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Defying Nature and Reason, Family Farmers Return to Fields

Jim Bushaw remembers summer evenings not long ago when the spring wheat towered over his children's heads, when sugar beets and soybeans looked nice in their rows, when farming still seemed like a rational man's labor.

It has been four years since his last good crop. Nine local farms have folded in that time, and the high school he once attended has been converted to a furniture store. This year, the Red River flood has turned his bottomland fields into preposterous lakes.

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In a decent year he'd be planting the last of his crops now. In a decent year he wouldn't be slumped against his pickup on a sunny afternoon, wiping away tears as his granddaughter clings protectively to his knee. "There's life after farming, I know that," Mr. Bushaw says. "But when you've been in it all your life, it's not easy to give up."

As flood waters recede throughout the Red River Valley, officials predict that more than 1 million acres of prime farmland will not be cultivated this year.

At a time when family farmers like Bushaw are already struggling with erratic commodity prices, rising land rents, and a growing consensus that large farms are more efficient, this latest crisis could drive many of them out of business.

Unless the weather improves or Congress chips in, the 1997 flood will hasten the day when farming becomes the province of corporations, and rural communities like Manvel become suburbs of larger places, or simply vanish.

"I know some people who are not in trouble financially, but they're just tired of fighting," says Scott Stofferahn, executive director of the North Dakota Farm Service Agency. "They put awful long hours into this business and it's real tough emotionally. We're going to lose some producers, no doubt about it."

Here in North Dakota, and throughout the nation, the number of small family farms has been dwindling for two decades. In the meantime, the number of large corporate farms has grown - largely as a result of market forces. These high-volume producers have proven better suited to survive in a business famous for its volatility: They require less labor per acre and are often able to make lucrative deals with farm suppliers and commodity buyers. These advantages have helped large farms get their produce to consumers at lower prices.

AS mergers continue to shake every major American industry, it seems increasingly likely that agriculture will not be an exception - especially if the weather continues to wreak havoc.

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Yet some observers say this consolidation is unnecessary at best, and dangerous at worst. In a recent study by the University of California Davis, researchers warned that the consolidation of farms has driven the middle class from agricultural towns, leaving many small independent businesses, schools, and churches to close their doors.

The reason, Mr. Stofferahn says, is that large farms cannot pay the wages that would allow small family farmers to maintain their standard of living. Indeed, the study found a direct correlation between the size of farms in an area and the number of local people who live at or below the federal poverty level.

Moreover, experts say, the exodus of middle-class farmers erodes local tax bases and allows large producers to take a greater role in shaping agricultural and rural policy. Recent changes in farm subsidy and insurance programs, they add, tend to favor large operations.

It's a vicious cycle that alarms Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Center for Rural Affairs at the University of Nebraska. Because they seek to minimize labor costs, he says, large farms are less likely to employ environmentally sound practices. Since many corporate farms are not owned by local people, he adds, they have less stake in the viability of rural communities.

As farms become concentrated in fewer hands, Mr. Hassebrook says, the agrarian ideals of Thomas Jefferson grow more distant - and the spirit of independence and individual ownership that helped settle the Plains erodes.

"This trend raises some fundamental questions about what kind of broader society we want to live in," Mr. Hassebrook says. "Whether we want to live in a society where just a few people own and control everything, or where wealth and power are more widely distributed."

Even here in North Dakota, where farm cooperatives were first invented, and where small producers have pooled their resources to open one of the nation's largest sugar plants, farmers like Bushaw are feeling pressure to consolidate.

As farmers sell out, he says, there are fewer faces at community events, like the annual Bean Day in Olso, Minn; fewer hands to help sandbag. These days, a new combine costs $150,000, he notes, and the cost of renting acreage continues to rise. New technologies like precision farming promise to be effective, but beyond the reach of all but the biggest producers.

"At one time if you wanted to make more money farming you just worked harder," Bushaw says. "That isn't so any more. It costs so much just to put a crop in, and your profit margin is so small. You have to be smarter now and you've got to understand marketing. There's no room to make mistakes anymore."

It's an atmosphere that led Bushaw to try to persuade his son, Tim, to go to college rather than join him on the farm. He does not blame those neighbors who have quit, even though many of them appear each year at harvest time, eager for one more taste of the life.

But Bushaw, like many farmers in the flood's wake, says he will continue to fight. As soon as the water is gone, he'll head to the fields to clean up the debris. He'll work from 4 a.m. until midnight every day, planting his crops in a mad rush. He'll pray for a mild spring and a summer of gentle rain. He'll hope that the first frost doesn't strike until October.

"I've worked hard trying to build a farm," he says. "I've had tough times, but lots of farmers have. You've got to be stubborn and independent. You've got to love this life, and I do. Until the bank kicks the door shut, I think I'll keep trying."

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