Friday, January 15, 2016
Another bizarre conspiracy theory
Is it something in the water out West? Or maybe it's the result of the parents or grandparents of these delusional loons living too close to the Nevada nuclear test sites? Too many generations of fundamentalist Mormon inbreeding? A lack of tinfoil? It's a mystery, but according to a discussion I heard yesterday this particular bizarre conspiracy theory is one of the things motivating the yeehawdists occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Vanilla ISIS (aka Y'all Qaeda aka Welfare Cowboys) members exist in a strange, alternate reality where rather than admitting that it's impossible to make a living ranching in a desert they believe their problems are the result of an active plot to make them give up their rural idylls, their pastoral paradises. They look out the window at an arid landscape and see a "ranch" where it's possible to raise cattle and make a living at it. Saner people look at that same patch of bone dry sand and creosote bush and wonder how anyone with more than one brain cell could believe cow critters could survive, let alone put on enough weight to be marketable, when the land has a carrying capacity of more than 40 acres per animal unit. Back when I was working on a special history project in Nebraska, I had ranchers in the Sand Hills explain that the absolute upper limit for raising cattle on range land was something like 15 acres per animal unit. If browse is sparser than that, the bovines have to do way too much walking.
The yeehawdists talk a lot about "freedom" and the right of everyone to try to make a living, but they've never been "free" in the sense of self-sufficiency. Their so-called ranches could not survive without welfare in the form of subsidized grazing. The various fees that ranchers and others get charged to use federal land don't come anywhere close to the actual cost of the resources. The rest of the country has been subsidizing the welfare cowboys for generations, letting them suck off the government teat and allowing them to rail against the slackers in the city who collect Food Stamps when they're benefiting from a much more generous welfare plan. After all, if you're a city dweller who uses welfare, there's a cutoff, a 5-year maximum for how long you can rely on what used to be called AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and is now TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). If you're a Western rancher, until recently grazing leases were forever. No wonder the welfare cowboys turned delusional and started thinking they actually owned that acreage.
They're also delusional, naturally, about just how important their ranching is to the rest of us. The sad reality for anyone who has a nostalgic mental image of western ranches is that more beef comes from east of the Mississippi than west of it. Or maybe it's east of the Missouri. But for sure it's not Western states like Montana or Arizona. It's not even Nebraska, even though Nebraska loves its image as Cattle Country. There are farmers here in the Upper Peninsula who probably have more head of fat, happy cattle on a couple hundred acres than the Bundys and their ilk can raise on many thousands.
Which brings me to another point. Don't the delusional loons ever talk to anyone outside their own little conspiratorial bubbles? On a per capita basis, yes, it's true, there are a lot fewer people living on farms and ranches now than there were 100 years ago. There are multiple social forces at work -- industrialization, economies of scale, demographics -- that have led to a natural migration from the country to the city. There really is a lot of vacant farmland in this country, places where immigrants settled decades ago, farmed for a few years (or a few generations) and then left. No one forced them to. Unlike the welfare cowboys, they actually owned the land; they just figured out they didn't want to live on it anymore.
The community where I live used to be solid farms, mostly dairy, but following World War II more and more people figured out there were easier ways to make a living. Enough people have given up farming, in fact, that the USDA actively goes looking elsewhere in the country for people who'd like to farm up here. Land is still reasonably priced and some vacant farms still have usable buildings (not all the barns and silos have collapsed). We have a fair number of Mennonites in the county now thanks to the efforts of an Extension agent -- he went down to lower Michigan and Ohio selling the idea of the U.P. to Mennonite farming families down there that were running out of land (you can only support so many adult children on the same patch of dirt). That's kind of the opposite of pushing people into urban areas. Oddly enough, the government has figured out that all those people living in cities actually need to eat -- and if you want to eat, someone somewhere had better be farming.