Letter From Langdon: Free to Good Home

Adopt a farmer — while there are still some healthy ones around.

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Not many people know it, but there is one little-known group that works to help farmers of every race, creed, and husbandry. Known as the ASPCF (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Farmers), these guys work on the hush-hush without help from glitzy lobbyists or slush funds.  

In the past here in Langdon, we’ve gone to animal shelters for pets. Kat, our house cat, turned out pretty well, except for a slight case of kennel cough. Without much in the way of bad habits she has a good disposition. So when we got the urge to adopt again, after reading about all this business with food and livestock monopolies, we decided maybe it was high time to get ourselves an unwanted (and possibly abused) farmer.

The lady we talked to at ASPCF told us they were a non-profit corporation like ASPCA. (Unlike the Humane Society of the United States, ASPCA actually spends the bulk of their money helping animals.) She explained that non-profits and corporations aren’t all bad even though some are just plain nasty. It all boils down to the people who run them.

She asked what kind of farmer we wanted to adopt. I told her our farm once had a diversified family farmer. I thought it would be nice to have another one. That’s when she told me they’re all but extinct.

“Some of the big corporations preyed on them so much they’ve been killed off by unfair contracting, market consolidation and control, or plain old corruption,” she said. “We tried to save a few but without open, fair, and competitive markets it was a losing proposition.”

“Up until a few years ago there were still quite a few left in Iowa,” she continued. “We could probably get one there, but they’re so old…” her voice trailed off, “you’d probably just be looking again in a couple of years, if you know what I mean.”

Not being any spring chicken, I knew exactly what she meant. Time is of the essence when it comes to renewing farm market competition.

But what about the promotion money, the check-off dollars, cash, that individual family farmers have contributed for decades from sales of their pork, beef, and grains? I’m talking about the money that groups like the National Pork Producers and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association used to study and promote…and to travel the world. It was supposed to be used to develop better markets and new customers. Surely THEY had some success at saving a few farmers? 

At this point ASPCF lady’s training during a former life as nurse in an Alzheimer’s ward became apparent.

“Think hard and concentrate,” she said slowly. “Do you remember the ‘studies’ they funded in places like Monaco, the Swiss Alps, and — of course — who could forget Las Vegas? Everyone came home from those check-off funded parties–I mean fact finding trips—and said things were going great.”

Census of Agriculture
The number of farms, peaking in the 1930s, has declined as U.S. agriculture grows into a consolidated industry, run by the few.

“As you may remember,” she prompted patiently with raised eyebrows, “the conclusion of all those producer-funded studies was that everything was good even though record numbers of dairy, hog, and poultry farmers were going broke, or even committing suicide.”

I could hardly believe my ears. Suddenly the memories all came flooding back. “Are you telling me they’ve been doing away with farmers, sending them down the river for not being big enough to deal with huge ag monopolies?” I asked.

“We prefer to call it ‘early retirement without chance for parole,’“ she said. “The word ‘monopoly’ is too harsh in the current polarized political environment. Most people think Monopoly is just a game people play with fake money. Of course this game is played with REAL money. People don’t realize that food is going the way of the railroads, coal, petroleum—power breeds contempt for people and the laws that protect them.”

“Yes” I said, “it sure doesn’t breed new farmers though.”

That’s when I knew that if we were going to get ourselves a farmer we’d better act quickly before they were all gone.

With diversified farmers almost extinct, we decided to look at dairy farmers. Underfed for too long, the look in their eyes revealed they’d been lied to more than once. The few that remained simply wanted to go home to raise replacement heifers for 3,000-head cluster dairies in hopes of surviving a little longer. 

From there we moved on to look at the hog and poultry farmers. We were warned that you have to keep a close eye on them for the first few weeks after adoption, until they get used to their new surroundings. A lot of them still think they can work with the big integrators once they rebuild their facilities and go deeper into debt. The ASPCF lady shook her head, “They just keep chasing after corporate contracts because that’s the only choice they have.”

Last of all she showed us some farm-to-market growers. Of all the farmers we saw that day they were the happiest. We were encouraged to interact, but we were also warned that they are hard to tame. “They’re being adopted almost as fast as they come in,” she said.  But the ASPCF lady cautioned, “Be forewarned. Like most independent farmers used to be, they just want to be wild and free.”

Kayana Szymczak for Boston Globe
Bob Temple and other workers installed irrigation pipe on the Tuttle Farm in Dover, New Hampshire. The nation’s oldest farm recently went up for sale.

That’s when my wife looked at me with new understanding. Realization crept into her eyes like early morning sunrise dawning across a Vietnamese catfish pond. “Wait a minute,” she said, “we’re farmers just like them, only luckier, aren’t we?”

“By golly you’re right,” I said. “If not by the grace of God, grain subsidies, and ethanol, we might be no better off than these poor souls.”

“Did I hear you mention grain?” ASPCF Lady asked. “We just got a batch of grain farmers in last week. Word has it some of them are feeling abandoned since Congress honored the wishes of big oil and coal, and failed to pass Climate Change legislation, an energy bill, or extend the renewable fuels tax credit before the August recess.”

Turning her head slightly so the farmers wouldn’t overhear, she added, “Confidentially, I wouldn’t be too quick to pick one of these if I were you. You know the grain price safety net is a myth that guarantees only half the cost of production. With the high cost of corporate seeds, expensive foreign oil, fertilizer imports, skyrocketing land prices and no clear commitment to renewable fuels by Congress, grain farmers might be out of luck.  We could have a much larger selection at almost any moment. But I’d be happy to show you what we’ve got if you think that’s what you want.”

“No thanks,” I said, “I see a grain farmer in the mirror every day. Besides, from what I know about them, they’ve got too many bad habits.” 

 

 

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