There seems to be a lot of assumptions online about how farmers act, think, and feel. I think it’s rather unfair to make wild and exaggerated claims about how farmers act, think, and feel when it comes to some of the world’s most talked about issues, especially since the farmer isn’t involved in the conversation. Why aren’t they, though? They’re busy, that’s why. They’re in the fields and on the roads, where others pass them and scream, bemoan, and cry about their practices, prices, and other crimes against humanity that others have decided the average farmer is responsible for. Well, I’m tired of this discussion that excludes farmers, and would like to attempt to be somewhat of a voice for some, but not all.
First, I suppose, I should outline my background, and why I feel the need to speak up. I’m not exactly a farmer, however, I come from a long line of family farmers. My grandfather was the last to farm the field belonging to our family’s homestead, which is now being cared for by my grandma’s nephew. This field has always been conventionally farmed, or at least, as long as the term “conventional” has been in use. The rest of the homestead is up to me and my mother, which includes a sustainable garden and the century-old home. My point in referencing this is that, yes, it’s ‘conventional’ in the sense we grow corn and beans in a rotating fashion, but we also live there. It’s our home, and has been since our ancestors settled across the road nearly 150 years ago.
Conventional vs Organic Farming
I won’t waste time commenting on the benefits and necessities of organic farming. I think the Rodale Institute and USDA have plenty of arguments in favor of organic over conventional. A farmer who is serious about transitioning does have the information and tools they need to accomplish organic farming. At this point, the organic articles you see now are for the consumer, not the farmer. We are well aware of the benefits and necessity, however, we need the consumer on board as well, else our crops aren’t going to sell, and we can’t support our own families.
What I see is a blame game happening—the consumers are blaming farmers for using conventional farming, yet refuse to buy organics, because they can’t afford to do so. Buying cheaper foods means supporting conventional farming, because this is the system the consumer has created with their purchasing power. It works for everyone – the farmer who gets the tiny slice, the processing plant, the grocery store, and the consumer in the end (and in reality, the farmer gets the smallest of that slice—keep that in mind when you complain about costs. It’s not the beginning, it’s the end, that jacks up that price tag). The more cheap food you buy, the more the demand goes up, and the more the farmer needs to produce. The less you buy organic or stop at the farmer’s market, the less the farmer grows of that item.
Also, with conventional farming you have a system that’s been in place for decades, and that’s difficult to change. Here in Iowa, we crop rotate with soybeans and corn. I was taught at a young age that my grandpa did this because soybeans put nutrients into the ground, which the corn will use the following year. I have to admit, this is about the only thing I learned about “conventional” farming practices from my grandpa, aside from “See that corner of the field, that still has snow? When it melts, then it’s time to work the field.” Everything else seemed like a well kept secret that no one was actually taught, rather, they were just thrown atop a tractor (or combine) and naturally knew what to do. As a child, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to take over the farm and do what my grandpa did so effortlessly. He grew up helping his parents and grandparents in that field—what did I know? I’ve gobbled up tons of information on organics, gardening, and the certification processes, completely overwhelmed and terrified that I may ‘break’ what system we have that is working. Turns out I didn’t have to know or learn anything, as another family member right around the corner had the ‘natural education’ I did not. For this reason, I feel, I have a very unique perspective on conventional vs organic farming.
Yes, conventional farming is bad for our environment. However, not all conventional farms operate the same. Some practice detasseling, some do not (which is another one of those conversations I had with my grandpa at some point in my teen years, curious how the whole farming things works. Turns out he didn’t for reasons I won’t bore you with). Some have proper barriers along their field so as to protect the ground from leaching (something my grandpa did in 1970, as I recently found a “soil conservation” report dated as such), while others are polluting our drinking water. Some use airplanes to spray chemicals, and some, such as our cousin, don’t trust them and won’t use planes because of their cost, inefficiency, and lack of safety. Some farms don’t even crop rotate, counting on the process of only one type of crop to sustain their ever-changing incomes, yet also may use what’s known as a ‘cover crop’ to add back to the soil in the fall and spring to make up for the lack of rotation. All these methods and practices are unique not only to the farmer, but the farm itself, which is why I feel it’s disconcerting that farmers are quite often lumped altogether. They are individuals with different crops, different fields, and different opinions, not a single entity with environmental destruction in mind. Quite the opposite, actually.
Feeding the World
Simply put, without farms and farmers, the entire human population would starve. No matter if the crop is going towards animal feed, gas, or some other additional product, directly or indirectly, the world depends on farmers. Without food, we can’t survive. It’s the single necessary item that can’t be replaced by money. It should be our top priority over everything except water, the other most important aspect of our human existence, which is also being placed on a low priority. Everyone is guilty of this, in one way or another. Every day people around the world allow for commodities such as money, gas, and clothing to take priority over food, water, and environment. Many claim lack of funds or lack of time for not being more involved in anything other than their destructive, compliant, day to day lives, making farmers the easy target as someone to blame that isn’t themselves. The sad fact is, those who blame the farmers for the woes of the world aren’t working in any capacity to change even a small part of the system that they despise. And there really are options to ‘do your part’, no matter how small or big, that make an impact. It’s important to realize, though, that it is the consumers fault for the current economy. If you absolutely must blame someone other than yourself, look into what laws your local politicians may be passing and get involved.
Another misconception I see often is the idea of subsidies. Like I mentioned before, the farmer gets the smallest slice of the profits. And in order for their tiny slice to stay even remotely profitable, there is a system called a “subsidy”. Basically a farmer is allowed to take a small slice, usually only an acre or two out of a hundred, and not farm. Sometimes these small slices are already areas that shouldn’t be farmed or can’t be farmed, such as a marsh or a swampy area that’s not suitable for farming in the first place. In return, they are given a small compensation (Maybe $1,000 per subsidized acre, if that) and it usually doesn’t amount to what it would have if they’d sold crops grown there. This is done to keep the prices fair for the farmers, which has already been a huge struggle since their prices are so low. Most don’t realize that to make a regular income—even $30,000 / year—a farmer needs about 100 acres and a $10,000 loan for seeds and other equipment.
The Welfare Remarks
Often I’ve seen the rhetoric that “farmers are the real welfare queens.” I imagine once the fictitious illusion of the inner-city welfare queen was blown to smithereens, some had to transfer that idea somewhere else. When it was discovered that the majority of those on food stamps actually did work jobs, that idea was passed off again, this time to the farmer.
What these people fail to realize is the sheer amount of cost involved in a farm. The subsidies I mentioned before are dependent on the total number of acres a farmer owns. One number people like to publish is tied to a well-known political representative in our state. In 2017, a group published a real pretty looking stat: “$367,763 in disaster, corn, soybean and oat commodity subsidies over 21 years.” This number actually only equates to about $17,000 per year, and lumps in ALL the forms of so-called ‘welfare’, without looking at the individual numbers or years. Imagine if your home flooded, your town paid you in disaster relief, and your neighbors shamed you for ‘taking welfare’. That’s exactly what part of that money was—disaster relief from flooding, fire, or some other ‘natural disaster’ where federal funds kicked in.
It’s fantastically easy to find lots of articles and comments about ‘how much’ he’s ‘stolen’. However, what’s a lot harder to find is the number of acres his farm has. I had to dig, but found that it’s somewhere around 750 acres. Now remember, this isn’t all ‘free money’ when farming those acres—the costs match the income. You need combines, which cost more than the average home. You need tractors and other equipment, which is also a greater cost than anyone can imagine. With that many acres, you also need farm hands or other help, because obviously one person can’t take care of that much on their own. Seeds and fertilizer also cost money, something that’s been on the rise thanks to Big Ag out of control. The income-to-cost ratio has been changing for the worse for farmers, thus the reason for ‘bail outs’, subsidies, and loans. And when you look at 750 acres, that $17,000/year looks pretty damn small. Hell, that wouldn’t even pay for a single farm hand!
The bottom line is this—if you aren’t a farmer, or don’t know a farmer or have listened to one extensively, then don’t speak for them or criticize. There are hundreds of farming practices, all of them unique and none of them ‘standard’. Loans and subsidies are not ‘welfare’, but rather ensuring EVERYONE’S survival, both farmer and consumer alike.
My other half pointed out to me the other day: “Farmers have always been the peasants, look at history,” he was right. In former revolutions, it’s been the peasants rising up against the political machines taking the wealth. So if you aren’t standing next to the farmer, you’re standing next to the government that’s about to fall. Are you sure you’re standing up for the right people?