News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Farmageddon

An agriculture that exists only in Terry Redlin paintings
Friday a seed and livestock feed store with a long history in Aberdeen closed.  The closing was a small and quiet event indicative of a huge transformation in American life.

The man who had managed the store for many years was quoted in the local newspaper 
"We are closing because of the changing dynamics in agriculture," he said. "Producers are raising less livestock and growing more crops. This has been going on since the 1990s."

What he states is a clearly evident trend that can be demonstrated with census and USDA statistics.  But those statistics also reveal an aspect of that trend that goes much deeper than changing production commodities on the farm.

Sometimes this trend is referred to as integration, which is further broken down into vertical integration and horizontal integration. Vertical integration is when individual farms are linked to the food production system by contracts.  Horizontal integration is when farms are merged and absorbed into larger farm units, usually through a corporate scheme.  In either form of integration, it means that farm production is coming under corporate control. 

This process is usually referred to as consolidation,  which means the gathering of smaller economic units into large ones through the integration processes.  Consolidation has political and social implications that reach far beyond changing who does the farming and the shift from agriculture to agri-business.  It has political and social ramifications that are altering the form of government that rules over us.  In fact, consolidation could virtually eliminate government by and for the people.   As is evident in who currently wields the most influence and power in Washington, we are rushing for government by and for the corporations.

Consolidation and the industrialization of agriculture is not the only factor contributing to the control of farms by corporations and the shift of political power from the people to the corporate board rooms.  The biggest motive behind the settlement and cultivation of the land was the idea and the fact of an agrarian democracy. Jefferson envisioned a nation of yeoman farmers who were self-reliant in building lives for themselves and their families.  Although Jefferson came to abandon that scheme for the design of America, the idea was operative in shaping America until the end of World War II.  People could homestead and invest in farms, build an economic base for their families, and be relatively independent and self-sufficient in providing for their lives.

The migration away from farms began with the second generation of settlers.  Farmers tended to have large families, and it was apparent to the children that the homesteads could not accommodate many who might want to stay on the farms.  However, few children  to chose farming as a way of life.  Other ways of living and working were far more attractive to them.

The migration of the young off the farm and away from the small towns is recorded in some detail by a strain of American writing referred to as the "revolt from the village."  It is treated both in sociological and historical studies and in imaginative American literature.  Part of the motive was resentment at being bound to the land.  Thoreau explains that resentment in the opening paragraphs of Walden:

  I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt?(8) Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got to live a man's life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables (9) never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.  
Thoreau observes that "men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men."

It is more than ironic that the land which enabled their fathers and mothers to establish a livelihood and way of life free from the repressions of feudal bondage to a master becomes an enslavement.   Certainly, they had to deal with mortgages on their property, but they had a chance to work free of them.  Many were defeated by their struggle with the land, but just as many succeeded. In both cases, the struggle to earn a new status and freedom inspired a fierce desire for independence.  The early American farmer could not wait to be free the bondage of debt, he distrusted banks, and he avoided any transactions which would make him dependent on businesses or anything off the farm.

Farmers on the Dakota plains fought and organized against the railroads.  When electricity became available in the early 20th century, they saw the great convenience and saving in time and effort that electricity could provide, say on those cold, early mornings when they went to the barn to milk cows.  They recognized what an improvement it would be to walk into the barn and simply flick a light switch, rather than have to fill, light, and carefully place kerosene lanterns, the Chicago fire much on their minds.  So they relented and asked the electric companies to run a wire to their barns.  But the utility companies could not make money running wires to light a few bulbs in the barn, and the farmers could not see the expense of electrifying the entire farm.  The solution was the formation, with government help, of the rural electric co-ops.  Little by little farmers accepted conveniences to escape the constant labor for them and their families.  Self-sufficiency and independence was labor intensive and required an oppressive work load of the farmers, their wives, and their children. An old saw of the time was that nothing sent young men looking for their fortune in town faster than a 90-degree day in a hay mow.  A common rule of wisdom among young women was never to marry a farmer.

The establishment of rural communities resulted in the near-simultaneous establishment of churches and schools.  Young people quickly grasped education as a path away from the drudged labor they experienced on the farm.   For the more ambitious, the land grant colleges offered opportunities that their parents never dreamed of.   

Those factors discussed above all played a role in the consolidation and industrialization of farming that we see today.  The struggle for independence and self-reliance is deeply overlaid by the more recent history of federal subsidies.  Government farm programs were created as a way of preserving  family farms, of maintaining a a large base of people self-employed in agriculture, and of keeping a plentiful and stable supply of food for the American people.  When agricultural producers were asked to ramp up production for World War II, they did so with amazing success.  After the war, huge surpluses were the problem, and agricultural subsidies were instituted to keep people on the farm, to keep rural communities intact,and to avert an economic disaster that could affect the entire country.  Corporations muscled into the agricultural subsidy system through many routes.  The biggest 10 percent of the producers
 get 74 percent of the agriculture subsidies. 

Agricultural equipment makers decided that making fewer highly expensive tractors and implements was more profitable than making machines that were affordable and efficient for the smaller-scale producers.  Instead, they made machines that require huge acreages to make them cost effective.  Banks introduced what they initially called "capital farming."  It was a scheme which provided revolving credit accounts so that farmers could purchase the expensive machines, enlarge their acreages, and keep a brisk revenue flowing into the banks.  The excesses and greed of capital farming was the major factor in the agricultural crisis of the 1980s, when many farmers could not keep up their payments to banks and were foreclosed or forced off the farms.  The great recession of 2008 was a repeat of this scheme, only this time it involved the mortgage business on private homes.  The corporate control of agriculture is particularly strong in the control of commodity markets.  Four corporations control 80 percent of the meat production in the U.S.  A few corporations control the marketing of grains.   Practically speaking, there is no open and free market for agricultural products.  Production is controlled by the consolidated corporations.  An example is the trading of frozen pork bellies from which bacon is derived.  For four decades after pork bellies were traded on the futures market as one of the most active commodities, the integrated market has so regulated pork production to processing demand that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is discontinuing trade in pork belly futures. 


When I was a farm and business editor for a newspaper in a town that was called the agricultural equipment capital of the world in the 1960s, the trend toward consolidation and industrialization was a forgone conclusion.  I was an officer and newsletter editor for an organization of farm journalists, and one of the facts the membership dealt with was that the farm population had shrunk so much that newspapers were dropping their farm sections.  Reporters and editors on agriculture knew their jobs would soon be eliminated.  We wrote "urban oriented" stories on the demise of the family farm and what it would mean for consumers.

 One of the things we reported is that agricultural consolidation would put the supply and price of food in the hands of a few corporations who would set the prices and availability of food.  If you have noticed the steep rise in the price of food lately, you are seeing the effects of corporate control come to pass.  Some corporate spokespersons say famines in other parts of the world are resulting in a higher demand in the market place and, therefore, a rise in  prices.  Others say that the diversion of corn into the production of alcohol is causing the food market to rise.  But there is no marketplace that regulates price.  Prices are set by strategies in the corporate offices.
  
If you long for the days of an agrarian based democracy and family life on the farm,  you have to buy Terry Redlin prints to capture the time.   If it ever really existed.

The days of family centered agriculture and inexpensive food are over. 




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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States

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