Wars, Wheat, Dust and “Unseemly Ignorance”

“The new migrants from the dust bowl are here to stay. They are the best American stock, intelligent, resourceful; and, if given a chance, socially responsible. To attempt to force them into a peonage of starvation and intimidated despair will be unsuccessful. They can be citizens of the highest type, or they can be an army driven by suffering to take what they need. On their future treatment will depend the course they will be forced to take.”

― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

 

Addison WigginDear Reader,

“Once again,” Phil, a research professor from Michigan, “you have provided me with a great example for my students.”

So far so good.

“You note ‘4 million acres ordered left out of production ‘for environmental reasons’,” professor Phil continues referring to a detail we included in yesterday’s missive, “but you just throw the statistic out there, I presume hoping to impress.”

Uh ho.

“The US has 250+ million acres of land in crops,” Phil goes on to elucidate his point, “another 140 million acres could be tilled if prices were high enough to cover costs on less productive land; the 4 million “environmental acres” you note is nearly all charitably described as ‘marginal’ land, much of it steeply sloping near streams in hill country or frequently flooded near streams in flatter land – and putting crops on it would often cause floods or siltation downstream…”

Phil’s grammar gets a little dicey from there, so I’m assuming we struck a nerve. The professor apparently had a grant form the National Science Foundation to study the “process” of preserving this type of acreage in over 330 countries.

The bottom line according to the good professor is that the 4 million acres we cited is “less than 2 percent of present cropland, barely one percent of arable land, and probably around half a percent of potential crop production.”

The facts are the facts, we suppose, and we stand corrected.

But here’s the money paragraph: “Implying that it is a major factor in food shortages is precisely the kind of unsupported wild generalization that makes your newsletter so rewarding to read – if one is looking for examples of unseemly ignorance among people who should know better.”

Professor Phil, ours is not a science letter. We write about economics, finance, history, philosophy… wine… that kind of thing. We rely on our science from people who’ve studied it.

Even better, our source for this theme of food shortage comes from Mark Rossano, a gentleman who manages C6 Capital Holdings, a fund meant to invest in things like arable land. We expect, since he’s putting investor money on the line, he’s going to know the science. (You can click here to see our complete interview with Mark, including a few recommendations he makes.)

But, just as with investing or economics, we cover fairly large narratives and give our readers credit enough to do their own thinking and research, including when it comes to science. Imagine if our letter was only about arable land… oy.

That said, It is appropriate for us to be having this tete-a-tete today. On May 11, 1934 a dust storm whipped up in the MidWest ripping across the country to the Eastern seaboard. From the History Channel:

At the time the Great Plains were settled in the mid-1800s, the land was covered by prairie grass, which held moisture in the earth and kept most of the soil from blowing away even during dry spells. By the early 20th century, however, farmers had plowed under much of the grass to create fields. The U.S. entry into World War I in 1917 caused a great need for wheat, and farms began to push their fields to the limit, plowing under more and more grassland with the newly invented tractor. The plowing continued after the war, when the introduction of even more powerful gasoline tractors sped up the process. During the 1920s, wheat production increased by 300 percent, causing a glut in the market by 1931.

That year, a severe drought spread across the region. As crops died, wind began to carry dust from the over-plowed and over-grazed lands. The number of dust storms reported jumped from 14 in 1932 to 28 in 1933. The following year, the storms decreased in frequency but increased in intensity, culminating in the most severe storm yet in May 1934. Over a period of two days, high-level winds caught and carried some 350 million tons of silt all the way from the northern Great Plains to the eastern seaboard. 

According to The New York Times, dust “lodged itself in the eyes and throats of weeping and coughing New Yorkers,” and even ships some 300 miles offshore saw dust collect on their decks.

The History Channel piece goes on to describe the plight of the “Okies” who were forced to leave their farms and trundle their way out to California to seek work and new lives. ”These transplants found life out West not much easier than what they had left,” the article suggests “as work was scarce and pay meager during the worst years of the Great Depression.”

As is their wont, too, the History Channel credits President Roosevelt with saving the earth and the farmers from themselves – sort of. In 1935, “as part of its New Deal program, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration began to enforce federal regulation of farming methods, including crop rotation, grass-seeding and new plowing methods. This worked to a point, reducing dust storms by up to 65 percent, but only the end of the drought in the fall of 1939 would truly bring relief.”

“Man made engineered famine for social compliance of the peasants,” writes another reader, Nathan, “has been done numerous times also going back to at least the Irish potato famine.” Nathan goes on to comment on a few other sore points from these past few years: “Genocidal Holocaust by vaccine is nothing new and has been done numerous times going back to WW1. Currency collapse has been engineered over 3000 times in history.”

Professor Phil, Nathan did not provide any sources for the stats he throws out there. But you’ll have to admit, the prospect of food shortages is nothing, if not polemical. Try this reader mail from David out for size:

“The problems taking place within the agricultural industry is a concerted and coordinated effort by the cadre of the left in an attempt to subjugate the citizenry, plain and simple. They have weaponized the various bureaucratic departments by implementing regulations designed to achieve their goals of a socialist/communist government.

“The agricultural sector is not the only victim, every sector is under attack by the unelected doing the bidding of the leftists by these maneuvers with the regulations designed to take total control of every aspect of our lives.”

We’re assuming that’s just David’s opinion.

Another reader who asked not to be named, nor have his email reprinted, wrote a long and thoughtful piece on his experiences working with Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, “father of the real Green (crop) Revolution of the 1960s and onward that ended famine in India and turned India into a wheat exporter today with high yielding wheat varieties.”

He makes some salient points about ethanol mandates in gasoline, grain being fed to millions of cows and USDA programs that pay farmers not to grow crops. With respect, we haven’t reprinted his email, but beg forgiveness for including this quote: “In other countries, 70% of all people on earth live under dictators. There is the problem: bad government; bad currency; bad land tenure; bad transportation; bad grain storage; no free markets; poor credit availability to farmers and many more bad things that hamper food production.”

As if to prove his point, this morning’s headlines from Bloomberg, included this item following the ongoing mayhem in the Indian Ocean:

Sri Lanka has descended into chaos after months of protests over sky-high inflation, food and fuel shortages. Violence erupted after the brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister, with protesters said to be targeting the homes and properties of ruling-party lawmakers after pro-government groups attacked them. Government forces were reportedly ordered to shoot anyone damaging property. The demonstrations, which have beset the capital Colombo for weeks, came as inflation quickened to close to 30% in April. 

Professor Phil, we’re, of course, glad you enjoy reading our ramshackle brand of unseemly ignorance and hope your students enjoy it, too. Wish them “good luck” from us. They should know better.

Follow your bliss,

Addison Wiggin

Addison Wiggin
Founder, The Wiggin Sessions

P.S. “Inflation has cooled,” is somehow the headline this morning. The Labor Department released April numbers at 8:30am. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) – which includes groceries, gasoline and rent – rose 8.3% from April of 2021. That’s down from the 8.5% number clocked for March. So, technically, yes, prices have cooled.

P.P.S. The Musk “free speech” saga continues. Alsofrom Bloomberg this morning: “Elon Musk said yesterday that he would restore former President Donald Trump’s banned account on Twitter if his $44 billion deal to acquire the company is completed. The comments come after Musk previously said he thinks Twitter should be more “reluctant to delete things” and “very cautious with permanent bans.” Yesterday, he called Twitter’s decision to ban Trump in January 2021 a “mistake.” Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s cofounder and former CEO, tweeted yesterday following Musk’s remarks that he does “agree” there shouldn’t be permanent bans on Twitter users. Trump has said he would not return to Twitter even if his account were restored, instead promoting his own social media venture, Truth Social, which has so far appeared to struggle to get off the ground.”

Addison Wiggin

Addison Wiggin

Addison Wiggin is founder and executive publisher of Agora Financial LLC, an independent economic forecasting and financial research firm. He and Bill Bonner began writing the firm’s flagship Daily Reckoning in the midst of the tech boom and bust. It was one of the first widely distributed email newsletters on the Internet. The publication’s critical eye on finance and economics continues today. He’s also creator and editorial director of Agora Financial’s daily missive The 5 Min. Forecast.

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