Today’s New York Times included an article by Steve Eder (“One Apple Orchard and 5,000 Government Rules”), with a lot of help from the libertarian think tank Mercatus Center, on the burden of regulation for US farmers. The article is a fundamentally flawed inquiry into farming, entrepreneurship and the regulatory environment. But, after reading the deeply-biased and thesis-based NYT article about our cannabis farmer neighbors, the Wagners, I sense a pattern at the Times, which is that the reporters and editors have an obvious “angle,” and use the farmer interviewed or featured as their foil; they come to the issue with a thesis, a perspective, and a desire to tell their story, not the farmer’s.
In this case, I find several points problematic, and the foundation of the article flawed. The farmer interviewed, Peter Ten Eyck, is presented as an apple orchardist. In reality, Ten Eyck is an entrepreneur with businesses producing apple cider and applesauce, running a cafe, operating a U-pick apple orchard, and is marketing apples through the largest supermarket chains in the US. He is also using the H2A visa program to hire guest workers from Jamaica. He farms 300 acres. If he is making anywhere near the direct market average per acre, he is taking in at least three million dollars in gross revenue. This is awesome. Great diversification and risk management! Let us cheer his willingness to take risks.
But, let us also acknowledge that Ten Eyck has chosen to take on many different industries and products, with multiple ways of selling, hiring, producing. He has voluntarily taken up the challenges of each of this separate industries. Again, he is a champion. I would not want to take on, start up and run all these different businesses. But, he knows that these industries all have their regulations, and still he has sought success in all of them.
Eder, the author, interviews a libertarian expert who claims that many of the rules and regulations are redundant or just plain silly. His solution: get rid of regulations. Really? Each of the regulations that exist are on the books for a reason, usually either to promote public or worker safety, or to promote economic fairness and transparency, or some other public good. Occasionally, the health of the environment is the goal. Often, the rule exists because of many specific examples of problems that need to be solved. Yes, it does cost more to follow the rules. Yes, it is more costly (not always) for smaller farms or businesses than larger farms, per dollar of revenue. But, the rules still exist to promote public goods, right? So, rather than eliminate the rule, can we cut the expense of following the rules for smaller businesses? In certified organic agriculture, the USDA runs the Cost-share Reimbursement Program, which reimburses farmers for up to $750 of their annual organic certification costs (our farm spends, initially, $1400 per year on certification). Document your costs and get partial reimbursement? Why not propose this, rather than attacking regulations and regulators?
A whole section addresses the ladders used in picking, and the regulations regarding ladders. I have a simple solution: stop using ladders. In Oregon, farm workers refuse to use ladders; they will not pick cherries, for example, if the trees require laddering. They know that using ladders is dangerous (and they cannot afford to get injured), and slow. Getting paid by the pound and using ladders is a great way to make a lot less money. What about the trees? What happens to the upper fruit? My solution: take the top right off with your chain saw; if I cannot reach the branches in our orchard, I simply lop off that branch in the winter pruning (which I will start next week). The reality: there are many solutions that do not require ladders; the hardest thing is simply realizing that you don’t need them. And if your employees come from your community, it might be easier for them to assert themselves with respect to such problems. Also, ladders and civilian/inexperienced U-pickers are a volatile mix. Indian Ladder Farm probably pays a lot for their liability insurance, to cover visitor pickers. I know that our farm insurance premiums would be 50% higher if we wanted our agent to cover visitors on ladders paying money for our products; hold-harmless forms only go so far, when insurance claims are involved. Ditch the ladders.
With a deep respect for and understanding of the challenges farmers face, it is not my intention to pick on Ten Eyck. It is the journalist, Eder, and the libertarian lawyer Baylen Linnekin whose arguments do not pass the sniff test, straight-face test or whatever. Take the graphic included in the article regarding EPA rules to regulate pesticide applicators: the author presents this 10,400 words as a problem. Too many words, too complicated, too many definitions, says and implies the author. But, this is the EPA laying out rules for applying pesticides on food-production farms. Pesticides are poisons, right? Most states have programs that an applicator-farmer attends to get certified; one class and you get the highlights that your state feels are the take-home lessons. But, let’s remember that farm operators are usually not the poison-applicators; the generally-white, generally-male, generally-educated farmer tasks a generally-not-white, less-educated with the daily or regular task of actually handling the poison and applying it. Exposure is the reality for the worker (chronic and acute).
Linnekin’s contributions are no less biased and misleading. He says, “So many of the farmers I’ve spoken with tell me that stricter and stricter regulations have put many of their neighbors and friends out of business, and in doing so cost them their homes, land and livelihoods…For many farmers, rolling back regulations is the only way they can survive.” Horse-shit. First, how many farmers does this libertarian-lawyer talk with? And they are telling him about their neighbors! This is one of the classic ways to ascribe your solution to the targeted population; “my sources tell me their sources tell them X.” Oh, we should definitely listen to these unnamed experts you cite, right? And how many of these “farmers” share Linnekin’s initial political-economic perspective? All of them, no doubt.
You know what farmers do get, besides all of these regulations? Subsidies. Our farm, which does not qualify for conservation or crop-price subsidies or crop insurance, receives subsidies on our vehicle registration, our property taxes, our organic certification costs, even our fuel (we don’t pay the fuel tax). While farmers can acquire permission to appropriate state waters (that is, we get to use public water to irrigate), we do not pay anything for the water. We can pump and spread water up to the maximum we’re allowed without paying a penny for the water itself. Seriously.
In Oregon, a high-tax and high-regulation state, a direct-market farmer can rent a piece of land, work it up, plant a crop, harvest and sell it without any permission, certifications, permits. Nothing. No regulations affect this farmer. Crazy, huh? You would never know this is possible, if you took the author of this piece at face-value. And the Food Safety Modernization Act? It does not apply to farms grossing less than $250,000 annually, so this start-up farmer would be exempt.
Growin’ it in the ground!