Won’t Somebody Think Of The Family Farmer?

My father’s side of the family were peanut farmers and Angus ranchers in west Texas and east New Mexico. I grew up riding horses, and was active in both 4-H and Future Farmers of America. I even took part in junior bull riding. I thought that Willie Nelson was just about the greatest guy ever. Ok, let’s admit it, Willie Nelson is an amazing person, both as a musician and in his desire to help people and animals alike. The kinds of people Willie really intends to help with his farmer benefit concerts are the type of people I would like to see helped.

Billions of taxpayer dollars go toward subsidizing crop production each year. So often, the supposedly vulnerable members of the agriculture community are held up as an example of why this is a necessary and compassionate policy. Not only is this perception false, but the very image of the struggling, cash-strapped family farmer is one that doesn’t really hold true in the 21st century. In the 1930s, about 20 percent of the U.S. population were actively working in agriculture. Today, it’s only one percent and the rate of new farmers entering the workforce is dropping dramatically.

When we imagine a family farm, we think of the painting American Gothic, Charlotte’s Webb, Babe, and the Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing label. It’s a reminder of how things supposedly ought to be, an idyllic country fantasy of modest people working and often struggling to provide the rest of us with food.

Photo: David Reece Gathering the Hay via photopin (license)

Everyone seems very concerned about the plight of family farmers these days. But, what does the term “family farmer” really mean? Pretty much everyone has a family. What I really want to know is: who are these farmers who don’t have families? They are the ones who really need help!

The USDA claims that 97 percent of farms are family farms. However, this classification relates to the ownership structure and the top-level management rather than who actually works the land. Just 59 percent of farm laborers and supervisors are U.S. citizens. Half of the hired labor on crop farms, according to the USDA, is people not even legally allowed to work in the United States. They are mostly Mexican migrants making abysmally low wages. Farming subsidies surely don’t go to these ‘family farmers’. Many probably miss their families desperately.

‘Small family farms’ as the USDA defines them, operate 48 percent of all farmland and own 47 percent of the value of farm real estate including land and buildings. In 2012, they held 40 percent of U.S. cattle, 89 percent of the horse inventory, and “grew 64 percent of all acres in forage production”. Yet, despite owning so much, they only produce 20 percent of agriculture sales and five percent of the country’s net farm income. Almost half of small farms are “off-farm occupation farms” which means that the operator’s primary occupation is not farming.

Farmers soak up about $20 billion in subsidies each year. Despite the rhetoric of “preserving the family farm,” the vast majority of farmers do not benefit from federal farm subsidy programs. According to Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook, most subsidies go to the largest and most financially secure farm operations.

The first thing to keep in mind is that two-thirds of the farmers counted by the census of agriculture do not get farm bill subsidies. So most farmers don’t get anything… And even within the third that does get money from farm bill subsidy programs, the very large ones dominate. And it’s getting more and more concentrated all the time.

Farming subsidies largely prop up wealthy landowners who are not what we would we would intuitively agree to be real family farmers at all. In general, the concept of the nice old landowning family farmers struggling to make ends meet simply doesn’t exist on a large scale anymore. The average farm household enjoys an income about 15 percent higher than that of the average U.S. family.

Cook goes on to describe to Mother Jones how historical subsidies can be enjoyed by subsequent generations who have no involvement in production:

Absentee owners exist everywhere. Let’s say you and I are brothers. You came to town to be a journalist, I came to work at an environmental group, but we both came from a farm family in Arkansas. If mom and dad give us 5,000 acres in their will, we don’t have to go back down to Arkansas and farm. We’ll get the direct payments automatically for that rice and cotton mom and dad kept growing, and on top of that we’ll get other payments.

What we should do is not only cut off these subsidies to landowners but tax the farmland in proportion to its value. This would enable us to fund government without taxing farm equipment and labor.

Photo: David Cornwell Favored by the Sun via photopin (license)

This would actually help small farmers, whose major startup cost is purchasing land. But wait, if you tax land, wouldn’t their costs go up? No. Unlike taxing consumer goods, which drives up prices, taxing land has the benefit of not reducing its supply. Somebody always owns it. Taxing it makes hobby ownership less attractive, thus actually lowering the purchasing price.

If you’re an economics wonk, here’s an explanation of taxes on inelastic supply:

If the taxes on labor and equipment were reduced while the cost to purchase land went down too, this would be a boon for families purchasing small plots of land to grow food. Their holding costs for land would be higher, but that would just incentivize them to use land more efficiently, like real family farmers used to do.

We could actually see a resurgence of what we would agree is real family farming. These families could hire a lot of workers and pay them more without the burden of paying wage and sales taxes. And if all of these families were using less land and employing more people at higher wages, family farms could thrive and new farmers could enter the market.

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1 thought on “Won’t Somebody Think Of The Family Farmer?

  1. The best way to think of a family farm today, a way that makes it comparable to the farms that were the norm in the U.S. through the 1940s or 1950s, is to use the term “diversified farm.” The modern, industrial farm is a monoculture farm. Just one crop or maybe two. The diversified farm of the past grew several different crops and raised farm animals that provided manure. It required more labor and less capital than the modern farm. An industrial farm is essentially a plot of land that serves as a segment of a conveyor belt that turns petrochemicals into the digestible calories sold in supermarkets. (Whether those calories should be called “food” is a question of how much value one places on the micronutrients that have been lost. The obesity epidemic in the U.S. is a function of people still being hungry after eating what now passes for food.) Much has been written criticizing this transition and wistfully hoping for a return to farming that is more aligned with nature and less with urbanization. Ending subsidies for grain production is one step in the right direction. Ending subsidies for irrigation water is a second step. A third step would be to end the subsidy of ethanol production from corn, which encourages the squandering of Midwest soil to produce high-cost fuel. Changing patent laws that allow chemical companies to force farmers to buy their hybrid seeds is a fourth step. A tax on land values is the final step, but it will be the most difficult to achieve politically because it will be misconstrued as an attack on small farms, which is not true, but that matters little in politics. The most significant effect of taxing the value of farmland would not be to change hobby farms into commercial farms (as your article suggests) but to break up the million-acre industrial farms. The tax would encouraging the owners of large operations to sell off sections to people who would like to become farmers now but cannot because of high land prices. A land value tax is far more effective than traditional “land reform” methods of land redistribution, and it achieves the same ends without government bureaucracy and corruption. It is the only policy that has a remote chance of bringing back diversified farming, but we need to start with easier steps first.

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