Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack talked to Ezra Klein on the phone, and couldn’t come up with any practical reasons to subsidize agriculture. He relied on an assertion that rural folks are, like, totally awesome and great people and the repository of American values. Ezra Klein sensibly replied that so are most people, including city dwellers*. Klein is a better person than I am, so he didn’t offer the perspective that rural folks also include unsavory types (like narrow-minded bigots and meth-heads) right along with the awesome ones. But we don’t have to debate the quality of rural souls, because even if they are all shining angels, we don’t generally support people for awesomeness. We pay them to produce something that society wants or because we want to correct a classic market failure. There are substantive reasons that I would subsidize some forms of ag in some parts of California. I shouldn’t have to do Secretary Vilsack’s work for him, but here goes.
I would support subsidies for a type of Californian agriculture that looks a lot like the original vision of the Reclamation Act. I don’t support indirect subsidies, like:
artificially cheap water, or
allowing negative environmental externalities (like fertilizer or pesticides in tailwater), or
tariffs on imported crops,or
guaranteed price floors, or
payment to not-grow a crop.
But I would like to see a certain type of agriculture in the state, and would be willing to spend our collective money to directly pay farmers (of the sort I like) to exist.
Promoting dense, interlinked communities that support a lot of additional jobs.
If agriculture escapes the expansion treadmill, it can provide a decent, outdoors, self-directed life for people willing to work extraordinarily hard. It converts sunshine and water into storable calories at a fairly constant rate (except for disasters). As the first producer of a resource, it can support a large number and variety of secondary jobs, in processing and support. It has been and should be possible to support densely interlinked towns with a variety of jobs on agriculture. You can see the remnants of those towns along the 99, with attractive abandoned main streets. That model isn’t necessarily economically efficient, however, and gets undercut by large-scale agriculture. Farms and towns like that are, however, pleasant things to have in one’s state, for the quality of life they provide their residents and for local tourism. So long as we are wealthy, I want us to buy more of those.
Entry point for migrants
I don’t think of farming as unskilled labor, but it is a sector that can use the labor of people who don’t have formal educations. Agricultural skills from their countries of origin may be useful in agriculture here. I subscribe to the “Give me your tired, your poor” vision of America. If we are to accept immigrants, it is good to have work available to them that doesn’t rely on formal schooling or draws from their existing skills. I am also in favor of paying farm laborers decent wages, which would likely increase the cost of food.
Farms look nice.
I suppose the technical way to say this is that farms produce positive externalities: preserving open space and being visually interesting. What I really mean is that I love the look of a working landscape. I’ve got it bad; I even like the monotonous industrial ag by the 5. Of course the smaller farms are more intriguing, with orchards that bloom and jumbled up machinery and little lambies that wave at passing cars. I want to see small farms around, because they are often places that have absorbed decades of attention and work. Farmers develop systems, and systems are always fascinating.
Providing food security.
Strangely for someone who predicts a third of the state’s irrigated agriculture will be retired in the next few decades, I take food security very seriously. I don’t think we’re at risk of not providing enough calories for our people, first because we export lots of them out of the state and second because we waste 90% of the calories from field crops converting them into meat and dairy. Even with two-thirds of the irrigated acreage in the state, we can grow plenty of calories for direct human consumption as soon as prices tell farmers to do so.
However, I would like us to retain the capacity to do that. I have never understood the argument that we should specialize in something else that makes more money and use the extra money to buy food from elsewhere. That may be rational in average or good years, but it leaves us fundamentally vulnerable when things go bad. First, when food is scarce, it become infinitely valuable; even if we are relatively wealthy, what would we have to spend to extract it from another country? If they have barely enough (which is when we’d need it), they won’t sell it at any price and what? We take food from another hungry country by force? This is morally untenable and not practically do-able. Besides all that, why? Why let ourselves get into the position of ever depending on some one else for the most immediate and powerful of necessities. Money itself is not exchangeable enough in famine, and you can’t eat it. I’m sure this sounds like a straw man but I have had economists earnestly promote this notion to me, so you begin to understand the source of my scorn for them.
Working landscapes can also support wildlife.
Farms can support biodiversity, if they are managed to do so. More farmed acres might be managed to do so if farmers’ livelihoods didn’t depend on pure industrial production.
Improves my urban quality of life.
Having small agriculture nearby increases my quality of life, primarily by offering me greater diversity of produce than I’d otherwise have. There are plenty of food-porn sites that will rhapsodize about farmers’ market shopping and fresh food, so I don’t have to do that here. Besides, supermarkets have pretty good produce departments these days. Nevertheless, I find shopping at farmers’ markets to be a nicer experience with a greater variety of produce over the course of the year, especially when a cute market Betty offers me samples. Those markets are only possible when there are farmers nearby growing produce for local consumption.
Building on comparative advantage.
California has fantastic natural advantages for agriculture, in climate and soil. We’ve invested heavily in infrastructure to develop that further. You probably think I mean the water projects, but I’m actually thinking of our ag colleges. It sounds silly to say the self-evident out loud, but it is important to produce food and fiber; places that are good for that should do so. This is likely true of agriculture in the rest of the country, and Vilsack should have been able to say specifically why, but we all know that I don’t care about those other places.
It is hard to argue that we should support (essentially) small truck farms, because what we would be getting in exchange is largely abstract. We would be maintaining food-production capacity. We would get the view of small farms. Urban dwellers would get some qualitative experiences, like shopping at farmers’ markets or having intricate ag-based towns in the state. We would also get resilience, since complex systems with diverse elements do better under stress than simplified systems. So it is hard enough to say that the collective state should buy these abstract things. It is even harder to make the case when economists offer specious counter arguments.
The counter argument from traditional economics is that the market itself has proved that people don’t want those abstract things as much as they want cheap food. This is why I have severe doubts about markets; markets only let people express choices for narrow economic efficiency. It is difficult to express any other choice in a market; if I deliberately pay more because I want to support boutique agriculture, is it clear that I’m doing that so they’ll pay laborers decent wages and clean up their ag run-off? Or will some middleman snag those extra dollars, and the grower never gets that information from me. But in a market, you can always send the signal that you want cheap food. Purchasers’ ability to signal their preferences is asymmetric in a market, perpetually biased towards economic efficiency. I won’t address incomplete information, because it is patronizing when advocates say that “if the public really knew, they’d support what I think.” But I add that people have inconsistent time preferences. They may want the abstract things I mentioned on an on-going basis, but sharply prefer to spend less on groceries in the moment. This is why I doubt that markets reflect people’s true feelings.
Finally, direct payments to farmers (to be the kind of farmers I want) are necessary because they consistently work with very high risk. They absorb climate variability, which will become even more volatile. If they are not perfectly resilient, we’ll lose a few with every shock. Since I value their capacity, I think we should pay them to bridge them through disasters. (I know insurance could handle this, but humans are not very good about risk and insurance, so handling that should not be left to the individual (in any context, car or health or crop failure).)
I don’t know what structure payments like that could have. But if the vision were clear, direct subsidies could be shaped to deliver that.** If we were buying the type of ag we want, we could also include ways to help new farmers enter the ag sector. I know a fair number of people who think they want to farm. I don’t believe most of them, but none of them get to try, because it is so hard to buy large farms (to compete at the economically efficient scale) and they can’t afford health insurance.
Those are my reasons to subsidize some forms of agriculture, and none of them have anything to do with inherent awesomeness of country folk. They are self-interested reasons urban people should spend money to stabilize and promote ag. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack can thank me later.