In the American imagination, at least, the family farm still exists as it does on holiday greeting cards: as a picturesque, modestly prosperous expanse that wholesomely fills the space between the urban centers where most of us live. But it has been declining for generations, and the closing days of 2019 find small farms pummeled from every side: a trade war, severe weather associated with climate change, tanking commodity prices related to globalization, political polarization, and corporate farming defined not by a silo and a red barn but technology and the efficiencies of scale. It is the worst crisis in decades. Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies were up 12 percent in the Midwest from July of 2018 to June of 2019; they’re up 50 percent in the Northwest. Tens of thousands have simply stopped farming, knowing that reorganization through bankruptcy won’t save them. The nation lost more than 100,000 farms between 2011 and 2018; 12,000 of those between 2017 and 2018 alone.
Farm debt, at $416 billion, is at an all-time high. More than half of all farmers have lost money every year since since 2013, and lost more than $1,644 this year. Farm loan delinquencies are rising.
Suicides in farm communities are happening with alarming frequency. Farmers aren’t the only workers in the American economy being displaced by technology, but when they lose their jobs, they also ejected from their homes and the land that’s been in their family for generations.
…Small farms, defined as those bringing in less than $350,000 a year before expenses, accounted for just a quarter of food production in 2017, down from nearly half in 1991. In the dairy industry, small farms accounted for just 10 percent of production. The disappearance of the small farm would further hasten the decline of rural America, which has been struggling to maintain an economic base for decades.
…After boom years in the beginning of the 21st century, prices for commodities like corn, soybeans, milk, and meat started falling in 2013. The reason for these lowered prices are the twin forces upending much of the American economy: technology and globalization. Technology has made farms more efficient than ever before. But economies of scale meant that most of the benefits accrued to corporate farmers, who built up huge holdings as smaller farmers sold out. Even as four million farms disappeared in the United States between 1948 and 2015, total farm output more than doubled. Globalization brought more farmers into the international market for crops, flooding the market with soybeans and corn and cattle and milk, and with increased supply comes lower prices. Global food production has increased 30 percent over the last decade, according to John Newton, the chief economist of the American Farm Bureau. If that’s a good thing for feeding the planet, it also reduces what comes back to producers, whose costs don’t fall with prices.
…Smaller farms have found it especially hard to adapt to these changes, which they blame on government policy and a lack of antitrust enforcement. The government is on the side of big farms, they say, and is ambivalent about whether small farms can succeed. “Get big or get out,” Earl Butz, Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, infamously told farmers in the 1970s. It’s a sentiment that Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary under President Trump, echoed recently. “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue said, at the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin in October. The number of farms with more than 2,000 acres nearly doubled between 1987 and 2012, according to USDA data. The number of farms with 200 to 999 acres fell over that time period by 44 percent.
Many small American farmers are routinely selling their crops for less than it costs to produce them.
…One farmer called Rosmann to say he was considering suicide — floods destroyed the corn he had already harvested and stored in a grain elevator, but neither crop insurance nor flood insurance would cover it, since he had already harvested the crop.
…Rural America has been shrinking for decades, and the Great Recession accelerated that contraction as rural manufacturing jobs disappeared and people moved to cities and suburbs seeking work.
…As farmers sold to bigger operations, the local businesses that were dependent on small farmers went belly-up, too. The place where the Kalbachs buy chemicals is now 75 miles away. Her county’s lone pharmacy closed earlier this year. There is no longer a local place where she can get farm equipment repaired. “All the thousands of farmers that have left the land—all the businesses have gone with them,” she says.
…So have the institutions that make a community. Around 4,400 schools in rural districts closed between 2011 and 2015, the most recent year for which there is data available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics; suburban districts, by contrast, added roughly 4,000 schools over that same time period. In Wisconsin’s dairy country alone, the Antigo School District, in north central Wisconsin, closed three elementary schools this year, and 44 schools have closed since 2018.
…“We have to think about what we really want rural America to look like,” says Jim Goodman, president of the National Family Farm Coalition. “Do we want it to be abandoned small towns and farmers who can’t make a living, and a lot of really big farms that are polluting the groundwater?” (Large farms, which have more animal waste to deal with because of their size, have been found to pollute groundwater and air.)
Most family farmers seem to agree on what led to their plight: government policy. In the years after the New Deal, they say, the United States set a price floor for farmers, essentially ensuring they received a minimum wage for the crops they produced. But the government began rolling back this policy in the 1970s, and now the global market largely determines the price they get for their crops. Big farms can make do with lower prices for crops by increasing their scale; a few cents per gallon of cow’s milk adds up if you have thousands of cows.
…Smaller farmers warn that a country without local farmers can create problems in the food supply chain. If one company is providing all the milk or cheese to an entire region, what happens when that plant gets contaminated or a storm isolates it from the rest of the country?
…Family farmers say concentrating farmland among a few big companies is akin to feudalism, and un-American. It also diverts whatever profits might come from farming to faraway investors, aggravating the economic and geographic divisions that feed the nation’s political divide. “There’s a strong reason to be deeply concerned when instead of having 10 mid-sized dairy farms producing income whose owners spend it in town, you replace that with a large farm owned by a set of investors whose profits go running off to New York and Chicago.”
…Farmers say the best solution is government policy that cracks down on consolidation of the grocery stores and food processing facilities that buy food from farmers. Existing antitrust law would allow the government to prevent big mergers that mean farmers have fewer places to sell their crops and that supplies are more expensive, but those laws go largely unenforced, says Carstensen.
…There were more than 14,000 certified organic farmers in 2016, up 58 percent from 2011. But switching to organic is expensive, and for farmers like the Rieckmanns who are already deeply in debt, not an option. They haven’t gotten a cent of aid from the government, Rieckmann says, since the assistance goes to the farms with the most farmland and animals. [emphasis: peanut gallery]