The fox and the hen house

Published 9:24 am Saturday, February 16, 2013

by Tony Clark

Once upon a time, there was a farmer. Now, this particular farmer, while he had always been a good farmer, was going through some tough times.

He’d been through a couple straight years of hot, dry summers, which caused his irrigation pond to dry up. The price of fertilizer and diesel had gone through the roof. And the seed company, well, they must have thought an awful lot of their seeds because they just kept on raising their prices.

Low yields and higher expenses were making things pretty rough. And there were many days when he woke up in the morning and wondered how he’d ever keep the farm.

Fortunately, this farmer had several hens that were pretty good about laying eggs. So the farmer would go out in the morning, collect all the eggs and sell them at his roadside farm stand.

He sold a bunch of eggs, which brought a pretty decent price, but certainly not enough to make him rich, or to let him quit working his crops. He figured out that if he really cut back, you know, pinched every last penny until there was no place left to cut, he could just barely squeak by.

There wouldn’t be enough to replace the tractor if it died or to buy another acre of land to grow his farm operation. But he’d have enough to feed his family with just enough left to make the mortgage and the feed bill.

So those eggs, even though there weren’t a ton of them, were really important to the farmer.

The farmer had a fox that lived on his farm. The fox had been there a long, long time, and had always helped the farmer look after the hens.

For years and years, the fox stood faithfully by the gate to the hen house, and over time the farmer grew to trust the fox completely. In fact, the farmer found the fox to be so faithful and trustworthy that he gave him the only key to the hen house gate.

Over time, it became the fox’s responsibility to look after the hens, collect the eggs and then take them down to the farm stand.

After they were sold, the fox would bring the proceeds from the sale back to the farmer, who was thankful to the fox for doing all that work.

In fact, the farmer liked his arrangement with the fox so much that when the farmer asked for the key so he could peek in the hen house to check on the hens, he didn’t think twice when the fox told him no.

The fox said he had the key hidden in a safe place where no one, not even the farmer, could find it.

Then the fox told the farmer not to worry about the hens because he knew best how to care for the hens and that they were all just fine.

The farmer thought nothing of this because, for years, all of the farmers in the county used foxes to guard their hens. However, in time, most farmers came to realize that it wasn’t a good idea to leave the foxes in charge of their hens.

You see it turns out that foxes like to eat hens and their eggs. So the other farmers fired all of their foxes and began to let watchdogs guard their hens instead.

Soon enough, the farmer started to question whether or not he should still let the fox watch his hens. But when the farmer told the fox he was thinking about making a change, the fox reminded the farmer that, as far as he knew, the fox had never harmed one of the hens or eaten one of the eggs or kept any of the money from the farm stand, and he should leave things alone.

And in the end, because the farmer couldn’t prove otherwise, and because he had so long ago given the only gate key to the fox, he resigned himself to the fact that this was the way things were always going to be. Even though everyone knows you should never leave a fox in charge of the hen house.

The end.

I find it intriguing that anyone would embrace the model employed for selecting a school board in Southampton County.

A three-member selection committee, which is appointed by the circuit court judge who is appointed by the General Assembly, appoints a school board, which is given complete autonomy over $30 million in county taxpayer money. That’s 60 percent of the county’s total budget.

That’s not to say they aren’t doing the right thing because, much like the farmer who took the fox’s word for it, the taxpayers have no way of knowing. But at the end of the day, if they weren’t doing the right thing there’s nothing the taxpayer could do about it anyway because we can’t vote out the school board, or the selection committee, or the circuit court judge.

So let me throw out a hypothetical question to those who prefer this system: would you be comfortable with a selection committee choosing the board of supervisors? How about the General Assembly? Congress perhaps?

Most likely not.

But like the farmer who willingly gave control of the hen house over to the fox, so too do county taxpayers continue to give total control of the schools and $30 million of county taxpayer money to the school board.

Twice this week, Southampton school superintendent and the school board chairman visited Richmond to lobby against a bill that would have given the key to the hen house gate back to taxpayers.

But like the farmer who resigned himself that things should remain is, taxpayers shrugged and decided to let the fox keep the key.

TONY CLARK is the associate publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at