Laura Ingalls Wilder’s take on the food vs. fuel debate

There seems to be a constant question of whether we should be using production agriculture commodities for food or fuel.  To me, there’s a very simple answer, and it goes back to a story from my childhood:   The “Little House” series of books, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s experiences growing up in a pioneer family.  In particular I want to focus on a book in the series titled “The Long Winter”.  What can a book set in De Smet, South Dakota in during the winter of 1880-1881 tell us about the very modern topic of food vs. fuel? Plenty it seems to me.

The key event I want to focus on is this.  The storyline of this book in the series is a most sever winter the pioneer family (and entire town) experienced.  Sever enough the trains, which the town had grown dependent on for supplies, couldn’t reach the settlement for many, many months.  Laura’s family made an important decision, they choose to twist the hay that had been meant for the family cow into small tight bundles and burn it for heat, because there was no trains to deliver coal.  The next summer, there was no milk, butter, or any other dairy products.  They had used the feed that was intended for the cow, in order to have heat.

The key point I think is that the Ingalls family made a choice, due to the importance of heat to sustain life during a long, cold winter, in this case it probably wasn’t much of a choice and more a necessity.  So lets fast forward this thought process to 2012.  There’s a lot of arguments against using agriculture ground to produce fuel.  Many of them are sensationalist and without merit.  Growing fuel is not causing an increase in starving people nor is it responsible for the myriad of other accusations that get thrown at it.

But we have choices with the products we grow, we can and do use them for multiple purposes.  If it’s the best option, we may use them for fuel, doing so means they won’t be used for other things.  To put it in simple terms, I do believe we live in a world that is constrained by natural resources, agriculture is doing everything it can to alleviate those constraints.  Yet, sometimes we have to make decisions, most/all of us cannot visualize a choice of burning our ag production for heat and having to eat rice and beans for the next twelve months, but in small, individual ways collectively as a society we make those choices every day.

If you read my blog much, you’ll know I’m a strong proponent of the free market system, and it’s ability to allocate scarce resources appropriately.  Well, that’s really what happened with the Ingalls family, they took the resources they had, they made decisions on how to best use them.  Seems simple does it?  I think it really is that basic: forget the rhetoric,  the concern, just simply let the market dictate how our ag production gets used.  I’m pretty certain that method will provide the greatest amount of benefit to the greatest number of people.



13 responses to this post.

  1. You said it better than I did today in my blog post. Free markets are always best in my opinion.


  2. Posted by Confessions of a Corn Heiress on January 26, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Great perspective Darin! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  3. Posted by Stetch Ledford on January 26, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    Hi Darin. I enjoy your blog, and comment occasionally. This time, I have a question:

    I’m curious how you feel about farm subsidies, particularly subsidies for ethanol, in light of your statement that you are “a strong proponent of the free market system.”



  4. I am surprised at how many people have bought into the misperception that VEETEC was a ethanol subsidy. It was a tax credit. They no longer have that tax credit due to the heavy lobbying from certain industries that felt threatened. Oil continues to receive tax credits. Does oil really need those tax credits? Or should the free market system apply to them also?


  5. Stetch,

    Thanks for stopping by, those are very legitimate questions. On farm subsidies, I am against the direct payments that farmers have been receiving since the 1930’s I think. There are other payments that I am ok with. Paying farmers for conservation fits the model of many “bigger picture” things the government is involved in – national parks, historical preservation areas. I am free market, but I also acknowledge the government has roles to play that individuals cannot. Conservation payments to preserve farmground and protect water supplies is a good example of that.

    On ethanol, you are aware that the 54 cent per gallon subsidy ended on December 31st? I’m not a big fan of ethanol subsidies. I do feel that domestic energy security, exploring alternatives, investing in basic research and commercialization of those technologies is something the government should be involved in, in the same way even the most free market thinker supports military security as a necessary government endeavor. Another positive about the ethanol subsidy was that it was a tax break, the government was not giving money away, choosing winners and losers, they simply said this is a technology we can support, and will simply give a tax break. Much less free market disruptive.

    There’s a myriad of complex issues involved, on the ag subsidies question for example, before the sharp rise in commodity prices the last few years, I saw data indicating that 50%+ of farm income was coming from government support in some of the plains states. Yes, that could be yanked away, and as I indicated I am not opposed to that. I just hope folks realize that the first big thing that would have happened was increased consolidation in agriculture in those areas that were heavily dependent on government support. Most anti-ag subsidy folks are also pro small-farm, and I suspect it would have been a case of “be careful what you wish for”


  6. Thanks for the information and opinion, Darin. Great food for thought… no pun intended. 😉

    One more question, have you heard about the AgComm event coming up here at the University? It might be something you’d find interesting. If you end up attending, look me up!

    BEst –


  7. I am also surprised at the misperception of ownership by some in the livestock industry. I have been told by some that ‘that’s our corn that’s going to ethanol’. If I grow it, it’s mine until they buy it from me. Say I go to McDonalds for every meal, that hamburger on the counter belongs to McDonalds until I buy it from them. Once I buy it, it belongs to me. Even though I may have been buying from them every day. That hamburger still belongs to McDonalds. It’s not my hamburger until I pay for it. I know this sounds juvenile but it is some of the arguments we come up against. Arguments that need not be, because I for one believe we can do both. We can produce both food and fuel. It’s not an either or. Us or them. If livestock believes that without ethanol the price of corn would go back to $2bu. It’s not gonna happen. We couldn’t produce it for $2 back then. We were losing money. We sure can’t grow it for that now. The cost of inputs has risen right along with everything else. Are most people aware that the subsidies have dropped since the price of corn has risen? There are no LDPs or Counter Cyclicals right now. Most in ag know this. But does the general public? But take away ALL subsidies and Darren is correct that the small farmer is the one hurt most. The extremely large farms are not eligible for payments. They will just gobble up the small guys.


  8. Posted by John Blue on January 27, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    LOL, using Little House On The Prairie as a reference source to convey a point:) I will ask my wife about the story (hay burning ) as she is the resident Prairie expert (along with Ann of Green Gables). Thanks for the post.


  9. I nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award


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