The crisis in America’s heartland reached epidemic proportions in 1985 and on the evening network news. It probably is safe to say that most Americans suspect that our small farmers are losing their farms because of bad business practices and unrealistic loans. But, as we all know, bigger farms are better and more efficient anyway. In 1985, the media, both factual and fictional, surely told that story.
A common misconception, repeated as gospel truth by former budget director David Stockman, is that bigger farms are inherently more efficient than smaller ones. What the media did not report was that that conclusion is contradicted by empirical data accumulated by independent studies and other studies conducted or authorized by the federal government itself. And this is not necessarily new.
In 1944, Walter Goldschmidt was hired by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to compare social and economic characteristics of two rural California communities, one surrounded by family farms and the other surrounded by large holdings of agribusiness corporations. The USDA expected the study to show that bigger farms are better farms. Goldschmidt established that the family farm community had a higher standard of living, more small businesses, higher retail sales, better schools, and a higher degree of citizen participation in town affairs. The USDA was shocked by the findings and refused to release the report, invoking a clause of Goldschmidt’s contract, and forbidding him to discuss his findings. In 1978, the study was published in book form.
In 1973, the USDA completed another study of family-size farms, finding “Farms larger than ‘optimum’ are essentially multiples of the optimum farm, and are technically no more efficient than the one family farm.” From these reports and recent independent studies, it is clear that family farm operations are efficient and economically viable, depending on whether marketing conditions allow a reasonable profit. However, those conditions are heavily influenced by government policies that currently favor large agribusiness operations.
Agribusiness is not the savior of agriculture; it is its death knell. To prevent agribusiness from totally destroying agriculture, changes in both farming policy and practice are needed. Chemical dependency must be reduced; conservation practices must be restored to prevent water and wind erosion and nutrient depletion; consumers must be educated to accept the real costs of food. Above all there must be systemic changes in patterns of land ownership, taxation, and trade. laws are need to prohibit ownership of agricultural lands by corporations whose managers have no built-in incentive to serve the common good by conserving the land.
Willie Nelson can not save the American farmer by himself; the farmer needs the national media to discuss the real roots of the farm crisis (and the possible solutions) so the people can persuade their legislators to address the issue.
CHRISTIANITY AND CRISIS, 4/15/85, “How agribusiness is destroying agriculture,” by John Hart; UTNE READER, August 1985, “Roots of the farm crisis,” by Frances Moore Lappe’, pp 110-112.