Monday, April 15, 2013

Corporate farms wreak economic havoc on rural communities

By Joseph Cahill

Agribusiness is a term that may be unfamiliar to many. It is farming conducted on commercial principles that uses advanced technology to produce a higher quality and quantity of crops than ever before. This all sounds great for a global economy, but for family farms, it is nothing short of a death sentence.

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were over 7 million American farms in 1935 — the peak of farming in the United States — yet as of the 2010 census, only 2.2 million remained.

However, the United States is currently producing more than ever before. Data from the USDA shows steady growth in the number of acres planted and harvested each year. How is this possible with such a large decrease in the number of small farms over the past 70 years? The game of farming has been tilted to fit the needs of monolithic agricultural enterprises that leave small family farms to die.

Companies like Monsanto are contributing to the death of American family farms. Eighty percent of corn seeds and 95 percent of soy bean seeds in the country contain Monsanto’s patented genes, an investigation by the Associated Press found.

Monsanto’s monopolization of the seed industry leaves farmers with few options for purchasing seeds. As one of the only suppliers, Monsanto can and has applied restrictions and regulations as a part of company policy that cause a loss in production for smaller farms. Some forms of this have resulted in not being able to sell the grain farmers purchase and not being able to reuse leftover seeds for the next season.

However, there’s more to this story than large conglomerates. The government subsidizes farms, but often misses those that actually need tax breaks.

The Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy Database reported that in Iowa, 58 percent of farm subsidies went to farms that make up the top 10 percent of profitable farmlands in the state from 1995 to 2011. Over that same period, the average value of subsidies given annually to each farmer in the top 10 percent was $33,626. The bottom 80 percent received on average only $1,553 per year.

If the state gave more subsidies and tax breaks to small family farms, they would be much more sustainable and not on the verge of collapse. Because the money isn’t and hasn’t been granted in a way to support family farms, their numbers have fallen dramatically.

With more and more of these smaller scale productions going out of business, it raises even bigger problems for the nation. When small farms go away, it hurts small rural areas that depend on the business of the farmers.

Richard Longworth, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is the author of the book Caught in the Middle. In it, he discussed this phenomenon of disappearing rural towns.
“When each farm amounted to about 160 acres, there were enough farmers and farm families to patronize local businesses ... Now that average may be two thousand acres or more.”

With larger farms, one family is taking the profit of what could have gone to 10 to 15 other families. This means that all of the local businesses only receive 10 percent as many customers as they used to. Without small farms, we cannot have small towns.

If the government doesn’t help small farmers keep their fields open for business instead of giving breaks to massive corporations that don’t need them, family farms will likely become extinct, leaving local economies to suffer.

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