ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED | JULY 17, 1926 | THE CANADIAN COUNTRYMAN | TORONTO
Is farming the industry of food production, or is it a way of living- or is it just something we talk about? And what is a farmer? We speak of farmers as though they were all alike. That we know is not true.
There are wheat farmers, cotton planters, cattle, sheep, and hog raisers, fruit farmers, dairy farmers, not to speak of the diversified farmers, who try a little of everything.
But they do have this in common: they are all sections of an industry which only to a small degree has as yet realized that it is an industry.
The old farm and the old plantation were nearly self-contained. In the days when opportunities were scarce, the question of getting enough to eat and having a place to sleep stood above everything else. A farmer did not expect to make money. Indeed, he did not often see any money. What few things he needed over and above what he could raise or make on the farm he traded for in kind. The tradition of the farm is not a money tradition. It is a living tradition.
The spinning wheel and the hand loom are no longer on the farm. Farm people buy their clothing. The farm is no longer isolated- the automobile, the telephone, and the radio have attended to that. The farmer has moved out of his little, individual, self-contained world into the great, everyday world which is a world of industry and which had money enough to regard as common necessities what the farmer formerly regarded as extreme luxuries. The farmer wants as much money for his work as the industrialist gets for his work. The farmer claims that he works harder than the industrialist, and probably he does, but the world does not pay for sweat. It pays for results. Industry, through the application of management and power, has been able to obtain results.
We cultivate several thousand acres at Dearborn; we also have a dairy herd of around three thousand cows; and near our coal mines in Kentucky, on mountain soil that was not supposed to be good for much of anything, we are growing garden vegetables and fruit. Most of my own life has been spent on a farm. We are in touch with farming nearly everywhere through the sales of automobiles and tractors. And so we are not without knowledge of farm needs and wants.
Take the balanced farm which rotates its crops and has a certain amount of livestock. The truck farm, the dairy farm, the pig farm, the cotton plantations, the fruit orchards, and other specialized activities are on a different basis. Consider the average farm- the farm managed in the average way. It will have a certain number of fields on which the crops will rotate in the usual manner. Also, it will have a small herd of cattle, some pigs and poultry, and perhaps some sheep. If the farmer has modern ideas, he will have only a few horses or none at all, and he will have an investment in automobiles, tractors, and harvesting machinery.
With machinery, the work of ploughing, planting, and harvesting will not extend over more than ten or fifteen days during the year. At the extreme outside, his outdoor work on crops, exclusive of garden crops, cannot extend beyond more than a month. The rest of the year he spends in tending the livestock and marketing it either as meat or milk. He will not have enough live cattle to make a first-class, well arranged barn pay, and he will have to do most of the work of feeding and milking by hand in the hardest and most wasteful manner. He sells part of his crop directly, and the rest he sells through the animals. A good deal of his work has to be done by hand, especially in and about the barn, for neither his production nor his arrangements are such as to justify the use of much machinery. He cannot take advantage of any of the economies of volume production and hence he is up early and late drudging along through his daily tasks. I know what that drudgery is; I have worked on a farm.
The farmer is trying to live as well as the man employed in industry- and the farm as at present managed does not give such a living. It never has given such a living. Few have ever made any money out of farming. This may seem to contradict what are supposed to be the accepted facts. The one-crop farmers most certainly have never made much money out of farming. They started with virgin land and in their crops sold the fertility of the soil- that is, they sold off their capital investment. They have made their largest sums in selling their farms on the basis of farm yields. Each successive purchaser has bought less than the man before him- although he has paid a higher price. With each year of farming, the land is less fertile; now the price of land is so high that the land cannot be mined to pay the fixed charges. For the process is mining rather than farming- it is an exploitation of natural resources. This kind of farming is not good for the country; the older farm states already have great numbers of abandoned farms, just as the oil states have abandoned oil wells. The farmer with a moderate-sized farm who rotates crops and keeps a little live stock seems to have made some money in the past, although now he says that, with the wages of farm labourers what they are, he cannot come out even. And farm workers are paid much below the average of factory workers and have to work harder.
But has any farmer ever made money? His land has increased in value and that has brought him money when he sold; sometimes he has realized this and added value in the form of a mortgage. But he has lived rigorously and those farmers who have made money have done so by spending little and banking the equivalent of low wages for themselves and their families. And even with the farms which are thought to pay, it is hard to say if the product has been gained out of the sale of the farm products or out of the sale of livestock. We cannot count the controlled war prices in any summing up of farmers’ profits; they did not amount to much anyway, for those war dollars had small buying power. Before the war some money was made out of exploiting virgin land, but barring these operations and barring increased land values, it is to be doubted whether the money said to have been made out of straight farming would prove to equal the wages of common labour during the same period.
Obviously, giving more credit to the farmer is not going to help him. The farmer is paying out too much now in mortgage interest, discount on short-term loans, and taxes. Adding further interest charges to the total will only increase his costs of production and put still farther away the possibility of earning money. Far too many farmers have been taught to think that money can take the place of management. Very few business ill are ever cured by money. A business may be short of money through some extraordinary circumstance that has nothing to do with earnings, but when the earnings are insufficient to provide capital improvements and a living profit over, then there is something wrong with the business as a business, and borrowing money will serve only to postpone the investigation of what is really the trouble until it is too late to do anything about it. Generally speaking, borrowing is a vice, and although it may be pleasant enough for the farmer to be able to borrow money when he likes, in the end he is only able to be worse off for that borrowing.
Intelligent work, not money, is the main requisite for production. There is no magic in loans. That ought to be apparent to everyone now, for the farm situation did not become critical until after a period when the farmer could borrow as much as he wanted. The record of farm bankruptcies and mortgage foreclosures may be taken as an indication of the bas state of farming, or again, it may be taken as an indication that money has been unwisely borrowed. A farmer does not plow with money; he does not cultivate with money; he does not harvest with money. His problems are of production, not of finance.
And, following the same line, his problem is not one of marketing. Marketing remedies are being urged upon the farmer just as the financial remedies are being urged. One must produce before one can market, and no matter how skillful a merchant the farmer may become, he will not, by reason of that skill, be a better farmer. The central problems of farming have to do with the working of the land for grain, fruit, vegetables, or dairy products. If land is yielding ten bushels of wheat an acre, then, no manner of marketing will enable the owner of that land to compete with a farmer who is getting thirty bushels an acre.
There is room for very great improvement in the manner of marketing all farm products, and these improvements can be brought about, but not until production is in better shape. Real business always starts with production and, once we have proper production, improvements in marketing are bound to follow, for the very pressure of production forces better distribution. Marketing is only getting the fruit of production to the people for consumption, and when distribution is in very bad shape, the place to start an investigation will be found in production.
Look at farm production. The first point which must strike anybody is the amount of useless labour expended. During half a month, or at the most a month, the farmer is employed in the production of crops. During all the rest of the time, he is tending live stock or doing odd jobs.
It is supposed that a good farm should keep a herd of cattle, but the unspecialized farmer cannot afford to keep more than twenty-five cows, and as a rule, he will have not more than half a dozen. He cannot keep these cows clean- which is bad for both the farmer and the public. They have to be milked by hand. That is wasteful and dirty. The milk has to be carried in every day to the sales point. This is also wasteful, for the farmer does not have a full load. Having a community wagon to pick up the milk from a number of farms is a slight improvement, but not a very great one, because there is no reason for doing so much transporting of milk. If ten or twenty farmers in a region were to combine their herds, then it would be possible to put up a modern sanitary building in which the business of dairying could be carried on as industry and follow industrial principles. It could be arranged to feed, milk, and clean the cows by machinery, with a minimum of human labour. People have been keeping cows for so long that they think there is only one way of looking after them, when as a matter of fact, if only we should get a bug enough dairy farm and discard the traditions, we could make use of electric power and do nearly everything by machinery.
Our dairy farm at Dearborn is managed exactly as though it were a factory. We have a concrete building which is absolutely clean, and the cows in it are absolutely clean, for they are washed every day. The washing, the milking, the feeding, in fact, everything connected with the care of the cattle, is done by machinery. We employ about only the same number of men as would ordinarily be required for a herd of about twenty-five cows, and we pay these men factory wages and they work only eight hours. Management makes their work so effective that we can afford to pay them well.
It is an utter waste of time and effort to keep live stock in small units, and the farmers can earn far more out of shares in community live stock poolings than they could ever hope to earn out of tending small herds of their own. This applies to all of the live stock on the farm. The result will be cheaper products for the consumers and higher profits, although not higher prices for the producers. Prices are now high and profits low because of the wastes of production.
Taking away a farmer’s livestock leaves him only his land to look after- that is, he is left with not more than a month of work. Farming then shows up as the part-time job it really is, and straight farming will eventually have to be considered only as a side issue. Farming is no exception to what might be called the rule of nature that one month’s work will not support twelve months of living. The real problem of farming is to find something in addition to farming for the farmer to earn a living at. That is the plain, rough truth.
And as has been set out in a previous chapter, the decentralization of industry will provide these jobs to supplement the farm work. Industry and agriculture have been considered as separate and distinct branches of activity. Actually they fit into each other very neatly. But first we have to rid ourselves of many traditions. For instance, a horse is now a pleasure animal and is far too expensive to keep on a farm excepting as a luxury. It takes from three to five years to develop a work horse. It takes but a few hours to make a tractor. A horse eats every day I the year- an “eight-horse” farm withdraws forty acres a year from the farm’s return to feed itself. A tractor eats only while it works.
At Dearburn, at ploughing time we throw in fifty or sixty tractors in a line. They are run by men taken out of the factories and paid the usual factory wage. All the essential operations of the farm are done in this fashion, and altogether we do about fifteen days’ work a year- and keep the land in a high state of productivity.
And then the farmers can go into some other line of work. The farm has its slack seasons, and so has industry; the two can be made to in together, and the result will be more and cheaper goods and food for everyone.