People I follow have singled out poor crop prices as one of the most important agricultural stories in 2015. That specific article is very US-centric; one stub mentions New Zealand recognising animals as "sentient beings,"1 Canada gets a brief mention, and so does the WHO's meat and cancer warning. I can't fault it for that. Agweek is covering its beat for its readers and their concerns. But whenever agricultural prices are low, farmers everywhere complain that they cannot make a profit, and when they are high, poor people can't afford to eat. Somehow, though, low agricultural prices never seem to compensate for not making much profit by reducing the cost of a farmer's food purchases, and high food prices never seem to result in more profits for farmers.

At least, not so that you would notice.

I'm not an agricultural economist, obviously, so I find it very confusing when international organisations charged with reducing poverty among farmers complain about high food prices. Isn't that good for farmers? Apparently not, for two reasons. First, those same organisations are also charged with reducing hunger, and that's hard when food prices are high. Secondly, farmers are both consumers and producers, and what they gain in production they lose in high prices for their own purchases.

The thing is, ideally farmers want whatever their neighbour farmers haven't got. In times of plenty, they want scarcity, and vice versa, something Shakespeare recognised in his bit of tomfoolery as MacDuff rouses the porter in act two of Macbeth:

Knock, knock, knock! Who's there, i' the name of Beelzebub? Here's a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty.

You may try to keep your harvest back, to sell at a better price when times are hard, but if hard times don't come, your only way out might be suicide.

But I really would like to know -- and there are surely agricultural economists who could tell me -- whether, on balance, higher prices are a good thing or a bad thing, especially for poorer farmers.

  1. Their scare quotes, not mine. 

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