Hoover Daily Report

Amid Acres of Wilting Stalks, Farmers Stand Tall

via Wall Street Journal
Monday, August 20, 2012

America's farmers have suffered ruinous drought and crop-destroying high temperatures throughout much of this year's growing season. Today's relatively high corn, wheat, dairy and meat prices will likely climb still higher, even as rain and cooler temperatures in some Midwestern states deliver a measure of relief.

Most Americans do not pay much attention to the nation's annual crop production, unless it falters before agriculture's multifarious natural enemies—drought, flood, infestation and disease. That's understandable. We are an insular suburban culture. Our food is grown by only about 1% of the population. Usually an impressive variety of produce simply appears—safe, plentiful, fresh and relatively cheap—on our grocery-store shelves without much public appreciation of how it got there.

Americans don't expect the weather to be absolutely predictable, but when it turns for the worse, we assume that any pernicious effects will be either temporary or ameliorated by modern ingenuity. And it is true that much of the historic uncertainty in farming disappeared in the 20th century, thanks to sophisticated new irrigation systems, high-tech farm machinery, computers, better pesticides and herbicides, and genetic engineering.

The result has been that at a time of table-talk about American decline—staggering deficits, lackluster manufacturing, mediocre public schools and insolvent entitlement programs—American farming keeps producing record harvests that earn critical foreign exchange and ensure relatively cheap food prices. At least it did until this summer.

Still, some public alarm has accompanied the drought. News clips sound almost like apocalyptic Hollywood films, with portentous voices warning about long-term food shortages and permanently changed farming conditions. I doubt both scenarios. In my own experience, farmers have proved to be among the nation's most ingenious, self-reliant and audacious citizens who continue in adversity when most others would not.

I certainly have found it far harder to produce a profitable raisin or plum crop each year on my family's California farm than to teach classical Greek, write books on history, or lecture university audiences. After all, ideas like tenure, defined pensions, employer-supplied health care and sick leave do not exist on the farm—at least not for the independent operator and his family. Being able to weld does not preclude the need to master sophisticated math to figure out crop-spray calibrations. The requisite politeness shown your banker is not so wise an hour later with a tough neighbor or belligerent hired hand.

In the past few decades, Americans have increasingly entrusted their futures to technocrats, deemed brilliant by virtue of their blue-chip-university brands—as if their studied divorce from the brutal world of human muscle and natural disaster makes them more, rather than less, reliable stewards of our fate. That the country's aggregate debt is nearly unsustainable, and that many in our nation's capital are reluctant to tap vast new gas and oil wealth, should remind us that Ph.D.s, M.B.A.s and J.D.s may be less well-rounded, and certainly less pragmatic, than the vanishing thousands who produce our food.

While the drought will hurt all farmers and may bankrupt some, the threat of disaster is a constant for growers, who by their nature and habit cope. In the 1930s, '50s and '60s, serial droughts nearly wiped out the Midwest farming belt. The seemingly endless dry weather of 1988 was the worst since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Thankfully, far more farmers now carry crop insurance than in '88, which will help keep them afloat.

I once asked my mother why, all of sudden, unseasonable September rains of 1976, 1978 and 1982 ruined our drying raisins in California's predictably arid Central Valley—in a way that hadn't happened before in the raisin industry's first century. She paused and then offered, "Well, isn't it a little unnatural to put your entire year's work on the ground each year to dry, as if there can never be a gray cloud in the sky?"

So it is with all farming—an unnatural enterprise to coax food from the unforgiving earth. The mystery isn't that we have devastating droughts like this summer's, but that so few Americans manage to produce so much food against such daunting odds. The ancient Greeks were so baffled by how each season a tiny seed grew into a wheat stalk, which in turn provided life-giving bread, that they created the goddess Demeter, their "Earth Mother." Worship of her sacrosanct mysteries was vital for the goddess's food miracles to continue.

Can we learn anything new from the present drought? At a time when American gas and oil reserves seem to be expanding daily, given breakthrough technologies like hydraulic fracturing (better known as fracking) and horizontal drilling, it makes no sense to divert 40% of the corn crop to ethanol production. For all the uncertainty of drilling a gas or oil well, it is a far more inexact science to produce corn, wheat or soy—given drought, flood, disease, pests and human error.

We might also recalibrate our notion of "flyover country," that vast and productive region that rarely earns attention elsewhere except during close national elections. The federal government is insolvent; high finance is still suspect. Yet thousands of mostly unknown farmers in Iowa, Indiana or Ohio get better at what they do, and better too than all their counterparts across the globe—drought or no drought.

The parched summer of 2012 reminds us that we still live in an often tragic world that all our high-tech devices and therapeutic gobbledygook cannot quite overcome. The comfortable life of smartphones, reality TV and Facebook seems a birthright only because it is predicated on the talents of Americans who, with little fanfare, put a bounty of food on our tables and the world's.

Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He lives on a family farm in central California and is the author of "Fields Without Dreams" (Free Press, 1996) and "The Land Was Everything" (Free Press, 2000).