Pity the Farmers

In reading the NRDC publication “onearth” recently I was steered to an online essay by Ted Genoways about the plight of the small farmer. As one who lives in the farming belt in Southwest Minnesota and who knows how the small farmers struggle against the unfair competition provided by the giant corporations, I found this article of special interest. As you travel in this area you see the sad, abandoned farm houses and countless groves being bulldozed to make room for more plowed fields and bigger yields — all signs of the corporations at work.

With the current drought that affects 65% of the farmland in this country predicted to continue, one wonders if the small farmers can survive. Indeed, one wonders if there will be food enough to feed a burgeoning world population. As the Sierra magazine reported recently two-thirds of the U.S. Wheat crop has been impaired by drought and U.S. corn and soybean production has fallen below consumption levels for the first time in 38 years. Further, “Drought will cut world wheat stocks by 13 percent in 2013. . .The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warns that low grain stores this year leave ‘no room for unexpected events.'”

And yet the corporate farmers in this country are making record profits, thanks to government subsidies as Genoways explains:

. . . Of the $277.3 billion allocated for farm subsidies from the expansion of the program in 1995 until last year, roughly 75 percent of the money went to the top 10 percent of farmers. If you expand to look at the top 20 percent of farms, nearly 90 percent of the allocations are accounted for. In real dollars, that means that the average corporate farm receives more than $31,000 per year, while the average small farm receives less than $600, in a typical year. And nearly two-thirds of American farmers collect no subsidies at all. In years of crop failure, Big Ag actually makes out even better, because of the way the subsidies are calculated. Indeed, if trends from past years hold true for 2012, the top 20 percent of recipients will garner an average of more than $45,000 from the government, compared to less than $1,000 for the remaining 80 percent.

So programs designed to save family farms are, instead, helping big business out-compete them, and eventually gobble them up, all while using their dollars and political clout to push for larger subsidies and more protection — big beef and pork producers are currently trying to get into the act — as agribusiness lobbyists in Washington cloak their efforts in the guise of defending small farmers.

So while the small farmers struggle and see their farms being swallowed up by the corporations the rest of us ponder a future with diminishing food supplies as the globe continues to heat up, droughts continue to reduce farm production, and Big Ag goes to Washington to make sure the subsidies continue. Surely, this is a formula for disaster.

Given the present state of the economy the government may not be able to bail out the corporate farmers much longer. But more to the point, not even the large corporations will be able to produce food on the scale required to feed growing numbers of hungry people if the drought continues as predicted. In addition to the greed and short-term thinking that motivates the corporations, we must add the undeniable fact that climate change will soon affect our lives in ways it is difficult to imagine, as a recent story on Yahoo News pointed out:

“What we’re going to experience is unprecedented in human history in terms of the type of climate we’re creating for ourselves,” Hanemann tells The Daily Ticker. “The rate of warming has increased maybe five times what it was in the early part of the 20th century. The earth is getting warmer faster.”

Meanwhile Congress continues to hand out subsidies to Big Ag and repay favors to fat-cat contributors while it ignores climate change, threatens to cut social programs for the needy, and gropes about blindly in the Wonderland caucus race we call party politics. Something has to give.

7 thoughts on “Pity the Farmers

  1. My father-in-law, who was a very successful moderate-sized farmer and now retired, and I were talking about the stalled federal farm bill over Christmas. He said “we don’t need a new farm bill,” and went on to say that farmers can now buy ample disaster insurance through private insurers and also suggested the very big farmers are so big now they do not need the subsidies. It was interesting to hear. Part of the reason the big operators get more subsidy is that the payments are often based on the number of acres or heads of livestock you farm — the more land, the more cattle, the more subsidy, because of the percentage in the formula. But the profit margins for big operators are so large anyway that they don’t need the subsidies. Even in dire drought in Minnesota and South Dakota, there was nice profit this year! The money that’s gone to subsidies would be put to better use in some sort of grant program that enabled young farmers to start and sustain an operation. There are not many family farms, in the traditional sense, left because of the high land prices and technology that allows a single operator to farm thousands of acres of land very quickly. But those two factors also make it nearly impossible for young farmers to get into the industry. If a young farmer really wants to try it on his own, about the only option is often to just start a livestock/feedlot operation — because he doesn’t need all the land, nor all the high-tech land-management gear. But with the rising costs of corn and other feed, livestock is the riskiest avenue of farming these days. An established farmer west of Cottonwood, for instance, built two huge hog feedlots a couple years ago but found that he was losing money on the hogs, because the price for pigs did not cover what it cost to feed and house them. He sold off 2,000 head and lets the buildings sit empty. A lot needs to change, you are exactly right, Hugh.

    • Thanks for filling in the gaps, Dana. Another reason the corporations get the subsidies is that they can afford a ton of lobbyists. It’s the name of the game!


  2. and while more trees are bulldozed, we wonder why the droughts are becoming more common! we’re also murdering our planet! when the food supply dimishes, and the cost of that food is high, there’s going to be more anger in the general population, and of course more violence.. a hungry stomach doesn’t care about rules. it’s a classic setting for the next ‘tale of two cities.’

    it was the best of times,it was the worst of times…

    yes, it’s hard for a small farmer.

    • People don’t get riled up until the problem affects them directly — until it’s in their “backyard.” The likely food crisis coming as a result of climate change will get everyone’s attention. It could get ugly.


      • si; i have witnessed this problem with local water concerns at the end of the dry season. it’s like the pig beneath the oak tree never looking up to see where the acorns are coming from.. people turn on a tap and expect water to flow. deny someone water for less than a week, and you see the true colors. i would think if one turned off the water for a month, violence would raise its ugly head. what on earth would happen in large cities?

        i often think about the sunspots and their effect on electronics, and what if one day the magnetic blasts from major sunspots truly did affect the world’s computer systems. what if the ability to access one’s funds was suddenly taken away?

        yes, i live in a quiet area because of little stress, but i also consider survival, where water runs fresh in the streams and coconuts hold nutrient-rich water and there are medicinal plants and fish and year-round access to crops… of course, i could be wiped away in a tsunami as well!

        and then i think, ‘shut up lisa and take care of lisa…’

        thanks for listening!

  3. Hugh, great post and great comments especially from Dana and Z. Yet, there is another, very related issue that you and I have discussed. These bigger farms use increasingly potent and toxic pesticides, even Agent Orange. These chemicals have been proven to cause nerve, brain and breathing disorders, especially in adolescents and teens. So, we have a chemical crock pot which will only get worse with global warming. Then you have the fracker/ farmer fight on water usage which hit Kansas this summer. The answer to many challenges is smaller farms closer to cities, but how do we get there. Well done sir, BTG

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