Gary McEoin reports from America on an enduring agricultural crisis
LIKE other areas of the US economy, farming during the 1980s experienced a widening gap between the income of the farm family and that of big companies that dominate agriculture and agro-industry. Half a million corporations today account for 80 per cent of sales of agricultural and livestock products, and they probably make even more from the processing, distribution, and sale of their production by their subsidiaries.
In 1900, when the US population was 76 million, 30 million lived on farms. Today, of a population of over 250 million, only 8.3 per million live on farms, and only onethird that number make a living from agriculture. The 1.8 million family farms (down from 5.7 million in 1900) have become so marginalised that in nearly two-thirds of them more than half the family income comes from non-farm work.
Reaganomics was only one of several factors that adversely affected the family farm: The impact of a shift of the tax burden under Reagan from the rich to the middle and working classes was aggravated by several years of severe drought. Congress two years ago, in response to the drought, enacted the most extensive disaster legislation in US history, voting $3.9 billion to help. But as with all farm aid, this money went principally to the big operators.
Allocation of farm subsidies follows no discernable pattern but presumably responds to manipulation of the legislature by powerful lobbying interests.
The principal beneficiaries of government subsidies are the big corporate farms. And as they prosper, the negative impact is not confined to the family farm. The small rural towns are also dying, because the big corporations purchase their machinery, fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides, and other inputs from distant suppliers.
Some awareness of the inequity does exist. Thus the US Catholic bishops last November condemned "the growing concentration of farm land in the hands of a few corporations", urging government to channel tax and commodity support programme to family farmers.
All indications, nevertheless, point to a continuation of present trends. Increased cost of production of a kilo of grain or meat over the past half century has accompanied a parallel decrease in the selling price of the same kilo, a situation that steadily eliminates the small producers and increases concentration of ownership.
Farmers themselves recognise that they are a dying race. A recent survey of its readers by a specialised magazine, Family Farming, revealed that 86 per cent of farmers with children hope that they can continue to make enough money to ensure that their children will in due course take over from them; but more than half of them do not expect this to happen. They see themselves as the last generation of farmers.
This perception is supported by many statistics. Each year the number of foreclosures for failure to maintain debt payments grows. So unattractive has farming become as a business, that in a period of significant inflation, land values declined steadily. Since 1981, the average price per acre has dropped from $800 to $550.
About the only encouraging factor for the family farmer today is a growing public concern about food quality and about the danger of carcinogenic residues in food. Readers of Better Homes and Gardens magazine identify the health hazard of chemicals in food and water as the single greatest environmental threat.
For health reasons, many people are eating less red meat, and vegetarianism is slowly but steadily growing. This trend, combined with a rising demand for organically grown foods by people alarmed by pesticide residues, benefits the small farmer.
The corporate ("factory") farm depends for profit on massive use of fertilisers, insecticides and fungicides. Its lobbyists are already deploring the recent decision of the State of Wisconsin to delay for a year approval of bovine somatotropin, a product designed to increase milk production. They argue that only the fullest use of chemicals will enable the US to continue to produce a quarter of world beef, 50 per cent of soybeans, 40 per cent of maize, 15 per cent of grain, milk and eggs.
This economic argument will undoubtedly prevail, with the accompanying deterioration in the quality of food and of the environment. But thanks to people who want and can afford organically grown food, the traditional family farm will survive for the foreseeable l'uture.