The Vanishing Small Farmer
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Peter Barnes under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Vanishing Small Farmer
by Peter Barnes
Part Four – Conclusion (in case you missed Parts 1-3, you can find them in the Archives)
Welfare is another indirect subsidy to large growers, though they’re not inclined to admit it. It allows them to use laborers for a few months, then cast them aside, secure in the knowledge that they’ll survive until the following year’s work season, without having to be paid a living wage. On top of this are the millions spent by federal and state governments on agricultural research – a subsidy that no other industry enjoys. While some of this research helps the small farmer, the bulk of it is aimed at breeding crops and designing machines for large- scale farming.
What will be the future of American agriculture? If present policies continue, the answer seems fairly obvious: the poor will be squeezed, the rich will be subsidized, and in the end only the biggest and best integrated operations will survive. The prospect pleases corporate moguls like Bank of America ex-president Rudolph A. Peterson, who has called for a program “to enable the small uneconomic farmer – the one who is unable or unwilling to bring his farm to the commercial level by expansion or merger – to take his land out of production with dignity.” It terrifies small farmers, many of whom are no less efficient than their giant competitors, but simply less favored by government policies.
One vision of what American agriculture may look like can be found in the February 1970 issue of National Geographic. Here are stunning photographs of an egg factory near Los Angeles where two million caged Leghorns gobble 250 tons of feed and lay one million eggs each day; a cattle metropolis in Colorado where 100,000 steers are fattened on formulas prescribed by computer; a $23,000 tomato harvesting machine, developed by the University of California, that snaps up specially bred tomatoes for farm workers to sort while taped music purrs in the background.
These photographs of contemporary marvels are accompanied by an artist’s depiction of an early 21st century farm (if that is the proper word) as foreseen by USDA specialists. All operations are monitored by one man from a bubble-top control tower. An enormous remote-control tiller rolls across a ten-mile-long wheat field on tracks that keep it from compacting the soil. Another gigantic machine automatically waters a ten-mile field of soybeans, while a jet-powered helicopter sprays insecticides. Alongside a monorail track stand a pair of skyscrapers for cattle. Behind them are several illuminated plastic domes containing controlled environments for growing strawberries, tomatoes and celery. A USDA expert outlines some other possibili ties: hills will be leveled with nuclear energy in order to flatten extra-long fields; sensors buried in the soil will find out when crops need water, and automated irrigation systems will bring it to them; airplanes, computers and closed-circuit TV will be as commonplace as tractors today.
A somewhat different vision of the future – not endorsed by the USDA – can be found in a gently sloping field near Watsonville, California. It focuses on human beings rather than technology, on giving present-day Yghish Bulbulians a chance to advance themselves rather than be cast into ghettos and barrios. Here on the edge of the Pa’jaro valley is a bustling new enterprise called the Cooperative Campesina, a farming cooperative formed slightly over a year ago by four Mexican-American families, now expanded to twenty-five and still growing.
The economics of the cooperative are relatively simple. There are 140 acres under lease, with 8o planted in strawberries and 6o in zucchini squash. (Eventually all will be planted in strawberries.) To avoid hassles the land is divided among the members by lottery, with each family responsible for its own parcel. Strawberries were chosen as the principal crop because they provide a high return and are labor-intensive; there is no machine yet in sight that can pick them. Each acre of strawberries produces about 3000 trays per year, and each tray sells for about $3. Thus, one acre earns about $9000 a year. Expenses, not counting labor, come to about half that, so each family will earn about $12,000 the first year if all goes well, plus whatever additional income comes from the squash. The second year, when expenses are lower, they’ll earn more. With four or five family members working steadily in the field, the earnings don’t amount to much on an hourly basis – perhaps $1.20 per hour. But total family income will be two or three times what it was when they were hired laborers or sharecroppers. In addition they’ll have equity in the co-op, and the satisfaction of being their own boss.
It wasn’t easy to get the co-op started – the initial members had to scrape up $500 apiece, then look around for credit. The Farmers Home Administration, a federal lending agency, turned them down. Local banks, under pressure from a large local grower, were hesitant, but finally Wells Fargo came through with a $150,000 crop loan, to be repaid after the first strawberry harvest in 1972. An OEO-funded consulting firm, the Central Coast Counties Development Corporation, lent another $100,000, which will be repaid in three years. With $250,000 in hand, the co-op was able to purchase tractors, root stock and chemicals. Now it is in as good a position as the established growers, if not a better one: it’s the only commercial strawberry producer in California that doesn’t have to worry about labor troubles. By next year it will be marketing strawberries under its own Cooperativa Campesina label, and its members see no reason why within five or six years they can’t become a dominant factor within the $6o million strawberry industry.
If the co-op prospers, its members don’t plan to hoard the wealth. They intend to open up membership to as many poor families as the enterprise will support. “We have a saying in Spanish,” says Refugio Pinedo, one. of the founders and now secretary of the co-op. “Agua que no te tomas, de’jala correr.” Water that you cannot drink yourself, let it run for others.”
End of Part Four.
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.