As either a consumer or producer of edibles, have you been following the politics of food pricing lately?
You may know that 98 percent are convinced food pricing is always too expensive and the two percent (who are what remains of the 20 percent who were in farming in the late 1940s and early 1950s) don't. If you're in the surviving 2 percent, you probably know about Cochrane's Treadmill, the mid-1950s label given by ag-economist Willard Cochrane to the productivity phenomenon whereby farmers efforts to keep up with constantly evolving ag innovation have been "rewarded" not with improved profits but just the opposite.
Now about 90 percent of farm household income is earned by other family members off the farm to subsidize the below-cost production of farm commodities for urbanite consumers. If you're in the food-consuming 98 percent, you probably never heard of the Cochrane Treadmill (with the exception of modern academics in the field-no pun intended-of ag-economics, who know about it but don't talk or write about it).
This bit of 1950s history came to mind with news of a new quasi-governmental body-the Agricultural Development Board"-to "spur innovations in Vermont's agricultural industry".
There was an almost two-column-foot-long report in Middlebury's other newspaper recently, and it included all the usual suspects (a little Casablanca lingo, there) worthy of official involvement under the general rubric of "encourage new ventures". Areas deemed to need improvement range from "the integrity of our agricultural practices" to agricultural education programs, from "where agriculture can go forward" to the Vermont Seal of Quality. Other than a (dare I say pro forma?) reference to fluctuating milk prices, there's nothing in the news release which shows any new-Board interest in directly advocating for improved producer prices and profits in such basic commodities as milk, which, for all practical purposes except the absence of a government-guaranteed return on investment might well be considered a regulated public utility.
In contrast, if you go back not to the 1950s but to the late '70s, you'll remember Bill Darrow, who was (briefly) commissioner of agriculture during the late Richard Snelling's first series of governorships.
To the Putney orchardist was attributed the quote "There's nothing wrong with Vermont agriculture that wouldn't be cured by a decent profit at the farmgate".
Rumors at the time-remember that the '70s were a decade of fairly aggressive milk marketing moves by the National Farmers' Organization, some of which enjoyed brief success before bringing down on its (and members') heads the wrath of the federal government for the crime of -gasp-raising milk prices-speculated that Commissioner Darrow's early return to his Putney apple acreage were directly traceable to his violation of the unspoken but statistically provable National Cheap Food Policy, with which Gov. Richard Snelling had to agree if he expected a welcome in Washington, D.C.
If Bill Darrow were alive today (he died last year), he wouldn't, at least it's my guess, have been invited to a seat on the new ADB, his lifetime of knowledge about and political skills in agriculture having been effectively trumped by his open advocacy of profit-at-the-farmgate. It's worth noting, in proof of this point, that Willard Cochrane himself, author of a number of books on ag-economics (one, published in 2003 is entitled "The Curse of American Agricultural Abundance", can't bring himself to address farmgate profit as directly as Bill Darrow did; doesn't even mention the NFO efforts at moving commodities to more profitable venues from lesser-profit ones, and addresses the economic question in terms of some sort of government board and not in terms of producer supply/price management. It will be interesting to see, as the ADB builds its own paper trail, whether it will be more in the politically-correct Cochrane mode than in the non-politically Darrow mode. I'd guess that it will.
As for the Cochrane Treadmill itself, the history of American agriculture illustrates the readiness of farmers to embrace innovative technology, much of which was publicly funded and furnished by land-grant-college research for the express purpose of increasing commodity supply to a chronic oversupply level and reducing consumer food cost. It's why corn, which averaged less than 40 bushels per acre in the '50s, now averages close to 190. It's also why milk, which retailed at $1/gallon then, and should be, adjusted for inflation, at $8.35 now, isn't, so that milk production was profitable then and isn't now.
Whether the ADB will avoid the basic economic quandary of American agriculture in general or Vermont agriculture in particular-no other sector of American industry has functioned at a loss for so long and stayed in business-or, instead, will choose to focus on such "innovations" as farmers' markets and localvores, remains to be seen. When the news article reports that a new government office, the Agriculture Development Board, will "...provide Vermont with a planning mechanism that can carry agricultural interests forward", I'd guess that the latter problem-evading strategy will dominate. After all, there's no Bill Darrow on the Board to declare that "there's nothing wrong with Vermont agriculture that wouldn't be cured by a decent profit at the farmgate". With the voter/consumer 98 percent of the modern American population in favor of just the opposite, how could a we're from the government and we're here to help quasi-governmental board function any differently?
Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.