Out here in the Farm Belt, it’s hard to do much other than beat the same drum again and again (and again). It’s hot. It’s dry. Nothing is growing. We’re running out of water. And there is no sign of change on the horizon.
As farmers, we all take risks. We’re part of the hallowed class of job creators, entrepreneurs, small business owners or whatever else becomes the soup-of-the-day political rhetoric about working and living and spreading money around our communities. All of us farmers, large and small, are a big part of the engine that drives the economy of rural communities, rural counties and rural states.
This year, we are learning a lot about what happens when that engine sputters. What happens when farmers have very little to sell?
On my multigenerational family farm here in West Missouri, we have a daily discussion about how we’re going to make it through. The grass we need to feed our herd of cattle and sheep and goats is simply not around. We had a very tiny hay crop to tide us over through winter, but we’ve already dug deep into that hay supply to make it through this summer. We could purchase grain to feed our livestock through the lean times, but grain prices are skyrocketing due to corn and bean crop failures all over the Midwest. So, we really have no choice but to sell off much of the herd until there is more to eat. Then, wait for rain and grass growth once again.
In normal years, or even decent years, we’re not even close to being overstocked. We nearly always have more of a problem of keeping up with the grass rather than having enough grass for our livestock to eat. We usually have to mow off top growth just to maintain pasture quality and don’t even need the extra hay.
The plan of selling off livestock to make it through sounds simple enough, but for my Dad it hurts. He’s a few years out from retirement from his day job and a big part of his retirement plan is to get the farm paid for so that he can have a decent income from the cow-calf operation in his retirement years. Cutting the cattle herd from 85 head down to 35 or 40 is a big hit in projected annual income from calf sales.
And let’s not forgot, we’re not on our own on some island of drought. Broad swaths of the Farm Belt are in the same condition and making the same decisions. There’s no hay to buy. Cattle prices are dropping quickly as more farmers start to liquidate their herds. Our collective crisis means that we’re all making individual decisions for survival that end up causing the problem to get worse (lots of cattle hitting the market at once leads to low prices and low farm income–this while beef prices are likely to go up at the grocery store for consumers).
Enter the need for those “pesky” rules, regulations, incentives and spending we call the Federal Farm Bill. The Farm Bill theoretically helps farmers make it through these kinds of situations. The truth is, though, it provides support for a very narrow group of farmers: row croppers. Corn, cotton, soybean, rice and wheat farmers have both crop disaster insurance and weather insurance to help. They also have direct payments (crop subsidies) to help them through. The federal government pays out billions each year to make sure these crop producers can get back in the fields each spring and keep the wheels of the commodity monoculture system moving full speed ahead.
I’m not attempting to paint a picture here about the moral fallacy of row croppers. It’s just that livestock and vegetable farmers like me are fighting for crumbs of farm bill spending while row croppers experience a robust system of government support and aid. There are good programs to help with conserving water and soil and enhancing wildlife habitat, but those programs are horribly underfunded and nearly always on the chopping block in farm policy debates.
I suppose it’s a sign of the times that here in Austerity Nation our Congressional leaders are in a standstill over federal farm policy, drought assistance and the coming elections. The Farm Bill is set for renewal expiring at the end of 2012, but the Republican House and Democratic Senate can’t come to an agreement about how to extend the farm bill past this year (it’s typically a 5-year Farm Bill). The drought of 2012 was a big carrot for Congressional action on the bill. But this week, House leaders attempted to cram through drought relief by cutting spending on some of those same conservation programs livestock and produce farmers love. They tried to make even more cuts than would have offset the price tag of the drought assistance bill.
This little situation is just proof of where our politics has been headed for some time. Very wealthy row crop farmers enjoy untouchable and unquestioned government support while programs that assist livestock producers and so-called “specialty crop” producers are on the chopping block. Row croppers generally have large farms totaling thousands of acres; livestock and vegetable farmers are much, much smaller. In other words, we’re on a track of cutting programs for the many in order to pay for continued support of the handful of wealthy elite at the top of the economic pyramid.
That’s an old story that courses through the river of human history. We shall see how it turns out this time. We’ll see if it rains on time to save our pastures and foragelands. We’ll see if it’s possible to get our fall veggies in the ground. Right now, it’s all about waiting around in the hundred degree heat saying “we’ll see.”
Bryce is a farmer, father, writer and rural economic development entrepreneur. He works with his family to raise organic vegetables, beef, lamb, chickens, goats and manage the bottomland forest woodlot in Western Missouri. He has helped to launch numerous social enterprises including a sustainable wood processing cooperative, a dairy goat cheese processing facility and a conservation-based land management company that incentivizes carbon sequestration in forests and grasslands. Bryce currently co-owns the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia, Missouri, where the local food store operates a weekly produce subscription program, the Missouri Bounty Box (www.missouribountybox.com). Bryce, along with 135 other farmers, sells his produce through this program.
Farm Aid provides resources for family farmers in crisis. Go to www.farmaid.org/disaster for more information and learn how you can help. Donate to Farm Aid’s Family Farm Disaster Fund at www.farmaid.org/disasterfund