A common saying when farm policy is under discussion is that family farmers are an endangered species. In fact they have been disappearing fast. Not so long ago there were six million operating farms in America, today just 700,000 farms produce close to 90% of the nation's food and fibre. More than a million "farmers" live on a "farm" but their income comes from jobs in neighboring towns.
Is this the knell of family farming? Is it like the laws of the Medes and Persians, that changeth not? Let's look a little deeper.
Much of agriculture is undergoing industrialization. That process began with poultry. In recent decades, farmers who had been making a living producing eggs and fryers found themselves wiped out by industrial egg and poultry operations involving more than a hundred thousand birds confined in individual cages for life. More recently the same is happening to sows similarly caged where they are forced to breed multiple litters per year. Hog farmers in Iowa are facing elimination as huge operations fatten tens of thousands of hogs. The same concentration of the fattening of cattle is occurring in extensive feed lots owned by the meat packing plants. In both hogs and cattle, the stench of thousands of tons of waste is polluting the atmosphere of whole communities.
In our society, this industrialization of agriculture may be expected to continue and expand, unless the related problems of stench and likely findings that the meat of animals so appallingly confined is damaged to the point of being a health menace.
But though the above is happening, it is far from being the whole story. There are extensive crops in many regions which hold no attraction for industrialization. This is true of all grains, including corn, soy beans, cotton and dairying.
In the past, big capital invested in huge wheat farms, but after a few seasons quit. Big capital is not going to invest millions to get at best a profit of 1 or 2 percent, but more likely in most seasons would be thrown for a loss.
I remember visiting Hickman Price on his farm in the panhandle of Texas. He was a New York businessman who thought he could raise wheat cheaper than anyone else. He did. He raised wheat for 30 cents a bushel. Unfortunately it was a depression year, 1931, and he got 20 cents a bushel at the elevator. He quit. Tom Campbell, financed with Rockefeller money, gave it a try. He rented Indian Reservation land in Montana real cheap. A drought wiped him out.
Today's family farmers are not the Jefferson ideal of country yeomen raising most of their own food and clothing, "the pride of a nation." Today's family farmer, producer of most of the above major crops, should be the pride of the nation. With their modern machinery, selected seed, and their care for the soil, they are the world's leading producers of these major crops. The irony is that these wonderful producers, located in the largest arable area of the world's temperate zone, are denied even a moderate share of the enormous wealth they produce. Yet most of the remaining family farmers are doing their best to keep on farming. They say: "It's in my blood."
What role is the US Department of Agriculture playing to help the farmers save their farms? Dan Glickman, today's Secretary of Agriculture, administers relief funds to disaster area caused by tornado, flood or drought. As for farmers' central problem of prices below their costs of production, Glickman had this to say as reported in the New York Times, April 2:
"As much as we would like to use farm programs as the panacea for problems out there affecting rural America, they cannot be. We've got to make rural America economically thriving, so people will have a reason to stay on family sized farms even if they can not get all their income from farming."'
What farmer would consider it "thriving" to give up farming and hunt up any old job in a nearby town? Evidently the Secretary is convinced that family farming really is doomed and nothing can be done.
Well, something can be done. Farmers have their own ideas. The National Farmers' Union has not been staging fly-ins to Washington for any such capitulation. Farm protest meetings in many states this year have been demanding the rewriting of the most recent farm law cutting off federal price supports, cynically called FREEDOM TO FARM, but known to farmers as FREEDOM TO FAIL.
Farmers have other ideas. They did not hold in Washington D.C, that giant RALLY FOR RURAL AMERICA last March in preparation for throwing in the sponge. They are in a fighting mood. That great farm action, endorsed by the AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, ecological organizations, religious and consumer groups represents a new and popular coalition of which farmers are a vital part. Truly today farmers are not alone in their struggles. That Washington Rally agreed on a program. Secretary Glickman would do well to study it:
* Pass a new farm bill that restores non-recourse cash loans for storeable crops at levels near farmers' costs of production.
* Restore competition to the marketplace through enforcement of anti-trust laws.
* Negotiate fair trade agreements that ensure all countries their right to respond to the needs of their farmers and consumers.
* Ensure that environmental protection, fair wages and workers rights are part of every trade agreement.
Most significant for farmers is the first one demanding parity farm price legislation. It was the law of the land in 1938 in the Administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. It gave agriculture a measure of prosperity for twenty years. Such legislation if reenacted today could turn farmers' night into day.
Modern, well equipped family farmers are needed. They are efficient. They know how to produce banner crops. They are the best conservationists. They want to farm. They want their farm to continue in the family ONLY if there is an outlook for a good living income.
Lem Harris of Norwalk, Conn., is a longtime writer on agricultural issues and is a correspondent for the People's World.