Considering the Plight of America’s Family Farms

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It doesn’t matter which political party is in charge — farmers always seem to get the short end of the stick. The people that provide our wheat, dairy, vegetables, and so many of our daily necessities live difficult lives just by nature of the job. But from government interference to corporatization of our nation’s farmlands, most small, family-owned farms have to fight to survive.

Situated somewhere between James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and any Bruce Springsteen song about people just trying to get by, Ted Genoways spent a year observing exactly what a farmer has to do to stay in business. Forget the long hours, busted machinery, and bad weather, the changing marketplace, a pipeline, and trade policies changing make it hard enough for the farm to pass from one generation to the next, but even harder just to make a living. In This Blessed Earth, Genoways tells the story of the people that put food on our country’s table.

You live in Nebraska. What drew you to this story?

In the last decade or so, especially since Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, there’s been a consumer awakening about agribusiness and food production. People are starting to ask where their food is coming from, and they’re demanding meals that are healthier, more sustainable, and more environmentally and socially responsible. They want to feel good about the food that they’re putting on the dinner table, and it has been assumed that pushing for these more organic, more sustainable methods would automatically benefit farmers too. But I didn’t see anyone asking. In fact, when I saw roundups of food conferences and summits on the future of food, farmers always seemed to be excluded. So I wanted to spend a year with a pretty progressive farm family to see how they were doing under the pressures of trying to stay afloat amid the forces of big agribusiness on one side and changing consumer demands on the other.

You mention “knowing where your food comes from,” but I worry the average American might not know much about the people who raise or grow the food. How important is it that you think we change that?

If we really want to reform the food system, then I think it’s vitally important that we’re including farmers, the people who actually produce food, in the conversation about how to make change most effectively. After all, who knows the shortcomings of modern agriculture better, and who has more invested in seeing that system made more sustainable? Remember, many farmers, especially in the middle of the country, are working ground that has been in their family for four, five, six generations. They have more at stake than anyone when it comes to making sure that our food system is not only efficient but sustainable.

“To the outsider,” you write at one point, “it may look simple to raise crops.” I wonder, what do you think the biggest misconception Americans have about farmers is?

I think most people imagine that raising crops is simple and bucolic, safely sequestered from the worries of the world. They imagine that farmers plant their seeds, wait for them to grow, and then head out to harvest in the fall. In reality, there are dozens of genetically modified and hybridized varieties of corn and soybeans for farmers to choose from. They select based on recommendations from agronomists who are crunching years, even decades, of data collected by the farmer from previous harvests. But they’re also making a market projection: which crops will see higher prices by harvest, which will see the best yields according to weather predictions. Once the seed is in the ground, farmers are choosing what kinds — and how much — herbicide and fertilizer to apply, how much water to apply. They not only have to make choices about what kind of irrigation system to install but where and when to water. And when harvest does finally begin, they’re making constant choices about whether to sell to any one of an array of grain elevators or to put the crop into storage bins and wait for higher prices. The basic operation of a modern farm requires the operator to make countless decisions, and everything depends on deciding right.

At one point you write, “Failure is everywhere on the farm.” So much rides on any given number of factors that you lay out. What in your estimation would you say the chance of an average farmer losing money in a year? Or do they break even or make a profit most of the time?

One of the hard realities, especially in recent years, is that most farmers are operating at or below what’s called “the cost of production.” That is to say: they’re making less money than it costs to raise the crop. That’s where subsidies, crop insurance, and other forms of price supports and tax breaks come in, but that’s also where debt often becomes a factor. When things are going great, farmers are actively encouraged to take out loans and expand, usually using their family land and homes as collateral. When times turn hard, those debts can pile up as land values decline, inflation increases, and interest rates tend to climb. So even in the years when farmers are profiting, they are often digging deeper into debt.

A big part of the book is the family element. Are family farms being pushed out of the picture?

Families are definitely being squeezed out. As farmers set records for yield every year, the profit margins get thinner and thinner. The only way to stay afloat is through volume — more acres, more efficiency, more yield. That means that the most successful farmers are acquiring more land, investing in high-tech equipment, spending on proprietary seeds and herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer. And running an operation of increasing size means that you need more people, usually more than a single family can provide these days. So, yes, the whole system favors big operators over small, family-run operations.

You talk about Rick moving away from hormones and feed grade antibiotics at one point. Do farmers take a risk by going organic or antibiotic-free?

Getting certified for any of the specialty categories is time-consuming and expensive. For example, if you decided to switch from raising conventional corn to raising organic, non-GMO corn, you’d have to raise a crop for three years without using any synthetic chemicals. During that transition period, you’re going to see reduced yield, but you can’t sell your product for the organic-certified premium, which means you’re going to take a financial hit. Next, you’re going to have to take part of that field out of production to establish a buffer zone to prevent synthetic chemicals or GMO pollen from reaching the crop from neighboring fields. Then, you’re going to have to pay someone to make sure that your field is in compliance with USDA standards for organic and non-GMO certification. All of that is a hassle, it’s expensive, and it’s a big risk. What if the crop fails? Just as bad, what if the premium commanded for organic corn isn’t enough to offset the overall expense? The same goes for all of the other certified categories: free-range, Kosher, animal welfare approved, antibiotic-free. So if we really want more farmers to grow food in these ways, we’ve got to find ways to make it more affordable and more profitable.

Your reporting was done before the 2016 election. What impact do you see the results of the election having on farmers?

Trump has changed everything about everything, and farming is no different. He immediately cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which many farmers were hoping would expand overseas markets for beef, pork, and soybeans. Since then, Trump has threatened to cancel all trade agreements with China, which is a major importer of U.S. grains and meat. He’s threatened to cancel the Fair Trade Agreement with South Korea, which has opened up a critical new export market for soybean growers in recent years. He keeps publicly insisting that Mexico will pay for a border wall, which led the Mexican government to threaten a temporary halt on corn imports from the U.S. All of this creates tremendous market uncertainty, which is always hell on farmers. There’s so much stress as it is — weather, pests, weeds. Now, Trump is like a walking natural disaster. Any day, he might do or say something that could undo generations of hard work.