"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.
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?