Blank’s equation

Jeff vonKaenel

I like farmers. I started liking farmers when I was in grade school, and I got to spend the night at my good friend Henry Kishman’s family farm. At 4 o’clock in the morning, every morning, there was a knock at Henry’s door, followed by a voice: “Hank, time to get up.”

It was time to bring the cows in for their milking. They let me milk the cows, after of course they squirted milk at me, and I had the joy of drinking raw, unpasteurized milk straight from the animals I helped to milk. It was an amazing childhood experience.

Last week, when I met with the board of directors of PlacerGrown, I was brought back to that joyful experience. It was a pleasure to hear Justin Miller from Twin Peaks Orchards speak in reverent tones about his peaches—the same tone parents use to talk about how their 2-year-old is a budding Socrates.

Not that everything at the meeting was peachy keen. There was also discussion about one of the PlacerGrown members who’d resigned from the board because her farm just wasn’t making it.

UC Davis economist Steven Blank has put that joy of farming and the tremendous difficulties that accompany it into numbers. I’ve been reading his book, The Economics of American Agriculture, in which Blank makes the compelling case that American agriculture is in serious trouble competing in a global market, and decreasing income is putting many farmers in extreme jeopardy.

Blank develops economic equations that calculate how low incomes have to go or how big economic losses have to be before farmers are willing to stop farming. In essence, he’s trying to figure out how low income and revenue have to go before a farmer becomes unwilling to get up at some godforsaken hour to toil in the hot sun or freezing cold all day long, simply for the pleasure of growing things.

The problem isn’t that people aren’t willing to do it, it’s that they can’t afford to do it. Many farmers are willing to make great sacrifices to do a difficult job because it’s what they love what they do, but everyone has their breaking point.

Blank’s economic formulas were on full display at the PlacerGrown board of directors meeting. One board member had apparently reached the breaking point and left farming. Still, there was Miller waxing enthusiastic about his peaches. Clearly, the farmers here love their work. It brought me back to my boyhood farm visit and the elation I felt after milking the cow and drinking the end product.

That’s why I love farmers. When I eat, I feel like I’m not only consuming vitamins, calories and fiber, but also a little love, compassion and dedication.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.