Press enter after choosing selection

Down On The Farm

Down On The Farm image Down On The Farm image
Parent Issue
Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held By
Agenda Publications
OCR Text

Norma Green, Coordinator

Land, Food, and Justice Committee

Interfaith Council for Peace

Reprinted from the ICP newsletter,

February 1986

In 1984, according to a January 14, 1986 New York Times article, the number of Americans living on the farm dropped from 5,754,000 to 5,355,000, a decline of 7% and one that according to demographers continued at a high rate in 1985. A recent survey released by the Agriculture Department revealed that 31% of the remaining 634,000 commercial farmers, those with gross incomes of $40,000 or more a year, face losing their farms, 20% of them because their costs exceed their income and the other 11% because their debts equaled more than 40% of their assets.

Another recent survey by the American Bankers Association augmented the above statistics by revealing that agricultural bankers had cut 4.5% of their agricultural customers off their lending rolls in fiscal year 1985 and expected to cut off an additional 5.7% this spring before planting season. In 1984 the corresponding figure was 3.4%, in 1983, 2.9%.

In the meantime the moratorium on foreclosures, observed by the Farmers Home Administration over the last 25 months in all but a few cases, is over. News from Washington is that up to a third of its 275,000 borrowers will be receiving letters notifying them that they must bring their loan payments up to date or face foreclosure and losing their farms.

What do all these statistics add up to in human terms? At the extremes they show up as headlines about murder and suicide. They appear in articles about the recruitment of farmers into right-wing hate groups which prey on desperate people, encouraging them to blame their troubles on shadowy conspiracies, bankers, Jews, or Blacks. Behind the headlines but no less destructive on the individual level, are reports from ministers and other counselors who work in rural communities of increases in spouse and child abuse, alcoholism, and depression. Teachers report behavior problems and declining academic performance by school age farm children who witness the anger and despair of parents facing unsolvable problems. An article in the Wall Street Journal on the effects of the farm crisis on farm children concludes, "As pressures mount, problems long common to urban areas are taking root in the country."

Did the 1985 Farm Bill that finally squeaked through Congress in December come to grips with the causes of these bleak statistics? Does it offer any hope to farmers worried about either short or long-term survival? Did the bailout of the Farm Credit System have anything to do with helping farmers? The answer to all these questions seems to be "no".

The Farm Bill, by instituting annual cuts in loan rates, guarantees further deterioration of farm incomes. According to Tom Quinn of the Wisconsin Farm Unity Alliance, "The Farm Bill gives the administration essentially what it was after- lower prices and a shift away from the limited income protections farmers currently have. Congress succeeded only in easing the pain of the so-called transitional period while farmers are starved out."

The administration seems to think that lowering the price farmers receive will improve their performance on the export market. But farmers are already selling many of their crops at less than their cost of production. Selling more will not help them, though it might make our balance of payments look better. It won't help our farmers--or farmers world-wide. As Roger Allison, of the North American Farm Alliance points out, "Instituting a policy that deliberately lowers loan rates which in effect set world prices for major commodities means that the U.S. is advocating a trade war with its friends and allies."

The FCS bailout was not designed to help farmers keep their farms, but rather, to protect bond holders and financial investors and to ensure the stability of a national financial structure threatened by failure of the farm sector. It may in fact accelerate farm foreclosures and seizures.

To Al Hamilton of the Kentucky Farm Unity Coalition, "It looks as though there will have to be a new farm bill every year in this country, until there aren't any more farmers left. The debate will have to be opened up every time agriculture comes up for cuts or the FCS needs another infusion of credit to stay afloat."

Why does it seem impossible to come to grips with the continuing deterioration of the farm economy? One seemingly insurmountable problem is that there is no philosophical agreement on what kind of agriculture we want or need despite the very visible problems that have been generated by our present agricultural system. The prevailing philosophy now is that bigger is better, prices to food producers must be kept low, "economy of scale" dictates that farmers expand their operations, and fewer farmers on larger farms is more efficient.

Where has this philosophy led us? Farms have gotten bigger and farmers swallow their neighbors in pursuit of that elusive "efficiency" .They use ever bigger machinery and more and more chemical inputs. They cut back on traditional conservation practices to the point where erosion rates surpass those of the Dust Bowl era. Water, both ground and surface, has been laden with silt and agricultural chemicals, excess fertilizers, and animal manure that cannot be contained because too many animals are confined in too small space. The list goes on and on and the human costs of unemployment, alienation, and rural decay grow more apparent every day.

In order to protect our farmland and our water we need more farmers, not less. We need smaller farms, owned and operated by families, not megafarms run by managers and worked by hourly employees. But in order to have such an agriculture, the people who work the land must be able to earn a living from their labor on that land. They must not be forced to subsidize the food we eat through their willingness or ability to assume huge debts or by their off-the farm jobs. The latest issue of Michigan Farmer reports that, "Nationally, off-farm income of farm families now exceeds their net cash farm income. This is also true in Michigan, and to a greater extent" .

What kind of Farm Bill do troubled farmers require if we could agree that small scale family farming is what we want and need? They need innovative programs that will help them downsize and change their operations, shed their overwhelming debts, cut their costs and raise their prices. At present the farmer is the only producer of a commodity who does not set his price by figuring his cost and adding his profït. Instead, his price takes a back seat to the return demanded by the processor, packager, transporter, broker, advertiser and retailer.

And that's where the consumer comes into the picture. More direct access by the farmer to the consumer means a higher percentage of consumer dollars going to the farmer. The major thrust of the educational work of the Land, Food, and Justice Committee of Interfaith Council for Peace is in encouraging people to pay more attention to the origin of the food they eat and to include more food that is locally grown and processed in their diet. We think that if people take time to consider how a rational, sustainable, and just agriculture should and could work, they will decide that good eating is locally based. It certainly fosters a stronger link between grower and consumer. Re-establishing that link is the single most important ingredient in the development of a sustainable agriculture. By providing the farmer with a greater share of the food dollar and a fairer return on his investment of hard work, we can begin to fashion an agriculture of small family farms, cared for by farmers who can plan on a future for themselves and their posterity through wise use of the land they hold in trust for future generations.