Kindred runs a combine through a field of wheat during harvest at his
family's farm in Medford, Okla. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo
number 03-264, Accompanies UMNS #391, 8/1/03
No Long Caption Available for this Story
river of harvested wheat fills a truck bound for the grain elevator on
Beryl Kindred's family farm in Medford, Okla. A UMNS photo by Mike
DuBose. Photo number 03-263, Accompanies UMNS #391, 8/1/03
No Long Caption Available for this Story
Kindred emerges from a cloud of dust and smoke while disking under
wheat stubble after the harvest in Medford, Okla. The smoke is from a
neighbor's farm where the stubble was being burned off. A UMNS photo by
Mike DuBose. Photo number 03-262, Accompanies UMNS #391, 8/1/03
No Long Caption Available for this Story
Farming once not only defined U.S. industry but
also helped shape the nation's character. Today, it is facing the
greatest decline of all occupations in America, according to government
Some 328,000 farming and ranch-related jobs are expected to be lost during the decade that will end in 2010.
and Judy Heffernan wouldn't be surprised by that fact, which comes from
the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Quarterly.
Heffernans see a farm crisis that Judy describes as "very undercover.
It's very quiet." Both United Methodists and rural sociologists in
Columbia, Mo., they did the first study of farm families in crisis for
the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1985.
Bill observes that
depression and suicide remain problems in farming, but that the hotlines
and other emergency services set up in the 1980s have dwindled, and the
few that are left - whether provided by states or nonprofit
organizations - are succumbing to the national economic crunch.
level of despair among crop and livestock farmers is really pretty
significant," says Judy, who is executive director of Heartland Network
for Town and Rural Ministries - an unpaid position since grants from the
United Methodist Board of Global Ministries dried up last year.
in the religious community say there is "sort of a quiet resignation to
the demise of family farm agriculture," she says. In contrast, the
1980s saw extensive news coverage of bankruptcies and suicides.
farm crisis of the '80s really was a debt crisis," she says. She and
her husband explain that U.S. government officials decided to raise
interest rates knowing that certain businesses that are debt-dependent
would suffer, and farming and construction took the hit.
requires a lot of capital - a huge amount of capital," says Bill, a
professor emeritus at the University of Missouri who farms full time now
that he is retired. "And if you are going to farm, you have to borrow a
lot of money. That's the way you get started."
hit during the 1980s were young and some middle-aged farmers who had
large debts. They lost their farms, and with them, their homes and
livelihood, Judy says. The effects of those losses extended beyond the
family to church and community, she said.
The Heffernans' study
provided data proving "the devastating toll this kind of thing takes on
the mental health and consequently the physical health, the family
relationships, the emotional, the spiritual, all those kinds of things,"
Using a standard mental health inventory provided by
psychologists at the University of Missouri, Judy assessed people who
had lost their farms for financial reasons. She found all the women and
all but one man could have been classified as suffering from depression.
Mental health professionals who heard the Heffernans' findings said
more than half the scores were so high that the individuals tested could
have been hospitalized.
"These people were caught in bad
times," Bill says. They borrowed like professionals do for their
training, expecting to pay their debts out of earnings. Officials who
blamed the farmers for poor management skills were misleading, he says.
prices of agricultural products have continued to decline. Farm prices,
adjusted for inflation, have dropped steadily from 1985 to 2000 for
commodities such as corn, wheat and soybeans to a point 35 to 50 percent
below 1985 levels, according to John M. Dittrich in Key Indicators of
the U.S. Farm Sector, updated in 2000.
The records for the last 20 years show U.S. agricultural imports rising and farm exports steady or dropping, Bill says.
family farmers must work jobs off the farm just to make ends meet. The
U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service reported in
2000 that 88 percent of the average farm operator's household income
comes from off-the-farm sources. The agency noted that, in 1998, farmers
earned an average of only $7,000 from farming operations.
of the bigger farmers also have very significant income off farm," Bill
reports. They often live on what the spouse makes as a teacher, nurse
or other off-farm employee.
The United Methodist Church has
officially spoken out on behalf of preserving U.S. family farms. In a
resolution titled, "Family Farm Justice," the church's top lawmaking
assembly has called on general church agencies to lobby the government
and multinational corporations "to bring justice to the local producers
by lobbying for fair and equitable prices for goods and services
Big business takes over
The Heffernans say they
think the general public is unaware of two factors affecting current
farm conditions: one is a policy to reduce or eliminate U.S. food
production and the other is the substitution of monopolistic
agribusinesses for the independent American farmer.
In some areas
of agriculture, such as poultry and hog production, most of the work is
done under contract to a large corporation. Bill estimates that 97
percent of the poultry in the United States is produced under a contract
whereby growers provide labor, land and equipment but do not own the
chickens. The grower is paid on a piece-rate basis. The same contract
system is used in hog raising.
Such a contract requires long-term
investment from the farmer or grower, he explains. Buildings and other
facilities must meet the corporation's specifications. However, the
contract is only for a short period, such as the time it would take to
raise one flock of chickens.
If the farmer is in financial
trouble and can't borrow money to put in a crop, a corporate offer looks
good, Bill says. Farmers have done well in areas where they have a
choice of companies, but over time, the companies achieve a monopoly and
have the growers at their mercy, he says.
Through another kind
of contract, a marketing contract, the farmer still owns the grain as it
is grown. For the most part, grain is still grown with a marketing
contract, Bill says, but the production contract is starting to appear
in that area of farming as well.
"We're seeing those folks
referring to themselves more now actually as 'serfs,'" Judy says,
because the farmers have almost no say in anything. "They've borrowed
money just to keep farming â€¦ and they are virtually powerless in
relationships with these gigantic firms."
Statistics are telling:
Four meatpacking companies control an estimated 79 percent of cattle
slaughter, and four companies control nearly 90 percent of the cereal
market, according to data on the Farm Aid Web site at www.farmaid.org.
the move away from U.S. agricultural production, the Heffernans point
to a book called The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio, by
Steven C. Blank, with the Department of Agricultural and Resource
Economics at the University of California, Davis. Published in 1998, the
book suggests that the United States can import its food more cheaply
than it can produce it, a theory that has been accepted at high
government levels, the Heffernans say.
"That's where our
national policy takes us - that's really where the international, the
World Trade Organization policy - is taking us right now," Bill says.
"That has implications for farmers in this country, but it also, of
course, has implications for the people in the poorer countries who need
to keep that food in their country."
Another idea advanced in
the last decade touts super-sizing farms and reducing the number to
20,000 to 30,000 operations in the United States, Bill says. According
to the Department of Agriculture, the nation had 1.91 million farms in
Some leading economists and agricultural policy people believe the smaller number of farms is all that's needed, he says.
Adds Judy: "Why would a country care about homeland security if it's going to import more and more of its own food?" # # # *Purdue is a correspondent for United Methodist News Service in Washington.