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Food Fight
Family Farms

Farmers: Get big or get out

Part 2
Food: Farms


It seems like the lines of snow geese go on forever, as they wing north over the gentle hills and stubbled fields of Brown County, Kan. Their staggered, V-shaped groups fluidly merge and weave overhead. You can still hear them calling to each other as they vanish over the horizon. Except for the colorful agribusiness signs sprouting at the edges of almost every field, this county would look much like the Kansas farm country depicted in The Wizard of Oz.

But the truth today is that Dorothy and her family couldn’t make it on a small Kansas farm. Auntie Em would be working full-time in town. Or, having bought up all the adjoining farms at reduced values, Uncle Henry would be sitting in an air-conditioned tractor cab using its hookup to a global positioning satellite to line up his genetically engineered soybean and corn plants, while phoning his accountant on a cell phone or listening to the world market reports on his Walkman.

The message to farmers from those world markets is this: Get big or get out. And they have been getting out in droves. There were 6.8 million family farms in 1935, less than 2 million today. The number of farmers under the age of 25 has decreased 50 percent in 10 years.

Brown County farmer Julie Geiger recently went to a family member’s auction in Horton, Kan., the town in which she grew up. In a corner between a broken pitchfork and some garden hose, she found a dusty box of old blue canning jars. Each jar had a square of tinfoil on top and an old-fashioned metal lid screwed down over it. She paid three dollars for the box.

At home she brushed off the cobwebs and slipped each jar into hot sudsy water. On the first jar she drew sparkling clean out of the water she saw a date -- Nov. 30, 1858 --printed on the side. “I was stunned. I could almost taste what the jar had held through the years, the wild plum jelly, the fresh pear and cherry preserves.

“In that year, 1858, I know from studying family history, my great-great-grandparents, Clemence and Rosine Geiger were married in Philadelphia, recent German immigrants,” she said. “The very jar I held in my hands could have traveled with Rosine across the continent to her farm in Kansas.”

Canning would eventually become a high art for Rosine as she fed her husband and 10 children every day. “That little jar probably dispersed its tasty contents at endless family dinners, from 1861, when Kansas became the 34th state, to the year women got the right to vote right up to the sad year when cousin Steve failed to come home from Vietnam. On sunny days it might have held small bunches of wild sunflowers, gathered by rambunctious children who turned out to be my dignified Aunt Carrie or my very serious Grandpa Geiger.”

Now the idea of kids growing up on a farm is fast becoming an unreachable fantasy.

“A farmer here gets $3 a bushel on a good day, then goes to the store and buys two loaves of bread and pays more for 24 ounces of wheat than she got for the whole bushel,” Geiger told NCR. Chronic low prices plague all crops in all regions of the country, she said. Farmers are getting paid the same amount now they got in the 1970s, even the 1930s.

“That’s not much of a cost of living raise,” she quipped. “We are so vulnerable here, and the worst part of the crisis is that young people aren’t staying on the farm. Where is our future when they don’t see any future in farming?”

The consolidation of agribusiness and the retail food industry that has occurred over the last 10 to 20 years has removed the bargaining leverage farmers once had to get a good price, while international trade policies and recent national farm legislation both favor global agribusiness at the expense of the small farmer.

A bushel of soybeans on today’s market will reap $4.50, a bushel of corn $1.75, the same prices as in 1972, and well below the cost of production. A new combine to harvest those crops costs well over $120,000.

Left behind

While the U.S. economy continued to grow in the 1990s, it left rural America behind at the expense of farmers and other workers in our society, according to Bill Christison, president of both the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and the U.S. National Family Farm Coalition. “The truth is that there is a very severe farm crisis in the U.S. and Canada, and it is on the verge of forcing most of the family-sized farmers in our nation off the land,” he said.

According to a recent National Farmers Union, Canada, report: “In the 1930s it took a worldwide economic collapse, a stock market crash, mass unemployment and a prairie-wide drought to drive net farm incomes to negative values. Today, stock markets are booming, employment levels are fair, the weather is generally good and crops are average or better. The current farm crisis is unprecedented in times of economic prosperity and stability.”

“That’s what hurts the most probably,” Julie Geiger said, “watching on TV the wealth and luxury that exists in the cities and in some pockets of the rural U.S., while most of us out here scrape by. My husband works in town to help support our farm; that’s the only way we can keep it going.”

In nearby Missouri, traditionally a farm state, it is estimated that 80 percent of farms are unable to make it without outside work of some kind. Farming on a small scale has become a kind of hobby. Only large-scale industrial farming appears to have a future. Industrial agriculture has been defined, even by its proponents, as a system where the farm owner, the farm manager and the farm worker are different people. That’s a dramatic change from the historic structure of agriculture dominant in the Midwest and Great Plains, where traditionally the people who labored in farming had also been those who made the decisions and reaped the profits.

Jack Geiger, Julie’s brother who also works their family’s farm, growing organic wheat and corn, told NCR: “What happens is that the farms that survive get bigger and bigger, while the medium-sized and small farms go under. In just a couple of generations, we have gone from sustainable farming to this new farm situation with fewer and fewer small guys.”

Julie Geiger added: “The rule of thumb has it that 50 farms support one business on Main Street, so the town starts to feel the pinch when the farms go down. Then Wal-Mart comes to town and the rest of the small businesses on the square must shut down. They can’t compete. It’s happening right here in nearby Atchison, Kansas. The Catholic prep school there has announced it will sell some of its land so Wal-Mart can build a Super Center. All the little mom-and-pop stores are out of business.”

“It’s difficult to even get folks together to talk about it,” Julie Geiger said. “Farmers have a reputation for being stoic and close-mouthed. They keep it bottled up and the result is a lot of depression and other problems, and they won’t go to get help.”

“When we pass McDonald’s,” she said, “and my son Dylan expresses a yearning for a Happy Meal, like all the other kids his age, I patiently explain that McDonald’s is the largest purchaser of beef, pork and chicken in the U.S., getting that meat from large confinement facilities that are unbelievably cruel to the animals and destructive to the environment, that the widespread consumption of ‘fast food’ is directly related to the loss of small family farms.”

She said it’s an ongoing struggle against the fast food tide with children, because peer pressure is so strong. But she keeps at it because daily she sees the consequences to rural life of a food system that is more and more centralized and out of sync.

Since 1986 the state of Kansas has counted 293 farm-related suicides, nearby Oklahoma has tallied over 500. Mental health professionals point out that the stresses accompanying family farm loss lead to substance abuse, marital conflict, domestic violence, divorce, youth conduct disorders and suicide. As Julie Geiger pointed out, the problems are not limited to farmers, but also afflict small-town residents. There is some evidence of “collective depression” affecting entire communities.

Desperate to stay

“The devastation in America’s rural communities is caused by the loss of infrastructure that makes society work,” Mary Hendrickson, professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri, Columbia, told NCR. The small farms go down, and they pull everything else along with them. “What disturbs me most are the compromises rural folks have to make in order to stay on the land. People are desperate to stay because of family connections and love of the land, and they find themselves in a powerless relationship with the big guys. As a result, they have to do unpleasant things.

“When food decisions are made somewhere else, dollars also go out of the community. You lose human capital, too. When you work for someone else, you don’t learn those leadership skills, the ability to evaluate many factors and uncertainties and then make good decisions that have been the hallmark of farming since day one in this country.”

“Public figures are actually telling farmers there is no necessity for small-scale agriculture in the U.S. anymore,” said Hendrickson. “ ‘Tough luck,’ they say, ‘you just have to move, go somewhere else.’ But people don’t want to move. Not only do the farmers have to leave their land, but the butcher, hardware store proprietor, implement mechanic in town, they all have to go, too. Then all that’s left is the Wal-Mart.”

One alternative that allows farmers to stay on the land is the increase in contract farming, a system wherein the small farmer “contracts” with a big company to grow crops or raise animals. “Growers find themselves trapped in debt-laden relationships with big ag companies like ConAgra that turn them into serfs while making a fortune on their backs. This is definitely on the rise,” said Hendrickson, “and these are the rural stories that still make me cry.”

The big companies own the feed and animals. The farmer has to borrow for buildings. Farmers manage all the risk. Contracts are signed for three months at a time. These contracts can’t be reviewed by a lawyer. There are pages of small print. The farmer is given 24 hours to sign. “In other words, none of the usual consumer protections are present, like the usual three days to renege,” Hendrickson pointed out.

“Farmers in these contracts are not allowed to discuss it with us, but we estimate that working full-time they are making $16,000 a year, and are never out of debt. In effect, they are indentured servants. It’s a complete lose/lose situation for farmers. Most contract farmers say they would not pass this way of life on to their kids.”

Contract farming, once confined to the South and to marginal areas, is now moving into the heart of farm country, the upper Midwest, according to Hendrickson. “It is tearing the soul out of farming,” she said.

Darrel Buschkoetter, a Nebraska farmer, contends that the situation is particularly devastating because farming is more than just a job. “When they looked into this farm crisis, mental health professionals quickly learned that farming is not just an occupation. Farming and being a farmer and owning a family farm is a very complex psychological, sociological and, some would say, spiritual connection. Family farming is a way of life, a profession, a family heritage, a covenant with the land, and a commitment to future generations.”

“Half the farmers and all the spouses in Iowa are working outside the farm to make ends meet,” Cece Arnold, a social worker at the National Catholic Rural Life Center in Des Moines, told NCR. “This causes stresses that if not channeled in healthy ways lead to domestic violence, suicide, depression. An added stress is that when one loses land that has been in the family for generations, you are letting the ancestors down. Neighbors are pitted against neighbors. Family members are in conflict with others in their families.”

Tale of two farm bills

The driving force behind recent U.S. farm policy is the 1996 seven-year farm program titled the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act (FAIR), passed in the Clinton administration. The bill, nicknamed the Freedom to Farm act by its proponents, put an end to the New Deal system of production controls and eliminated federal price supports. The act was designed to expose farmers to the free market, reducing the level of government interference.

The expectation was that farmers would make a killing in the export market. “The market will decide which farmers should stay in business and which farmers should choose other avenues,” one proponent, Kevin McNew, a professor at the University of Maryland, told an audience in August 1999. “It will do so solely on the basis of efficiency and costs. Those that are efficient and produce at lower cost shall remain. Like any other freely competitive industry, competition is not always kind but it is always fair.”

But the policies have been such an unmitigated failure that Congress had to appropriate massive bailouts the last three years to keep farmers on the land. In 1998, “emergency aid” to farmers totaled $15 billion. In 1999, it grew to $23 billion.

As a result, some farmers nicknamed it the “Freedom to Fail” act. Large grain buyers reaped the benefits, obtaining subsidized grain, but the small farmers didn’t share in the largesse. “Family farmers throughout the country say the agribusiness success in Freedom to Farm has returned farmers to the Depression-era conditions that brought the New Deal farm programs in the first place,” according to Christison.

This year a new farm bill passed the Senate and House and was signed May 13 by President Bush. It will likely leave a lasting imprint on whether most small farmers in the United States will be able to stay on the land in the next century.

Katherine Ozer, executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition, told NCR: “A sustainable future for rural America depends on establishing an entirely new agricultural framework, but that major change in direction isn’t reflected in the new bill.

“It’s an improvement in some ways, but includes massive subsidies that will go to the big operations mostly. It does not move toward our basic requirement for the survival of small family farms. It does not reinstate the ability of farmers to get a fair price from the market rather than from taxpayers. For a long time now prices have been set artificially, and they have favored the big guys. Now the large grain traders should be paying a price that pays the farmer.”

Current farm policy “leaves taxpayers hung with a cost that should be borne by agribusiness,” said Helen Waller, a wheat farmer from Circle, Mont., and past chair of the National Family Farm Coalition. “Last year, taxpayers paid out $71 billion in farm and ranch subsidies while the corporate giants laughed all the way to the bank. Cargill recently reported profits up 67 percent, ConAgra raked in a 55 percent increase in half- year profits, while Tyson’s profits tripled … to almost 24 percent.”

According to Waller, the question that American citizens must answer is, “How can we establish an economically and environmentally sustainable food production and distribution system in this country that will provide wholesome food at affordable prices?”

She says it’s a national security issue. “The tragic surprise of Sept. 11 has been linked to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Then-President Roosevelt was outspoken in his conviction that in order to win a prolonged war, it is essential to have strong and stable manufacturing and agricultural sectors. It’s clear that ‘free trade’ has allowed deterioration in both. Lack of commitment to a rational long-term farm and food policy has caused the exodus of hundreds of thousands of farm families from the land since 1980. National food self-sufficiency is as important to national security as military power.”

A way out of the bind

Jack Geiger farms the family’s acreage organically, growing wheat, corn and milo. “It’s a way out of the bind for many of us, a way to stay on the land. The organic market is growing all the time. The taxpayer realizes that by supporting farm subsidies he or she is just paying for a system that poisons the water supply and destroys the soil. Organic methods reverse this, and they are a boon to the consumer as well as the farmer.

“There is real accountability in the organic trade. When you buy an organically certified product, you can see on the label a number that allows you to track back to where and by whom the wheat was grown, while the conventional food system is based on anonymity.”

The battle in the past was between the conventional system and the organic system, according to Geiger. “But now many of the organic outlets have been bought up by the big guys. In the future, the battle will be for a sustainable system that is local. An ‘organic system’ is just as bad as the conventional one without sustainability. The big organic farmers still beat the land into submission and their products must be transported long distances with the accompanying environmental damage,” he said.

“We’re the producers of the most important commodities necessary to sustain life. We must begin a new process of sales, distribution and trade. We must retain control of our production,” Jack Geiger said.

Janet Jacobsen, an organic farmer and president of the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society, agrees with Jack Geiger. She recently wrote that organic production is not the solution to our increasingly globalized production system. “Consolidation of companies into vertically integrated clusters has begun to mirror the conventional markets. There needs to be a push for local and regional food systems that are based on how and by whom our food is produced. When we allow global corporations to handle our production, we are opening the door to be exploited.”

Charles Walters, editor of Acres U.S.A., a newspaper devoted to sustainable agriculture that has been published for 30 years, feels that the loss of the family farm deprives society of an element essential to a democratic nation, a thriving rural base. “Independent farmers who maintain small- to medium-sized operations, with their intimate knowledge of natural processes and their distrust of artifice and pretense, are a necessary check against the excesses of urban civilization,” he told a gathering at the annual meeting of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference last year. “Having rid itself of most of these people, the U.S. now suffers from severe imbalance. It’s a country out of whack with itself.”

Judith Dye, a United Methodist pastor in Blue Springs, Neb., laments the loss of the spiritual connection in farming. “I was walking on the land of a farm of a friend of mine with his dog,” she said, “and all of a sudden it struck me in the pit of my stomach, being out there where I could see 180 degrees of sky. This is what farmers miss. This is a connection with the Almighty. This is the connection with our Spirit. It isn’t just about land ownership. It’s also about where do we find our God.”

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor. His e-mail address is rheffern@natcath.org


In the first installment of this series, headlined “Food Fight,” (NCR, May 24), the box at the bottom of Page 15, “Regulating food irradiation,” did not explain that “kiloGray” is a measure of ionizing radiation, the kind of x-rays approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use as a food preservative. The kiloGray is the same as an older measure, megaRads. Long-term health effects of consuming irradiated food are unknown; irradiation reduces the antioxidant vitamins in vegetables.
-- Rich Heffern

Related Web sites

Ecological Farming Association

Environmental Working Group Farm Subsidy Database

The Land Institute


Info about Monsanto v. Percy Schmeiser

National Catholic Rural Life Conference

National Family Farm Coalition

Organic Consumers Association

Sustainable Agriculture Network

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002