With twice as many prisoners in the U.S. than farmers, folks in agriculture are used to being on the back burner. So when the Wall Street Journal does a big article on troubles in farm country, you need to stand up and take notice. It has to be really bad for WSJradar to pick it up. In order for something agricultural to wedge into space generally dominated by dot-coms and Silicon Valley, the topic has to be serious.
So here's the headline: in 2018, median farm income was NEGATIVE $1,548. Did you catch that? Median farm income was NEGATIVE. Yes, that merits some attention. Chapter 12 bankruptcy is a special provision for farmers developed during the early 1980s farm crisis that allows farmers to restructure for repayment in 3-5 years as long as their debt does not exceed $4.1 million. Chapter 12 filings are double in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin compared to a decade ago.
One large farm featured in the piece finally filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy after wracking up $36 million in debt. This family was cropping 17,000 acres. Can you imagine accumulating that amount of debt? A couple of days ago I wrote about a Minnesota PhD ag expert touting the new normal as bigger farms and fewer farmers, likening it to natural civilizational progress in ancient Egypt. But apparently bigger is not the answer, his PhD and taxpayer-funded university position notwithstanding.
U.S. farm debt, according to the WSJ article, is not $409 billion. It's highest in the mid-west: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Utah.
The apparent orthodox cause? Let's see, a slump in commodity prices worsened by competition from Russia and Brazil. The answer? More consolidation. You can read that "bigger farms." Really? Meanwhile, across the page, we have a huge WSJ expose about manure-laden groundwater contamination and tainted wells in the same areas. A picture of brown well water pouring out of a kitchen water faucet is enough to even turn my stomach--and I have a pretty cast iron stomach.
I'm reminded of the 20-year old Government Accounting Office (GAO) study into food-borne illness that fingered 4 causes:
1. Centralized production
2. Centralized processing
3. Long distance transportation
4. Sub-therapeutic antibiotic feeding
That was 20 years ago. If that was the problem, what is the opposite:
1. Decentralized production (smaller, more diversified farms)
2. Decentralized processing (cottage industry)
3. Localized food systems
4. Immunological-enhancing habitat (pastured livestock)
This GAO report nailed it--one of the few government reports to do so. But it's been completely ignored and we've continued down the wrong path at warp speed. Farmers do not have to believe the orthodox conventional accredited experts in their industry. I have always gone the opposite way, and in the words of Robert Frost, "that has made all the difference."
When will someone connect all these dots: farm bankruptcies, polluted groundwater, food-borne pathogens, industrial principles applied to biology? Am I just a voice crying in the wilderness? If a prophet cries and nobody listens, does his voice make a sound? How about we make a U-turn in our farming and food system? In the big picture, if these bankruptcies open up opportunities for a new generation of bright eyed bushy tailed entrepreneurial land caressers, the faster we file bankruptcies to remove the orthodoxy, the better. That includes college professor experts and WSJ pundits who believe the tired old songs.
What would you do to turn the median farm income from negative to positive?
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