Commodity Culture

Commodity culture is broken. Coops, Checkoffs, and Subsidies have detached the farmer from reality through weak incentive structures.

Commodity Culture

Do you have a feeling that coops, checkoffs and subsidy et al. aren't the path to your farms future?

I'd have to agree.

They may have even culturally bankrupted a generation of farmers.

It's time we talk about what we are missing out on by running old playbooks.

First let's start with a huge nod to the people who work in these systems before I hurt some people I actually like.

They are great people!

This is very much a case of "good people, bad system", as I like to call it.

Cooperatives provided deeply needed shared infrastructure.

Checkoffs have done a bunch of valuable research and improved sales.

Subsides have saved our collective asses many times.

There is no malicious act here.

Just systems that might not be serving you as well as advertised.

So what is the purpose of coops, checkoffs and subsidies anyways?

Why did we start these institutions to begin with?

We created them to have a better future.

Cooperatives, checkoffs, and subsidy are all vehicles for collective action.

Coops is farms working together.

Checkoff is industry working together.

Subsidies is a nation working together.

They are meant to create better futures for the people involved.

Especially futures that are naturally easier to be achieved when working together than individually.

This was a conscious act of invention by humans taking specific actions to better themselves.

This doesn't mean that over time there have not been unintended side effects.

After all, smart people change their minds.

So what has happened?

Let's talk culture.

Farmers have often been called the ultimate entrepreneurs.

I call bullshit.

Sure. Great great great grandpa started the farm. He was an entrepreneur.

5th or 10th generation farmer?


I wish it was the case. That would have helped me out. 😅

Entrepreneurship is about starting something. Most farms are so many generations away from that.

That doesn't mean they don't take risks or make change. These are good people.


The average modern commodity farmer is a master of optimization and operations.

Not innovation.

Many will disagree. Maybe I am wrong. Everything is a spectrum.

Fundamentally to me it feels like most farmers have forgotten what real upside and real change look like.

This sucks.

Commodity culture is broken because we have given away the responsibility to our future to committees of people with weak incentives to drive change.

Trusting the coop to find a more profitable home for your soybeans?

Your exporting responsibility for your future to a committee of people who think the most creative path to a bright future for you is another giant corn bin.

Trusting the checkoff to do product innovation by inventing a different shaped bottle or a cheesier chalupa for Taco Bell?

You taking a whole generation of farmers and telling them to trust someone else do the creative stuff and just print more white fluid.

Trusting subsidies to continue to make your row crop operation profitable?

You're putting your families future into the same hands that every 4 years debates wether or not they should make your business illegal.

Coops, Checkoffs, and Subsidies have detached the farmer from reality through weak incentive structures.

Someone has to be the tip of the spear. Someone has to be in the arena.

None of this happens when every customer signal or motivation to make big change is abstracted away by 3 layers of "death by committee" that proudly tell you everything is gonna be ok.

The way we casually rely on these legacy organizations to determine our futures is one of the strongest cultural signs that we need to relearn how build new things.

Own your future. Go build stuff!




So one of the actual big ways to fix this would be to use these systems to make actual upside. Like to do the job they where meant to do.

Coops, if they where awesome, would curate upmarket strategies and use the farmers products to fulfill this demand they created. Not just be a king made middle man shifting commodities around.

Platforms will do it instead. Take some swings. You should be LESS conservative in your actions than your members. Be bold.


The checkoff is maybe less useful than ever. If the beef checkoff says it provides $11 of farmer upside for every $1 in checkoff money it also means that for every $1 farmers provide like $100 dollars or something stupid is redistributed to a supply chain that is far superior at attracting margin and sure doesn't need help selling.

Do we really think private manufacturing companies would not have spent money to expand their market? How do we think these good companies go to where they are? I don't think it's net bad for farms to participate this way.  

The lobbying aspect of collective action in agriculture I think is default valuable. We do need a way to not get our tools taken away from us. This is very different than needing help having a cohesive marketing story. That shit seems silly to work on top down. Pretty sure it would happen on its own as much as needed. Which may not be much.


Subsidy is such a shit show. Promoting "Print more corn" is a much too broad brush. Hopefully some day we do better. I don't have any good ideas here really. We should just make sure we are actually incentivizing the things we want for society. Which we are pretty bad at far as I can tell.