The Cochrane Treadmill

As either a consumer or producer of edibles, have you been following the politics of food pricing lately?

You may know that 98 percent are convinced food pricing is always too expensive and the two percent (who are what remains of the 20 percent who were in farming in the late 1940s and early 1950s) don't. If you're in the surviving 2 percent, you probably know about Cochrane's Treadmill, the mid-1950s label given by ag-economist Willard Cochrane to the productivity phenomenon whereby farmers efforts to keep up with constantly evolving ag innovation have been "rewarded" not with improved profits but just the opposite.

Now about 90 percent of farm household income is earned by other family members off the farm to subsidize the below-cost production of farm commodities for urbanite consumers. If you're in the food-consuming 98 percent, you probably never heard of the Cochrane Treadmill (with the exception of modern academics in the field-no pun intended-of ag-economics, who know about it but don't talk or write about it).

This bit of 1950s history came to mind with news of a new quasi-governmental body-the Agricultural Development Board"-to "spur innovations in Vermont's agricultural industry".

There was an almost two-column-foot-long report in Middlebury's other newspaper recently, and it included all the usual suspects (a little Casablanca lingo, there) worthy of official involvement under the general rubric of "encourage new ventures". Areas deemed to need improvement range from "the integrity of our agricultural practices" to agricultural education programs, from "where agriculture can go forward" to the Vermont Seal of Quality. Other than a (dare I say pro forma?) reference to fluctuating milk prices, there's nothing in the news release which shows any new-Board interest in directly advocating for improved producer prices and profits in such basic commodities as milk, which, for all practical purposes except the absence of a government-guaranteed return on investment might well be considered a regulated public utility.

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