Letter From Langdon: Waiting for Rural America’s New Deal
Cafe in McKinney, Texas
LANGDON, Mo. — With passage of the farm bill, the House of Representatives forfeited the opportunity to do something this country hasn't tried since the New Deal of the 1930s: It could have taken steps to rejuvenate rural America.
In the year I was born, 1950, there were 13 houses along our road in the far northwest corner of Missouri. All of them were farm homes. Today, nine houses are left, and I am the only farmer or farm owner living here.
What's happened along my road is also true across vast areas of the Midwest, where farm consolidation over the past three decades — big farms gobbling up small ones — has taken its toll, not just on farmers but on the rural communities that once relied on farmers for trade and taxes.
Consolidation and loss of rural population have been direct consequences of the past several farm bills. By increasing subsidies, Congress made it profitable for the most aggressive operators to accumulate more land and scoop up a large share of the farm bill's allotments.
While the stated purpose of farm bills has always been to maintain the family farm, in reality the Congress has brought about the family farm's decline.
The House might have fashioned a 2007 New Deal for Rural America. It would have started with real subsidy limits, making mega-farms less profitable. That step should have been easy.
There is so much demand now for grains — as both fuel and food — that, finally, we have strong, demand-driven markets. Now is the perfect time to move grain farms away from direct payments while insuring crop yields and revenue.
It's been said that farmers live as paupers and die as millionaires. While many farmers look rich on paper, few have million-dollar earnings. In fact, most farms earn only about a 5 percent return on investment. In low production years of drought or flood, farmers can lose money.
In reality, farmers are wage earners who invest in their own employment. When our profits decline due to poor markets or bad weather, not only our investments but our wages too are at risk. The misguided crop subsidy program that the House maintained protects large farms doesn't go far enough to support small farmers. It excludes livestock producers, many of whom are suffering through an epic drought.
What producers really need is a safety net that is not paid out as a "bigger is better" stipend — the incentive that has folded family farms into sprawling agribusiness. What farmers want is the comforting knowledge that when bad luck, bad weather or bad markets come (and they always do), there will be a mechanism, an insurance policy, there to soften the blow.
The House could have offered real assistance to local producers willing to grow food in sustainable and humane ways. Legislators could have protected livestock raisers from contracts with multinational meat packers who force farmers to absorb most business costs and all the risks.
Instead, the House bypassed the most vulnerable farmers and, in the meekest of reforms, limited subsidies for a tiny group of the richest farm businesses, or, as is too often the case, millionaires with farm interests.
Huge payouts to large farms will never help rural communities because large farms contribute little to local economies. Big farms buy the mammoth machines needed to work vast acreages — a fully equipped grain combine can run over a quarter of a million dollars — far away from the local community.
They sell goods wherever the market offers advantages.
Big farms mine agriculture only to spend the profits elsewhere. They have no loyalty, no ties, and no allegiance to towns of 500 or 1,500 people, such as mine. An emphasis on economic development would have helped rural communities grow jobs, as well as crops. And lower limits on direct payments to the largest farms could have freed capital for rural rejuvenation.
The recent farm bill is notable mostly for what it didn't do. It did not end the unfair advantage granted to large farms over small. It did not rescue livestock producers from a downward spiral of corporate control and drought. It did not silence the lobbyists of multinational grain buyers. It did not offer meaningful limits on farm payments. It did not answer the call from rural communities for real economic development. It did not establish reliable disaster assistance for all domestic growers of food.
In July 2007, as rural Americans watched and waited, the House had the opportunity to create an epic farm bill of New Deal proportions. The Senate takes up its debate on the farm bill soon. We are still waiting.