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.”

More Infrequently Asked Farming Questions

Is it hard being an all-around farm expert?

The hard part is perfecting a belly laugh. Laugh too hard at another farmer’s mistake, and you’ll be attacked with a large ratchet. Yet show any hesitancy in your laugh, and people will doubt you’re an expert. Thus, pointing out another farmer’s problem and belly laughing afterwards, which is the major job responsibility of an all-around farm expert, is like tight-rope walking with no net–meaning it’s a very perilous activity that should only be attempted by trained professionals or those who pack up and leave town after a week. 

What’s the best ladder for farm use?

Every farmer needs a good flimsy ladder, one that bows and bends and bounces. A sturdy ladder is a big mistake. Nothing hurts worse than being wallopped by a stout ladder seconds after you’ve plummeted back to earth. Nowadays it doesn’t pay to add insult to injury. In the old days, some orthopedic surgeons offered two-for-one deals (for each shattered ankle, you got a cracked rib for free). But now, with the state of modern healthcare as it is, you can’t count on free handling for secondary fractures, so it’s best to be whalloped by a flimsy ladder. 

Nobody fell off a ladder like Ernest. RIP Jim Varney.

What do you know about nude beekeeping?

Little. I only know one nude beekeeper, Ned. Ned was just a regular guy who wore clothes in public, especially in the bee yard. He never once thought about disrobing outdoors until he accidentally left his shirt tail out and bees (from a dropped frame) regrouped on his shoes and started marching (unbeknownst to Ned) up his pant legs. The bees formed two flanks along the belly and the back and coordinated a simultaneous assault. Underneath Ned’s shirt tail and over his belt, the bees charged onto bareskin, where many sacrificed their lives on the rolling terrain of Ned’s mid-section. Afterwards, Ned began running and shedding clothes simultaneously, leaving a trail of garments behind, including his whitey-tightys. This disrobing routine was captured and posted to YouTube by a random passerby and thereafter Ned became known locally as Nude Ned. 

How does evil spread in the world?

Sandspurs in your shoe laces. If you’ve never experienced sandspurs, picture yourself strolling through a blooming meadow. Smell the flowers and feel the gentle breeze. Watch bees glide from flower to flower. Then, while listening to meadowlarks sing, take one more step and hear yourself utter, at the top of your lungs, your favorite exclamatory phrase. Hear it echo throughout the countryside. Then start hopping one-footed while calling for a medic.

(For more infrequently asked farming questions, check out this post. )

9 Pointless Pandemic Ponderings

  1. Fewer cars on the road mean less roadkill. Are buzzards going hungry?

  2. How do bank tellers identify bank robbers with everybody wearing masks?

  3. Simple solution to reopen the economy: everybody wears biohazard suits. Not enough biohazard suits? Take beekeeping suits and saran wrap the veil. (okay, not thirty minutes after I published this post, I saw a news story saying Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore recommended everybody wear space suits. That a top Trump economic adviser and I think alike is concerning–for me and this country. In fact, it’s so frightening I might grab a shovel and go bury gold in the backyard.)

  4. With handshakes now obsolete, will Free-Masons develop a secret elbow-bump?

  5. Bats get blamed for a lot of bad stuff, like coronavirus and vampirism. Did vampirism start in a Transylvanian lab? Screenshot 2020-04-23 at 2.11.24 PM

  6. How is the shortage of toilet paper affecting the port-a-potty industry?

  7. Why is the first person with coronavirus called patient zero? Shouldn’t it be patient one?

  8. If viruses just live to multiply and make life miserable, was my third-grade math teacher a virus?

  9. A gallon of milk is now worth more than a barrel of crude oil. Who says farming doesn’t pay?

For more farm thoughts, see On Farm Safety Thoughts.

Swarm Catching vs. Coronavirus Catching

Sometimes life, like swarm season, comes at you fast. I caught my first swarm of the year on March 23rd. I got the swarm call right before a department head conference call concerning our county’s response to the coronavirus. As the head of our local Soil and Water Conservation District, a county department of two, I’m required to attend these meetings. To be honest, it’s not my favorite job responsibility, and I feel a little out of place with the county higher-ups who wear neckties and shiny shoes. For instance, once having spent too long providing technical assistance (official government term for chatting) at a dairy farm, I made it to the county department head meeting just in the nick of time, right before the county manager gave some important update, the details of which I currently don’t remember. Mostly, I remember the sight of the Register of Deeds and Library Director sniffing inquisitively, and the smell of cow manure wafting from my boot. But I digress.

On March 23rd, about ten minutes before a county department head teleconference (in lieu of a physical meeting because of coronavirus), Lowry, my wife’s poppaw and my next-door neighbor, called me and said one of my hives had swarmed–“a biggun in the crotch of an apple tree.” Admittedly, my swarm control previsions had been little to none this spring. The bees had been on the back burner, as my wife and I are expecting a baby, our first after nine years of marriage. According to my wife, I now have other priorities than beekeeping, like insulating walls of our old farmhouse to make sure our offspring has comfortable environs outside the womb. At the rate I’m going, I figure our child will be thirty-four by the time I finish this task.

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a never-ending project

Before Lowry’s call, I hadn’t thought much about the possibility of catching a swarm this early. Seemingly, all my brain could focus on was the possibility of catching coronavirus. But after Lowry’s excited dispatch, worries of catching coronavirus suddenly evaporated. The great philosopher Patrick McManus had his own theory for this phenomenon, a theory which he called the “worry-box” and summed up as follows: 

“I have this theory that people possess a certain capacity for worry, no more, no less. It’s as though a person has a little psychic box that he feels compelled to keep filled with worries. When one worry disappears from the box, he immediately replaces it with another worry, so the box is always full. He is never short of worries. If a new crop of worries comes in, the person sorts through the box for lesser worries and kicks them out, until he has enough room for the new worries. The lesser worries just lie around on the floor, until there’s room in the box for them again, and then they’re put back in.” (From The Good Samaritan Strikes Again)

Swarm catching had suddenly returned to prominence as the main worry in my worry box, displacing coronavirus-catching for the time being.

Of course, everybody who keeps bees knows that swarm calls always come at the worst time possible. For instance, there’s an old story that circulates about a beekeeper who got a swarm call an hour before his only daughter’s wedding. After weighing his options, the father made the only rational decision a beekeeper in his situation could. Since he didn’t have time to run home for his beekeeping stuff, he borrowed his daughter’s wedding veil.

Like that father, I solved my swarm dilemma with similar aplomb. I stuck in my earbuds, dialed into the teleconference on my cell phone, and hightailed it home to recapture my AWOL bees. I suppose many of us have recently learned the advantages of teleconferences–you can attend meetings in pajamas (or while swarm catching), plus the smell of manure doesn’t waft through the phone.

In any event, I’m happy to report that I did catch that swarm, a “biggun” as Lowry would say, and that for a while, even though I was dialed into a coronavirus teleconference, my mind was on something completely unrelated to COVID-19.

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My swarm of bees marching into box. I should have got a bigger box