Take a spring ride around St. Lawrence or Jefferson or northern Franklin County these days and note the difference. I’m not talking about the decline of small dairies with cows on pasture–the consolidation of herds into free-stall barns has been happening for the past 10-20 years. I’m noticing something else.
Every reasonably large field is tilled and planted to corn (or soybeans). I’ve been asking around among farmers I know and it appears that some farmers are redirecting their land to corn production; possibly even more acreage is being rented or purchased by several larger entities to cultivate corn. For feed? Or ethanol?
There’s a lot of money invested in this transformation: tiling, tilling, buying seed, cultivating, harvesting.
Which got me to thinking: how big can the corn industry get before it collapses? Will these corn growers–here or out in the midwest–continue to get the return on their investment? Does it require federal subsidies to be profitable? Is this something we want to pay for? Here’s Julie Grant’s consideration of the big corn issue, inspired by the movie “At Any Price,” which focuses on a big corn “family farm.”
I started thinking about the 2008 recession when government officials and media pundits talked about bail outs for corporations that were “too big to fail.”
I think they may be going at it the wrong way. I think history shows that “too big” often leads to failure. So, I started making an informal list, beginning with Lehman Brothers, the failure of which is often cited as the downward pivot point five years ago. After bankruptcy, it was broken into smaller companies, which seem to have regained footing.
In a 2008 New York magazine article, James J. Cramer pointed out that while Wall Street and the economy were failing, agribusiness corn-growers were about the only industry enjoying growth.
Five years later, as large-scale corn growing spreads beyond the nation’s traditional bread basket to even marginal land in places like, well, the north country, one wonders, how much bigger can this corn thing get? Here’s a recent post by David Sommerstein about the farm land bubble in this region. (By the way, the north country has some wonderful agricultural land, but I would argue that our greatest crop, our most sensible crop, is still grass or animals that feed on grass.) A 2011 article in moneymorning.com cites the shift in agribusiness from meat to corn. So maybe all that corn is headed for ethanol plants. And how efficient is it, in terms of fossil fuel, to grow corn for ethanol?
Today, this article in salon.com asks if our government (which many people, e.g., Tea Party members, say is too big) is helping speculators manipulate grain futures. There’s got to be very big money in those futures for manipulation to be attractive to speculators.
“Too big” can refer to sheer physical size–think mega-cruise ships, suffering of late from one system failure after another–or political reach, the Roman Empire being the classic example.
There are preachers who get, shall we say, too big for their britches (examples abound, I won’t name names).
What about war? Historians tell us that Nazi Germany was beaten because Hitler expanded his war to two fronts. Too big to not fail.
Closer to home, I’ve been following the station’s coverage of The Point Resort’s financial woes. Not a physically big place, but big in terms of exclusivity and price, apparently serving a disappearing clientele and too costly a property to easily convert to something sounder economically. (We’ll see.)
Then there are the dinosaurs. Pretty much a success story, actually. After all, they inhabited this planet for roughly 135 million years, not bad for big guys. But that’s not the part of the dinosaur story I’m interested in here.
I’m thinking fossils, and the fuel we derive from the remains of dinosaurs and other recycled creatures. Is our massive global fossil fuel-powered economy getting too big to not fail? Can we save it? Is it time to let it fail?
Most of the post-Apocalypse movies are based on the notion of nuclear holocaust or inter-galactic attacks. What about resource depletion because of human excess, and arrogance? All of us too big for our britches, perhaps.
Somehow the explosion of corn growing right here in our backyards is what started this thread for me. So, I’m curious: other examples of “too big to not fail,” of things toppling over from their sheer figurative or literal size? Weigh in.