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.

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