THE AVERAGE AGE of the American farmer is 53. It follows that the average age of the American farm wife is 50. That fits me exactly. I have been a farm wife for 30 years. We have seven children. The four boys are self-sufficient; none are farmers, not because they did not like farming, but because they were forced to face reality. Our 800-acre farm will support one family at the most and, with farm prices at current lows, it will hardly do that.
We have 150 acres of wheat each year, 150 acres of summer fallow, and the rest is grass. And have a small cow-calf operation. We consider ourselves successful family farm operators even though, by the material standards prevalent in our society, we may not appear to be so. Most of our machinery is old enough to vote; tires are no longer available to fit our truck. But we set priorities and the number one priority was to educate our children. Our four sons all worked part-time after 16. They saved money, and, with our help, loans and part-time work, all have graduated from the University of Nebraska. Two of our daughters are in college. We figure it was cheaper to finance seven children to four years of college then to put one son into farming.
The only way for a young man to go into farming today is to marry it or inherit it. When I hear young farmers begging for special consideration, such as a moratorium on loan payments or cancellation of interest, I have no sympathy for them.
Saying that "Farming is all I have ever wanted to do" does not justify their cause. Most of them started farming since 1970. They jumped in when land and machinery prices were skyrocketing and farm prices going down. They bought top-of-the-line equipment. They wanted to start farming on a par with those who had been doing it for 30 years and their interest charges are more than our annual income.
I see no reason for the federal government to finance them to a $50,000 tractor with cab, air conditioning and piped-in music, when my husband has only an umbrella to shield him from the sun and long johns to protect him from the cold.
THOSE FARMERS who have overextended themselves made th mistakes of believing the doomsayers and the do-gooders.The doomsayers convinced them that an ever-expanding world population meant prosperity for the food producer. The do-gooders convinced them they had a moral obligation to produce food for that expanding population.
What neither mentioned was that need and demand are two different things. If everyone in the world were to receive an adequate diet daily, there wouldn't be a food surplus, but reality tells us this isn't going to happen soon.
Farmers have been told for years, ever since World War II, that big was better, more efficient. Squeeze your neighbor off his land! Farm numbers have been decreasing by 1,000 a year just in Nebraska. According to the Department of Agriculture, farm population stood at 8.3 million in 1976, down 6.7 per cent from 1975 and 15 per cent less than in 1970. Farms have become bigger and fewer and farm income has fallen. As farms grew in size and farmers improved their efficiency, they produced more, the market was glutted and prices fell.
Yet the price of all the manufactured machinery, gasoline, feed, seed and fertilizers that farmers bought went up and up while the price of grain, meat and milk went down.
That's what agribusiness efficiency did for farmers. It busted the small operators and forced them into the cities; and it increasingly consolidated the production and processing and distribution of food in this country into the hands of a few big multinational corporations.
One reason it is so hard to get a realistic comprehensive farm bill through Congress is because many want to protect the interests of agribusiness corporations. Their profits depend on all-out production. They don't want land set aside.They want it fertilized, sprayed, fumigated and irrigated.Warehouses don't make money sitting empty, but filled with wheat, corn and peanuts, they are a gold mine.
Big business and big government now own or directly control all the resources and means of production in the world. The only holdout against complete corporate takeover is the family farmer.
According to an article in Mother Earth News, 12 landholders now control over half the state of Maine. (They may have to give some of it back to the Indians now.) Twenty-five control 52 per cent of the state of California. All of this has been accomplished with the aid and consent of the federal government. The 1902 law that prohibited the irrigation of more than 160 acres by one landholder from a federal water project has been completely ignored. Government policy has encouraged the big to get bigger, the rich to get richer and the small to get lost.
A farm bill that allows payments totaling $55,000 to one operator encourages the big to gobble up their smaller neighbor. Three-fourths of the farms in Nebraska gross less than $55,000 a year. Farm legislation should protect and preserve the family-sized farm, not encourage cannibalism. To do this, the rate per bushel of grain on which loans to farmers are based should be increased, the target selling price increased and the maximum payment to one operator decreased. There should be a minimum acreage cutoff for eligibility in the government deficiency payments program. Better to spread the payments among the many than to concentrate them in the few. Non-farm corporations should be excluded from government payments.
FARM PRICES are too low. Even farmers with no debt will find it next to impossible to survive without mortgaging their land. Many farmers are modern-day slaves, owned and controlled by their bankers. If Congress can legislate a minimum wage, it can legislate a minimum price for raw farm products.
Many have suggested that better marketing of our grain abroad would solve the problem of low farm prices. How naive can you get? When and if foreign demand raises the price of farm products, the longshoremen's union will refuse to load the grain until they secure some fringe benefit for themselves, like lifetime job security. The maritime union will demand that half the grain be shipped on American ships instead of the third they demanded and got in 1975. (Isn't it strange that farmers are told that grain prices cannot be raised because then our grain would not be competitive on the world market, but the shipping industry and the maritime workers do not have to price their services and labor to compete on the world market? Instead agriculture is forced to subsidize them to a higher standard.)
President Carter said in a recent news conference that parity prices for grain were not desirable because of the effect such prices would have on retail food prices. You can't say it any plainer than that. Food stamps are being used to subsidize the poor's higher fuel bill. The oil companies and utilities can raise prices and get what they ask, but farm prices are to be deliberately suppressed. Is it fair to ask 4 per cent of the U.S. population to bear the brunt of the fight against inflation?
When farm prices went up in 1973, machinery prices soon doubled. Not because of supply and demand, but because the manufacturers knew farmers had made some money and they jacked up machinery prices as high as traffic would allow. It's called gouging. If it were supply and demand, prices would be coming down because machinery is not selling and the manufacturers have had to lay off employees.
"Food for people, not for profit" is a popular slogan for those who do not make their living growing food. They have apparently forgotten the other saying: "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." Someone has to pay and for too long that someone has been the American farmer. He's tired. He's getting old. He can't carry the burden alone any longer. It is the responsibility of every citizen to share the cost of providing cheap food.
Perhaps a new approach to the problem is needed - perhaps a national food and fiber board to control the buying and selling of farm products, much like the Federal Reserve Board controls the supply of money.
If cheap food is to be government policy, then the government must pay to the farmer the difference between market price and parity. A realistic limit should be made on these payments. City residents resent it when a few large operators and corporations collect huge sums of money from the government. They don't like to subsidize farmers to a European vacation any more than I like to subsidize the yachts, hunting lodges, country-club dues and three-martini lunches of the high-salaried urban executive.
Low farm prices are having an effect on the work ethic in rural America. We taught our children to work hard, live frugally and save for a rainy day. I'd never recommend that now. It gains nothing. I hate to admit it, because it sounds so un-American, but I must face reality.