Chapter 10 Farm Life
In which Lozelle works some deals, oil is produced, and Buddy hears from the Feds.
“Dear, I’ve been talking to some of your hands,” Lozelle announced as she marched briskly into Buddy’s office with a determined look on her face.
“You’ve been what?” Buddy asked incredulously.
“I’ve been talking to some of your employees that work on our farms. They’re suffering and you aren’t doing anything about it.”
“What do you mean? I have some of the safest farms to work on in the state. I even have special training for new employees on safety procedures.”
“I’m not talking about getting injured on the job. I’m talking about living conditions.”
“They don’t live on our farms. You’re out of your mind.” Buddy’s expression looked sour and he turned back to his overflowing desk.
“They’re suffering at home. They don’t have enough to live on.”
“Well I can’t pay them any more than I do, so there’s nothing I can do about it,” Buddy said while looking back at his papers, obviously wishing she would leave. (Ah, how soon they forget.)
“You can pay them in other ways,” Lozelle persisted and perched on the corner of the desk. “They have high expenses now in paying their utilities and in getting to work. They can’t even afford enough food in some cases. You could build housing here on the farms and pay them in food. If they lived here on the farms they wouldn’t have the expenses of getting to work. They could even grow a lot of their own food if you let them have gardens.”
“Sounds to me like you want to convert this into a feudal village,” Buddy scowled at Lozelle from under bushy eye brows.
“Dear, our money is failing us. We have to get along using money only when we have to.”
Buddy’s face got an expression of oh, no, here we go again. “What do you think I’m trying to do? Look at these bills. You expect me to pay them with promises?”
Lozelle’s chin came out a little further and her face grew stern.
“A few hundred years ago they got by using money only rarely, since they made most of the things they used and only bought a few things. Until the transition we may have to get along pretty much without money ourselves. You know inflation is going to get a lot worse before the transition. You know that the U.S. supply of oil is down to about 40% of what we consumed two years ago. We have to organize to survive by barter as much as we can. It’ll be a lot easier if we organize and plan it now rather than just have it happen to us.”
“Okay. Okay. I see your point. Why don’t you take care of it however you like? I have too much to do here already.” Buddy was under too much stress to face a long argument with Lozelle. Besides, he didn’t care where the men lived and if he didn’t have to pay them as much, well that was all to the good.
Lozelle smiled brightly on Buddy, patted his shoulder, kissed him on the cheek and left the office. Outside she gave a thumbs up gesture to the three men waiting there, then motioned them out of the reception area. They went down the short hallway to the meeting room and took chairs around a table.
“He accepted it. We’ve got a free hand,” Lozelle grinned. Then she sobered. “Now, I think we need to begin with housing. By moving the hands onto the farms we’re going to solve a lot of problems, but we’re going to create a lot more. Jack, how much lumber can you turn out at the sawmill?”
“Oh, we can turn out plenty of boards but we don’t have all the other stuff you need for housing. We need wiring and plumbing and foundation cement and nails, tools, and other equipment. We just aren’t set up to build houses.”
“Pete what have we got to trade with the local building supply companies?” Lozelle asked turning to the next man.
“We’re a farm, so we have lots of different foods, especially since you had us emphasize growing crops people could eat and would be easy to preserve. So we have lots of peanuts, potatoes, beans, turnips, corn, carrots, and greens.”
“Do we have anything else?”
“We could offer some of the lumber?” Jack mumbled.
“Better yet, let’s offer to mill their trees into lumber. We have the capacity and they could use the lumber,” Morris offered.
“Good, Morris. That’s the kind of ideas we need. Think outside the box,” Lozelle brightened.
“So we can offer food,” Walt said sounding discouraged. “Wait. How are they going to store the food? How about we offer them so much food each week for a year? We can store it here and dole it out. That way they won’t waste it.”
In 2008 about 60% of the oil consumed in the U.S. was imported. By 2011, the amount of oil consumed was down to only 45% of the 2008 levels because of the tremendous drop in imports. Despite government efforts to control the price of gasoline, it had quickly gone over $10 per gallon and light sweet crude was costing U.S. oil companies over $300 a barrel. Refinery capacity was standing idle. Exploration of old and new possible fields increased almost feverishly. But the change in supply had been too quick for the oil industry to have any chance of producing a domestic solution for the shortage of crude oil. The nation was painfully discovering how vulnerable it was and how dependent an industrial economy is on its sources of energy.
The lack of gasoline was affecting almost everything Buddy’s business did. His farms had already started going to alternate fuels like corn alcohol and natural gas from fermenting wastes. But that still left over 90% of the energy needs of the farm to be met from gasoline or electricity, which was just as expensive. The previous summer most of his farms had planted rather large crops of garden vegetables, potatoes, and peanuts, since the imported vegetables had become too expensive for most families to buy. For the 2011 growing season, Buddy planned to go heavily into beans as well. He had no difficulty finding willing workers, since he offered a share of the crop in addition to money wages. The privations of winter had made the poorer people of rural Georgia look upon food much the way their ancestors had 150 years before at the end of the Civil War (known in Buddy’s neighborhood as the War of Northern Aggression). The continuing inflation made food a more dependable reward than a fixed wage.
Horses on the farm were back in fashion. Not for plowing but for getting from one task to another on the farm. There were not enough heavy work horses for plowing and such, of course, but there were a surprising number of riding horses. Many were even on the market because lots of people who owned pleasure horses could no longer afford to keep them. Of course, few farm hands knew how to care for horses, let alone how to ride them. But there were lots of teen-aged girls out there who did know these things and who were only too happy to have a chance to continue their love affair with all things equine. They taught the farm hands, cared for their one time hooved possessions, and got paid for it.
Not all businesses were suffering during this period. Those businesses that supplied energy from sources other than petroleum were prospering. In fact, solar energy, wind energy, hydro-electric, and even energy from tides was being utilized as never before. Of course, these sources could make up only a small percentage of the energy deficit from loss of oil from abroad. Old oil fields that had been too expensive to keep in production were now profitable again, with a barrel of oil bringing over $300. Even conservation was being tried as a last resort. The enterprise that was seeing the greatest growth, however, was one that had patented a thermal conversion process. As the name implies, TCP is a process which uses heat and pressure to convert waste containing hydrocarbons such as paper, sewage, tires, tar, plastics, wood, seaweed, and just plain garbage in general into oil, gas, fertilizer, and recoverable metals. The process had been largely ignored for several years but by the time the price for a barrel of oil seemed to have permanently gone above $100 any process that could produce a barrel of diesel oil for about $15 - $25 became too profitable to ignore. But the lag between investment in the TCP and the plants coming online was just too great to prevent the shortage.
Buddy had been one of the first farm owners to recognize the value of such equipment to a large farm organization, mostly for getting rid of polluting wastes at first. When the equipment was first installed, his farms had used it only for their own wastes, but as the price of oil shot up some of Buddy’s employees began offering to dispose of the wastes from surrounding farms. They were paid in cash and disposed of the wastes they collected by secretly adding it to the wastes from Buddy’s land. As a result, Buddy’s farms were unusual in that they were still able to run their heavy equipment fueled by the diesel oil they had produced.
Buddy discovered the covert waste collection and was going to fire those engaged in the activity at first. But then he realized that they were adding to the farms’ profitability and without Buddy having to pay them since they were doing it after their regular work hours. So rather than firing them, he allowed them to continue so long as they made sure that the wastes from Buddy’s farms were processed first.
Buddy was no fool and he did what he could to increase the production of oil by his plant. He also began construction of a second plant, trading oil and the promise of oil for the materials and labor needed. It was Lozelle, however, who argued for emphasizing the food crops rather than cash crops. At her request, for example, each family who had someone working for Buddy was invited to plant a large garden on Buddy’s land using Buddy’s seed. Weekends Buddy would bus whole families to their fields to tend the gardens. Buddy also offered space in his barns, silos, and warehouses to store their harvest.
As a consequence, Buddy had no trouble attracting and keeping hands when many farms simply were neither able to afford to pay hands nor buy fuel. People wanted farm jobs and farmers wanted to hire them but they didn’t have the money. People wanted the products of those farms but they didn’t have the money. Buddy was using barter to get around these money problems.
With fertilizer and pesticide becoming too expensive to use, what was called natural means of pest control and fertilization increased substantially. Advice on the internet for farming by such methods was invaluable. Buddy was producing his own fertilizer from his TCP (thermal conversion process) plants but he, too, encouraged his employees to use the less expensive, natural methods.
By the harvest of 2011 Buddy was feeling rather smug. He felt that he was prepared for the winter and expected to be selling his oil and his harvest for high prices.
“Hello Mr. Minton?” the voice on the line inquired when Buddy flipped on his phone.
“Yes, Buddy Minton here. What can I do for you?”
“Mr. Minton, I represent the National Food Bank, Atlanta office. I see that you have a rather large agricultural operation with most of your farms in the area of Macon.”
“Yeah, I have some properties other places but mostly we’re south-east of Macon.”
“I see that you’ve been a major supplier of soy beans and other foodstuffs for the last few years.”
“Yes, sir I am proud to say that we’ve been one of the top ten in Georgia for over five years now.”
“Well, sir, we are very pleased that you seem to have been able to make do this year without buying fuels for your farming operations. That is truly commendable.”
“Thanks, mister, but I don’t think I caught your name.”
“Sorry. I’m Stanley Crookshank, Director of the Atlanta Bureau of the National Food Bank.”
“I’m pleased to hear that Stanley, but I’m a busy man just now and I really have to get back to work so if …”
“I’ll get right to the point, then. We here at the Bank would like you to sell your crops to us exclusively this year and we also have some suggestions as to what we would like you to grow next year.”
“Stanley, I have a variety of companies that I sell to and I couldn’t think of not letting them bid for my produce. You understand, I’m sure.”
“Oh I understand, Mr. Minton but I am not sure you quite understand the current situation. As you know we’ve had a considerable drop in agricultural production with the price of oil being what it is. And the federal government is responding to this crisis by its Food Bank program. We would like all the major producers in the nation to come into the Bank to show that they support our nation in this time of national crisis. We’re sure that you will see it as your patriotic duty to join us in this noble cause.”
“Nobody is more patriotic than I am, mister, but I wasn’t born yesterday either. What prices are you offering?”
“Mr. Minton, you realize that government revenues have dropped during this depression and with interest rates being what they are on foreign markets we just can’t pay the prices we would like to for your crops. But we’re confident that as a patriotic American you will be glad to sell to us at our top offering price of 40% of the international market price.”
“The hell I will. I can get 90% without even trying. You can take that offer and…” Buddy yelled into the phone.
“Please understand, Mr. Minton that most of the other large agricultural producers have already joined us in this crusade for food. We even have agreements from the other bulk buyers of agricultural produce to limit their prices to what we offer. I don’t think you can get a better offer than the one we’re making you. The nation is rallying around this effort to see that there’s food for all Americans.”
“We’ll just see about that,” Buddy growled and snapped the phone shut. He had learned that smashing the phone shut by clapping his hands together not only was expensive but painful as well.
Buddy quickly entered a number, that of the operator of a local grain elevator.
“Jake, Buddy. What prices are you offering for soybeans? . . . That’s all? That’s less than last year. Who’s selling to you at those prices? . . . So what business are you doing? . . . You’ve caved in to the Food Bank, that’s what you’ve done. . . . Oh, I see. Well what about the other elevators? . . . Yeah, I heard about Wally. That was tough. So Wally is still offering market prices? . . . He gave in too? I tell you, Jake, they’re going to put us all out of business. How are we going to pay for our loans with no profit margin? . . . Are they going to talk to the bank for you? . . . Yeah, but that’s just two years. One year at these prices could bankrupt us all. . . . Okay, Jake. Hang in there. We’ll get through this somehow. Bye.”
His phone rang almost immediately.
“Mr. Minton? Stanley again. I hope you’ve had a chance to think over your situation in more detail. I might also remind you that your son, who is living in D.C. these days, has come to the attention of the authorities there as a possible trouble maker. Now we wouldn’t want to have to report to them that his father may be putting him up to anything now, would we?’
“What’s my son got to do with any of this?”
“Why, nothing, Mr. Minton. But you know what they say, the apple never drops far from the tree. If the father is not really a patriot then probably the son is somewhat lacking in those same areas. I believe that your son has a somewhat sensitive relationship with a Florida Congressmen who has taken some controversial positions, some would even say radical positions. Now far be it from me to make too much of the follies and enthusiasms of youth but there are those who say your son had a lot to do with that congressman taking those positions. They also say that those positions may bring down our economy.”
“Bull, Stanley. What you’re doing in forcing me to accept your low prices for my crops. That’s what threatens our economy.”
“Mr. Minton, we’re only making sure that everyone gets to eat this winter. Such an endeavor could never be bad for the economy. But resistance to the National Will in a time of desperate crisis is tantamount to treason. It undermines the loyal citizens in their time of need. We’re sure that we won’t be required to consider you as disloyal. We won’t have to resort to asking the bank to foreclose on your farms nor seize your assets. But we feel that we must have your cooperation, one way or another and we must and will do what we have to do to get that cooperation, Mr. Minton.”
“Are you threatening me, Stanley?”
“Why no, Mr. Minton. Government agents never threaten. We just point out your situation and indicate the course of action we will be required to follow based on your choices. That isn’t a threat, that’s just good advice given with your best interests at heart.”
After some more verbal sparring, Buddy disconnected and stood thinking. His meditations were interrupted by another call. Buddy began to view the phone as a poisonous viper ready to bite him if he got to close. Reluctantly he reached for the phone.
“Mr. Minton, I’m glad I caught you in. I’m Mary Steed with the National Energy Commission.”
“What do you want?” Buddy was already angry and was beginning to feel like everyone was out to get him.
“Why, only your cooperation. We understand that your TCP plant is producing a surplus of oil for your farm’s needs. In fact we understand that you are producing more than 100 barrels a day above your consumption.”
“How do you come to understand that?” Buddy was somewhat taken aback by her knowledge.
“We have our ways, Mr. Minton, we have our ways. The fact is, Mr. Minton, that you have no real need to keep those extra barrels of oil and the nation has real needs that you can help meet.”
“Let me guess, you want me to sell all my ‘surplus’ oil to some sort of oil bank at a price way below market value.”
“We were hoping to strike a patriotic chord in you heart, yes, Mr. Minton. Those hundreds of barrels of oil can do so much good, provide heat and vital transportation and electricity to keep our nation’s economy moving. We were sure that you’d see it as your duty to join us in keeping our enemies at bay.”
“And if I don’t feel like doing as you suggest, I might find it difficult to sell the oil elsewhere and might find that the bank no longer sees my farm as a good risk?”
“Goodness, Mr. Minton, you have such an imagination. I shouldn’t think that your patriotic friends would go that far, do you? I mean, I can understand why a loyal American would be most displeased to think they were doing business with someone who could help their nation and refused. I could understand how they might not want to do business with someone who was trafficking with an enemy but I don’t think they would go that far. Of course, patriotic feelings in a time of crisis do sometimes get the better of us. I know my own heart just fills with anger when I see suffering which could have been prevented if only.… But there I go letting my feelings get the better of me. I’m sure your business associates are more calm and level-headed than I. But of course, you would never have that problem, would you? I’m sure we’ll find you to be most cooperative because you are a loyal patriot yourself despite those things people are saying about your son, which I’m sure are exaggerated.”
“I’m sure they are. Perhaps they are even total lies. Perhaps they were lies made up by someone jealous of his success. People are sometimes jealous of the success of others. Why, take me for example. Some people say that I don’t deserve to own these farms of mine. Some people say that I was just lucky to get where I am. Some think that I must have cheated to go from a poor boy of a poor family to one of the wealthiest men in Georgia. They’ve said some very unflattering lies about me. But I don’t pay them any mind and I’m sure you don’t either.”
“Of course I don’t, Mr. Minton. But in my job I have to investigate even the most obvious of lies. That’s the way it is in government. We have our rules and ordinances which we must follow. We must obey Congress and the Administration because that’s our job. That’s the law of the land. All patriotic Americans do their duty even when it requires a great sacrifice on their part. I just know that you will see your duty and do it even as I’m doing now. So, Mr. Minton, I’ll have the truck come by your TCP plant on a regular schedule, shall I?”
“Of course you will. Goodbye Mary.” The frown on Buddy’s face grew deeper. How did they know how much oil he was producing and how much he was using on the farm? Did it matter how they knew? They seemed to have him trapped.
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