The problems with drought relief programs for farms

Most of the attention in this ongoing drought is focused on how to help corn/soy commodity farmers survive their crop losses. I’m sympathetic to individual farmers watching their crops wilt in this brutal summer, but less so to the grossly tilted farm program landscape that focuses solely on commodity farms and ignores most of the other kinds. Here’s why we feel the emergency farm programs being thrown out there to help mean little or nothing to a farm like ours, and are problematic even for those they intend to help.

It mostly comes down to the difference between a large, monocultured commodity farm and a small, diversified vegetable farm. If you only grow one or two things (like the corn & soy encouraged by the government and big agribusiness), and conditions are bad for those things, you lose everything. If you grow a wide variety of crops (like the 150+ varieties of fruits/vegetables/herbs we do), almost any conditions are good for some of them and and you’re more buffered against losses. For example, in the cool wet summers a few years ago, our tomatoes and peppers weren’t so hot but other things did great. Now it’s the reverse. Of course, our national agriculture policy is to subsidize the crap out of large monocultured corn farms, which are riskier, and mostly ignore small diversified vegetable farms, which are more stable.

Another big difference is in the type of losses taken by different farms under such conditions. For a commodity farmer, there’s little to be done about drought-stricken fields: you sit at home and watch them wilt, and hope the government will come through with an emergency low-interest loan so you can pay off all the expensive seed and equipment and sprays and chemical fertilizers you had to buy (though now you’re just in debt, and still have to somehow earn the money to actually pay it off someday). Never mind that such farms already receive several kinds of government handouts/subsidies/payments in the first place, which are also not available/relevant to vegetable farms. For a vegetable farm, drought losses are more related to time, labor, and sanity, which are harder to pay back.

In our opinion, emergency farm loans aren’t even really farm relief, but agribusiness relief. Loaning commodity farmers money to pay their debts guarantees a profit for the seed, chemical, and equipment corporations those farmers are dependent on, because it means those companies get paid even if the farmer doesn’t. It doesn’t actually do anything beneficial for the farmer other than maybe prevent them from losing the farm or some other short-term disaster. For a vegetable farm like ours, such programs are almost meaningless, for two reasons. One, we incur relatively few cash expenses running our farm; we’re frugal and self-reliant and so aren’t neck-deep in debt to afford fancy equipment and expensive GMO seeds. A government loan wouldn’t really fix anything for us. Two, labor & irrigation are the two main expenses we incur that commodity farms generally don’t in the same way, and those aren’t effectively dealt with by such programs. What’s the point of taking out a loan to pay the Water District even if it was allowed? We’d still owe the money, just with more interest and paperwork attached. Most of our labor is our own, and unless the USDA is going to straight-out pay us to farm (like they do commodity farms), their “help” does no good in alleviating the stress and long hours of working hard in brutal conditions to maintain and save our crops.

Thus all the farm drought relief programs being bandied about are really pretty irrelevant to us, as they don’t do anything to relieve our stress or workload. What would we do with a USDA emergency farm loan anyway, take a vacation while our crops die in our absence and our CSA members miss their shares and thus don’t rejoin next year? This farm is fueled by work and skill, not debt & chemicals, so taking on cheaper USDA debt really doesn’t do us any good. This line from a drought article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch made us smirk:

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Monday it would be sending department officials to rural communities across the country to help farmers impacted by the weather.”

Boy would we like to literally enlist the help of a USDA official on our farm…by getting them to put in some actual physical labor. That’d be a change.

So it gets under our skin to see the USDA and politicians wringing their hands over the damage to a fragile, government-created big-farm system while ignoring the far more resilient, more traditional, diversified small farms such as us. Maybe if we hadn’t spent the last few generations wiping out all traces of farm diversity in the Midwest in the name of cheap food and agrochemical profits, we’d have a much more robust network of locally-oriented diversified farms who could better weather a year like this. We’re proud of our crops and our hard work to save them and continue feeding our CSA members, but it doesn’t help the stress and exhaustion to know that we don’t get much benefit from the rest of the system. Instead, farm programs mostly subsidize the production of crops which directly undercut ours by making calories cheaper than vegetables, and thus makes it much harder for us to earn a living wage, much less one that really pays for the work and stress of farming.

Under these conditions, we’re not losing our crops, we’re losing our sanity, and the USDA doesn’t cover that. Every time you read a news article about drought, farming, or farm relief, insert the words “subsidized commodity” in front of the word “farm”, and you’ll develop an entirely new perspective on the way our agriculture system works. And thanks to our CSA members, because you’re a much better network of farm support than anything the USDA does.

Also, here’s a slightly different take from another local farming blog that reaches much the same conclusions.

5 thoughts on “The problems with drought relief programs for farms

  1. Eric,
    I read your blog regularly and enjoy it. I have a question for you. My family runs a farm in NE Missouri of ~ 800 acres of row crops, 2-3 hundred acres of hay ground and several hundred acres of pasture which we run a cow/calf herd on. In other words, a fairly normal family farm. From your blog it is clear you are not a big fan of our current system of agriculture. So my question is this. In your perfect world of agriculture, what would a farm such as my families look like? What would they raise and how would they sell what they raise? I’ve often sees you write about more diversification and such for our agricultural system as a whole, but what would this look like for a typical larger Missouri family farm? I look forward to reading your thoughts.

  2. Great & fair question; it’s always easier to criticize than to repair. I’ve been wanting to formulate the positive side of all the criticism we do, but it takes longer and we have only so much mental energy at once, especially this time of year. Let me get back to you soon with a quick version, and hopefully a much better one at some point.

  3. Hello – I do understand your frustrations as we are in the worst of the drought here in southeast missouri. It’s slow in coming but the USDA is starting the recognize the needs of smaller, alternative agriculture enterprises. A couple of years ago, the USDA offered the high tunnel program and several area market gardeners were able to take advantage of this. I think about a 6 or 7 years ago we also had a dry period – though not nearly as bad as this – and we received a relief stipend on each head of livestock – including the goats. If you list your goats on your personal property tax form – you will be eligible if a stipend is given again.

  4. We take a very different view on the USDA, as we see programs like the hoophouse funding as throwing good money after bad. Much of the problems in our food/ag system have been caused in the first place by too much poorly planned funding and handouts being thrown around, and involving direct-market farms in the same web that’s been ruining row-crop farms for decades is not going to fix things. The fundamental problem is that we’ve built a food/farm system that makes it nearly impossible for farms of any kind to actually earn a reasonable middle-class living solely by farming; pumping free money into that system is only throwing bandaids on the problem that such interventions helped cause in the first place.

    In addition, the hoophouse program is a classic example of poorly-thought-out policy. Like the emergency loans we discussed above, the hoophouse funding is really a guaranteed handout to the select few private companies that make eligible structures; they make their sale and profit regardless of what happens on the farm after the structure goes up. The farm takes on all the risk and work of making the hoophouse actually pay off, and the manufacturer laughs all the way to the bank. Moreover, such a program ignores the much wider diversity of potential needs on vegetable farms, such as better packing/washing facilities. It ignores the value of private capital; I know several otherwise liberally-minded farmers who were quite annoyed at the hoophouse program, because they’d built their own from their own funds and profit, and here was the USDA handing out free ones left and right to their competitors, thus lowering the value of both their investment and their products. Finally, the program was undergone without any sense of market analysis as to whether the new pulse of produce from these structures could actually be sold profitably . One of the reasons we left the farmers market here was seeing the beginning of a flood of cheap hoophouse produce into the market from people who couldn’t justify the cost on their own, but got a handout to produce more than the market could bear.

    So I would say the USDA is not doing things better, it’s simply expanding the destructive reach of its failed policies into the local-farm world after gutting the wider farming community of its independence.

  5. Chris,

    Here’s a next-stage answer to that question. I just don’t have it in me to formulate the full-length answer. It’s the kind of complicated, nuanced issue that’s best to tackle in winter.

    My real answer to you isn’t so much what I think any one farm should look like, but what the system overall should look like. It may very well be that what your farm does is just right for its setting and your family, but when that’s the ONLY kind of farm throughout the Midwest, there’s a problem. There should be a much broader diversity of types of farms in a given area, a better mixture of dairies and orchards and vegetable farms and so on, such that the local economy isn’t so tied to a few volatile crops (and the prices) and there is a better chance of using the landscape to its potential.

    When we talk about lack of diversity, it can mean on one farm (only growing a few crops) or within a farming region or community (all the same kind of farm). When there’s nothing left but corn, soy, and hay, that significantly limits the economic opportunities for a wider slice of people to get involved in farming. Not everyone wants to (or is able to) run a larger farm like you’re talking about, but might have the interest or skills in dairying, produce growing, orcharding, and so on. When the food/ag system is set up to deny any other interest or farming skills a viable business model, it restricts rural areas’ ability to foster entrepreneurship, and more and more good young people feel the need to move away and build their lives elsewhere.

    For example, the entry costs to vegetable farming are way lower than corn farming, and the return per acre is far higher, which is one reason you see such energy among young people getting started in vegetable farming but lots of hand-wringing about the next generation of commodity farmers. That energy creates a lot of opportunity that’s really missing in the standard farming model that costs millions of dollars to break into, and usually a family connection to expensive land. Those barriers, created largely by government agricultural policy, really distort the farming world in unhealthy ways.

    To put it another way, I find it problematic that there’s something like 10-15% unemployment across rural northern Missouri, at the same time that many people are also on food stamps, all this in one of the richest agricultural regions of the country. Many of these people ought to be able to help themselves by self-sufficient farming, growing vegetables or other directly useful crops (or animals) for direct sale to the rest of the local populace and earning their living, but the economic system created by USDA policies and consumer behavior means we have to give food & income handouts to people who can’t make a living farming in our nation’s breadbasket, meanwhile paying to ship faraway food into farm country. That’s crazy.

    And to sort-of approach your question about what a single farm could look like, look at what a more traditional such farm looked like. Go back a few generations, and many such farms had small dairies, orchards, 10+ field crops, hogs, layers, and more. That diversity helped support the farm through all times, and required/created more jobs to run the farm year-round instead of the few busy pulses and lots of downtime that modern farming runs on. Those jobs employed & fed many of the people now on unemployment and food stamps, so now we pay more tax dollars through lots of bureaucracy to replace what diversified farms created on their own, all in the name of “cheaper” food. The agricultural setting hasn’t changed, only the economic one. To save a few bucks at the grocery store, we’ve gutted rural America.

    So the single biggest change I’d make in the system is to drastically reform all farm support systems to apply equally or equitably across the board, to not favor one type or size of farm over another. Whether those supports are large or small, they should be equitable to allow farmers and farming skill to follow whatever path is best, not be forced down certain narrow paths because of subsidy-influenced economics. For example, if vegetable farms received effectively the same level of subsidies that corn farms do, there would be much more economic incentive to start such farms or introduce vegetables into the mix on a larger farm. And it would be far more practical for such farms to become full-time businesses rather than hobbies, as so many remain (not that commodity farms are much better off, given how many still need off-farm jobs to make a living even with subsidies). Or if all those supports were removed, farms like ours could compete more fairly in the food marketplace. Level the playing field, and let farmers (whether new or established) make better choices about what kind of farm they want to run. How that’s done is open for debate, but I see no rational argument for maintaining the highly skewed system we have now.