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.”
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.