From: Fred Magdoff [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Sunday, April 02, 2000 9:28 AM
To: Andy Clark
Subject: something for sanet-mg?
The article pasted below is from Sunday's (4/2) NY Times. Thought it might
interest on sanet-mg.
April 2, 2000
As Life for Family Farmers Worsens, the Toughest Wither
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
RYON, Neb. -- Walking across the prairie, stepping carefully around
cow pies, Mike Abel confesses that he has told his son and daughter not
to follow in his line of work.
He sounds for a moment like a repentant bank robber. But Mr. Abel,
45, is in an even less promising field: He is a cattle rancher.
Ranchers like Mr. Abel on the lovely desolation of the Nebraska
prairie near this hamlet, miles and miles from nowhere and nothing,
evoke the gritty determination and toughness of John Wayne on a good
day. These days the ranchers evoke something else -- poverty.
This rural area, McPherson County, is by far the poorest county in
the country, measured by per capita income. Federal statistics show that
people in McPherson County earned an average of $3,961 in 1997, the most
recent year for which statistics were available, compared with $5,666
for the next poorest county, Keya Paha, also in Nebraska. The richest,
New York County, better known as Manhattan, had a per capita income of
$68,686 in 1997.
Cowboys like Mr. Abel might seem the last people to cry. But with
much of the agricultural economy in deep distress, with dreams of family
farms fading like old cow bones on the prairie, even the cowboys' lips
are sometimes trembling.
"What always hurt us was when we're at the table trying to figure
out how to make a land payment, and the kids are seeing us crying as we
wonder what happens if we can't make the payment," said Mr. Abel, a
sturdy man with flecks of gray in close-cropped hair. "We'd always hoped
this would be a family operation. But why should my son, Tyler, struggle
and make money only two out of five years when he could get a
good-paying job in the city somewhere?"
While most of the American economy is going gangbusters, many rural
areas are undergoing a wrenching restructuring that is impoverishing
small ranchers and farmers, forcing them to sell out, depopulating large
chunks of rural America and changing the way Americans get their food.
The gains in farming and ranching efficiency are staggering, but so is
the blow to the rural way of life.
Just a few years ago, the United States thought it had a plan to
revitalize the agriculture economy: the Freedom to Farm Act.
Passed by the Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton
in 1996, the law aimed to phase out subsidies but ease regulations and
promote exports to make farming profitable without government aid.
Almost everyone agrees that the law has not worked (although there
is also a consensus that it is the other guy's fault). Direct federal
payments to farmers last year rose to a record $23 billion. That is far
more than the federal government spent on elementary and secondary
education, school lunches and Head Start programs combined.
With the failure of American farm policy, no one has much of a plan
anymore, even though the present course appears unsustainable.
The growing cost of federal farm programs, the replacement of small
family farms with huge factory farms, the fading of rural hamlets -- all
these point to historic changes under way in American agriculture. Yet
the changes are happening without anyone guiding them or the nation
paying them much heed.
The poverty statistics can seem misleading to city dwellers, for
the poor farming areas rarely have homeless people or anything like a
slum, and in any case cattle and hog prices are rising this year. But
prospects look dismal, adding to the pressure on many rural areas.
The depopulation is evident in the grade school in Ringgold, a
crossroads village in the east end of McPherson County. Leah
Christopher, an effervescent eighth grader who is an outstanding
gymnast, will graduate from the school in a few months at the top of her
class, and at the bottom. She is the only eighth grader.
The entire school, from kindergarten to the eighth grade, has only
one teacher and seven students, four of them from Leah's family. Another
grade school in the county has just four students and will drop to three
"I took a training course once where the other teachers were
talking about using the school psychologist and other resources like
that," said Elnora Neal, the teacher at the Ringgold school. "Well, I'm
everything. At this school, I'm teacher, nurse, psychologist, P.E.
teacher and janitor."
McPherson County had 1,692 people in 1920, and since then its
population has been steadily falling, to about 540 today. At its peak,
it had 20 post offices, 5 towns and 63 school districts; now it has 1
post office, 5 schools and, if one is generous enough to include
Ringgold, 2 towns. The average age in the county is in the late 50's,
the average American farmer today is 54.
The Efficiency Surge in Output Keeps Prices Down
Rusty Moore, a lanky, rail-thin fifth-generation rancher, complains
bitterly about the difficulties as he sorts cattle on an icy, overcast
day on his 13,000-acre ranch.
"I went to college for four years and decided to come back and live
in poverty," Mr. Moore, 26, said laughing, as he stomped his feet
against the cold.
But while there are many reasons for the misery in the agricultural
economy, perhaps Mr. Moore's greatest adversary is himself -- and all
the other farmers and ranchers like him who have figured out how to
increase the output of their land. In Mr. Moore's grandfather's day, it
took about 18 acres of this land to sustain a cow and her calf.
Now, ranchers have improved efficiency so that they need just 7
acres for a cow and a calf.
This surge in output is the main force driving the restructuring of
agriculture. In 1969, the average pig used for breeding produced 6.7
piglets per year. By last year, that had risen to 16 piglets per year,
and the most efficient operators got 22.
Those kinds of productivity increases have resulted in a world
awash with grain, pork, beef and milk, even though the proportion of the
American public living on farms and ranches has tumbled to 1.5 percent
today from 42 percent in 1900. Some experts believe that with
biotechnology, the productivity increases are now beginning to
For many years, the agricultural equivalent of the four-minute mile
has been the yield of 400 bushels of corn per acre. The average is about
150 bushels, but last year an Iowa farmer, Francis R. Childs, achieved
celebrity by producing 394 bushels under tight monitoring.
Just as Roger Bannister changed the world's understanding of human
athletic potential when he ran a sub-four-minute mile in 1954, so Mr.
Childs is waking up agricultural economists. If his techniques could be
replicated and spread widely, that could mean a doubling of corn output.
"I don't see any reason why that can't be done," Mr. Childs said.
Yet he acknowledges that he is a bit worried about what could be
done with all that corn. Historically, increases in productivity have
brought falling prices that punish the farmers, while rewarding
"Consumers have a great life ahead of them," said Neil E. Harl, an
agricultural economist at Iowa State University. "We're entering a new
era, especially in crops but also in livestock."
The Factory Mass Producing Under Contract
You can smell the future of farming as you approach it on a narrow
dirt road just west of McPherson County, in neighboring Arthur County.
A series of long, low warehouses contain what is less a hog farm
than a pork factory. The factory is still being expanded, but ultimately
it will cost $5 million and produce 120,000 pigs each year.
To anyone who thinks that hogs are dirty and humans are clean, a
visit to this farm is an indignity. Before being allowed near the pigs,
all employees and visitors must strip, shower, shampoo and change into
new underwear, socks, boots and overalls that the farm provides. The aim
is to protect the pigs from diseases brought in by nonhygienic humans.
The sows spend their days lying in tiny pens, eating, drinking and
growing piglets inside of them. After giving birth, the sows suckle
their piglets until being weaned at 17 days and then after a few days'
respite they come in heat and the process begins again.
The sows are taken into a pen next to several boars, whose sole job
is to sweet talk the sows and get them sexually excited.
At that point, a technician artificially inseminates the sows, as
the boars watch from the next pen.
"It must be a frustrating existence for the boars," acknowledged
Dwayne Fritzen, the manager of the operation.
The pregnant sows even get ultrasound examinations at 30 days and
60 days to make sure their pregnancies are going well.
"This is efficiency," Mr. Fritzen said. "I grew up on an
old-fashioned hog farm, where you go out and buy hogs and you don't know
the pedigree. Here, you know everything about these gals" -- gestured to
the sows -- "and if you don't like the results, then you switch genetic
companies" and get new sows or new semen.
Industrialized agriculture began to replace traditional family
farms in poultry, and one study found that these days the average
poultry farmer raises 240,000 birds a year and earns just $12,000 for
Many scholars say that increasingly, livestock and crops alike will
be produced under contract to large food companies.
"The farmer in those contracts is somewhere between what you'd call
a businessman and a laborer," said Chuck Hassebrook, program director
for the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska research center.
"Management decisions are typically made by the company."
Mr. Hassebrook added: "More and more, the people on the land become
simply laborers. The returns are siphoned out of their communities."
The Poverty Being Squeezed by the System
With the welfare system hugely curtailed in the last few years,
there is more scrutiny than ever of what critics see as a major welfare
system for grain and cotton farmers. Moreover, though the evidence is
mixed, some economists argue that the billions of dollars in federal
payments are helping to drive out family farmers and ranchers.
"Congress talks about saving the family farm, but it pours the
money disproportionately to larger farmers," said John A. Schnittker,
who runs an agricultural economics consulting firm in California. "As
you subsidize these large farms, they can pay more in buying land, and
they can pay more in renting land. And so the system we have now really
concentrates farming among the large operators."
Two situations loom, neither one encouraging: payments may continue
to soar until they threaten the budget, or Congress may be forced to cut
payments, leaving farmers in desperate shape.
"We're in a quandary," said Keith Collins, the chief economist for
the United States Department of Agriculture. Mr. Collins said the
department's projections were that this year's price for wheat would be
the lowest since 1986, for cotton the lowest since 1974 and for soybeans
the lowest since 1972.
While grain farmers are ever more dependent on the agricultural
dole, ranchers -- who get left out of the payment system -- are often
irritated by the payments.
"Just to subsidize people because the price is low -- that kills
ingenuity," said Doug Schmidt, 45, struggling to make a go of cattle
ranching on a small spread, near Ringgold.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman says that farm policy has to be
revamped and broadened to do more than make payments to distressed
He says that it should also help them add value to their products,
make it easier for them to insure against risks and work on mechanisms
to help people run businesses in rural communities.
"As much as we'd like to use farm programs as the panacea for
problems out there affecting rural America, they cannot be," Mr.
Glickman said. He added, "We've also got to make rural America
economically thriving, so that people will have a reason to stay on
family-sized farms even if they can't get all their income" from
The larger question is why the government should work so
energetically and expensively to preserve the family farm.
Family-owned restaurants, bookstores and newspapers were all widely
regarded as beneficial to their communities, yet in each case America
allowed many of them to fade and be replaced by more ferocious and
efficient economic competitors. Only in the case of family farms,
presumably because they are so rooted in American mythology and in
Jefferson's ideal of the yeoman farmer-citizen, are Americans willing to
spend $23 billion a year fighting economic change.
The Future Corporate Flags Over Giant Spreads
As dawn comes in McPherson County, a glorious orange sun rises from
the prairies and casts a glow on LaVerne Neal, a 73-year-old rancher
feeding his cattle.
Mr. Neal has 240 cows and 3,840 acres, and he had always assumed
that his family would ranch here forever. But he now realizes that his
land is really too small for future generations to make a living, and he
sees his problem as emblematic of a larger pattern of the decline of the
"I don't think there are going to be family farms for too many more
years," Mr. Neal said wistfully, driving his pickup over the fields.
"Those big outfits are taking over."
That is one of the most common laments in agriculture. The
underlying problem for small farms and ranches is diminishing margins
and a tiny return on capital. Many farmers and ranches have
million-dollar investments that are losing them money, and so the
country's poorest county probably has a high proportion of millionaires.
Yet paradoxically, for all the fears of corporations sneaking into
agriculture, dismal returns are the best protection family farms have.
If McDonald's announced that it were going to produce its own beef,
wheat, lettuce and tomatoes, its shareholders would sell in panic,
because the return on the investment would be dreadful.
"Why would they want the aggravation?" asked Ed Sowder, a county
commissioner. "If you've got ranchers out there who think they're
working for themselves, why bother?"
Only about 2 percent of farms are run by corporations. But
corporate oligopolies dominate both the input side (selling seed and
equipment) and output side (four companies now control 80 percent of the
The consolidation of farms under way today seems to be a
continuation of a trend that goes back 100 years. The average American
farm has gone from 139 acres in 1910 to 435 acres today, and the driving
force behind this change is simple: economics and a yearning for a
For all the rosy glow that is conjured by the phrase "family farm,"
it was often a harsh life.
"When I was a boy, for my birthday all I'd get was a pair of
socks," Mr. Neal recalled. "Come to think of it, that's all I used to
give my children, as well. But these days, you walk into a kid's room,
and you have to kick aside half a dozen teddy bears just to step
As the pain in the farm sector drags on endlessly, farmers like the
Abels decide that if they are to keep their children in teddy bears,
they may be better off in other lines of work.
"If you pass on your ranch to your son," Bob Long, a county
commissioner and rancher, said, "then it's child abuse."
To Unsubscribe: Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the command
"unsubscribe sanet-mg". If you receive the digest format, use the command
To Subscribe to Digest: Email email@example.com with the command
All messages to sanet-mg are archived at:
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Wed Apr 05 2000 - 20:00:37 EDT