Economy & Business

Down on the Farm

(Americanspirit/Dreamstime)
Small farmers face regulatory burdens, negative stereotypes, and children fleeing the family business.

Lucy and Joe Lourenco emigrated from Portugal in 1984 as a newly married couple; they were only 19 and 24 years old. They spent the first few years of their life in America working in California, saving all the money they could. Idaho seemed like the perfect place to start a farm, so they moved to Emmett in 1992. “We started with 40 cows and barely made enough money to eat,” Lucy says. “But it’s a beautiful business if you love the animals.”

Lucy has always had a gift with the cows. Around the time their first son was born, the dairy’s calves began to get sick, and Joe couldn’t help them. They hired a nanny so that Lucy could help nurse the calves back to health. Many times, a cow would begin birthing in the middle of the night, prompting Lucy to pull her boots on over her pajamas and head outside. That’s why she keeps their bedroom window open a crack.

Joe prefers working in their corn and wheat fields: He’s the dreamer, Lucy says, the one with vision. “Reading and writing is not his thing, but he can see and do what he has a vision for.” Lucy handles the bookkeeping and finances and makes sure they have money saved for the bad years. “When you start with nothing and build up from nothing, you don’t want to lose it or give it away.”

But now, Lucy and Joe are facing an unknown future, as neither of their two sons has expressed any interest in taking over the dairy farm someday. “Younger people don’t want it because the money isn’t there,” she says. “Younger people want fancy, higher -paying jobs.”

In the 1930s, the United States was home to 6.3 million farms; today, there are approximately 2.2 million, and fewer every day. The average age of today’s farmer or rancher is 59 years old, and many are retiring without a successor, as their children don’t want — or can’t afford — to take over the family business. Thus, as farms’ inheritors increasingly abandon the farm, a vacuum of stewardship opens up, leaving many wondering who, or what, will take their place.

 

Toward Freer Markets and More Local Control

Small family farms were traditionally tied to the good of their communities and their environment: Their smallness and generational longevity helped foster communal rapport, accountability, and stewardship. But today, formerly vibrant rural communities are slowly turning into ghost towns as industrialized farms corrode the traditional relation of commerce and community that surrounded their smaller counterparts. Farmers are motivated to “get big or get out,” as President Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, said in 1973, urging farmers to buy up their neighbors’ lands, and replace laborers with tractors. Without the traditional cycles of employment and production that small farms fostered, rural communities are falling apart.

Formerly vibrant rural communities are slowly turning into ghost towns as industrialized farms corrode the traditional relation of commerce and community.

Many writers who cover food production — such as Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma — blame the perpetuation of such circumstances on capitalism itself, arguing that the U.S. economic system enables big businesses to triumph through corruption and cruelty. But this fails to address the huge surge in consumer demand for sustainable, human-scale agricultural practices. If the market were truly a “free” one, wouldn’t it respond to this demand? Trends such as “locavorism” and the increasing number of farmers’ markets nationwide indicate some change, but the system is still rewarding practices that more and more consumers dislike.

To find an advocate for both sustainable agriculture and the free market, look no further than famous farmer and author Joel Salatin. Salatin’s parents settled in southern Virginia in 1961, buying up severely eroded farmland that they and their son have worked steadily to restore. He staunchly advocates organic, diversified agriculture, free of pesticides and chemicals. Salatin’s book Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal details the many ways that the federal government saddles farmers with excess paperwork, regulations, and bureaucracy. He thinks this burden is, at least in part, facilitated by big agricultural producers who have the staff and funds to meet heavy regulatory demands. Big farms set high barriers of entry for small ones, making it difficult for operations such as Salatin’s to compete.

Whether it’s subsidies, crop insurance, federal regulations, or even conservation programs, says Salatin, there is often a “prejudice against scale.” In a centralized system of regulation and control, diversity makes standards more difficult to enforce. But to dispense with variation is not just detrimental to land, animals, and community; Salatin also believes it hampers new farmers, because “innovation starts embryonically, creation starts small.”

Federal insurance programs traditionally come in two forms: yield and revenue insurance. The USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) formulates insurance policies, sets premium rates, and subsidizes the cost for farmers and insurance providers. But big businesses often receive larger subsidies, rewarding powerful and politically connected farming operations over small family farms. “There have been a series of policy decisions at the federal level that have greatly influenced where we are today — where farms are larger, there are fewer family farms, and fewer vibrant rural communities,” Paul Wolfe of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told me.

One particularly bad culprit is the harvest price option (HPO) crop-insurance policy. While traditional crop insurance protects farmers from catastrophic losses, those who can afford higher premiums buy an HPO policy. Traditional crop insurance pays farmers when the price at harvest is less than projected prices at planting. But HPO policies guarantee that farmers will be paid either the projected price at planting time, or the market price at harvest — whichever is higher. “This product goes above and beyond the definition of a safety net,” wrote the R Street Institute, a libertarian think tank, in a letter to Congress last year. “It is the crop insurance equivalent of your auto insurer surprising you with a new Cadillac Escalade after you’ve totaled your Toyota Corolla.”

Craig Cox, the senior vice president for agriculture resources at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), says the HPO is less an insurance policy than a price support. “The odds are very high they’re going to make money,” says Cox. “The rate of return in some instances was 300 or 400 percent. With crop insurance, we’re subsidizing so much normal business risk, you can make decisions to expand, buy, or rent more land, without having to worry about risk that would normally make you think twice, or make you diversify your crops.”

Those who oppose the Farm Bill (of which the HPO is one component) cross party lines, forming unexpected partnerships. The EWG joins libertarian-leaning groups such as The R Street Institute and Taxpayers for Common Sense in opposing current agricultural policies. Their reasons are ecological, economic, and political: Crop insurance is bad for the land and also bad for the taxpayer. In 2012, the harvest price option boosted payouts to corn and soybean farmers by $6 billionmoney that comes from the federal government and thus from the pockets of average citizens. “The overwhelming cost is borne by us,” says Joshua Sewell, a policy analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense. “We also bear the cost of the crop-insurance companies, as well as the cost of loss when it occurs. It’s a triangle of waste.”

Catherine Cochran, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, acknowledged that because of the way USDA programs function, “more funds go to larger farms,” and perceptions of a disparity in coverage “may not be totally false.” However, she also pointed to efforts the department is making to reach out to smaller growers, such as their microloan initiative and “Whole Farm Revenue Protection” (WFRP), a measure introduced in the 2014 Farm Bill. In contrast to more conventional crop-insurance policies, WFRP offers greater security to smaller, diversified farm producers.

This year, President Obama proposed $9 billion in cuts to the USDA budget — cuts that focus in on crop-insurance programs such as the HPO policy. It’s impossible for the budget to entirely eliminate the Harvest Price Option plan, but Obama’s proposed cuts would drastically trim the federal funds that undergird it. In a joint press release, the R Street Institute and National Taxpayers Union joined Friends of the Earth U.S. and the EWG in applauding these budget cuts.

Many libertarian-leaning Americans are also advocating for what they call “local food freedom” as a way to free up the connection between farmer and consumer. The Wyoming Food Freedom Act is one example of this. Signed into law last March, it fights for the deregulation of locally produced foods. It exempts local sales from government licensure, permitting, certification, inspection, packaging, and labeling requirements, and applies to farmers’ markets as well as on-site stores at farms.

Salatin and other “food freedom” advocates argue that, while federal oversight is an expensive means of accountability, local policing — in which consumers visit, interact with, and personally inspect the farms where they procure their food — is a more efficient system, policed without government cost and reinforced by self-interest. While it cannot replace interstate commerce and regulation, it can provide an alternative to them and open up opportunities for small growers to succeed.

 

Passing the Family Farm to the Next Generation

But financial and regulatory challenges aren’t the only things driving farmers’ children off the land. While farming was once considered important and even prestigious work, today “there’s a cultural condescension toward farmers,” Salatin says. Many believe farming is blue-collar and unintellectual. “When my high-school counselor found out I wanted to be a farmer, I thought she’d have an apoplectic seizure,” Salatin recalls. “Farming is seen as what you do if you can’t do anything else.”

‘When my high-school counselor found out I wanted to be a farmer, I thought she’d have an apoplectic seizure.’ 

—Joel Salatin

Despite the negative stereotypes, Salatin’s interns and apprentices are stepping out onto the farm. One of his current interns worked ten years for a Fortune 500 company, until he “got tired of computers.” Farming is something the intern always wanted to do, Salatin says, but society, his family, and academia all conveyed the message that he shouldn’t, or couldn’t. “These are the stewards of our air, soil, water, food — isn’t it important that we have our best and brightest out here?” Salatin asks.

Marie Bowers is one such person: a bright college graduate who decided to return to her family farm and work with her father. She was raised on a six-generation grass farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where her family grows ryegrass and fescue. “I do a lot of political activities,” she says. “When I told someone who does similar stuff that I was heading back to the farm, they said it was a waste of my potential.”

But Bowers loves everything about her family farm: driving tractors, puzzling over the crops, putting in the hours and the physical labor. “If I don’t continue [the farm], I don’t know who would, and I would hate to see something my family has worked so hard be taken over,” she says.

When land was a highly coveted commodity and land ownership conferred a degree of prestige, most farmers’ children could see the value in carrying on their parents’ work. But today, the prestige of farming has diminished, and children are no longer expected or encouraged to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

This is the dilemma the Lucy Lourenco and her husband, Joe, now confront: Their sons are proud of their parents, she says, but “they aren’t driven.” She wonders whether working for another farmer might have helped her sons see the value and dignity in farm work, but she also believes the culture has offered her sons different incentives. They aspire to an ease of life that never appealed to her or Joe. “I walk to the barn; they take the four-wheeler,” she says. “They’ll help out on the farm but only because they have to — not because they care for it.” There are still young people like Marie Bowers who are interested in farming despite its difficulties. But there are fewer such people than there were 20 or 50 years ago, thanks to the physical strains of the job, a lack of financial incentives, and widespread cultural prejudices.

Yet as farmers’ children vacate the family farm, other young people across the U.S. are stepping in to fill the void: Eric Hansen, a policy analyst for the National Young Farmers Coalition, has seen their passion firsthand. His organization started in 2010, with a vision to help these young people start their careers in agriculture.

For many of the farmers with whom Hansen works, procuring land is the biggest challenge: A March 2016 study by Iowa State University economics professor Mike Duffy demonstrates that crop insurance has hiked up the price of farmland substantially, with farmland appraisal values rising 8.5 percent per year between 2006 and 2015, compared with 7.2 percent per year between 2001 and 2015. This can hurt both small farm owners and farmers renting their land: “When growers have to pay more for land because crop insurance raises the rental rates they pay, their overall costs of doing business increase,” Anne Weir, a senior analyst at EWG, wrote this spring. “Some growers are approaching the point where they will no longer break even.”

But a lot of these young farmers need a helping hand: Unable to inherit land, they need to find acreage at a good price, from landowners who share their vision and are willing to support them. This is where agricultural partnership or “matchmaking” services are stepping in. Some are as simple as a “land link” — connecting property owners with new farmers. Other matchmaking efforts, however, are more complicated, bringing together an elderly, retiring farmer, and an aspiring, young farmer in a sort of geographical and vocational marriage.

Salatin talked with me about a couple such services: Eager Farmer is an advertising site for farmers and landowners, as well as for potential farm apprentices, interns, and managers. The grassroots organization Greenhorns offers a similar linking service, as does the National Young Farmers Coalition. Hansen notes that some of the Coalition’s land links have been more successful than others. “You aren’t just passing on an asset,” he says. “It’s a business, a big piece of your identity. People want to make sure the places they’re passing on will be valued and taken care of and managed properly.”

People like the Lourencos are well aware of the difficulties, unknowns, and grueling work farming requires. They don’t have visions of grandeur about it. But can they work with the younger generation in passing along this legacy? This is what a family farm traditionally represents: the preservation of tradition, the handing down of the land and its stewardship from one generation to another. Though the generational chain has loosened and even broken, perhaps land links can make the bonds strong again.

Hansen notes that many of the young farmers with whom he works aspire to hand down their farms to their children. They want to continue the tradition of family farming, if they’re able, and this is what he hopes to help them do: “A farm should be a place where you can raise a family, where you have the income you need, where you can pass down to the next generation.”

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