Disease of the Month?
Farming has become the disease of the month on television. We have so many
problem the media is paying attention to our plight as, never before. The
Farmer's Wife, the story of a Nebraska farm family's troubles, was recently
shown on PBS and Farm Aid just conducted their yearly telethon. Forecasts
are that 25% to 30% of farmers in some states will lose their farms this
year due to poor prices and weather-related disasters.
Months long drought in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas have been followed by
such a march Of army worms that coops are unable to supply enough pesticide.
Now torrential rains are causing floods. One of my Oklahoma friends says
she feels like part of a Biblical plague.
Since we have the attention of the media, now is the time for us to ask
for innovative solutions. But first we need to learn some of the ways we
got to where we are. Ask your library to get you a copy of An Adaptive
Program for Agriculture (Library of Congress No. 62-19146). This 70-page
booklet is the 1962 report of the Committee for Economic Development which
was comprised of 75 top leaders of the nation's most powerful corporations.
Let me quote a few lines:
"The movement of people from agriculture has not been fast enough to
take full advantage of the opportunity that improving farm technology and
increasing capital create for raising the living standards of the American
people. The important lessons of agriculture are that the free market is
precious and that its preservation requires positive action. We have noted
that agriculture's chief need is a reduction of the number of people in
If those words don't upset you, how about these:
"What we have in mind in our program is a reduction of the labor force
on the order of one-third in a period. of not more than five years. This
would be some 400,000 to 500,000 persons per year."
These executives might have meant well, but they didn't asked farmers if
they wanted to be programmed off the farm. Although we keep hearing that
living on the farm makes up for low income, we want to stay on the farm.
It must be an attractive way to live because so many people. who make good
money in the city choose to move to rural areas and commute.
I read about the adaptive program in Joel Dyer's Harvest of Shame,
which explores the deep rural roots of today's growing and increasingly
deadly antigovernment movement. Dyer quotes Dr. Glen Wallace, former director
of rural mental health services in Oklahoma, a few weeks after the Oklahoma
City bombing saying, "I don't even know if I should say this, but the
minute the bomb went off I suspected it was because of the rural crisis.
These people (the farmers) have suffered so much."
Dyer goes on to say, "Dr. Wallace and a number of his peers who specialize
in rural psychology have been watching this metamorphosis in rural attitude
from. anger turned inward (farm suicide) to anger turned outward (antigovernment
beliefs) for nearly fifteen years. Suicide has become the number one cause
of death on America's farms."
My role as a farmer advocate certainly includes hearing the terrible despair
of poultry growers who call early and late with their stories of struggle
to keep their farms. Now the television is full of farmers of every commodity
leaving the land that is a part of their family history.
Farmers are told that exports are the future of agriculture. When that market
hits a wrinkle, such as the current economic crisis, we have even more surplus
commodities. This is not just a problem here in the United States. Farmers
in France, Ireland and other countries have demonstrated in the streets
recently, asking their governments for help.
Building a "field of dreams" only works in the movies. Farmers
have overflowed that field with food and they aren't coming to buy.
So ... they programmed a lot of farmers off the land and we still have the
same problems; it is time to look at the whole system. We must put as much
thought and effort into finding solutions as is put into the constant quest
to be efficient by using so-called economies of scale. (I detest that phrase,
which is used as if that is the only way to be more efficient.)
In my commodity, poultry, how much to produce is a company decision and
they keep expanding. At the same time, growers have longer layouts and fewer
birds placed in their houses because of the oversupply of poultry.
Contract farming is supposed to be a risk management tool for farmers and
will be a part of the agricultural future. As I have said before, contract
farming has saved many small farms, but it will not work if companies do
not pay enough to provide farmers with a fair price for their service and
a reasonable return on their investment.
An idea came to me last year, after driving through the boarded-up towns
in western Kansas, which alternate with concentrated livestock feeding operations.
As I drove on into the Oklahoma Panhandle, with its distance between farms
and ranches I was thinking about the pollution from similar concentration
afflicting northeastern Oklahoma and northwestern Arkansas.
Somewhere out west of Woodward, it occurred to me that one of the reasons
pigs are being stacked in great numbers into the same area as chickens is
that the feed mills, which are being built large for economy of scale, can
supply a lot more farms. The scenery out there encourages flights of fancy
so I let my mind imagine smaller mills, rebuilding the rail system to transport
corn from the Midwest and small packing plants that wouldn't tax the water
supply so much and provide employment for a small area, not all of Mexico.
I had a neat little vision going there until I saw an irrigated field and
knew that, unless water use was limited in some way, the drive to be more
efficient (read that "make more money"), would turn any area into
another disaster of concentration.
So then I thought about incentives for methods promoting a cleaner environment.
It was just a short mental step to include social issues such as fair prices
in this vision of sustainability. Could we call this the economies of social
Will something like this work? I don't know. I only know what we are doing
isn't working. There are many people a lot brighter than I who have ideas
Somewhere I read that we should replace Most Favored Nation status for our
trading partners with Most Sustainable Nation. This might be an idea whose
time" has come. October 1 several senators sent letters to Secretary
Dan Glickman and U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky stating that
trade agreements should not undermine our nation's social and economic health
but insure the benefits of trade are fair and include measures to help those
adversely impacted by trade agreements.
Our trade policies in the long term should not aid continued overexpansion.
They ought to encourage a pull situation for supply, not a push.
It isn't enough to continue our "you're gonna miss me when I'm gone"
lament. We must use this time of media attention to put lots of different
views of farming before the public.
Ina Young of Paris, Ark., is poultry chairman of Women Involved in Farm
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