More than 50 years ago, you could write about the importance of the family farm and expect to find at least half your audience nodding in agreement. Unfortunately, the agribusinessmen understood that public affection and loyalty, and have used it to dupe our politicians into programs and policies in their favor, many of which eventually undermined the family farm. Now, I think, most people under 40 don’t know why they should care.
The connection of family farms to the health and well-being of our entire country is not well understood, despite years of research documenting it. Walter Goldschmidt, the anthropologist who showed the intimate connection between rural towns and the size of farms surrounding them in his study of Arvin and Dinuba in the 1940s, went to his grave regretting that he hadn’t pushed on with that research. The study’s findings, that smaller scale family farms produced healthier communities than large-scale absentee-owned farms, were so powerfully clear that they produced a backlash, and Goldschmidt turned to research among indigenous peoples. But he always felt he’d wasted his chance to make a difference by not expanding his study. The loss of family farms in this state grieved him more than the resulting decimation of our farm towns.
“Will the Family Farm Survive in America?” was the title of a series of Congressional committee hearings conducted in 1976, just before Goldschmidt published the second edition of “As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness” (1978). The hearings covered a wide range of questions about what was impinging, but not on what was needed to prevent the family farm’s demise. The hearings were held just as the farm crisis of the 1980s was beginning in the Midwest. Small town populations shrank, downtown businesses died, school districts collapsed, churches emptied and rural chaplains were presiding over more and more funerals for farmer suicides. Although we in California thought we were safe, our declining small farm towns were giving accurate testimony to the losses of small farms that no one was counting. I photographed a farm eviction in 1989 near Rio Linda in Sacramento County that made the late-night news for 1 minute.
And now, almost 40 years after completing my update of Goldschmidt’s Arvin-Dinuba study, I find myself equally regretful, because the answer to those hearings’ probing question “Will the family farm survive in America?” has become “No.”
What if it doesn’t? That may be the more important question.
One of my last remaining farmer friends, who recently celebrated his 71st birthday, told me of a conversation he had last month with a USDA representative in Visalia. She’d called to find out if he’d submitted some form required of him for his orange grove, and he answered that he’d just pushed his trees. The lack of a good market for navels (even organic,) and these past drought years spent spreading thin his scarce water brought him to this conclusion. He’d also added up what he’d be saving on fees and other expenses, and it was enough to live on.
Then, taking a stand, he told the USDA woman, “I’m fifth generation Tulare County. My ancestors came during the Gold Rush and farmed near Dinuba. And I’m the last,” which made her suck in her breath the same way it did me on the retelling. Do we understand the implications of this die-off, of which my friend is just one example of many? Do we who are “not in agriculture” realize that no one “in” agriculture is counting these losses? No one is counting: not our county agricultural commissioners, not the state Department of Food and Agriculture, not USDA even, despite the numbers they produce in their five-year ag censuses showing gradual increases in average farm size that completely mask the genocide.
“The best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow on the ground,” my friend said, retelling one of his dad’s sayings that he still carries in his head. Back then, people were using their bodies to farm and make a living. Mostly now, people are using their money, hiring the work done by people who may not care as much if a sprinkler is plugged or a hose needs replacing, or if the irrigators are running water in the middle of the afternoon.
This shift is so pernicious, and seems so irrevocable, it’s hard to know what to do. It impacts our water supplies, our soil quality, our natural environment and our food supply, not to mention our socio-economic structure and political viability. Every human being—anyone who eats food—is affected. And thanks to us, the social diseases caused by monied, absentee farm ownership have now been spread around the globe.
“The forces are so large, it seems impossible to change,” my friend said Sunday over the phone. “But if we look at the disaster ahead,” I said, “it’s even worse if we don’t do something.” His response was that, well, then, I guess we need to raise consciousness of what is at stake for everyone. I couldn’t agree more.
Trudy Wischemann is a belated researcher of farm communities who writes. You can send her your thoughts about the whole thing c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of the Mid Valley Times newspaper.