Posted on: December 8, 2019 at 11:43 am

When you hear the words “rural America”, you probably imagine that picturesque scene from a Hallmark movie: a charming old farmhouse, a big red barn silo, and a herd of cattle grazing peacefully on rolling green pastures.

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While this scene may have been the case a hundred years ago, the current landscape is looking much more bleak. In fact, many believe that the family farms that built a nation may be facing extinction.

What is Happening to Small Farms?

Over the last thirty years, the agricultural landscape of America has changed dramatically. Large crop farms (farms with 2000 acres or more) have more than doubled since the late 1980’s, while the number of midsize farms (with 200 to 999 acres) have dropped by nearly half [1].  

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This shift has been seen in almost all crop areas, including soy, corn, wheat, and in almost all fruit, vegetable, nut, and berry crops [1].

A recent report released by the American Farm Bureau Federation stated that the number of Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies increased by 24% from last year. This is not surprising, since the report also stated that the total farm debt in 2019 is projected to be a staggering $416 billion [2].

The Rieckmann family, mid-sized dairy farmers in Wisconsin, have never seen a crisis quite like it. They are $300 000 in debt, but have very little means to pay it back [3]. 

The farm earns about $16 for every 100 pounds of milk they sell, which is about forty percent less than what they earned six years ago [3].

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“What do you do when you you’re up against the wall and you just don’t know which way to turn?” [3]

The family is having a hard enough time making a living, let alone pay back a massive sum of debt.

Suicide Rates Soaring

According to a report published by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate aomong Americans living in rural areas is 45 percent greater than that of people living in urban centres [4].

An even more recent study conducted by the CDC, which is currently under review, has reported that the suicide rate among people working in farming, fishing, and forestry has been increasing since 2012 [5].

When farmers lose their jobs, they lose their homes and their land – the legacy that has been passed down to them through generations [3].

“It hits you so hard when you feel like you’re the one who is losing the legacy that your great-grandparents started,” explained Randy Roeker, a Wisconsin dairy farmer [3]. 

He lost his neighbour to suicide after financial problems forced him to sell his fifty dairy cows. Roeker himself admitted he has been struggling with depression as well [3].
Why is this happening? The report pointed to several factors, including financial stress, social isolation, and the fact that there are far fewer options to seek mental health counselling in rural areas. The report also pointed out that farmers tend to have much greater access to “lethal means”, a.k.a. – guns [6].

What Has Caused this Farming Crisis?

There are multiple factors that have contributed to the desperate situation that thousands of farmers like the Riekmann family have found themselves in:

Technology: farms are more efficient than ever before, but most of these benefits are seen primarily by large, corporate farmers. Despite the fact that four million farms have disappeared from the American landscape since 1948, total farm output has doubled [3].
Globalization: The expansion into the global economy has allowed more farmers to sell their crops to foreign markets. Initially this sounds like a good thing, but an increase in the supply of products like soybeans, corn, cattle, and milk, equate to lower prices [3].

Government Policy and Trade Wars Devastating American Farmers

China was, at one point, one of the United States’ leading agricultural markets, purchasing over $20 billion of agricultural commodities every year. That number has dropped to a mere $7.5 billion [7].

This drastic change is a result of the trade war between the current U.S administration and the Chinese government. When the United States put tariffs on Chinese goods like steel and aluminum in 2018, the Chinese government retaliated by purchasing corn and soybeans from other countries [3].

This has devastated the American farmers who relied on the Chinese market to sell their goods. To help combat the issue, the U.S. government has offered $16 billion in aid for those who have been affected by the trade war [8].

The problem here is that most of that money has gone to large producers who, by nature of their size, have experienced more significant losses, leaving mid-sized farms with very little assistance [3].

Sonny Perdue, secretary of agriculture under President Trump, has stated “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” [3].

Small farmers are now often selling their crops for less than it cost to produce.

How Will This Impact the Country?

So what’s the big deal? If we’re losing the smaller farms, but the large commercial farms are able to pick up the slack, why is this issue so important?

Small and mid-sized farms are very important for local rural economies. When they sell to large corporations and leave, other small businesses that relied on those smaller farms are forced to leave as well, taking jobs with them [9].

Barb Kalbach, a corn and soybean farmer in Iowa, no longer has a local place to buy chemicals or get her farm equipment repaired. Her county’s only pharmacy closed earlier this year.

“All the thousands of farmers that have left the land—all the businesses have gone with them,” she said [3].

Smaller farms provide more jobs per acre, are more likely to purchase local, and areas with more small and mid-sized farms have been shown to have lower unemployment rates and less poverty [9].

Smaller operations are also typically better for the environment. With fewer acres to manage, smaller farmers are able to have a more intimate knowledge of their land. This allows them to plant a more diverse range of crops, and integrate these crops with their livestock [9].

Large scale farms, on the other hand, tend to be monoculture operations, and the industrial methods used to raise crops have negative effects on soil and water quality, and contribute to climate change [9].

How Can the Farms be Saved?

Most farmers agree: government policy needs to change.

Laws need to be put in place that prevents grocery stores and processing facilities that buy food from farmers from consolidating. The government needs to prevent these big mergers from happening so that farmers have more places to sell their crops, and so that prices for equipment and supplies will come down [3].

There are antitrust laws that are currently in place to prevent these things from happening, but they are largely unenforced. Farmers are rallying together all across the country to advocate for better antitrust enforcement [3].

Despite their efforts, farmers aren’t holding out much hope. “I sometimes feel,” says Mary Rieckmann, “like they’re trying to wipe us off the map.” [3]

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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