Family Farms are Worth Saving
By ROGER HOFFMANN
At a glance, the goal of preserving family farming in this country might
seem a losing cause. Since 1910, farm families have decreased from nearly
35 percent of America's population to less than 2 percent; and the number
Since 1970 the number of farms in Idaho has declined by more than a fourth;
and the loss is accelerating. In just one decade beginning in 1984, there
has been a 17% decline. With the loss of farms, rural communities are giving
way to suburbia, with its traffic congestion and other community-killing
Nationwide, conversion of urban-fringe farm land is between 2 and 2.5 million
acres annually. This is a loss of often the richest farmland around, and
is creating another problem. Food for the bulk of the population comes from
farther and farther away, and in the global marketplace, from places where
food safety and public health may take an even farther-back seat to agribusiness
profits. The average distance foodstuffs on American tables travels is approaching
2000 miles. This is not the efficient food system that it is often and loudly
proclaimed. The energy costs (from vulnerable and non-renewable sources)
alone make it inefficient.
Yet the difficulty of making a living on the land, coupled with growth pressures
and land speculation is rapidly converting Idaho's farmland to housing and
sometimes even more noxious uses. In some parts of Idaho, super-regional
landfills, intended to receive the wastes of far away industries are sprouting
on scraped-bare farm fields.
It's no great mystery why farmers and ranchers are going out of business.
Very simply, prices paid to producers fail to compensate for the costs of
production. Conventional practices have led to steadily higher input costs,
while a growing consolidation and globalization of the food industry into
a few large corporations has squeezed fairness out of the marketplace, resulting
in ever smaller returns to the producers.
So why should non-farmers care? Here's why: As smaller farms and ranches
go under, communities lose. The loss of farms means losses to town businesses
which serve them. Rural character is replaced by suburban sprawl and even
less seemly development. And the growing trend towards monopolization of
the food supply threatens producer and consumer alike.
THE LOSERS Clearly, urban residents and consumers are losers along with
the producers. As sprawl supplants agriculture, taxes increase while quality
of life decreases. That nice "open space" that people always took
for granted is filled with housing and parking lots. And when the remaining
agricultural land is converted to corporate feedlots, the short-term bottom
line tends to override such considerations as how animal densities and their
wastes may be affecting community water supplies.
THE WINNERS Consumers ought to be alarmed. While producers are literally
losing the farm, supermarket prices rise. Agri-business giants like IBP,
ConAgra, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland are recording record profits.
For example, while family farmers and ranchers were getting 15% to 20% less
for their cattle last year, meat prices at the supermarket were essentially
unchanged. However IBP's profits in that period doubled from $90 million
to $180 million.
Each of the "big three" had record profits over each of the last
two years. These profits clearly track market consolidation. While the four
largest packers slaughtered about 36% of fed cattle in 1980, they were up
to 72% in 1990, and now control over 80%. According to Iowa State agricultural
economist John Helmuth, who spoke at IRC-sponsored town meetings on the
problem last August, "this represents the fastest increase in market
concentration in US history".
The concentration of power over the nation's food supply in fewer corporate
hands also means a steady loss of local control to outsiders with no accountability,
an eventual loss of choice in the marketplace, and eventually higher prices
at the checkout stand.
There are solutions to these problems. There is a true grassroots movement
afoot working to preserve the best of the rural West. Some of its goals:
1) Promote more economically, ecologically, and socially sustainable agriculture,
by building support for producers engaged in a transition to more sustainable
2) Address the problems of economic concentration in the livestock industry
and in other food industry segments by gaining enforcement of existing anti-trust
3) Reorient federal farm policy to support family-scale agriculture and
end the misdirected subsidization of corporate agribusiness that has given
it competitive advantage at the expense of family farms;
4) End the subsidization, by every level of government, of suburban sprawl
which further hastens the rapid transformation of the West's best farmland
to shopping malls.
These challenges are shared by those in agriculture and in cities alike.
It will take consistent efforts to promote an understanding of this shared
responsibility and to build the necessary bridges between the city-dwellers
and those who should be encouraged to produce their food.
Roger Hoffmann is executive director of Idaho Rural Council, a grassroots
group working to sustain rural communities in Idaho. For more information
call (208) 344-6184 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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