RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Farmers Need to Make a Decent Living

Months into the brouhaha for the next Presidential election—or is it years into the political circus?—and we still haven’t heard a word about the farm economy. Unless you count that snarky maybe-I’ll-come-back-and-buy-a-farm-in-Iowa from the voluble Donald Trump.

So, what does the absence of farming rhetoric make us think about the future of the nation? About who owns the land? And, do the owners of the land actually own the nation?

Having just returned from the annual meeting of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) in Washington, D.C., my head is full of farmer-made comments about ownership. In Wisconsin, dairy farmers are losing land because the price of milk, which is their main production, has been below cost for years. They have mortgaged everything, sold cows, sold land, left maintenance undone, taken off-farm jobs and, with tears in their eyes, are letting go. In some areas, the sand under their fields is valuable because fracking uses sand to fill in the holes. But, now, with the fracking industry at a standstill, parts of Wisconsin are filled with heaps of sand, abandoned pits, empty motels that once housed workers.

In the Corn Belt, the story is a little different. Land prices are high despite years of losses by the corn and soybean growers, but, as one farmer told me, ownership is debatable. Is the land owned by the person with their name on the mortgage? Or is it owned by those they are dependent on? In the case of the commodity (corn, soybeans) guys, who may still have their names on the mortgage, dependence is nearly complete on the corporate seed and chemical sellers. If they succumbed to the temptation of raising hogs or poultry on contract, their independence is completely gone. Animals are owned by corporations, who bring the feed and dump it into bins. The farmer has been reduced to the role of hog house janitor.

As our conversations at NFFC continued, it became clear that there are some bright spots, and these were from the small farms growing for farmers’ markets, local restaurants and other “boutique” buyers. While not producing tons of food, they were able to make it on local sales by keeping costs down. They were buying land—just a few acres, please—instead of moving off.

For consumers who use fresh local foods, the situation is good. Local foods are becoming easier to find, and farmers are eager to tell you how they’ve raised their wares. They might even invite you to the farm, hey! Maybe you can help work the land yourself!

For consumers dependent on the global, grocery-store seller, the situation is dire. Fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts and berries come from farther and farther away. The chemicals and techniques added in processing are there to create stability on long journeys, or to make foods flavorful, colorful and “stable” after weeks on the shelf. Those strategies are not in place for your health and this is where the government is important. FDA and USDA should be able to regulate chemicals used in production.

But, farmers aren’t part of the national conversation. And, as farms are ignored and marginalized, it becomes easier for the corporations to take over. Farmland’s good kids with a sense of possibility in their heads don’t want to stay in a loser economy. Corporations, knowing that they need production, even robotized production, to feed the robotized factories, can step in.

Part of the problem is that it’s hard to get a fix on the definition of “farm.” I got the sense as I talked to my congressman, who owns a commodity farm himself, that he was clueless about the thriving local-foods economy. Some sectors of the economy—the Fortune 500, for example—are easy to look up, categorized by size. In other words, categorized in terms of the amount of wealth concentrated in just a few hands.

Farms are different. Sizes vary. Ownership varies. Crops vary. Techniques vary. Markets vary.

A farmer may work a family-owned blanket of thousands of acres or a patchwork of fields owned by different landlords. Small farmers make a living on just a few acres.

Since farmers are at the mercy of weather, the diversity is a good thing. My neighbor with thousands of acres of corn, raised for ethanol or animal feed, owns equipment that I would never think of buying. His tractors and combines keep growing as he takes on more land. Because of climate change, his window of opportunity for working the soil gets smaller, so he needs to work more land and do it faster. Last year, the biggest farmers in my neighborhood left hundreds of acres fallow because we had rain through the spring and much of the summer. You can’t drive those big tractors into the mud. Those of us in the “boutique” farming sector had the same problems, but we just got used to wearing boots in the field instead of sandals.

Want to keep boots in the field and land in the hands of farmers? When the political circus comes to your town, ask the pols what they’re going to do about the farm economy. Support healthy local food? Or continue with business as usual?

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2016

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