Farming Magazine - June, 2010


Opinion: The Grateful Environmentalist / Urbanite?

By Martin Harris Jr.

If you’ve been following media coverage—print media, primarily—of the environmental/economic super-subject, one which ranges from carbon sequestration and land use to consumer food spending and urban sprawl, you may have noted a somewhat new pattern of recitation of past campaigns in defense of present ones. It seems to be remarkably widespread and coordinated, showing up synchronously in local, regional and national newspapers. It’s not only in the wire services—AP, for example— putting this focus in their news pieces; it’s also in the letters columns, where enviro-writers send in their individual versions of “how-dare-you-criticize-us-now-when-we’ve-done-marvels-for-you-in-the-past” complaints, posted, I’d guess, as a calculated campaign to divert attention from, for example, the global-warming data-falsification debacle/scandal, the green-driven choice to favor fish over farmland in the governmental California irrigation water policies, or the growing (excuse the pun) realization that one environmental goal—the new edible-lawn/grow-your-own/locavore movement—is in direct conflict with such older goals as Oregon-style small-lot “smart-growth,” anti-sprawl and nationwide farmland-fragmentation-prevention campaigns.

Like that other part-time Fourth Estater, Will Rogers, who quipped in the “Roaring Twenties” that “all I know is what I read in the papers,” I’ve seen in newspapers ranging from my local weekly and regional daily to The New York Times (circulation decreasing) and The Wall Street Journal (circulation increasing) just such items recently on both the news and op-ed pages. Best written (least burdened with ad hominem attacks on any who are “in denial” and not “on board”) was an April 12, 2010 WSJ letter by Hugh McDiarmid of Michigan, who demands continuing recognition and grateful thanks today for the environmental clean-up of Lake Erie (actually, it was the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland that had the surface fire in 1969, not the Lake), the anti-smoking campaign of similar birth date and the anti-lead (paint and gas) campaign (now a quarter-century old), all in rebuttal of “ … a litany of warts and bruises on the evolving and complex science of climate change … ” which, before current credibility challenges, was generating political pressures for all sorts of Luddite raise-the-cost-of-energy initiatives. Unmentioned in such letters are always the past major missteps of aggressive environmentalism–Love Canal in Buffalo, for example, where it was city government and not the frenetically demonized Hooker Chemical, which authorized the creation of a carefully encapsulated toxic-waste dump, upon completion to become a no-build park, only to breach the encapsulation for utility lines so as to sell lots for taxable housing. Consider the long-term demonization of commercial agriculture, which has kept the consumer members of the environmental movement well-fed at ever lower food prices even as they’ve criticized farmers for everything from the John Deere plow of the 19th century to the Henry Wallace hybrid corn genetics of the 20th century.

Now, in the 21st century, farming isn’t “entitled,” in the official enviro view, to any carbon-sequestration credits at all for growing crops which, they admit, take in CO2 and emit oxygen, unless it’s grown in no-till ways that meet with their approval, even though the data show that corn grown the old-fashioned way sequesters almost as much carbon as corn grown the new-fashioned way, and more if you count the carbon implications of the range of herbicidal/pesticidal chemicals needed for no-till.

Nor does the environmental movement, even as it officially worries about farmland loss to “sprawl,” offer any recognition at all of the natural acreage, forest or grassland, saved from the plow or the sprayer by farming’s extraordinary effort (and success) at increasing per-acre productivity, efforts the movement has specifically criticized while never conceding the additional acres that would be needed to feed an ever-increasing population if farmers hadn’t increased per-acre yields so much that farmland use has actually gone down even as urbanite population has soared. An advocacy that demands thanks chooses not to give them.

Here are the inconvenient facts:
Land use in U.S. agriculture has been going down ever since 1955, when it topped out at 1.2 billion acres; now, it’s down below 950 million. So, much for the credibility of the American Farmland Trust’s campaign for consumers to act in their own self-interest, food-cost-wise, to prevent an impending farmland shortage and ensuing food price increases: “save farmland now; send us money.” In historical fact, the first Soil Bank program was established in 1956 and has been in effect, under a series of names, ever since, as farmland need has shrunk because farmland productivity has increased faster than food demand. That wasn’t the case before 1955, when population increase always resulted in new land being broken for farming. From the Civil War to WWII, for example corn yields remained stubbornly in the 30-bushel-per-acre range.

However, in the Great Depression years, Henry Wallace started his corn-seed hybridization research, and it the post-WWII years, farmers took it up, so that farmland requirements reduction, since 1955, has reverse-mirrored population increase. In 1955, U.S. population was 166 million. It’s 308 million today, and that doesn’t fully count some 12 to 18 million illegal immigrants, up from a negligible number in the ’50s.

Here’s where the math gets interesting:
A population increase from 166 million to 308 million is a gain of 142 million, or 86 percent. All 1.2 billion acres of farmland were in use in 1995; had productivity not increased since then, cropland demand would have. An 86-percent increase from a base of 1.2 billion acres would have taken the requirement up to 2.2 billion acres. Where would the billion of new farmland acres have been found? In the wilderness, wetland, woodland and grassland acres the environmental movement seeks, rightfully enough, to preserve.

How American farmers managed such a productivity boost (and receive zero recognition for their efforts from the environmental advocacy) is a remarkable story, which I can illustrate with a personal anecdote: the first tractor I owned was a 1955 Case VAC, its 19 hp capable of handling a two-bottom plow or a two-row corn planter. When new, both tractor and planter were then standard equipment throughout the Corn Belt in the Eisenhower years—not any more. Such equipment was already semi-antique when I bought it in the ’60s, and it’s considered classic “old iron” today. Lawn tractors today have more horsepower than my old Case.

Corn yield in the ’50s was typically about 40 bushels per acre; today, it’s close to 200, and some reports from Illinois are over 200. In 1955, corn left the farmgate at about $1.50 per bushel, and its average commodity-trading value that year was $1.54, which equates to a contemporary inflation-adjusted value of $12.30 per bushel. Instead, it actually trades for about $3.50, and urbanite consumers, including environmentalists, see the savings in their own purchased food costs. You’d think they’d be grateful, but they’re not. The increase in farm productivity—no good deed goes unpunished, you might say—was good for urbanites but bad for farmers, reducing farm earnings even as it reduced urbanite food prices, as illustrated by multiple inconvenient (but unimportant to non-farm households and therefore rarely recited in the urbanite press) facts:

  • Farm debt, which was barely at 8 percent of assets in 1955, is now at 24 percent.
  • Farm family members with full-time, off-farm jobs rose from 20 percent to almost 40 percent, and are now the source of about 90 percent of farm-household income, subsidizing commodities.
  • Consumer food spending shrinking from almost 20 percent of income then to less than 10 percent now.

If you expect official or consumer gratitude for any of these farm-to-city economic gifts, you’ll wait a long time. Instead, you’ll hear, “Gosh, consumer food prices went up last year, we need a new farm program” (Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and former Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in the Wall Street Journal), or “Gosh, why aren’t farmers grateful for the subsidies we give them?” from consumer advocates like former USDA official Carol Foreman or free-market advocates like the Cato Institute, which presently argues on its Web site that “ag subsidies stifle competition and increase consumer prices.” Public Broadcasting offers a school lesson plan on the subject. No “thank-you” can be found.

Quite the contrary: activist enviro’s vocally oppose all the productivity gains that have made their own food purchases better in quality and cheaper in price: irrigation, field consolidation, fertilizers and pesticides, seed hybridization and now, genetic modification, which is the major driving force behind ever-rising crop yields. Their response: go out under cover of darkness and demolish the test plots. A quick Web check of “activist destruction of GMO seed test plots” brings up 27,200 hits, most of which describe specific destruction events. Some of the postings, ranging from Greenpeace to the “Anarchist Golfing Association” report without disapproval on successful destruction outings, while others, like CorporateWatch, report approvingly that “ … 37 genetically modified crop test-sites were destroyed by anonymous activists … ” and helpfully offers a list of addresses where more GMO sites can be visited by sickle-wielding night-riders.

To deal with the activist-vandal question, mainline environmental advocacy groups, ranging from Sierra and Audubon to Natural Resources Defense Council and, of course, The American Farmland Trust, have adopted the monkey-triad posture—see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil—and have remained remarkably invisible, inaudible and silent on the activist vandalism efforts, even though you’d think they, too, just like their predominantly urbanite constituencies, would be pleased with productivity advances in agriculture that keep their personal food prices down, food choice range up, save wilderness and sequester carbon, all simultaneously. For them, too, gratitude-to-productivity-enhancing farmers is a not-to-be-expressed sentiment. Neither is any criticism of the seed-plot vandals.

However, there is historical precedent on their side: in ancient Rome, no stranger to violence in politics, the phrase “qui tacet consentire videtur” (silence indicates agreement) was apparently in wide use, to describe those who quietly approved of someone else’s dirty deed.

If you can risk disappointment, ask your favorite high school Latin student for a verbatim translation.

The author is an architect and former farmer. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.