Too big to NOT fail

cornmarketnews_001_528x600The north country’s landscape is changing. Forty years ago, small herds of cows grazed alongside every road; in June, tractors and wagons moved through fields dotted with bales of hay.

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 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 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.

Photo: via PBS.

Photo: via PBS.

“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.



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7 Comments on “Too big to NOT fail”

  1. tootightmike says:

    It’s good to see all that land put back into production, and it’s really nice to see folks with something to do instead of sitting at the bar and griping about the good old days of dairy. Despite bigger farms and bigger machinery, it still takes people to do the work, and I can’t help thinking that all those acres of corn and soybeans must translate to a certain number of jobs.
    That said, I too wonder about what supports all that corn planting. Ethanol has surely played a role, and I wonder about the drought that the mid-west suffered last year…maybe we’re not as “marginal” as we once were…it still rains here, and the season is a good deal longer than it used to be.
    Farmers with good crop lands can change direction, not right away, but by next year, if need be.

  2. Kent Gregson says:

    Interesting angle Ellen, How about Wallmart? Even ASCAP and SEASAC in the music biz can’t support their bean counters now that music is just ones and zeros any computer can make or transfer. Where I work in the beer industry all the big guys are faltering and selling out while the bottom of the market is skyrocketing at 15%. Maybe what we need to do is get ready for de-centralization as it may be upon us.

  3. Rancid Crabtree says:

    It’s not as simple as ethanol, which allegedly isn’t getting those gov’t price supports any more. It IS speculation as much as anything, but it’s not the Wall st type of speculation we’re used to. It’s wound up in dairy farmers still getting prices only a few dollars more per cwt for their milk than they did in 1975, but the price of everything else being 20, 40, 80, 100, 150 or 500% higher. It’s the desperation of looking for a sure bet, of knowing they can produce corn for way less than they can buy it…or so they think. I don’t know about that with seed corn at $250.00 a bag or more. (10 years back I bought top of the line seed corn for $55.00 a bag and thought I was getting the shaft.)

    Grass based dairying? Yup, lots of that going on on small farms. They are out there, but you have to search to find them. Same for the other alternatives besides freestall 3 x a day milking dairys with herds in the thousands. I’d love to see more small farms. But how? You can’t make a living off a small farm today. I have 135 sheep to go care for right now. If the market stays where it’s at I won’t quite be able to pay my taxes off the sale of lamb this late summer. That says nothing about the feed and machinery and other inputs. I need more lambs each year and some other profit generators too. So Mama keeps working and we do without some things and I go to Tea Party rallies to complain. Welcome to 2013.

  4. jonathan says:

    marginal land? you cant grow corn on marginal land. we have some of the richest soils in the east. the only corn grown on marginal land is the corn that the huge mega dariys grow, most of their soil gets mined and compacted.

  5. Anita says:

    To echo the comment above: while there are some grain growers in NNY who are selling to the commodity markets, there are also dairy farmers trying to hold down feed costs by growing more of their own feed.

  6. Ellen Rocco says:

    Jonathan and Anita: First, I didn’t so much mean “marginal” in terms of quality of soil as in size of fields. The size of cultivated fields in the north country–even the largest of these–is relatively small in comparison to the ground cultivated in the middle states. Second, Anita, while it’s true that some larger dairy farmers are growing corn to hold down feed costs, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about land being rented or purchased by non-farmers (or by farmers who are not using the corn/soy for feed) to grow corn for the commodity market or ethanol.

  7. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Where are you seeing this Ellen? How much of this marginal land is being farmed by these commodity investment types?

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