The Farm is Dead: Long Live the Farm

By almost all accounts in the industrial media, this is the best, indeed the only, way to farm. The problem is, it’s suicidal.

Two remarkable dirges for American agriculture appeared in print during this last month of 2017. They were remarkable on several counts — the quality of the writing and research; the pessimism of their tone; the places in which they appeared; the things they got right; and their shared, glaring error of omission.

The first, titled “Why Are America’s Farmers Killing Themselves in Record Numbers?” drilled down into the shocking statistics on suicides by farmers, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are more numerous than in any other occupation, double that found among military veterans, and in in 17 farming states is five times the rate among the general population. Nor is the affliction limited to America; the farmers of India are famously suicidal, and those in Australia, France and the United Kingdom are increasing their rates of self destruction.

The piece focuses on the U.S. farm belt, and tells long and sympathetic stories about farm widows, orphans, and near-suicides, portraying the crushing debt, the pitiless bad luck, the capricious vagaries of weather, biology and international finance that can seem to conspire together to ruin one hapless individual.

I’m sympathetic because I have lived it, as a child of parents who stood against prairie fires, dust storms, Biblical swarms of grasshoppers, hail storms, floods and blizzards to keep us alive and the farm solvent. I will never forget my cousin Jim, who grew up to farm 5,000 acres with a fleet of tractors the size of houses, saying glumly to me, “I spend my life one thunderstorm away from bankruptcy.”

According to the article, the origins of the current farmer depression were in the farm financial crisis of the 1980s — a crisis of high farm debt, rising interest rates and low prices for corn, wheat and soybeans. The cause of the continuing farm recession, according to the article, is continuing high debt and low commodity prices. The only positive note in the piece is the success of a number of suicide-prevention hotlines.

The second article extends the agony of the farmer even unto the next generation : “US Farmers Lose their Heirs to Opioid Epidemic.” Another series of heart-wrenching anecdotes featuring the parents of children lost to overdoses, this piece points out that unlike previous drug epidemics that have been largely urban, this one is decomating the rural population as well, leaving many farmers with no descendants to whom to leave the family farm.

The plural of anecdote is not data, and this article lacks the statistical underpinnings of the one on farm suicides. About the best it can do in support of its thesis to say, “No other group appears to have been worse hit.”

I admire the fact that both of these articles got many things right about the ways the deck is stacked against the American farmer and the toll being exacted on those who raise our food. It makes me sad that both of these articles appear in British newspapers, where most of the best writing about American life is to be found these days, while our MSM are mesmerized by Trumpian and anti-Trympian dramatics. And I was surprised that both of these articles are enormously wrong about an essential part of their subject.

In both these articles, the word “farm” has only one meaning: a family-owned, medium-sized, chemical-intensive, fossil-fuel dependent, mechanized example of monoculture whose inputs (fertilizer, insecticides, fuel, etc.) are imported from around the world and whose products are priced by global traders over whom the “farmers” have no influence.    

One the one hand, it should be no surprise that the practitioners of industrial agriculture, having all but completely destroyed the topsoil and the water and the ecosystems and the seedstocks on which they depend, are becoming suicidal junkies. On the other hand it is remarkable that competent journalists could miss the fact that these industrial dinosaurs are no longer the only practitioners of farming.

There is a quiet but massive shift going on in American agriculture today, toward diverse fams of dozens of acres instead of thousands, from which chemicals and Diesel fuel and plows have been banished, where soil and diversity are treasured, whose products are sold locally instead of globally. These farms are not only operated by, but loved by, young people. Happy, centered, ethically developed young people.

If you look around you (when you are in the country) you will see the signs of this happening, but you won’t see much about it in the industrialized media (an exception — a recent piece on NPR, “A Young Generation Sees Greener Pastures in Agriculture.”)

They won’t feed the world population — it’s too big for that — or save the industrialized world — it’s too late for that — but they may well be able to save themselves when the ultimate crash progresses.


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10 Responses to The Farm is Dead: Long Live the Farm

  1. Saving yourself is the only remaining option. Decentralizing is the only way to save yourself. Alas, I’m sure the bulk of these farmers are just tomorrow’s new serfs.

  2. Chris says:

    Hi Tom,

    Small diverse farms are like seed banks, but much better because they come with folks who know how to do stuff!


  3. Pintada says:


  4. Ralph says:

    This is exactly what is slowly, surely happening in Vermont. The average age of farmers is decreasing. Farms are small-scale and diversified. No one is getting rich, and second and third jobs are necessary, but families are surviving. And these farms are an integral part of ecosystems of food coops, CSAs, land trusts, local and state financing mechanisms, renewable energy production, agrotourism, and value-added food production like breweries and cheese makers. We are very grateful for this development.

  5. Mike H says:

    Tom, identical story in Australia (the country that rode on the sheeps back), and probably everywhere else you care to think of. It probably does not apply to subsistence agriculture in less westernised or developed nations (India excepted) but it certainly applies to the outcome in a lot of Africa, South America, etc., where big business has swollowed up most of the expatriate enclaves and some besides and converted them into monocultures to freight fresh food to Europe. The smart money (the 1%) was on this some time ago probably two decades ago as THE investment vehicle where sheer natural demand for food would guarantee a return.

    We shifted out of the city back into rural life some ten years ago. It has been unremitting hard work ever since with absolutely no luck at all, drought then floods, then more drought then heat waves have damaged our ecosystem substantially but it survives because it was not turned into ploughed up mono-culture tundra. Pesiticides, herbicides and fungicide chemicals are banned on our little block. As for feed the masses, cannot happen from our place, there have been several years where thunderstorms (hail and wind) have completely wiped out the years fruit crops and our meagre vegetable crops, unseasonable frosts, diabolical heat waves are really knocking the heck out of everything. That is also the reality of a changing atmosphere, erratic instability has replaced stability which flora need to thrive and prosper. There will be no going back on that front either Give it away, to do what? to live where? I understand well why farmers and those in rural area kill themselves, you live with non ending uncertainty as to the weather, the progress of your farm, the income you will received for produce and the unrelenting demands of non farm corporations for more and more for everything you use otherwise, taxes, charges, fees, fuel, insurance etc. The point that is also missing is that once a upon a time, farms were run by families and or with hired help, as the returns dwindled you could not longer support small villages of people or large households or workers, so the main farmer has swapped technology and mechanisation for labour, a faustian bargain. The picked up the blocks for sale as others quick, expanded on debt and the cycle begins all over again, but now your doing all this on your own, day in day out, no one cares and no one listens and there is no way out but death, some welcome that angel after a time, after all how much do we endure?

    • Tom Lewis says:

      I watched my parents struggle as you’re struggling now, and I can truly empathize — lot of good that does. I’m wondering if you’re adopting permaculture, getting support from your countryman Geoff Lawton and others in the movement? Something about hanging together makes hanging less terrible, somehow. I wish you better luck, and better weather.

  6. Mike H says:

    Tom on a personal front yes permaculture is strong and allowing natural plant regeneration with non symmetrical exotic plantings has preserved and aided this land. We have a good little local community and good cooperative relationships as well. There is a lot of black market or common barter goes on and works fine.

    Few seem to understand just how fragile the land is and how what we have (had) was the outcome of millions of years of relative atmospheric stability and widespread natural stands of everything. Soils took millions upon millions of years to form and will form again over the same epochal arch. The distress of farmers world wide is not new nor is dramatic or unforeseen climate events. What is new is the brutal chemical centered damage done by large scale mechanised agriculture, whether its crops of trees or grains or animals. Nature is not a factory and the world is not a machine, the distress of farming now is simple to see; capitalistic exploitation, unfettered markets, oligarchical markets combined with the destruction of the biosphere and atmosphere. Nature and the planet has never had to adapt to a non biological or geological interruption like this before. Food is not a luxury it is a necessity. Growing good food maybe a luxury but grow it we must. The relative bounty of a few plants grown on mass by all farmers masks the reality of the marginalisation of arable land, the degradation of arable land, the loss of biodiversity and the loss of climatic stability. Chaotic systems stay chaotic and maybe even violently so for long periods of time and predicting where they will come to a temporary stasis or equilibrium is impossible. Farmers are simply the dying canaries in the mine.

  7. CJ says:

    I have to believe that part of this story, which seems to be missing, is the GMO companies collusion with the federal gov’t to have a monopoly on seed stock. We have certainly lost our way when farms and farmers can be destroyed for saving their own seeds.

  8. steve says:

    I was raised on a farm, and none of my five brothers or I stayed on the farm. Earl Butz and his famous exhortation to”get big or get out” as well as the increased cost of inputs, the oversupply and collapse of commodity prices caused innumerable farmers to go bankrupt, and corporatizing of American farms sped up considerably. Dad only had 100 acres, and the baling wire and duct tape would only keep the old equipment going for so long.

    I “retired” from the nice job in the suburbs, and am now working on transitioning 40 acres from row crops to permaculture. In this area, I see many idealistic young people who move into the country to try to farm sustainably, but they lack money, access to land, and of course experience. Many will fail, but there is still a s lowly growing network of small farms focussed in local and sustainable. I hold out a small bit of hope.

    We might be seeing the early stirrings of a reversal of the unsettling of America as described by Wendell Berry years ago.

    I hope the coming year is good for you, and you are able to continue posting- one of my go to sites.