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.