The tractorcade attack on Washington may have been only the first front of a growing storm of frustration among small farmers going broke
Alfred Jordan sent his sympathies to Washington for the American Agriculture Movement's winter assault on Washington, but he and his tractor stayed home.
It wasn't simply that Jordan's tractor is small. And it wasn't a matter of distance: Jordan's farm is in Drayden, Md., only 70 miles south of the capital.
Nor is Jordan a farmer without problems. Far from it. But when AAM people with spreads as big as 4,000 acres of grain call themselves "small family farmers," Jordan - with his 100 acres of soybeans and tobacco - becomes invisible.
Nevertheless, the preponderance of this nation's farmers do work Jordan-size farms - farms at the bottom economic level of American agriculture. And their small-farm majority has importance far out-stripping their minor 11 percent share of marketed farm products.
The small farm problem is quite simply one of survival. Census statistics show that about 4 million such operations have disappeared since 1935, many under roads and buildings, but most absorbed by other farms There are about 1.8 million left. And Department of Agriculture economists expect as many as 27,000 more will go bust this year alone.
On the whole, the situation of the truly small farms is worse than even the cash flow problems which brought commando tactics and tractors to the Federal Triangle. The moderate-size farms represented by the AAM are among those that eagerly gobble up the acreage of the faltering small fry as they go under.
But both kinds of farmers share the same sources of grief: the corporate-based centralization of American agriculture, the federal farm policy of "get big or get out" which has favored that centralization, and the high-technology farming that corporations and government have cooperatively spawned.
All those, of course, are natural outcomes of our tax-fed private enterprise system. And by the supposed rules of that system, an organization that can't compete will rightfully fail. (Except we forget the Lockheeds so quickly.) Which is why, when the small farmers complain that they can't make it, the dominant response tends to be: So what?
Dairyman Dick Wood thinks he has a good answer to that. "If we lose the small farms, we're going to end up paying a great deal more for food, no question about that. The choice is whether you pay small farmers enough to make a living, or else pay industrial conglomerates - Kraft, Tenneco, and such - the money their creative accountants decide they better have for the food they sell."
Wood was interviewed at the Northeast Regional Small Farms Conference held last fall in Poland Springs, Me. The subject of that conference was self-preservation. Alfred Jordan did go that (courtesy of sponsoring federal agencies including the Agriculture Department, the Community Services Administration and Action), along with other small farmers from the Washington area and the East Coast states right up through New England.
For Wood, who is also president of the Maine chapter of the National Farmers Organization, the conference was close to home. But he was addressing national questions when he spoke.
"A lot of those [AMM-level farmers] got big scrabbling to survive," he said, "and a lot of their neighbors didn't survive because they did. They were pitted neighbor against neighbor, dog eat dog, and the whole country is getting to be poorer for it. And a lot of the bigger guys wish they still were small. They got big in a kind of desperate attempt to beat the cost-price squeeze and they find they aren't a hell of a lot better off, if any. They're just spinning over more money. Are you milking more now and enjoying less? Most of us are."
What Wood meant by the country getting "poorer" is that rural society in many areas is withering as the small farms that sustained it disappear. But cities also suffer; small farms are the ones most easily adapted to coexist with urban sprawl. Located close to population centers, small farms offer high-quality fresh food at low prices.
They are also the most common links the American people have had with the land, a fact which has functional aspects as well as philosophical because small spreads have been the traditional entry points to farming for people with not much money.
Rising land costs are changing this stepping-stone role into an uncomfortably high threshold. "Family farmers are about the only group I know of," said Wood, "who constantly produce at just under cost. But [mainline economic institutions] know food production has to keep coming, so they kind of falsely inflate the value of real estate every year, and we all end up going back to the bank and borrowing more money. They've had to appreciate the value of farm land very rapidly to keep any kind of agriculture afloat."
So even small farmers struggling to pay their bills may be sitting on (mortgaged) hundred-thousand-dollar land investments. As the old saying has it, "Farmers live poor and die rich."
The squeeze factor of centralization shows up starkly in Agriculture Department statistics. Moderate-scale farmers of the AAM sort are about a third of the farm population, and produce about a third of the nation's agricultural product - three times the output of small farms, although small farms outnumber them two to one.
But all the rest of the nation's farm production, almost 60 percent, is grown or controlled by a mere six percent of all farms. The six percent are mammoth outfits (still mostly owned by single families or their private corporations) that do make AAM operations look tiny. And these high-rollers are nicely locked in with the major farm supply and food processor corporations collectively known as agribusiness.
World-renowned big crops come from this system (which depends heavily on export markets). But the negative effects may be even bigger in the end.
Beyond the serious alterations of rural life, there is the matter of soil erosion. Government and university reports now document that the non-rotating cash crops (corn, soybeans, wheat) and fence-to-fence planting with energy-devouring chemical fertilization - urged on by corporations and government subsidies alike - are causing ruinous depletion of topsoil.
Those fertilizers, not to mention pesticides and the giant new-age farm machines, consume gluttonous quantities of petroleum and petrochemicals. And the increased dominance of big farms in warm places has left whole regions of the nation (New England, for example) with the potential for food shortages if anything interferes seriously with long-haul freight systems.
Moreover, the furor about foreign investment in U.S. cropland has screened an even more basic development. "What is occurring now in the agricultural economy," says one highly placed Agriculture Department analyst, "is the process of separation of labor, management and capital." In other words, the sophisticated final phase of industrialization has begun. And what that usually means is: Them that's got it, get it.
It also means that farmer militancy is general, including the self-protective movements now beginning among small farmers, is headed for collision with major inertial forces in the economy. The outcome, at some point, is likely to include pressure for democratic planning of the economy and elevation of social goals to equivalency with the great god profit. That means everyone will have to get involved in the debate, so some familiarity with the protagonists seems advisable.
The AAM brought its parity price support story to town (Who could forget it?). But here are some words from, and about, the small farm operators who stayed at home.
"Farmers are crazy," said the farmer. "At least, small farmers are crazy. We got to be crazy. Who else works so hard for so little and still likes it?"
"And who else would be dumb enough to think you can make a living buying retail and selling wholesale?" said another. Parity Explained
Farmers talking about parity - as in "We want 100 percent (or 90 percent) parity!" - are mystifying to the average urbanite who can't figure out what they want parity with.
It's this: the goal described by "parity" is purchasing power equivalent to what farmers had in a certain set of reference years.
Parity prices are farm product prices high enough to generate that purchasing power. And the preferred means to guarantee the needed level of prices is federal intervention - subsidies that will automatically fill the gap whenever market rates drop below the desired parity price level. Which is almost all the time.
It seems simple until you find out that the reference years are 1909-1914 (by which you may know that the whole parity policy debate began some time ago), and that the basis for establishing an official parity price has been altered strenuously by changes in average farm sizes, yields per acre, etc.
But the basic issue is just what you think it is: income.
Parity income simply means that when the crop is sold, the farmer will have enough money to meet costs, proceed with the next year's work, pay for family needs and have enough left over to afford satisfactory recreation, possibly even save some money.
So the next time you see a tractor caravan with signs calling for parity, you can fall right in behind if you are one of most of us. Your slogan will be "Me too."
Other farmers around the table at the Northeast Regional Conference laughed or nodded ruefully in agreement. It was a moment of perverse self-congratulation among survivors, among successful small farmers such as Sebert Witt of Red House, W. Va., and Philip Perdue of Salisbury, Md.
Perdue, growing soybeans, corn, tomatoes and peppers, as well as broiler chickens, averages $15,000 to $16,000 taxable income per year. Witt gets about the same annual take from the eggs, vegetables and beef cattle he raises on his 125 acres. Dick Wood, with 90 head of cattle and a farm worth $150,000, annually sells about $20,000 worth of dairy products. But the first $6,000 of that goes to pay interest on his loans ("That's about average," he says). By the time other expenses are met, he says, there is usually no taxable income left. "We do a lot of barter," he says. "We get by."
Wood has been farming for 23 years. Witt, 60 years old, has farmed all but three years of his working life (service time excepted). Perdue, 38, grew up on a farm and has been at it since.
Although they are doing all right, these old hands remain uncomfortably close to a larger number who don't "get by." An Agriculture Department data analyst estimates 20 percent of the families who operate commercial small farms live below official poverty limits. The average net income from commercial small farms, says the analyst, is probably about $2,300. The great majority of such farms can only continue operating because family members take off-farm jobs.
And if the testimony of even the successful small farmers is taken as evidence, their traditional conflicts with insects and weather are minor compared to the difficulties they have getting money, paying taxes assessed for the development potential of their land, getting government program assistance, finding machinery appropriate to their needs and replacing it when it dies, and locating markets where they aren't simply run over by big-time buyers and sellers.
"If you're a small farmer in this country and depend on a small farm income," says livestock-raiser Gene Smith from Bowden, W.Va., "you've got to have problems."
So why do they keep doing it? The answer often seems to be an antic, irrational drive that bemuses the farmers themselves even as it motivates them.
Alfred Jordan puts it this way: "I like farming. I hope I never have to give it up." He grew up on a nearby farm and by now, at age 32, has been planting crops for 15 years. But never giving up means working winters oystering on the Potomac and St. Mary's rivers to supplement wife Vivian's pay from full-time work at Sears, Roebuck.
The Jordans are staying ahead of the game so far, although in addition to other problems facing small farmers, they must deal with the special hazards of their skin color.
In general, Agriculture Department statistics show that black farmers are disproportionately few among small farmers to begin with, and among small farmers they are least likely to have off-farm employment when they need it. One Agriculture Department analyst estimates poverty among black small farmers is about three times the 20 percent overall average.
The Jordans stand out from this bleak statistical background, but they are still in the picture. Their operation is the largest of the relatively few remaining black family farms in southern St. Mary's County. After years as tenant farmers, and despite a tight local land market, they managed recently to buy 20 acres of their own.
But Alfred Jordan still plants most of his crops on 80 additional acres he leases, or farms on a sharecrop basis with surrounding white landowners. In those sorts of arrangements, he says, color makes a difference.
Sharecropping is still common in St. Mary's County. Extension Agent Edward Swecker explains that the procedure is often used by landowners to cover their costs until the best sale price comes along.
Swecker says standard sharecrop arrangements in the area range from one-third to one-half of the crop going to the landowner. And by all accounts, it is customary for the owner to supply fertilizer, some or all equipment, even a house if the deal covers an entire farm. The rule of thumb seems to be that the less the owner furnishes, the greater the share the tenant should get.
Yet Alfred Jordan has never been able to get better than a 50-50 split, he says, and has never gotten more than fertilizer supplied in the bargain. By contrast, Paul and Catherine Roland, white former sharecroppers who now own a small farm down the road from the Jordans, never got significantly less than a two-thirds share in their 15 years of tenant farming.
"Once," recalls Paul Roland, "I got one-half plus equipment and a house. But it would have gone to two-thirds if I'd supplied the fertilizer."
The Rolands, who are neighbors of the Jordans, think that Alfred should hold out for a two-thirds share deal. But on one occasion when he did that, Jordan recalls, "the man just told me to go where I could get it. And he didn't say it nice."
Jordan would like to see a law passed to regulate sharecrop relations.
And, after examining his annual receipts, he would also like to see channels established for negotiating better treatment from food processors and farm suppliers. "The fertilizer people, the processors, they're making money.
"But the farmers aren't - we're about giving it away, and we're the ones that do all the work. What's a farmer to do? We feed the people. The marketing - there's the problem. The middlemen are making plenty [an old gripe and probably not true, see box above], and they ought to give more to the farmers."
"Now if [small farmers] all worked together," says Jordan, "we might get some satisfaction." There are indeed many white small farmers in their area, but the Jordans feel the old restrictions of race would be used against any black farmers who took the lead in trying to organize such an endeavor.
Extension Agent Swecker, who feels that some progress in attitude change is under way, confirms that no new blood is entering the farming community in St. Mary's. What was past, therefore, is still largely the future. That Old Devil Middleman
Farmers are always taking verbal shots at the "middleman" in agriculture, villainous taker of profits that farmers think should be theirs. But the target is elusive because the term encompasses every process involved in bringing food and fiber from harvest to the consumer.
The farmers' accusations are usually answered by analyses purporting to show that at no given place in this multitude of handlings, cookings, packagings, storings and truckings does any excess profit accumulate - that the value added by processing (which frequently involves injections of sugar and synthetic flavors, followed by mummification in cardboard and plastic) is reflected fairly in the incremental cost increases that add themselves to farm products.
The processor corporations themselves and the American Farm Bureau Federation both like to blame labor unions for big price hikes that don't trickle back to the farmer. But with food prices far outstripping wage increases, that proposition doesn't hold much water.
So who's skimming the cream? The mystery has, as they say, parameters. Farm prices are doing a nostalgia act, with corn, for instance, selling in St. Mary's County, says Extension Agent Ed Swecker, for the price it brought in 1940. So it isn't the farmers.
For some years now, more and more of every wage-working consumer's income has been disappearing at the grocery store. So it isn't the workers. And the small businesses involved in the "middle" mostly aren't doing so well either.
But climbing right along with those prices are the profits up at the top, where the "middleman" turns out to be vertically integrated with agribusiness monarchs such as ITT, Tenneco, Gulf & Western, and others among the Fortune 500.
So, the transmission of farmland from generation to generation within families is increasingly crucial - if farmers' fever is passed along with it. Which is the case with Mark Melson, 22, of Bridgeville, Del. (roughly on a line between Washington and Rehoboth). Family land makes up most of the 215 acres on which Melson raises corn, soybeans and registered Angus cattle.
Mark Melson estimates the market worth of his total operation (including 29 head of the high-breed cattle) at about half a million dollars. His annual gross sales thus far, however, have not topped $35,000. And when he has paid all his operating costs, "Well, I'm in the hole. I was working [off the farm] full time until September," he says. But things are looking up: "If I keep at it for about five years and get rid of some debts, I could possibly clear $10,000 or $12,000."
Ten or 12 thousand? Some other line of work, perhaps, to encourage brighter prospects? No, says Melson. He wants to farm for life. He took it up when he was 10 years old, using one field of the family farm. He began full-scale operations after two years at a community college. "I was just born to work outside," he says.
In fact, Melson is looking for even more of the outside in which to work. He sees no charm in staying at the small-farm level. He would like to expand to 1,000 acres. But in the East Coast metropolitan corridor, expansion for any young farmer tends to be a problem defined by shrinking cropland, rising prices and competition from developers as well as farmers who already have 1,000 acres.
Melson's inheritance gives him an important head start. Otherwise, as he puts it, echoing the Agriculture Department report, "You've got to have a small fortune to get started."
Precisely. Various observers estimate that start-up costs for even a small-scale commercial farm in the East is about a quarter of a milliom dollars. Getting such a sum from most banks is not simple, and often impossible.
The federal government offers some relief through the Farmers' Home Administration, which an Agriculture Department publication describes as being "oriented specifically to serving the credit needs of farmers with limited resources.
FmHA assistance comes mainly in the form of low-interest, long-term loans. Low-income small farmers, for instance, can borrow money for farm ownership or improvement at three percent interest, or for operating expenses at five percent. The loans are then reviewed periodically and as the farm prospers (if it does), interest is scaled upward to the FmHA loan rate for clients without a "limited resource" problem (last winter, that rate stood at 8.5 percent). FmHA also makes a variety of emergency loans at low rates, and offers other standard-rate loans for a wide spectrum of purposes - including rural business starts and rural community improvements.
FmHA Administrator Gordon Cavanaugh expects to have $800 million available this year in assistance categories relevant to small farm acquisition. At the rate of $250,000 per farm, however, that would pay for only about 3,200 farm starts overall - almost nine times less than the number of farms expected to go under during the same period.
Farming alone when you do need a second job can be exhausting. As it is for Patti Brown, 22 and on her own, raising beef cattle and hay on 121 acres in Grafton, W. Va. "My Dad and Mom died," she says, "and I just stayed." The farm - worth an estimated $150,000 - came down the inheritance line unobstructed.
But Brown has to work regular hours at a tractor sales agency to support herself and, in a reverse twist of the way it's supposed to go, her cattle. "I get up about 5 a.m.," she says, then does chores and goes to work, "and I get off at 5 p.m. I get done with my feeding about 6:30 or 7. Weekends, you do the feeding and then you've always got the fence to fix, or brush to cut . . . But I enjoy it."
"The best thing I like about farming," she adds, "is showing heifers." That means taking favored animals around to fairs - some as far as several states away - to enter in competition. There is prize money in it, but seldom enough to cover costs of the trip. What is more important (always excepting the socializing and contact among farmers in the same community field) is reputation.
Good heifers signify good breeding stock; heifers in good shape mean a good farm, a competent farmer. And the eventual outcome, all things being equal, should be increased income.
For small farmers like Brown, however, things aren't equal enough. Her breeding program may eventually yield good money. But in the long meantime, her beef sales are keeping her strapped. Stockyards serving small-scale growers don't draw the big buyers, she says, but those that do come never seem to bid each other up.
Brown sees government intervention as the only immediate way to regulate the price manipulations which depress the economic prospects of her farm. Things being what they are, however, she expects no such assistance. Like Alfred Jordan, she is ready for different forms of action. "Farmers have as much right to strike as anyone," she says. "Maybe more." Would she join a strike organization? "Yes," she says, and adds, "I don't know if those [tractor] parades and demonstrations have helped anything, but they might have let people know farmers aren't going to be run over any more."
The federal Packers and Stockyards Act imposes penalties for the collusion among buyers Patti Brown suspects. (Interestingly, however, none of the county extension agents interviewed for this article seemed to know about that law. Arranged prices in commodity markets are "the facts of life," said one. "I don't know of any legal way to stop it," said another.)
Otherwise, Brown seems wise not to expect government assistance. "The federal government could use tax and commodity support programs to stop the trend toward ever-larger farms," says one Agriculture Department analyst, "but since the New Deal ended, we've always given the most to those who needed the least in agriculture."
A 1977 report of the Task Force on Southern Rural Development, for instance, noted that between 1950 and 1970, while 46 percent of government farm subsidies went to a mere 5 percent of the nation's farmers, 2.7 million people were displaced from southern farms.
"The previous administration," an Agriculture Department researcher says, "simply wrote off the small farms. The Carter administration says you can't ignore them, [but accepts] the need for small farmers to have an off-farm job. It's felt that we can improve their situation by technically improving their farming, and there needs to be more sources of extra income on small farms."
As Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Alex Mercure explained at the Northeast Regional Conference, this translates into government-assisted development of money-saving alternative energy systems and organic methods, plus money-earning food and fiber product varieties capable of being made on the farm.
"Secretary Bergland," the Agriculture Department analyst continues, "has put out a memo saying that it is our policy to increase small farm participation in USDA programs. But [given the economic forces at work], can you really affect the situation with the programs we've got? Most economists will say you can't."
Anthony Newcomb, who raises vegetables in Fairfax County, Va., sees farmers themselves as the source of change. One of the things he is trying to nourish is a positive interaction between farming and suburban existence. It would be ideal, he says, to have the majority of people's food "produced by someone they know personally."
The 200-acre Newcomb tract is one of the few thriving commercial farms surviving in a county that "used to be the primary dairy county in the state," says extension agent C. L. Hall, "until World War II, when we got into the people business."
Newcomb was one of those people - a government economist - until 15 years ago. But the desire to farm took him on a different path, one which he believes anyone with sufficient desire and competence can successfully follow.
The Newcombs use mostly organic farming methods, out of preference rather than to meet a specialized demand. "It doesn't make any significant difference in the production cost," Newcomb says, "and I find it doesn't make any significant difference to most of our customers, either."
In a similar vein, the Newcomb lifestyle, which he describes as "frugal," and "very different from most other people: we heat with wood, do all our own repairing, etc.," reflects conviction rather than necessity, although it meshes well with the economics of their farm. Last year, a "fair year," says Newcomb, they paid tax on $17,000 income.
"We could certainly make a living on far less acreage," says Newcomb. "We could get by with three hired people instead of, for instance, 15. But our labor situation is the unique aspect of the farm."
Hiring more help than needed, he says, allows the Newcombs to operate a kind of apprenticeship program for college-age people who are "serious about learning farming."
The Newcombs also could expand if they chose, says Anthony. "Retail vegetable opportunities here are good. We could sell two to three times more than we do. But we're not in this to be commercially glorious. We want to satisfy the people here. We want to be permanent."
Newcomb believes that another hundred farmers also could fit permanently into the fresh-grown produce business around the city, and enjoy success as well as the metropolitan ambience. He is bullish on the prospects for small farmers in general. "In the next 10 years," he says, "I think the outlook is good that anyone who [really] wants to do it will be able to. The critical component of small farming is skilled labor, and as other costs go up, the return to your own skilled labor increases. People who do a lot of complaining just haven't got everything together."
If Newcomb had gone to a Small Farms Conference (the session for Virginians and others in the South was in Alabama), he might have been torn apart between farmers trying to dispute his ideas, and Agriculture Department people panting to elevate him as the all-time model small farmer. But he stayed home, leaving the field to the reform advocates who feel that competence and a pioneering spirit aren't enough to save small farms, or moderate-size farms either; that the context in which the pioneering gets done has to change to make success more likely. The previous administration simply wrote off the small farmers.
Farmer groups themselves are spearheading those reform efforts, of course. But preeminent among the other organizations in the picture is the National Family Farm Coalition, which is coordinating, growing nationwide support of the proposed Family Farms Development Act, which the coalition helped draft.
Introduced in 1978, the bill has Reps. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) and George Brown (D-Calif.) as primary sponsors.
"Federal agriculture policy could encourage and maintain a farm and food system based on small and moderate sized family farms," says a coalition leaflet, Citing the multiple economic and environmental dangers of big-business farming, the leaflet adds, "protecting America's family farmers is the most effective way to create a self-sustaining, environmentally sound, economically stable food system."
The proposed law, say coalition coordinators Catherine Leeza and Robin Rosenbluth, is an attempt to turn federal policy in that direction. It would create an investigative food prices review board, would require food labels to show how much of the item price goes to farmers, would establish a production-goal system guaranteeing a fair return to farmers but putting a ceiling on gross sales per farm (it's high - $500,000), and would guarantee commodity price support levels at 90 percent of parity (100 percent for some) in exchange for enbanced soil conservation pratices by farmers.
Meanwhile, the combined efforts of farmsers, environmentalists, rural community organizers and the new generation of food policy advocacy groups now springing up have created a raft of approaches to holding farmland open for crops rather than condominiums: land trusts, agricultural property tax differentials and state programs that purchase farmer's development rights (so that if their land is sold, it must be sold for agricultural use.)
And right behind the legal initiatives an organizing drive is under way to revitalize the small-farm community, draw in new farmer recruits and reestablish public awareness of the value and needed permanence of small farms in agriculture.
Pat Lewis Sackrey, co-director of the planning and organizing group called Center for Rural Communities in Amherst, Mass., emphasizes that this is no sentimental attempt to ennoble poverty, nor to turn back the clock. "We don't see homesteading as the wave of the future," says Sackrey, "and we don't see any value in trying to preserve hard-scrabble farming. But we do see a need to support the people who are doing that farming now, to assist them to do it better and get more out of it and move up to a level of satisfactory economic return at a small scale."
For Sackrey and a growing number of others that means an agriculture supportively integrated with local economies and local food systems. The search for direct aid to small farms is paralleled by an attempt to develop "community-based, community-owned food processing facilities," as one state agriculture official put it, "that would help an independent family farm system to exist in the face of a near-monopoly food industry."
That clearly suggests a decentralized, democratically controlled political-economic system, and movement toward that is an undercurrent in the push for agricultural change. It is a reltively abstruse factor, taking clearer shape in social rather than economic vision - a desire for self-reliant communities organized around productive work with the land. It is a vision of social relationships and purpose which updates Jeffersonian democracy, and in a tantalizing way lays claim to elements of national image and popular heritage.
Whether it will play down in St. Mary's County, or up in rural Delaware or West Virginia remains to be seen. Must has changed since the populist era of the 19th century, when small farmers (the only kind there were then except plantation owners) and industrial workers actually discussed cooperative programs to guide and regulate the economy. CAPTION: Picture 1, The tractor-parading American Agriculture Movement members who descended on Washington this winter are mostly Western grain and cattle growers with moderate-size farms. By James A. Parcell; Picture 2, Alfred Jordon and his wife were recently able to purchase 20 acres of their own land in St. Mary's County, Md., but still must rely on sharecroppong another 80 acres to survive. Additionally, Mrs. Jordon must work at an off-farm job., By Bill Sneed; Picture 3, Chicken farmer Philip Perdue of Salisbury, Md., averages between $15,000 and $16,000 a year taxable income.; Picture 4, Pat Lewis Sackrey, of the Center of Rural Communities, would like to see more commercial farms that can support families., Photographs by Lionel Delevingne