Kub's Den

Grains: The Most Morally Righteous Commodities

Elaine Kub
By  Elaine Kub , Contributing Analyst
People who choose to work in agriculture do so with a well-developed, whole-hearted willingness to be part of the great American project of bringing food to the world. (DTN file photo)

Have you tried to hire a truck driver lately, or someone to probe trucks or open traps at the local elevator? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage for the nation's 1.9 million tractor-trailer truck drivers is $25.52 per hour, and even that level may not be enough to tempt some workers toward agriculture or away from "easier" jobs inside an Amazon warehouse, for example. Some of the highest wages for truck drivers are already found in Midwestern agricultural hot spots.

I'm going to argue that this is a good thing. Certainly, finding and paying workers is one of the biggest challenges for ag business operators right now, and it may drag on a business owner's profitability. But ultimately, it means the people who work in agriculture have lots of choices. The ones who choose to work in agriculture do so with full knowledge of their market power, and therefore, with a well-developed, whole-hearted willingness to be part of the great American project of bringing food to the world. This is something to be proud of and thankful for at this time of year when we traditionally take stock of all our blessings.

There is an enduring myth about the American farmer -- much like the myth of the American cowboy -- that he is a perfectly free man, never trudging to the gates of a factory or commuting to some office cubicle, but instead striding through his fields, sowing seeds and harvesting crops. Doing whatever he wants, at his own direction, on his own schedule. Answering to no one but God and the weather. (And of course, the farmer in this myth is always a man.) I suppose it's partly true, but I think now, more than ever, we in this industry realize the myth is just that -- a myth. Farm operators are actually a wide-ranging bunch of various types. Many (or most?) farm operators don't own their own land or equipment free and clear; they must take on outside work to support their businesses, and they have serious obligations to deliver contracted goods and services on a schedule that may not be of their own choosing at all.

Still, agricultural business owners and workers continue to do this work out of love of the work -- out of choice -- and this is a beautiful thing. It helps us feel good about being in this industry. By and large, the American agriculture industry is populated by people who are educated, nourished, free (either self-employed or voluntarily employed), and notably generous with their time and gifts.

Consider the 70 people, 20 trucks and 13 combines that showed up for a "community harvest" in Hardin County, Iowa, earlier this year when a farmer passed away and neighbors banded together to help his widow bring in the year's crop (https://www.kcci.com/…). It's not an economically logical decision for one business owner to give away free labor and equipment to help a competing small business owner. People in most other industries either wouldn't do that or couldn't do that, because their fiscal responsibility to the business would have to come first, above any personal urge to help a neighbor. But American farmers do that. Our industry truly does have a unique atmosphere and ethos, and it's frequently worthy of its own myth.

Contrast that feel-good story about grain production against other types of commodity production. Sugar, historically, produced in regions where European colonial powers used slave labor, had so much moral baggage in the 18th century that Quaker protestors would circulate pamphlets about sugar being "stained with spots of human blood." (https://www.tandfonline.com/….) This was both a metaphor and a literal fact, due to the fatal hazards enslaved people faced while working with machetes, sharp sugar cane stalks, boiling juice, and heavy rollers.

Similar questions arise today about certain parts of the global cotton supply chain, with some observers worried that the Chinese government is coercing ethnic Uighurs to pick cotton by hand in Xinjiang province, the source of 85% of China's cotton and a fifth of the global supply (https://www.reuters.com/…). Meanwhile, expanding the production of palm oil requires the carbon-releasing destruction of tropical forests in Southeast Asia (https://www.nature.com/…). Everything made of plastic or fueled by crude oil also attracts the ire of environmentalists and conservationists. Even the electric batteries required for our so-called climate-friendly future have moral implications -- lithium and cobalt mining may release toxic pollution across South America or Africa, to say nothing of the child labor concerns (https://www.dol.gov/…). And while I, myself, believe the animals in America's agriculture industry are treated humanely, and I have no moral qualms about consuming meat or leather, not every country adheres to the same standards, and many consumers make different choices. Someone can make us feel bad about virtually every substance we buy or touch today, with various complaints that are grounded in reality by various degrees of accuracy.

Even grain has its detractors -- those who worry about the long-term effects of monoculture farming on the ecosystem or those who argue that the easy availability of affordable calories (including the calories from corn syrup instead of cane sugar) may contribute to high rates of diseases associated with obesity. Even when it comes to the moral righteousness of voluntary labor versus forced labor, we have to acknowledge that the overall grain supply chain is a global one, and not all the grain in the world is harvested by happy, self-directed farmers in North America.

But of all the substances on this earth that you can buy or touch today, I'd argue the most morally righteous is grain. Grain is the product of solar-power-converting, carbon-dioxide-scrubbing plants. American grain is grown by educated, independent, small- or medium-sized business owners and their employees, who choose with full, informed agency to labor in a complex industry that gives us so much to be thankful for.

A prayer dedicated to St. Isidore the Farmer (who was actually a farm laborer, not a land-owner himself), perhaps says it best:

"O Lord, as You have made the earth,

To man and beast have given birth,

Have given sun and rain that hence

The soil might give them sustenance:

We beg You make us willing to

Perform the law we get from You

That work of ours and grace of Yours

May bring the increase that endures."


Register now for DTN's Virtual Ag Summit on Dec. 5 and 6, a virtual event that offers discussions of farmland values, tax advice, the latest technological advances, and the challenges of having a family business. On Wednesday, Ag Meteorologist John Baranick will give an early glimpse of what to expect from the weather in 2024 and Todd Hultman will give you his best assessment of where corn and soybean prices are headed in the year ahead.

Register for this free event at www.dtn.link/DTNAgSummit23. Can't make it those two days? A recorded link will be provided, but you need to register.


Comments above are for educational purposes only and are not meant as specific trade recommendations. The buying and selling of grain or grain futures or options involves substantial risk isn't suitable for everyone.

Elaine Kub, CFA is the author of "Mastering the Grain Markets: How Profits Are Really Made" and can be reached at analysis@elainekub.com.

Elaine Kub