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Minnesota Farm Advocate Oral History Project: Interview with Herb Schloesser
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION: Herb Schloesser grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. He purchased his farm, located in the Le Center area of Le Sueur County, (on borrowed money) in 1959. He had a 160 acre dairy operation for 10-12 years then added 160 acres more and diversified into beef, sheep and hogs. He continued that diversified business for about 22 years. Interest rates were low early on, the farm was very productive it cash flowed. By the early 1980s, interest rates had doubled and tripled and prices were dropping; the farm no longer cash flowed. So he (together with his banker) decided to throw in the towel before the bottom fell out and he sold out in 1983. He heard about the proposed Farm Advocate Program while working at COACT. He became one of the original 31 Farm Advocates and continued as an Advocate for 3 years. He also returned to school and has just graduated from Mankato State College, majoring in economics and finance. He now thinks of going into banking. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: When things are going well, most farmers think they can make it on their own; that they don't need farm organizations and unity with other farmers. But efficient production alone isn't enough to assure a successful farm; there must also be decent prices. Farming must be looked at as a business. Herb saw this when he first began farming - and he was active over many years in farm organizations. The farm population is down to maybe 3 percent of the total population. This means larger scale, less labor-intensive farming,heavy reliance on chemicals and less on crop rotation and cultivation. Such dependence on chemicals risks contamination of ground water and increased danger of cancer. Today's crops may sometimes be unfit for human consumption. As a Farm Advocate, one sees the toll that economic problems took on farm families: stressed out, confused, secretive (feeling that they are the only ones with problems). These problems, including those of farm children, will take a long time to heal. The Advocates do not try to save all farmers and lose all bankers. Rather, they aim at rationalizing situations for the long-range good of both parties. Herb left Farm Advocates after 3 years; that was all he could afford. As an Advocate, you were undercompensated (at first, the maximum allowed was 20 hours per week at $4.00 per hour). And it is high stress work, always with more to do than time allows. Advocates commonly work more than the 20 hours for which they are paid (he himself worked up to 50-60 hours per week). He felt the stress and saw it in others. Good people left for these reasons; there was some bad feeling. After leaving Farm Advocates, Herb did some advocacy work on his own (finishing cases he had started in the Program) and also some mediation. He thinks that agricultural economists have been wrong in teaching that, to be successful, a farmer has to specialize and operate at a large scale (for efficient production), without worrying about interest rates and other factors. This has resulted in flooded markets (over production) and unchanged farm prices over the last 40-50 years, while farmers' costs quadrupled. Also, the price of land has escalated well beyond its basic productive equivalent. There must be a reasonable rate of return for the farm to survive as a business; otherwise, it would be better to simply invest in stocks, bonds or T-bills (when Herb was farming, he was probably feeding 100-125 families - but he couldn't afford to feed his own). The bankers and credit system were to blame for this. They put up large, integrated production units (relegating farmers to a few tasks, such as just feeding hogs all day). Then, when things started to go wrong, they got scared and began cashing out over-extended farmers to save their own necks. Bankers have learned, however, that restructuring is often better than getting in a new farmer who isn't familiar with the farm, the equipment, etc. Like many businesses, it takes a lifetime to build a farm operation. Both parties and the entire community are better off. Furthermore, the banker will gain respect, and in the long range may save his bank (local people will not do business with a bank that has pulled a bad deal on a respected farmer). A banker can build or ruin a community; once the trust is lost (and farms and local businesses have been allowed to fail), it may not be regained and the town can become a ghost town. You never see a strong farming community and a weak main street, or vice versa. They go up and down together. Herb has spent periods of time in Guatumala studying the agricultural scene there during 4 years, 3 of those years as a group leader in a human development work shop. He believes that this experience in a Lesser Developed Country (LDC) gives him insight essential in understanding the global situation. Thus, Guatemala is very productive; lots of food is produced there. But the people are enslaved by the system. There is starvation (most of the food products are exported), disasterous working conditions (e.g., hundreds of people working in a field while helicopters fly over spraying them with 2,4-D), health problems, etc. The land is being raped for production. U.S. investors (companies) are responsible for some of this - in coffee, bananas, cattle, cotton, sugar cane. Thus, cheap Guatemalan beef, which we don't need and which should stay there to feed the people, is exported to this country by U.S. packing houses. This is done in part to keep the prices the packing houses pay for U.S.-raised beef depressed. This manipulation of the market by agricultural interests also occurs in imports from other LDCs and with other commodities.
2 hours sound cassette
50 pages transcript
Content Category: sound recordings
Content Category: text
Interviewee: Schloesser, Herb
Interviewer: Hunter, Dianna
Made in: New Ulm, Brown County, Minnesota, United States
|Holding Type||Oral History - Interview|
OH 37 (Library Call Number)
AV1991.158.28 (Accession Number)
MNHS Library Catalog
Oral History - Project, MHS Collection, project: 'Minnesota Farm Advocate Oral History Project'