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  READ THE CHAT
graphic Chuck Hassebrook, program director with the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska, was our guest in a live chat session about what he calls the "crisis of hope" damaging American family farms.
iconHarvest some info about regional farming interests in the United States.

Endangered careers

Family farming

October 30, 2000
Web posted at: 9:56 a.m. EST (1456 GMT)


In this story:

Bumper crop of concerns

Seeds of discontent

Green fields, gray hairs

Farm futures


RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow


(CNN) -- "We've weeded out all the inefficient people. The ones left are lean and mean. When they can't make it, something's wrong."

That's Sledge Taylor, 48, talking. He began farming 25 years ago in Como, Mississippi. There were about 20 farmers in town. Now he's one of two.

This is a scenario being repeated in rural communities all over the country.

The number of family farms and farmers in the United States is dwindling and is expected to continue to do so through at least 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This, despite the fact that the country's agricultural exports are expected to grow as developing nations improve their economies and their personal incomes.

"Starting out, things looked so much rosier, so much easier than they do now for a smaller producer like myself with limited financial resources. My optimism has changed."
— Brian Bruckner, 36, farms in Osmond, Nebraska

"Compared to the rest of the U.S. economy, American agriculture is experiencing some of its worst years since the Great Depression of the 1930s," the National Commission on Small Farms concluded in a report in January.

graphic

Bumper crop of concerns

Farming careers are drying up as surely as sun-parched crops in this year's drought in the Southeast. Between 1978 and 1998, some 300,000 farms evaporated from the American landscape.

  THE CORPORATE COOP
graphic Corporate "factory farms" dominate the farm landscape in the United States today. Critics say some animals are badly treated on the big spreads, even as family farmers struggle with the economic impact of these operations.

"Starting out, things looked so much rosier, so much easier than they do now for a smaller producer like myself with limited financial resources," says Brian Bruckner, 36, who has a farm in Osmond, Nebraska. "My optimism has changed."

Farmers' fortunes have waned for many reasons, some of them complex. As with other industries in the United States, agriculture has seen consolidation. It has affected everything from machinery manufacturers to seed companies. The result: Fewer choices at higher prices for farming necessities.

Corporations are "going to raise their prices to get more of the farmer's profit. And they can -- because who else can you sell your grains to? Corporations, by nature, don't care about people, they care about the bottom line. There are all sorts of consequences to that."
— Lisa Hardaway, Center for Rural Affairs

Sometimes a corporation is the parent of companies that sell, say, agricultural chemicals and seeds. That same corporation may also have an arm that buys a farmer's end product, says Lisa Hardaway, media and outreach director for the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska.

"They're going to raise their prices to get more of the farmer's profit. And they can -- because who else can you sell your grains to? Corporations, by nature, don't care about people, they care about the bottom line. There are all sorts of consequences to that."

grahpic
Sledge Taylor  

Farmer Sledge Taylor: "They say they don't price-fix, and I can't say that they price-fix. But you know what? -- They all seem to work down to about the same price. We've seen just a tremendous concentration of power in the suppliers to agriculture and the buyers from agriculture, and that has put family farmers at a disadvantage."

It used to be that a farmer could count on some years with a good crop and strong prices, says Dave Zollinger, a farmer in Delhi, California. The farmer would then have a cash reserve to get him through the inevitable lean years, he says.

"We don't see that any more," says Zollinger, 71. "We see more of a leveling at lower price levels."

Hardaway and others say that a major revision to farm policy that was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1995 nicknamed the Freedom to Farm Act has also hurt farmers. This legislation phased out farm subsidies while giving farmers more latitude in deciding what crops and how much acreage to use.

  LAND POOR
graphicThe 1998 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Commission on Small Farms determined just what criteria make a farm "small."

"It took away the safety net, the usual farm subsidy programs," Hardaway says. After the legislation's passage, there was overproduction and supply from America's farms, and that glut produced lower prices for farmers' goods, she says.

That, in turn, has resulted in Congress approving bailouts to farmers three times in the past four years -- including $15.3 billion this year.

graphic

graphic

Seeds of discontent

A farmer's income can fluctuate wildly because of droughts and floods, the price of farm equipment and other factors that affect the amount and quality of his products and the demand for them.

The median weekly income of a farmer in 1998 was $447, a little more than $23,000 a year, according to the Department of Labor. That's about the same wage as can be made by the average forklift operator. The exception was horticultural farmers, who made more.

"The cost of land here is such that developers can buy it at a very reasonable price."
— Dave Zollinger, 71, Delhi in California's Central Valley

A family farmer has a lot more responsibilities, however, than a forklift operator. If he grows crops, he must till, plant, fertilize, spray, harvest.

If he has animals, he must keep barns, pens, coops and other farm buildings clean and in good condition. He also must be knowledgeable about veterinary medicine, breeding and marketing.

A farmer's job has evolved technologically so that many use personal computers to keep financial and inventory records, creating databases and using spreadsheets to track farm operations. Some are on the Internet, keeping tabs on latest developments in agriculture, gathering meteorological information, exchanging information with each other and even accessing satellite imagery of farmland.

The median weekly income of a farmer in 1998 was $447, a little more than $23,000 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Many farmers, among them Bruckner in Nebraska, work second jobs for spare income. Bruckner -- who grows corn and soybeans and provides pasture for other ranchers' cattle on his 240 acres -- held a part-time job as a preloader at a United Parcel Service plant 30 miles from his farm until he suffered an on-the-job injury in July.

"We're making ends meet, but we're not able to put any money away," Bruckner says.

  LAY OF THE LAND
From the corn belt, to the Mississippi Delta and the Great Plains -- have a look at regional agricultural interests in the United States.

Little wonder that farmers sometimes are receptive to developers' offers to gobble up their land in order to feed the appetites of suburban sprawl. That's happening in parts of California's fertile Central Valley, depicted in many of John Steinbeck's novels. The American Farmland Trust says this is the most threatened agricultural region in the country.

"The cost of land here is such that developers can buy it at a very reasonable price," says Zollinger, who grows peaches, almonds and walnuts on 120 acres in the town of Delhi in the northern part of the Central Valley. In some cases, suburbanites are buying new homes in the area and commuting more than 100 miles to work in the San Francisco Bay area, where houses are three times more expensive, he says.

Zollinger has seen suburbia consume rural land before. He grew up on a farm in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, an area now filled with suburban homes, strip shopping centers and smog.

graphic

graphic

Green fields, gray hairs

Iffy income, capricious weather and days that may stretch from sunrise to sunset depending on the season, may not sound like ideal work. But farmers say they love it.

"There's nothing like seeing a calf born early in the morning," says Taylor, the Mississippi farmer. He has 500 head of beef cattle and grows cotton, soybeans, wheat, hay and corn.

"And there's the hope and the promise of seeing a new crop emerge out of the field," Taylor adds. "There's a tremendous amount of satisfaction in doing something that I really believe is worthwhile."

  QUICK VOTE
graphic How concerned are you about the perilous condition of family-farming careers in the United States?

I'm very worried. Family farms shouldn't be overtaken by "factory farms," we need both.
I have no strong feeling either way.
I'm not worried. Farming, like many other industries, is more efficiently handled by corporations.
View Results

  IN SOD WE TRUST
Dave Zollinger in California has made sure that his family farmland won't be developed as part of suburban sprawl. The American Farmland Trust helped him arrange it.

It's much the same for Bruckner the Nebraska farmer. "I enjoy working with nature," he says. "I enjoy being my own boss."

They may love it, but younger members of many farm families are opting not to carry on the family tradition of working the land. Nearly half of all farmers are older than 55 -- the average age is 53 -- while just 8 percent are younger than 35, according to government statistics.

"The reward-to-risk ratio has really narrowed to almost nothing," says Taylor, the Mississippi farmer. "That's why so many young people are leaving."

Zollinger, the California farmer, is among those who says the farming tradition is coming to an end in his family. His 43-year-old son is a pediatrics nurse and is discouraged by the declining profitability of farming, Zollinger says.

"I'm sorry to see it," Zollinger says. "My great-grandparents came to the United States from Switzerland and farmed. We've been building on this land for 36 years."

Zollinger says he knew lean times early in his farming career. "It never occurred to me not to continue. I don't think the current group of young people have that same determination."

graphic

Farm futures

Small farmers who don't leave the land may find their best chances for success in finding special niches and creative marketing. "What we're trying to do is not only create farmers, but entrepreneurs," says Hardaway of the Nebraska farm organization.

graphic
Lisa Hardaway, Center for Rural Affairs  

Change isn't easy. An older farmer may be working the land or growing livestock the same way he's done it for 30 years. Those methods may have been taught to him by his father and grandfather. But they may not be enough to survive in the 21st century.

"Farming now is a lot different than it was 20 years ago," Hardaway says. "If you want to get into a tractor, drive up and down a field and cultivate and harvest a crop and sell it, that's not where farming is headed."

This may be where it's going.

In central Nebraska, a group of farmers has formed a co-op to eliminate the middleman and sell their crops directly to consumers, increasing profits in the process, Hardaway says. They're developing a brand name and marketing to grocery chains and restaurants.

"That's one of the new, emerging things," Hardaway says.

In western Massachusetts, a trio of farmers has formed a limited liability corporation in which they jointly bought farmland separate from their home farms and share equipment and rotate crops.

"To a certain degree, I think the farm issue is a social issue. I think, long-term, it's critical for national security. You can't depend entirely on imports. If people get upset about gas lines, what will they do about grocery store lines?"
— Sledge Taylor, 48, farms in Como, Mississippi

Another strategy is something called community supported agriculture. Consumers buy shares of a harvest prior to the planting system, freeing the farmer from assuming all the financial risks. Each investor "has got a piece of that crop as it becomes available,"says Ted Quaday, program director for Farm Aid, headquartered in Somerville, Massachusetts. "We think it's a great system. It's catching on."

Organic farming may also offer promise, especially to younger farmers. The average age of organic farmers is late 30s, Quaday says.

And because of overfishing and environmental degradation, aquaculture is growing in order to meet the demand for certain seafood, such as salmon, catfish and shrimp.

Taylor, the Mississippi farmer is cautiously optimistic that in the long-term, family farmers will rebound.

"To a certain degree, I think the farm issue is a social issue," he says. "I think long-term it's critical for national security. You can't depend entirely on imports. If people get upset about gas lines, what will they do about grocery store lines?

"I'm in it for the long haul if I can make it. And I plan to make it."

graphic

graphic

 

RELATED STORIES:
Technology helps farmers harvest data along with their crops
August 9, 2000
Big tomato, fruit crops put squeeze on U.S. farmers
July 20, 2000
Hard economic times bring depression, shame for struggling farmers
May 25, 2000

RELATED SITES:
American Farmland Trust
Center for Rural Affairs
Farm Aid
U.S. Department of Agriculture

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