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Friday, April 2, 2010

GROWING PAINS: A LOOK AT OUR VANISHING FAMILY FARMS (Part I)

"The farmer is the only businessman in our economy who has to buy everything at retail, sell everything at wholesale, and pay freight both ways."
- President John F. Kennedy -

"Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the corn field."
- President Dwight D. Eisenhower -

Less than 20% of the American labor force is employed in the field of agriculture, and that number keeps shrinking. The number of family farms in our country has decreased every decade since the 1930s, from a peak of 6 million in 1935 to less than 2 million today. Population-wise, roughly 25% of the country lived on family farms or in the countryside in the 1930s, but only 2% do today. in fact, with the exception of Willie Nelson or John Mellencamp holding their periodic Farm Aid concerts, most of us never even hear about farmers, the difficulties they face, or what the nature of their work is. Here in urban or suburban America, most of us never even give farmers a thought. We simply take for granted that our groceries and supermarkets will be always filled with milk, meat, bread, cereal, and poultry. Because of this, and because I have a friend who has actually been a farmer for the past 35 years, I thought I would devote a few posts to pointing out how today's family farmers, just like many of us, are being squeezed by that monster I love to rail about most, the greedy and malignant American corporation.

Getting tired of high and ever-rising food prices? Don't blame the poor, beleaguered American family farmer - he is not the profiteering culprit. Huge agribusiness corporate middlemen like Cargill, together with large food processors, grain and livestock speculators, and even huge chemical companies like Monsanto as well, are the ones with their fingers firmly in your pocketbook. What JFK said at top 50 years ago is as true today as it was then. Actually, the power and influence of companies like Cargill is even more pronounced today than in 1960. Kennedy went on to explain why farmers are so powerless as to effect the shaping of their own economic well being: "...they're not able to control their market very well," he said. "They bring their crops in or their livestock in, many of them about the same time. They have only a few purchasers that buy their milk or their hogs - a few large companies in many cases - and therefore the farmer is not in a position to bargain very effectively in the market place. I think the experience of the twenties has shown what a free market could do to agriculture. And if the agricultural economy collapses, then the economy of the rest of the United States sooner or later will collapse." JFK, of course, was arguing for increased government price supports and subsidies for farmers as a means of shoring up their income in the face of price pressure from huge middlemen.

Consider this: on average, for every dollar we spend on food, the farmer gets only about 20 cents. In cases of processed foods, that percentage drops dramatically. For example, of that 18 oz. box of breakfast cereal you pay $4.49 for, the farmer receives only 9 CENTS. For your $2.99 1 pound loaf of bread, the farmer gets a mere 12 CENTS. These examples are provided courtesy data supplied by Farm Policy Facts.org, a non-profit organization created to educate government and population alike about agriculture.


A little background on my friend: his farm has been in his family for more than 130 years. It covers 250 acres, and on this acreage, he grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and oats, and raises 120 dairy replacement heifers as well. (Replacement heigers are cattle bred as replacement stock for aging or deceased cows found on huge dairy farms, to which he sells). Aided by $120,000 in equipment (among which include a planter, combine, cultivator, chisel plow, seed drill, burrow, forage chopper, baler, rake, crop dryer, stalk chopper, windrower, bobcat, grain truck, and several tractors, hay wagons, and forage wagons), all of which are more than 20 years old and fully paid for, he farms his land almost entirely by himself, employing only one other very part-time farm hand. As such, he is both owner and laborer in his business, as are all other family farmers.

Farming as he does, with both grain and livestock, is a year-round job, 365 days per year. In both April and mid-October to mid-November or so, he routinely puts in 12 hour days, roughly 8 AM-8 PM. These are the planting and harvesting months, and he also must feed and water his cattle. From about May to mid-October, he cultivates and periodically harvests his alfalfa and oats and also tends to his livestock. During this period, he puts in 8-9 hour days, from approximately 8 AM-4 or 5 PM (except Sundays, when all he does usually is feed the cattle). In the winter, after harvest (about mid-November through March), he cuts back to roughly 2 hour days, in which he feeds his cattle and tends to basic equipment maintenance. So you see, the life of a family farmer is no gravy train. I asked him what it was about farming that was so appealing, even in the face of declining profits, high risk, and long hours. "The independence it gives me, and the freedom from the stresseas of daily urban living," was his reply. That made sense to me.
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HAPPY EASTER, everybody! As you are enjoying your delicious dinner of ham, sweet potatoes, beans, peas, carrots, corn, beets, rolls with butter, milk, cranberries, and whatever else, remember your family farmers, as they undoubtedly had a hand in filling your table with tasty treats! Not only that, but they have actually toiled and PRODUCED something of great value for you, truly EARNING their income. The same CANNOT be said for many corporate CEOs, parasitical Wall Street bankers or hedge fund managers, and obstructionist conservative Republican congresspersons!

In an upcoming installment, I will get into more of the economics of family farming: why and how the family farmer is so squeezed by corporate America, and why and how he has so little control over his prices and profit. I will spotlight the detrimental effect foreign competition is playing on him as well as the effect corporate America and huge factory farms are playing as well. Y'all come back now, ya hear?

14 comments:

Holte Ender said...

I lived in rural northwest Missouri for 15 years, 100 miles from Kansas City, 120 miles from Omaha and 130 miles from Des Moines, everyone I knew and worked with grew up on a farm or a farm was in the family and all of their grandparents were farmers.

I worked with guys who farmed part-time, as a hobby, 150 acres or less, couldn't support their family, so they became early morning, evening and weekend farmers. I said to one of my friends: "What would you do if you won the lottery, farm full time?" he said: "Keep farming, 'til the money ran out."

Jack Jodell said...

Now THAT'S dedication, and having farming in your blood! It's too bad they couldn't make a go of it full time.

amadmike1 said...

I am surrounded by farms here in South Georgia, and like Holte lived in Missouri for many years, where I was also surrounded by farms.

In the last several years I have noticed the big guys moving in, complete with "plastic farming" and illegal labor. Where once a man and his family farmed the same 300 hundred acres for years the "corporation" now owns not only his but the surrounding 3K acres.

The farm houses are either abandoned, replaced by mobile homes, or are occupied by the families of the migrant workers. The look and the feel...all gone, replaced by something I have yet to define...

Jack Jodell said...

madmike1,
Those damn corporations are malignancies which are killing this country. It's getting to be stage IV with these guys and I HATE it! They destroy small business and small farmers and theyattack human dignity and people's sense of self-worth. It is a shame to see them destroying decades and centuries-long traditions of family farming just to fatten their ever-ravenous quarterly earnings report!

Vigilante said...

Guys, I would argue that corporations are just part of the economic landscape. That you will be defeating yourselves if you don't accept it. Part of the economic landscape, is what I said. But not part of the political landscape. Corporations are not citizens entitled to constitutional guaranteed free speech. That's where progressives can draw the line in the sand and fight. We have to roll them back.

mud_rake said...

Jack- I saw your post yesterday but, due to the sadness of the title, I couldn't bear reading about this tragedy. I am a 'man of the earth'so-to-speak, although never a farmer as such. Yet I cherish the concept of a family farm and grew up with just such a farm down the street from me. Today it is a fairly defunct shopping mall.

What have we done! Shame on us.

Jack Jodell said...

Vigilante,
That is exactly my point. They are economic institutions, not political or human ones. And, even in their economic realm, they are far too dominant, far too powerful, and because of their concentration of capital, they threaten and adversely affect workers, small business, and our government/political system as well. They are ravenous malignancies which will invade any sphere to ensure an ever-increasing flow of profit unto themselves. For that reason, their legal and governmental influence must be rolled back, and their ability to control and influence the economic sphere must be regulated and kept in check. To merely "accept" them and fight them only in the political realm is self-defeating, in my estimation. After all, we don't "accept" cancer; we fight it with every means at our disposal, on many fronts.

Jack Jodell said...

mud_rake,

I agree with you 100%. But I would encourage you to read this and my next installment on family farms as well. They won't be as bad as you think, and, if you want to help battle the corporate influence on them, it's go to at least know what we're fighting. :-)

Vigilante said...

Jack, I stand by my earlier comment.

TomCat said...

Great post, Jack. Family farmers are a vanishing breed that need to be preserved. At the same time, taxpayers pay far too much in farm subsidies. The solution as I see it is to cut out farm subsidies for giant corporate agribusiness and redirect part of the savings to family farmers.

Jack Jodell said...

Vigilante,
As you wish, and that is certainly your right.
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TomCat,
Great points. I will be dealing with the topic of subsidies in either my next farming installment, or the third one (if I get that far).

Max's Dad said...

I would kie to encourage all to watch the film Food, Inc. The corporate nonsense perpetrated by Cargill and Monsanto is simply unacceptable. Rent it and you'll see the problems of the family farm. Grat post, Jack and Happy Easter!

Gwendolyn H. Barry said...

Happy Easter to you Jack~! What a wonderfully full message you've come up with for it... Farmers. An excellent opening salvo, too. You are heartachingly right, too... we never hear about farmer any more.
I can relate in a small way to the American farmer, as the great(X3)granddaughter of a nurseryman, and a small business owner who labors solo much of the time. I will always be a 'handmade' company, too. (meaning I employ people not mechanisms or machines...in my product it makes a big difference contrary to most similar makers) my point: farmers care because it's necessary... same here. Maker businesses are very needed in a new economy. The personal dedication, inspiration and creative nature this kind of work requires is in a vastly too short quantity in America right now. Farming is vital and applaud your focus on them.

Jack Jodell said...

Max's Dad,
Thank you for that excellent on the film Foods, Inc.! I can't wait to see it. I'll be covering the sins of Cargill, Monsanto, and the huge, corporate factory farms in my next farming installment. And a Happy Easter to you, too, my good man!
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Happy Easter, Gwendolyn!
I must say, you do embody the spirit of the family farmer, and I applaud all small businesspersons and artisans like yourself who stick to their business and truly serve the public. I appreciate that self-reliant spirit and sense of responsibility. These are attributes not found in many corporatists. And, after all, it was farmers and small businesspersons who built this country and instilled their values into it, not slacking corporate exec-types!