|January 9, 2007||Posted by Peter Barnes under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Vanishing Small Farmer
by Peter Barnes
Yghish Bulbulian’s face is weathered, his pace somewhat slowed. But when he looks back at what he has left for his son Berge and his grandchildren, Yghish Bulbulian is a proud man.
Born in Armenia at the end of the last century, Bulbulian fled his homeland during World War I when more than a million Armenians were slaughtered by the Turks. He arrived, penniless, in California and settled near Fresno, where a large colony of Armenians had gathered. For several years he worked as a field hand in the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys, managing to save a few pennies each payday. By 1929 he was able to scrape together $500 for a down payment on 20 acres, part of a homestead that was up for sale. He, his wife and son worked ten hours a day, seven days a week in the fields, and when they weren’t working their own land they were hiring themselves out to others.
In 1943 Bulbulian added 30 acres to his farm, and every decade or so thereafter he added more. Today, he and his son grow grapes and currants on 150 acres; though he’s 78, he still helps plant, irrigate and box his crop. His income has not been high, but there were enough good years to permit some amenities. Father and son now live in comfortable, well-furnished houses, and drive late model cars.
It’s no rags-to-riches story, and Bulbulian is no Horatio Alger figure, but he is an example of the many immigrant farm hands who, through frugality and hard work, rose to become farm owners. Unfortunately, he represents a dying breed.
In the 1920s, when Bulbulian got to California, it was natural for field laborers to aspire to become small farmers. Today it is almost unthinkable. For the same 20 acres that Bulbulian bought 40 years ago for $500 down, an aspiring farmer now would need $12,000 down. Moreover, it would be pointless for him to buy only 20 acres; he’d need at least four times that to have a fighting chance. And while Bulbulian could make do, when starting, with two mules and a plow, his contemporary counterpart would require thousands of dollars worth of tractors, chemicals and other equipment. Little wonder that few persons without an inheritance or outside income are entering farming, or that the number of farmers of Bulbulian’s size is rapidly shrinking.
US Department of Agriculture statistics tell the story: in 1950 there were 5.4 million farms in America: today the figure is around 2.9 million. As the number of farms declines, the average size of remaining farms increases: it’s now over 380 acres, compared to 215 acres 20 years ago. And as agriculture steadily becomes more mechanized, it comes to be dominated by those who have capital – the most successful family farmers, and the giant corporations. Thus, in 1969, the largest 40,000 farms, representing less than two percent of the total number, accounted for more than one-third of America’s farm sales.
These are the broad statistics. Behind them are the economic forces, abetted by government policies, which say to the small farmer: either get bigger or get out. The pattern is typically like this: a farm of 80 or 160 acres has belonged to a family for generations. It is squeezed by rising local taxes, the high cost of farm equipment, and corporate competition. The old man dies or retires. What will the children do? To survive as farmers they must expand and mechanize. The other option is to sell, perhaps to a suburban developer, perhaps to another farmer who is expanding. The latter course is easier, and increasingly it is the one that is chosen.
The trend towards corporate farming greatly intensifies the pressures on the independent small farmer. This trend is strongest in the South and West, particularly in Florida, California, Texas, Arizona and Hawaii, where large land units have long been the rule. Big canners like Minute Maid, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola, and Libby-McNeill & Libby, own an estimated 20 percent of Florida’s citrus groves~ compared with less than one percent in 1960. Corporate farms in California account for 90 percent of the melon crop, 46 percent of the cattle sold, 38 percent of the cotton produced and 30 percent of the citrus fruits. Two conglomerates, Purex and United Brands, now control one-third of the green leafy vegetable production in the United States, and the list of other blue chips lately plunging into agriculture, according to the Agribusiness Accountability Project, includes Tenneco, Gulf & Western, Penn Central, W. R. Grace, Del Monte, Getty Oil, Goodyear, Monsanto, Union Carbide, Kaiser Aluminum, Aetna Life, Boeing, Dow Chemical and American Cyanamid.
End of Part One.
Part Two will be published starting Thursday, October 23.
This essay is part of a series written by Peter Barnes for The New Republic magazine in 1971-72. We think you’ll be pleased — and perhaps shocked — to see how timely and insightful the essays are for today. Each essay will be republished, in installments, by The Progress Report.