I grew up on a family farm of the kind that now exists mostly in myth and memory. In the early 1950s, we had dairy cows, placid Holstein giants who filed quietly into the barn each morning and night and lined up ready for milking at one end and eating at the other. Then came the Clean Milkhouse Act and the end of dairy on our farm. Sanitation is a good thing, no doubt about it, but my father couldn’t borrow the money needed to upgrade the milking facilities, so he switched over to beef.
Like the dairy cattle, the beef grazed in the pasture all summer long, drinking from the river that ran through it. I fixed fences and counted calves and checked the wooden fence posts in the lane for bluebird nests.
We also raised chickens and pigs, as well as the corn, oats, and hay to feed the livestock. The chickens roamed the farmyard, long before anyone mentioned “free range.” At chore time, we hauled corn in bushel baskets, counting the ears we threw to the pigs.
The old days were not idyllic. Lifting and hauling, working dawn to dusk, bodies wore out. Heavy machinery maimed men, chewing fingers, hands, feet. Fall plowing laid fields open to erosion by winter winds and spring rains.
Despite the hardships, farming could be a good life for a family. Our neighbors up and down the road made a living on farms much like ours. The river ran clean and meadowlarks sang from telephone wires in the morning.
Year by year and decade by decade, farming changed: more machines, fewer farmers, more crops, less livestock. In 1935, more than 30 million people lived on 6.8 million farms. By 1958, the number of people living on farms had dropped to just over 20 million. In 1970, the number of U.S. farms had dropped to about 2.7 million and the farm population to about 9.7 million.
By the 1970s, diversified farming that included crops and livestock was changing to specialization, with the resulting concentration of large numbers of animals in confinement facilities and intensive row-cropping of corn and soybeans. Hybrid seeds and new farming practices boosted yields. Application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides substituted for older practices of crop rotation and cultivation. As land prices rose, lenders and government programs pushed farmers to expand, offering loans to purchase more acres and equipment.
Then the bubble burst. In 1980 the prime interest rate rose to 15.3 percent, driving operating costs up. The land could not produce enough to pay for itself. Farmers who had bought land at higher prices saw their net worth plummet as variable interest rates on their mortgages soared.
As land prices slid downward, foreclosures accelerated. In 1983, the New York Times reported:
“Over all, farms are in the worst economic condition since the 1930’s. Total farm income was more than a third lower last year than it was as recently as 1979. Thousands of farmers have gone into bankruptcy and thousands of others have been forced to leave the land to earn a living. But some farmers are profiting handsomely.
“The farmers who are doing well tend to have little debt and large farms. Indeed, 1 percent of the farmers earned two-thirds of the farm profits in 1981, the last year for which data are available.”
The 1980s farm crisis was deadly for farmers as well as for farms. Suicides soared. That’s one thing that has stayed the same over the decades: today farming has the highest suicide rate of any occupation.
Resistance to the capitalist gospel of bigger, better, and always more has always had a place in farm country and culture. Notable efforts in past centuries include the cooperative movement, the Grange, penny auctions during the depression, farm organizations including the National Farmers Organization and Farmers Union, and resistance in various forms during the 1980s farm crisis. The environmental movement both antagonized and influenced U.S. agriculture.
Today, challenges to the dominant agro-industrial model abound. Some family farms have survived, adapted, and found new ways to prosper. New farmers have moved onto the land, some experimenting with combinations of organic or sustainable or community-supported models. Immigrants struggle for land and a place in the food and farming system, and African American farmers continue to fight for land denied them by centuries of racism. Consumer resistance challenges the factory farm model for meat, eggs, and milk, and environmental concerns push back at agro-industrial practices ranging from chemical use to concentrated animal feeding systems (CAFOs).
The many new projects and directions in food and farming defy easy classification. Predicting success or failure is equally difficult. Even defining success is challenging.
Without claiming that any of these projects is the wave of the future or a challenge to capitalism or even likely to last another generation, this series will look at three food and farming projects that offer exciting possibilities and lessons for the future of food and farming in the United States:
- Immigrant farming dreams: HAFA – the Hmong American Farmers Association
- Urban farming: Lessons from Growing Power
- Connecting With Farmers: Community Supported Agriculture
- New Farmers: Land Stewardship Project/Farm Transitions
These articles will be short introductions, not comprehensive analyses or evaluations. I hope they will help inspire more thinking about food, farming and agriculture in the year ahead.