A massive depression has been building for years across American farm country, but our media and political establishments have failed to notice.
A massive depression has been building for years across our vast rural expanse of farm country, but don’t feel alone if you didn’t know, for most of our media and political establishments have failed to notice, much less inform the general public. In America’s power centers, farming is almost entirely ignored as something arcane and “out there” — and out of mind. In 1960, John F. Kennedy lightly summed up this attitude: “I don’t want to hear about agriculture from anyone but you,” the urbane president reputedly told Orville Freeman when appointing him Agriculture head. “Come to think of it, I don’t want to hear about it from you, either.”
But hear about it we must, and do something we must. Today’s crisis promises not only to devastate our country’s rural economy and culture but also to enter our kitchens and bite us on the butt. Today’s catastrophe is far more desperate than outsiders know — and is caused by another perfect storm of corporate monopolization, financial manipulation and rigged ag policies. How severe is the storm? Start with one eye-popping indicator: The 2018 median farm income for U.S. farm households was minus $1,553! (“Net farm income” is the money left over after a farm family subtracts the cost of producing their crops from the amount they get paid for them.) You can’t pay for groceries, rent, medical bills, kids’ clothing, a trip to Disneyland, etc. on negative income. And $1,553 in debt is the “median,” meaning that half of America’s farm families went even deeper into the hole.
Such hardship is not a one-time blip. For six straight years, more than half of America’s ag producers have lost money on their crops and herds, and this year promises more of the same. Thus, to keep the farm afloat and make ends meet, farmers commonly work a part-time side job and have a spouse who commutes to a full-time city job. With typical dark humor, they refer to these off-farm jobs as the cost of supporting their “farming habit.” Indeed, today’s ag economy is so bleak that about 70% of the total income of U.S. farm families comes from their “secondary jobs.”
Are these farmers inept, outmoded, lazy? Au contraire, as we say in Texas: They’re industrious, efficient, productive, innovative … and broke. Indeed, the most worrisome thing for our society is that the operations being eliminated are the mid-sized family farms — the essential backbone of both an economically healthy food system and vibrant rural communities.
But if they’re good farmers, why are they going broke? Because corporate middlemen, commodity speculators and government policy have intentionally perverted the structure of the U.S. ag economy to leave producers with practically no say over the price of their cotton, wheat, milk, chickens, etc. Pious right-wing ideology aside, farmers don’t become financial “winners” just by working hard and smart, outfoxing the pests, lucking out on the weather and producing an abundant, top-quality harvest. When they take their crops to market, even blue-ribbon producers face a take-it-or-leave-it price set by profiteering players they never see.
For the past several years, prices have crashed. Dairy farmers, for example, are in the fourth consecutive year of incomes below their production costs: In 2018, they got $1.35 for a gallon of milk that cost them $1.90 to produce. This financial bomb has been exploding throughout dairy farm country. From 2007 to today, the number of American dairy farms dwindled from 70,000 to only 40,000, and most of them are imperiled. For example, last year in Wisconsin, where milk and cheese have long been economic and cultural mainstays, dairy farms shut down at the rate of nearly two a day.
And it’s not just our nation’s dairy farmers that are hurting. Small farmers and ranchers across the country are facing demise of their livelihoods. Fortunately, there are groups across the country fighting for family farms. The National Farmers Union — serving family farmers and ranchers — recently released its detailed recommendations for much-needed farm policy reforms. Farm Aid has a hotline for farmers in crisis: 800-FARM-AID. And People’s Action has started a rural strategy to help family farmers.