Winter’s when farmers and farm communities think, plan and remember. In the cold of 2021, who’ll recall Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, in 2019 inadvertently conceding at a World Dairy Expo, “In America, the big get bigger, and the small will go out.”
He’s right – and that’s wrong.
My first job beyond delivering newspapers, mowing lawns and shoveling snow was as a full-time farmhand one summer for a family who owned and operated two farms on two sides of the small town where I grew up. One was 160 acres not far from the old county “poor house” and the other was 160 acres across a state highway from a big empty Gothic place everyone called the House of Seven Gables.
One of the best jobs I’ve had, it had me plowing rough ground, harrowing it to a fine, plant-able condition, cultivating rows, mowing waterways, walking bean fields to pluck out weeds and corn, trimming brush from fence lines, and doing chores on rainy days.
It was a time that still benefited from FDR’s New Deal, when the first Farm Bill (the Agricultural Adjustment Act) set fair prices for commodities and controlled surplus production (which cut prices farmers could get.). Federal programs saw farm income jump 50% from 1932 to 1935, stabilizing rural communities and their schools, commerce, roads and so on for decades.
If farming and rural America are dramatically different in 50 years, they’re barely recognizable from 50 years earlier. Beginning in the 1980s, government policies started changing. California Gov. Ronald Reagan prevented farmworkers from unionizing (combining politicians’ attacks on labor and farming.) Consolidation accelerated, increasing costs to farmers, limiting competition and raising prices for consumers. Now four corporations control between 54% and 88% of chicken processing, swine and beef packing, and corn and soybean seeds, the National Farmers Union (NFU) reports.
Positive or harmless changes include no-till and conservation practices and technologies such as using GPS and drones. But much was sacrificed in the name of expansion: Topsoil is vanishing; Genetically Modified Organism breakthroughs like Roundup-Ready seeds and Bt corn broke the bonds between grower and ground; financial desperation for greater yields not for food but for plastic, pop and fuel means planting fencerow to fencerow, forgetting alfalfa and clover to restore fallow fields’ fertility.
Gone are countless silos, windmills and grain elevators in small-town rail yards (where trains stopped running), hatcheries, seed & feed stores, livestock sale barns and local suppliers.
The destruction of independent, family-farm agriculture resulted in the gutting of small-town America, too. My hometown lost a third of its population, its butcher, hardware store, sporting goods/auto supply business, dime store, lumberyard, machine shop, shoe store, jeweler, most grocers, clothing stores, newsstand … .
Nationally, that hollowing out contributed to job loss, income inequality, and divisions that led to hardship generally and particularly substance abuse, divorces and suicides.
Meanwhile, a corporate-cozy Republican Party continued to enable consolidation, and a disappointing Democratic Party failed to effectively advocate for something beyond “trickle-down” nonsense that enriched the wealthy and enfeebled the rest.
To revive farming that’s economically and environmentally sustainable – to help heal the rifts among us – common ground must be as cultivated and nurtured as farm ground used to be. Rural residents and producers should see mutual interests with urban dwellers and workers. And such a united front should demand reform. A starting point comes from the NFU, which seeks to restore farm competition and revive family farms in two ways: Establish a moratorium on large mergers in agriculture, food and beverage manufacturing, and retail grocery, and strengthen antitrust laws to improve market competition and fairness for family farmers and consumers.
Then future generations might have memories of doing good work and living decent lives.