We’re big fans of Marketplace from American Public Media, and recently the show aired a story from Iowa about attempts by Iowa State to import wealthy Dutch dairy farmers that I felt nearly perfectly captured various things wrong with American agricultural policy. A summary of the story (editing mine):
Even as a millionaire, Reuling was worried about rising Dutch land prices and stricter environmental regulations. So in 2003, he and his wife became one of a handful of families to take part in the New Farm Family project. They were flown to Iowa, taken around on buses, wined and dined, even applauded when they visited prospective communities…The Reulings built a new house and a state-of-the-art milking parlor. But the project also required a minimum of 300 cows. That’s about average for Iowa, but it was four times more than what the farmers had milked back home in the Netherlands. Reuling found that many animals to be a burden, especially as he realized business plans that had gotten the blessing of Iowa State were overly optimistic and didn’t match what was happening in the marketplace…Two of the five families who relocated to Iowa have filed for bankruptcy, including Peter Poelma and his wife….Poelma has returned to the Netherlands after losing his life savings. Eduard Reuling says they were reassured they would have plenty of support both on and off the farm. But that help never came.
I wrote the following letter to Marketplace in response:
As a full-time farmer, I found that your story on the failed Iowa State attempt to import dairy farmers was an excellent demonstration of much that is wrong with American agricultural policy. Generations of American farm policy have followed a single overarching goal of making food cheaper at whatever cost, which cannot coexist with thriving, profitable family farms. We don’t necessarily need new blood from abroad, just conditions that allow farmers of any background to recieve a decent price and income for their work.
In addition, academic and government ag programs rarely have roots in real-world economics, and are developed and run by people with comfortable government paychecks and little or nothing to lose. Few of these well-meaning folks take significant personal risk in their jobs, while transferring it all to those of us whose savings and livelihoods are on the line if their schemes or policies do not work.
The combination of idealistic interventions, overregulation, and policy choices aimed mostly at consumer rather than farmer benefit have an inevitable result: the loss of family farms, rural community, and independent agriculture that your story began by lamenting. The best way to benefit family farms and independent American agriculture is to get out of the way; reform destructive or counter-productive subsidy programs, reform overreaching regulation, stop trying to force the price of food to unsustainable lows, and make choices that allow more of food’s retail price to reach the actual farmer. The fact that successful, wealthy Dutch farmers went bankrupt producing a widely-consumed basic nutritional staple in a populated farm state tells the entire story of the worthless results of American agricultural policy.
I was contacted today by Marketplace to record a portion of that message as part of their Wednesday letters section (I don’t know if it will actually be used). Either way, the story is worth reading/hearing, and considering for its various ramifications, and I wanted to post the full letter as they certainly couldn’t air the whole thing.
On a related note, Gene Logsdon’s new book Holy Shit is well worth a read (though we don’t agree with all of his conclusions/recommendations) and includes a section near the end dealing with this exact issue of academics and bureaucrats hurting farms with no pain to themselves. Just like those in the Missouri Department of Agriculture who felt little pain for screwing up the scale fees at our expense, something tells me those involved at Iowa State still have their jobs, much less their houses and life savings. More than the farmers can say.