Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?

How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm? (After they've seen how the other half lives)

You notice many things while travelling in foreign countries that should be obvious, but just never come to mind while living in the United States. Last month in Guatemala my attention was drawn to farming.

When I was born in 1942, about twenty percent of Americans lived on farms. Now the number is only two percent, and the number of farms has shrunk from six million to two million. Conversely, the average farm size more than doubled, and farmers produced even more food at a cheaper cost to consumers on roughly the same amount of farmland. Scientific advances, mechanization, and specialization all contributed to increased productivity, and have made United States farmers the most productive and efficient in the world.

Much of the third world is going the other direction primarily because of their continuing population explosion. More people living on the same amount of land means less land to support each person. Farming in the United States never faced that dilemma, because the Industrial Revolution provided an outlet for the surplus farm population.

In fact, industrial needs were so great that scientific advances, mechanization, and specialization were driven as much to overcome farm labor shortages as they were to improve productivity. Even with the rapid improvements in farming methods, farm labor continued to be in short supply resulting in the “Wetback Movement” (commemorated by Lalo Guerrero and his masterpiece, "The Ballad of Pancho Lopez") and later what is now referred to as undocumented immigration.

Third world cities, on the other hand, can’t absorb their farming population surpluses effectively because they have neither the capital nor do they produce sufficient energy to meet the employment needs and living standards of their burgeoning urban populations.

However, that doesn’t mean the rural poor are content to stay on their farms just because their cities don’t have much to offer. The World War I song, "How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm? (After They've Seen Paree)” can be applied to the rural poor in undeveloped countries. They don’t have to travel anywhere to “see Paree.” They see Paree, and LA, and New York, and London, and the other exciting world cities on TV every day. If their own county’s major cities can’t satisfy their dreams of a better life, they soon learn that they can join the ranks of the undocumented immigrants.

Hello, Los Angeles! New York! London! Amsterdam! Paris!

How do growing populations increase the number of farms and shrink their size?

I already explained how the Industrial Revolution caused the opposite in the developed world. Unfortunately, the Industrial Revolution bypassed the countries that are home to over half the world’s population.

Suppose a farmer has ten acres, and suppose he and his wife have ten children, five boys and five girls. Because of the small size of the farm, the lack of powered farming equipment and seeds to grow scientifically improved crops, and the great distance and lack of transportation to get crops to markets, the farm is diversified and primarily produces for consumption by the farmer and his family. If the farm was larger, and access to markets was better, the farmer could specialize and grow a cash crop. But that’s not the case.

The farmer has chickens, maybe a cow, probably pigs. He has to devote some of his time, land, and crops to them, because they will provide what little protein he and his family consume. Then there are the beans and corn, nutritious and filling staples that do well in storage if the farmer is careful. During harvest periods, the farmer will have tomatoes and other vegetables in excess that don’t store well. He can sell or trade his excess, although all his neighbors also have excesses of the same crops at the same time he does.

As the farmer’s children grow, their help with the work in the house and field is very useful, since the work requires physical labor because of the lack of powered farming equipment. However, at some point each child grows to be more of a burden on the family food supply than an asset. Fortunately for the farmer, at that point each girl is old enough to get married and leave to live with her husband’s family.

It’s the boys that are a problem. They’re going to stay, and want to get married, and add their wives and children to the growing burden on the land. Further, each new, young family will want to have part of the farm for their own purposes. The ten-acre farm that barely supported one farmer and his family becomes five two-acre farms supporting five young families and the aging farmer and his wife.

After this has repeated over several generations, and the population has far exceeded the carrying capacity of the land, a revolution is necessary for land reform to take it from the rich and redistribute it to the poor, because the rich won't just give it away.
Zimbabwe provides the best current example of this. The rich landlords are killed or driven away, and their land divided amongst the poor. However, the poor still don’t have access to capital and skills to improve their farm productivity, and the former owners and their capital and skills are gone. Also gone are the wages that were paid to the workers and the contracts the former owners had to sell their specialized and abundant produce to multinational corporations.

Soon the poor farmers are back where they were before the revolution, only worse off because the country’s fund of capital, jobs, and skills has shrunk, and the aura of political instability will keep it that way.

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