Opinion

The Depression’s Marching Orders

What do avocados, raisins, oranges, milk, cheese and other fruits have in common besides dirt, water, farms and fertilizer? Government; “Big” government.

It started when meat, corn and potato-eating Americans decided that raisins were a luxury. Concurrently the country plunged further into depression after protectionist fanatics slapped heavy duties on foreign imports. In retaliation, trading partners like Canada slapped tariffs on American goods, exports fell almost 50 percent and the American Gross Domestic Product (GDP) dropped by 25 percent.

The congressmen who did so much economic damage were U.S. Senator Reed Smoot (R-Utah) and Representative Willis C. Hawley (R-OR). Voters defeated them in the 1932 election.

Their tariff damage was corrected by Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he became President in 1933. Loosening tariffs was good but he couldn’t leave well enough alone, he stuck the country with a tidal wave of just-shy-of-socialism economic tricks some of which are still with us today 80-years after Roosevelt’s congressional lap dogs legislated “management” of a market-based economy.

Peanut production for example: “When the U.S. peanut program was launched in the 1930s, the federal government gave favored farmers licenses to grow peanuts, and outlawed anyone else from planting the legumes. Congress ended the peanut-licensing scheme in 2002 with a $4 billion buyout of the licenses.”

“Marketing orders” were created by the Roosevelt government; they forced growers to “kick-back” a percentage of crop to the government to bolster prices. Raisins, for example, to market were limited; the government’s cut was used to subsidize exports and sold at cheap prices to other agencies, schools, etc.

 My Texas hill-raised step father related dark-Depression stories about county agricultural agents coming to his family’s farm to count cattle and hogs – they shot any over the allocated number. To keep meat prices up was the excuse, Roosevelt New Deal laws and marketing orders were the legal basis.

Excess California oranges on the other hand, ripen quickly and can’t be stored like raisins or canned or jerky beef. They are dumped onto open fields to rot. Because marketing orders are geography-specific, rotting oranges in California can’t be made into juice like Florida oranges.

Milk is covered by marketing orders. One of the huge political scandals of the past generation was milk producers making illegal campaign contributions to CREEP, Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President. Dairy marketing orders set guaranteed minimum milk prices and the government bought surplus milk and turned it into cheese which it distributed free to “poor” people.

Avocados. California avocados were governed by a “voluntary” association called “CALAVO” under state jurisdiction as permitted by the federal laws.

We bought our avocado grove in 1957. Being Texas-raised, my step-father had no clue about 250 avocado trees, how to grow them, to pick them or sell them. A trip to the public library and its gigantic card catalog (BG, Before Google) and I returned with University of California instructional booklets. After reading everything twice, I was an avocado “expert.”

Of course that really meant I knew how to turn the sprinkler system on, how to spread chemical fertilizer and how to pick, pack and sell avocados to mom and pop stores in an epoch before superstores like COSTCO.

One day, a man drove into the grove, stopped, got out of his car and looked around. I asked him what he wanted and he told me we had to join “CALAVO” to sell our avocados. We had to. He gave me his card and told me he would drop off a contract.

Guess he never watched government agents shoot cattle and hogs while people were going hungry in the richest nation in the world. He was a marketing order kind of guy. Orders are orders.

One wonders on this day of 2017 if any one of the new people in Washington D.C. will finally do away with decades-old, commune-like agricultural “marketing orders.”

If they can, they can count on the U.S. Supreme Court to back them up. When the subject of a raisin marketing order came up in the “Home v. Department of Agriculture” raisin case (2015), the Court ruled that taking raisins away from a farmer without proper compensation – market prices — violated the “taking” clause of the Constitution (the 5th Amendment – nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”).

If they can, they can count on me, too.  

Contreras is the author of The Mexican Border: Immigration War and a Trillion Dollars In Trade and Murder in the Mountains: War Crime in Khojaly, both published by Floricanto Press