The Public Teat
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the pigs on this farm.
I’ll eventually get down to a serious matter after I’ve had some fun. I want to lay out issues I face making long term plans and investments in this farm. I’ve been sitting on this post for a half year while trying to figure out how to best discuss it without sounding too shrill. So I’ll try to diffuse the tension by offering a cute picture of cuddly nursing piglets.
We’re going to talk about sucking from the public teat. The phase has a long history in political debate, and being that hungry piglets are the quintessence of selfish immoderation, the metaphor has probably existed since people first domesticated pigs. Our modern usage seems to have settled on the verb “suck”, but if you do a Google Books search for this phase in the 1800s you’ll be impressed at the variety of verbs used: “attach to”, “draw from”, “pull at”, “hang on”, “have a hold on”, “feed at”, “luxuriate on”, “draught from”, “subsist at”, “grow round at”, etc. One early instance was in a parliamentary argument from 1853 where Henry Drummond characterized his opponent’s complaints as the “squeak of a pig that had got no teat.” Shortly after George Muntz rose to state he “was not one of those pigs that wanted a Government teat”. The earliest American reference I could find was from a speech in Congress by Senator Duncan of Ohio in 1845, where he complained “this caricature represents Martin Van Buren upon his back in the mire sucking at the teat of a long-eared old sow, and is labeled ‘Matty Van sucking the public teat.’” It’s a pity that we could not find that picture, but we did find another Van Buren cartoon from that period.
Since the phrase has a piggish origin it is fitting to frame our discussion here. In its long history, those groups accused of being teat suckers have included the lazy, entitled rich and the lazy, entitled poor. It is also used to describe the lazy, entitled bourgeoisie. And since corporations are people too, we should note that they have been decried for sucking public teats. So everyone gets stuck with this appellation at some point.
Now down to business… Should Wrong Direction Farm latch on to the government mammary? The reality of our lives is that we all suck from the public teat to one degree or another. The question before us is just how sucky should this farm be?
There are several types of government funding, price supports, and insurance available to farmers, but most of them are targeted toward grain and dairy farms, so none of that is under consideration here. The teat that is being offered to us is to work with agencies such as the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These organizations work with farmers to manage topsoil loss, manure runoff, streambank erosion, silt deposition, and all sorts of other items that are important to the overall environmental health of farmland and water. They also fund rural development projects, provide loans and grants to expand farming operations, and support and subsidize activities to bolster agricultural production.
We really need a useable lane across our land. The back three quarters of our property are only accessible by traveling through our neighbor’s property. And that involves crossing some very muddy stretches that are simply not passable much of the year. So we need a gravel lane. It will require quite a bit of fill material to build up the roadway across the muddiest stretches. Plus geotextile fabric, culverts, and many truckloads of stone and gravel. We also need a water source for our livestock in the back fields. We have two locations that would be suitable for ponds. Then we need buried water lines to provide frost-free water from the pond to the winter pastures used by the livestock. Adding it all up, it comes out between $40,000 and $60,000, depending how much rock and gravel needs to be trucked in, how complicated the pond construction gets, and how much buried water line we install. That is far more than we can fund out of pocket, so it would require getting a loan. Interest rates are pretty good historically speaking, but the monthly payments would still be hefty.
Here’s where the government help comes in. They want to fund farm project. They have a budget they need to spend every year. The conservation folks can document the muddy lane (prima facie erosion) and take pictures of cattle standing in a stream (prima facie pollution), then apply for grant money to fund the projects. About a year later, the funding appears to build a lane, dig a pond, and install water troughs. Contractors who do this work tell me that for a project like ours, the government assistance would probably cover the complete cost of the project, in some cases overfunding the project so we end up with cash in our pockets. Many farmers have these sorts of projects ongoing every year, getting wells, barnyards, drainage, sewage, fencing, greenhouses, equipment, and barns all built for prices that range from free to 50% cost share.
There are downsides. One is that once you involve the government, you deal with the bureaucracy. There’s no need to wallow in the potential the liabilities involved there. And this aspect is really not the big deal for me.
The big downside is ethically based and far more thorny. Is is right to take public funding for these projects? Does the public owe me the money to expand my business? Does anyone owe me money because I farm? If we were to accept this funding, would we have any right to decry other government subsidies and price supports, such as those that that give us factory farms and high fructose corn syrup? Tough questions, these, at least in my mind.
I haven’t met many people who consider turning down the government money. Organic and conventional, Democrat and Republican, everyone is into this. There is an interesting blog post on the pressure to accept public funding here, but you won’t find this openly discussed in many other places. We know farmers who are opposed to the principal, but cynically take the money anyway “because someone else is going to get that money” or “because I already paid it out as taxes”. Even some of the local Amish sects get in this game in a big way (that seems like a very inconsistent position for them to take, but I can’t pretend to be free of contradictions either).
What would you do? Let us know what you think of this dilemma either in the comments or by dropping us a note. We’re not interested in blaming, shaming, or political ranting, but we are curious about how others have worked through these sorts of issues. We’d especially like to hear from farmers and from people who regularly buy directly from farmers. For farmers: how do you decide whether to apply for cost matching versus what you do out of pocket? Do you find that public funding restricts your independence? For customers: what value do you place on unsubsidized food? Is that a worthy cause or a quixotic pursuit? Is increased price a fair tradeoff?
Part of my ideal for the farm is to be gently contrarian, hence the name. The goal isn’t to be a nasty, judgmental crank. But I don’t want to settle for the mainstream. For now, I’m pursuing the goal of continuing to try to self-fund the farm. I hope I can produce food that will win the loyalty of customers so they will stick around for the long haul and fund these investments. Is my naivete showing?