not that I do it often, but when I do, you can rest assured my wife is out of town. 

Indeed, one of the many sacrifices I made for marital bliss was giving up Papa John’s. I married into a Pizza Hut family, and when I made my wedding vows, I ostensibly converted to the Hut. But deep down in my heart of hearts, I still love the garlicky goodness of Papa John’s. That little banana pepper lying in the corner of the box sings to my taste buds with happy nostalgia. Which is why, whenever my wife leaves me home alone, I order a large Papa John’s pizza with chicken, bacon, onions, bell peppers, bbq sauce, and extra cheese and diligently proceed to devour it. 

Devouring an entire large pizza is basically the equivalent of running a marathon. Start out too fast, and you’ll barf midway through. The scientific reason behind this is the pizza’s salt content is a few kilograms short of The Dead Sea, so your stomach will engage in the reverse osmosis (a.k.a. barfing) if you eat too much without staying hydrated. That’s why I always add on a two-liter Coke to go with my pizza and proceed to guzzle it too. Unless you’re a competitive eater, the best approach is slow and steady, one bite after another, with short quick sips of Coke in between. If you can make it through the first 10,000 calories, the final 5,000 are a breeze. 

But the problem with the modern smaller large is that it really diminishes your sense of self-accomplishment once you reach the finish line. Claiming you ate a whole large pizza when you only ate an old-school medium would be like putting one of those 26.2 stickers on your car when you only ran 20 miles instead. Sure you accomplished a lot, but did you really eat a whole large pizza? I think not. 

So my point here is that we need to make large pizzas large again. In these divisive times, I believe this singular issue can unite our divided country, which is why I’m forming a third party alternative to the Republicans and Democrats called the Cowabunga Party whose sole purpose will be to increase the minimum diameter of a large pizza back to 16 inches. No matter whether you order veggie or meat lover, pepperoni or extra cheese, Pizza Hut or Papa John’s, there’s room in the Cowabunga Party for you. 

So if you want to make a positive change in the world, please consider changing your party affiliation to Cowabunga. On behalf of the future multitudes who will undoubtedly join, we appreciate your support in these early stages of mobilization, and you can rest assured knowing any donations you make will be put to good use to fight the scourge of  Larges In Name Only (LINOs).  

Thank you for your support!

(Dark money and bribes should be sent to our Political Action Committee, the Large Pizza Leadership Fund. I reserve the right to use any contributions to pay off campaign debt, namely that of my mortgage and any rusty tractors I may buy for campaign purposes.)