RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Government Farm Aid:
Scarce as Hen's Teeth

Of all the questions people ask farmers, perhaps the most difficult to answer is, "Can't you guys get along without government aid?"

This question has three answers. One is, "Yes." The other is "No." The other other is "It depends on the program."

On the "yes" side: U.S.D.A. wants you to believe that U.S.D.A. programs benefit farmers. T'aint necessarily so. The $400-million for university agricultural research, the GSM-102 export credit guarantee program which by May 1998 guaranteed $5.9 billion in loans to foreign buyers, the $1.1 billion PL480 Food for Peace program, the Export Enhancement Program which pays to keep the prices of America's foods low in foreign markets, food stamps, school lunches -- these dollars go to corporations.

Take your local school lunch. Please. A farmer raises wheat; the school buys sandwich buns. A farmer raises cattle; the school buys hamburger. Who gets paid? The companies making buns or grinding beef. Like Pillsbury, or IBP. In each category, there are three or four multinational corporations.

Being sharp, however, people recognize that the farmer sells his wheat or cattle to the hamburger makers. True, but to believe in trickle-down profit is wrong. Profit to a corporation is reinvested in the corporation or paid out to the faithful stockholder. The farmer, as provider of raw materials, is a cost. He gets as little as humanly possible.

To make matters worse, farmers sign contracts with the corporations. Their products never make the open market, and some farmers never own what they raise. One farmer I know is a chicken contractor for a top U.S. company.

For the privilege of raising the corporation's broilers, he borrowed $225,000 to build on his farm three "state of the art" steel buildings. They were built to company specifications and outfitted with automatic feeders, waterers and ventilation equipment. He felt really good about these, especially because the design came from the University.

Four or five times a year, the company delivers loads of 20,000 chicks per building and their premeasured feed. Growers are never sure how much feed they get and have asked U.S.D.A. to investigate whether the feed is fairly weighed. U.S.D.A. has promised to do so.

This farmer, now a contractor, is bound to follow company policy. And, there's a big difference between farming and company policy.

Experience teaches farmers to check their animals, notice little changes, and make decisions to respond. For example, a farmer culls slow-growing chicks, and saves strong ones to improve the future genetics of his flock.

A contractor, on the other hand, makes no decisions. He checks the feeders and waterers. He walks through the buildings picking up the dead critters. This is an unavoidable chore in buildings where animals are packed all their lives like rush hour on a subway.

Dead chickens are no longer the property of the company, by the way. Ownership upon death immediately transfers from the company to the contractor.

My friend would like an environmentally sound way to dispose of the carcasses. But researchers haven't devised a thrifty, sustainable plan. It costs about $1 per carcass to dispose of them by burning, so my friend buries them. Sometimes the wild dogs dig up all the carcasses and leave them around.

All of it stinks -- the deal, the jammed poultry houses, the carcasses, the heaps of manure and feathers waiting to be carted to another farm.

He ticks off the chemicals used in the corporate process, beginning with arsenic which changes the blood so it will absorb more nutrients and nitroglycerine to prevent heart attacks. The corporation crew comes out periodically to fumigate or spray the buildings with one thing and another. After they leave, he has to stay away for 8 hours.

"I thought I'd get used to the chemicals," he says, "but I don't." For family meals, my friend raises a few chicks free-range. When he eats out, he orders vegetarian.

When the company birds are grown, the corporation crew picks them up and crams them into the suffocating cages you've seen on trucks scattering feathers down the highway. The crew, always in a hurry, kill some of the birds. Contractors wonder if these trucks are ever cleaned, and whether they spread disease from one farm to another.

The truck hauls the birds to the processing plant. My friend gets paid for the survivors of the ride. Because contractor results are ranked, if another contractor has a better survival rate, my friend's pay is further docked, even if the weight of the surviving birds is the same.

The corporation sends my friend's check to the bank to pay for the buildings, utilities and other loans he's taken out to stay afloat. If everything goes well, and he's gotten a healthy load of chicks and good feed, and had good weather and good luck, he gets something for his time.

My friend's wife works in town. At the end of the year, when they file taxes, their poultry income is so paltry that they get her withholding tax back from the government.

And it gets worse. The newer poultry houses developed by University researchers with funds from government matched by funds from industry can raise more birds more efficiently. My friend remembers how the corporation applauded his buildings, and courted him, and his rush of optimism back at the beginning. "The first two years," he says, "we made money, too."

There have been contractors who simply abandoned their places. Neighbors are the first to notice -- an unbelievable stench. One building in the Ozarks is said to have stood for months unattended, until vermin, flies and bacteria reduced the animals to tiny skeletons in rows of cages.

The corporation exports chicken across the globe. The U.S. government wishes earnestly that the corporation could export enough to balance our imports in oil, steel, and even chicken, but it's a losing game. The system uses more imported resources -- from steel to petroleum -- than it can ever raise.

Another problem is that the corporation's product has been rejected by other countries. The chicken my friend raises, (the chicken you eat if you still eat factory chicken) has been rejected by the European Union.

Our government has a plan -- and a program -- to make up the market. They're sending EEP tax dollars to support chicken sales to a new market -- the ever-so-unstable Middle East.

But, back to the original question: There have been a few government programs that actually benefit farmers and even ensure that land is wisely used. CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) kept marginal land out of production for many years, helping prevent erosion and overproduction. And occasionally there's a program that puts tax dollars into programs that put farmers in touch with consumers, like creating farmer's markets. But these helpful programs are scarce as hen's teeth.

Our supply of farmers is dwindling -- over half the farmers raising hogs went out of business in the last five years. While other countries keep their number of farms and farmers steady, our national policy of industrialization forces farmers off the land.

Our government can help -- it depends on the program.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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