Collapse of the family farmer

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Nov 28 12:02:59 MST 1999

NY Times, November 28, 1999

Is the Sun Setting on Farmers?


DE KALB, Ill. -- Before the fall harvest was over, Vince Faivre was
surveying row after row of soybeans and counting his losses.

Neither the best technology nor the promise of a bumper crop seemed to
matter. For the second consecutive year, he expected to lose money, as much
as $60 an acre.

And his thoughts ran to three things that are hardly good for the
independent farmer: the growing public concern about bio-engineered crops,
a spate of huge agricultural mergers and commodity prices that had
plummeted to their lowest levels in nearly 30 years.

"There's just no profit in farming anymore," said Faivre, (pronounced
FAY-ver) 39, as he stepped out of the cab of his combine on his 700-acre
spread about 60 miles west of Chicago. "A year ago, I would have said we've
been through these valleys before, but it's a much gloomier picture right

While the government has kept many farmers afloat with emergency aid, which
the Agriculture Department says could reach $22 billion this year, net farm
income has fallen more than 38 percent since 1997.

Indeed, agricultural experts say these are hard times for farmers. "Prices
are as low as they have been in decades," said Keith Collins, chief
economist at the Agriculture Department.

With a new array of scientific and technological processes lifting crop
yields and tailoring food products to individual companies and specific
markets, farmers are producing more food on fewer acres in less time. And
therein lies both the promise and the perils for the independent farmer.

The nation's largest farms -- those with more than $250,000 in sales -- now
account for more than 72 percent of all agricultural sales, up from 53
percent a decade ago. And after the elimination last year of many
government regulations on production, farmers are being subjected to market
forces they have not faced since before the New Deal.

Many farmers are worried about being squeezed by giant agricultural
companies. "There's a fear this will turn into 14th-century feudalism,"
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said. "Those farmers will become serfs.
We're not there yet, but it may be coming."

Among farmers' worries is whether to plant seeds that have been
bio-engineered to ward off pests. Bio-engineering has been hailed as a
godsend to farmers looking for higher crop yields, but it also faces
growing opposition. Although genetically modified seeds have been approved
by federal regulators and were planted on more than 70 million acres of
farmland in the United States in 1999, critics have repeatedly and volubly
questioned whether genetically modified crops are safe for consumption and
the environment.

"The issue for many farmers is not just about the current financial
situation and their income," said Michael Boehlje, a professor of
agricultural economics at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "In the
back of their minds, there's a set of concerns about the long term. They
want to know how they are going to participate in the new agriculture."

But the new agriculture involves far more than bio-engineering. Farmers
have complained periodically that big corporations have gained dominance
and unfair bargaining power, and now a host of economists, regulators and
lawmakers are taking up the farmers' cause, arguing that the Darwinian pace
has quickened.

Complete article at

Louis Proyect
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