Monday, May 29, 2017

Red America--A Field Report

Planting season in Red America.

Field Report, Medford.   A real field, of melons.

Republican and Democrat, Red and Blue, it is well into planting season at latitude 42 North.  Agriculture takes place in farm country, and farm country is red.   I grew up farming with my father and brother on a farm that has been in the family since 1883.

This year I am doing an experiment in low till melon growing.   Normally I bring the field down to bare earth so the melons have no competition from other plants.  This year I left the field grass that was a holdover from prior years, and have planted in the bare strips.

About an acre, just planted to Tuscan Cantaloupes, Orange Honeydews, and Santa Claus melons, looking west across the field toward Table Rock.

Same field, looking south, toward the Rogue River

Three miles from my farm is a general farm and ranch supply store.  They sell things people need to grow food:  work clothes including gloves and boots, hardware, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, spray equipment, power tools including chain saws and weed trimmers, fencing material, seeds, baby chicks, pumps, generators, irrigation equipment, auto and trailer parts, and a million other things.  In the midst of this, at a service counter for equipment repairs, they sell political buttons.

These buttons are placed there as un-self-consciously as are gopher traps and metal fence posts.  It is why I have suggested Democrats change their language and messaging on guns and treat guns to something closer to the way they treat alcohol, marijuana, and pornography.   Acknowledge that some people like them, that they are with us, period.  Be pro-gun.  Why?  Because a big hunk of the American people are pro-gun.  Possibly a pro-gun person can put controls on guns, the way alcohol, tobacco, and drugs are regulated, but certainly an anti-gun person cannot, as we have seen.  Controlling guns is like banning alcohol or pre-marital sex.  The control is worse than the problem because it runs up against a fact of life: people like their guns like they like their alcohol and sex.  Under Nancy Reagan "just say no" marijuana was wide open in the underground in Oregon.  Under current Oregon law there is more marijuana, but it is taxed and better controlled.   Alcohol is better controlled in 2017 than it was during prohibition ninety years ago.

Agriculture happens on a schedule of nature, not a schedule of the calendar.  It is a very wet year in Southern Oregon.  Crops are late.  Fields were too wet to work.  The ground was cold.   You cannot plant melon seeds into cool earth--the seeds would just sit there and rot.  This year I got the seeds in the ground May 18-20th, three weeks behind last year.

Photo taken yesterday.  Land worked up poorly but they are up.

The economics of farming have changed in the past 50 years.   In 1967 I earned about $2,000 from an acre of melons, which I split with my younger brother.  Harvard tuition for a year was $1,760.  I sold melons for 17 to 20 cents a pound.  Another way to look at it is that 10,000 pounds of cantaloups, sold wholesale, equalled a Harvard tuition.   Last year I sold melons for 40 cents a pound, and grew about as many as I grew fifty years ago, although expenses are much higher.  I netted some $3,000.   Harvard tuition and fees are now $50,000.   It would take 120,000 pounds of cantaloupes, sold wholesale, to equal it now--12 times as much, but actually more given that expenses for seeds, fertilizer, and fuel to drive the daily load to market is much higher.

August scene: Barbara Saigo picks a vine ripe melon.
Melons are too cheap.  Melons consumers buy today, right now, were picked green, mechanically, from industrial operations and delivered to stores, just like every other day of the year.  They are bland, in the nature of melons picked green, but they are orange and they cut nicely for fruit salads at buffets, and they are cheap.  Consumers have been taught that melons are a cheap, bland commodity.  That sets the price.

Field tested cantaloupes and watermelons.

The process of commodification of melons has been taking place over 50 years.   Trucking got much more efficient and less expensive.  Packaging got less expensive--they used to come in wooden crates.  Systems to bring melons up from Central America got less expensive. Globalization did its work.  Meanwhile, consumers were trained to think of melons as something that one could eat any time of year.  It became popular in restaurant fruit salad buffets in which its primary value was its color: a splash of orange to mix with green honeydews and red watermelons.

What does the price of melons have to do with the theme of this blog, politics and messaging?   A lot.  Rural economics are being shaped by global forces and rural residents are being squeezed.  Someone in every family needs to work "in town", in the real economy of urban life, with computer screens and manipulation of data.

August: Vine Ripe and Perfect
Progressive voters who want to understand red-state and red-county frustrations need to understand and integrate what has happened to agricultural prices to angst and frustration in rural America.   My situation personally was just fine, for the same reason that a great many others are able to survive living rural: I earned money outside the rural world, in the urban world as a Morgan Stanley Financial Advisor,  so I can afford to own a farm and grow melons.  But that makes me a visitor, not a resident.  I can observe it with empathy, but I don't live fully inside it.  Red state and red county Americans observe the language and messaging of Democrats and think they are speaking to different Americans, folks who live in town, folks whose problems are violence on commuter trains, not irrigation water and and ground squirrels.

Meanwhile, a field report of a different kind:

Field Report by Thad Guyer:    "Stillwater, Oklahoma"

I spent the weekend in Stillwater, Oklahoma with Vietnamese family friends from Saigon.  The husband got a two years student visa for an advanced degree, allowing him to bring his wife and three grade school kids.  A Trump critic, he was cautiously optimistic about living in a deep red community.  He reports he’s received nothing but a warm immigrant welcome in Stillwater, where people know he’s an invited guest with a student visa, not an “illegal”.  Today we had brunch at Granny’s Diner in the town center, a place filled with make America great and gun rights messages on t-shirts.  Locals at neighboring tables cooed and chatted with the three shy Vietnamese girls, and told us about the best recreation areas. 

My friend seems thankful his daughters will spend two years in red America, judging for themselves rather than adopting the “deplorables” global stereotype of white rural America. In talking with people on the flights in and out, and at the hotel, it becomes apparent that being labeled depolorables was a wounding experience.  But these wounded voters have no apologies for legal gun rights, legal border controls, legal limits on globalization killing their industries, legal free speech about Islamic terrorism.  Trump’s politics are strongly supported here, but there’s no outpouring of love for him, a kind of New York City carpetbagger with the right politics and game show host persona. “Of all people who oughta understand why we go for Trump despite this Russia thing”, a businessman told me at the tiny airport, “you’d think it’d be Hillary people with her boatload of scandals, her husband’s too.  Ya pick from what ya got”. Bush, Rubio, Kasich and the GOP D.C. lineup looked like slim pickins indeed to these folks. 
The three daughters meet a local fisherman

For the few I met who cared at all, they scoff at Russiagate and “the son-in-law” scandals. “Bankers wreckin’ the economy with that mortgage meltdown”, “leakers breakin’ the law left and right”, “Hillary deletin’ emails”, “Obama sendin’ plane loads of cash to Iran”, were things they cited, followed by variations of “and we’re supposed to worry about Trump doin’ this or that?”   In Payne County, Oklahoma, they were incredulous that Democrats-- of all people-- are demanding outrage from them over Trump.  Repeatedly I heard sentiments like “if Trump broke the law, let the law deal with him, but last time I checked, CNN is not the law”.  Democrats, to say the least, are not regarded here as “law abiding”.  These Okies readily pointed to “liberals” embracing flagrant violations of immigration law, and celebrating criminal national security leakers just to “get Trump”.  “I hate Trump” one guy told me, “but I hate Muslim terrorists even more”. 

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