farm shot

Farming in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, Washington State.
Photo: darhawk

Please allow me to apologize. I am a farmer.

The farm bill embarrasses me by pointing out the fact that under normal circumstances it is difficult for me to make a living. I do not care for the term “welfare.” I prefer the terms “pride,” “earn,” and “labor.” While federal farm policy (the farm bill) has required me to earn and to work through production of subsidized crops, I must admit that my pride has suffered.

Growing food is an honorable occupation, one that ought to demand respect. But almost every aspect of what I do has been called into question. It was never my choice to be subsidized. I would prefer simply to be profitable. But as all the different interests are juggled in the making of federal farm policy, mine nearly always come in second, or third, to those who are bigger and more influential than the declining number of warm bodies scattered across the plains in their farm homes.

Even though my job, my working life, hang in the balance, it’s true that the arguments in favor of payment limits seem ludicrous. Why would the government pay someone with a $2.5 million income to produce something there may not be a market for? From the perspective of the farm house, however, there is a question that is asked less often: Why is the government working so hard to promote and reward these large farm operations while betraying the best interests of average working farmers?

Yes, the farm bill is an embarrassment. But not because it helps farmers. The farm bill is wrong because it penalizes small farms, rewards big business and rips profits and opportunity out of rural America.

For example, larded deep inside the farm bill is a subsidy for farmers (big and small) who choose to plant the seeds from one particular corporation. This is a large corporation — Monsanto; its name might ring a bell — one with substantial earnings, and one not particularly known for sensitivity to small farms. My government has favored that business by granting its customers a 14 percent savings on crop insurance. Meanwhile, however, the bill offers nothing to farmers who might use techniques that would conserve valuable resources (like the soil), or reduce greenhouse gases.

I am forced to take the blame for the government deficit, while Monsanto will benefit with a pick-up in its core business. But that is a minor thing compared to the way opportunity can be robbed from rural communities, like the small town in northwest Missouri where I live. That’s because more and more, we are subject to growing Corporate Governance. Our government and the companies it should be overseeing are working together to create controls and advantages that benefit big business more than small.

Businesses don’t get much smaller than a family farm. While the term “family farm” is probably one of the most used and abused of descriptions, family farms do exist. I live on one. As time goes by, however, we seem to survive only at the displeasure of government. Thanks to the farm bill, we receive a minimum wage of sorts. In recent years, the government payments that family farms collect represent our living. The subsidies constitute our net income. We do an exceptional job of supplying markets with raw materials for what they cost us to produce, but in order to survive and stay in business for another year, we have to make a living. Historically, that living has come from farm programs. I wish it were different.

Our nation and the world have become driven by corporate profits. Corporations provide jobs, goods, and earnings. In an ideal world, corporate earnings are distributed to corporate shareholders, but in the real world, corporate earnings are first used to compensate the people at the top. Because I am not part of that world, and because my earnings only compensate me and my family, I have little importance to my nation. The difference in what I receive from the farm bill and what goes to large farms serves as an acknowledgement of my low status and a reminder that I will be around only as long as I am willing to work longer and harder for less than a corporation. If the day comes when I can no longer fulfill that bargain, it’s likely my land will be bought by a much larger operation. One of the consequences of federal farm policy is that big farms have gotten bigger — as small farmers and young farmers have been crowded out of their fields.


Clouds just west of Madison, Wisconsin.
Photo: wisconsinhiker

I once fed the grain I produced to livestock. But it got so that it was difficult to sell my animals for a fair price. As large packinghouses bought up producers and began to control the marketplace, my profits disappeared. Eventually I stopped feeding my corn to hogs, because, I was told, larger operations were more “efficient.” I learned that giving my corn and labor away through the hogs that I sold to corporate packers was not the way to feed my family. So I stopped feeding animals and began selling my corn at cost to corporations. Often, they paid me less for my corn than what it cost to produce it. The companies profited from better opportunities than those offered to the likes of me.

When surpluses grew and grain became cheap enough, biofuels came into demand. Rural America saw opportunity. We invested in ethanol, and at first it was good, because to corporate America, the profits seemed small and risky. In scattered areas across Middle America we grew corn and jobs. We found a way to profit from producing grain below cost by turning grain into fuel.

But as time wore on even that opportunity was taken as profits and government support for Big Biofuel grew. Here in my own town, we decided to build a biofuel refinery that would place jobs and profits into the local community. After 2 years of struggle, we learned that subprime lending woes and rapid expansion by large refiners of biofuels, had cost us our opportunity. Loan applications to actually build our biodiesel plant were all denied, even though local residents had pledged $20 million of their own money, half of the money it would have cost to build the plant.

Small farms and small communities in the United States are being squeezed, and it’s hard now to see a way out. The crop payments passed by the Senate last week will do little to keep small farms afloat if grain markets should suddenly decline. We are criticized for accepting government support because right now, prices seem to rise every day. But rising fuel prices — the very thing that created a demand for biofuels and brought farmers new profitability — are herding us into a box canyon created by increasing costs of production. Some production costs for corn, like nitrogen fertilizer from natural gas, have more than doubled. We are in direct competition with countries like China and some in South America for potassium and phosphate, and land prices seemingly rise with each new farm sale. Meanwhile, we are more reliant than ever before on a marketplace that has never shown us mercy and on a government that doesn’t understand the struggles of farmers or rural communities.

Farms are consolidating into ever-larger entities. Small towns are losing both population and opportunity. Without a concerted effort to help small family farms, then someday soon, there may be no one left to apologize.

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