Nothing says America like our heartland. Bucolic imagery of our nation’s farms is cemented into our collective consciousness—the early-rising, rolled-up-sleeves, hands in the dirt labor is, most of us agree, what makes America great, no matter what our political persuasion. It’s an honest day’s work, complicated in its simplicity, a nod to both the simple pleasures in life—those vast fields of golden grains, cotton, beans, and produce—and all that space and hard work worth fighting for. But the perception of our farmers is not a true representation of their struggles. Farmers hold some of the highest depression and suicide rates in the country. Many are perpetually in debt, barely able to make ends meet. We can’t function without them, of course—from the foods we eat to the clothes we wear and the fuel in our vehicles—farmers are the foundation of every culture. So why then are corporations crippling American farmers?
We take a look at several examples of how corporations have strongholds on our farmers and a look ahead at what the future of farming is shaping up to look like.
Patents and Contracts
John Deere, the best-selling tractor company knows tractors are critical for farmers of all persuasion. A recent investigation found that John Deere hides in the fine print of its bill of sale to farmers that they don’t own the tractors they think they buy (even if they’re buying a used tractor not directly from John Deere). John Deere says the tractors are technically just licensed for use, not sold outright, because of “copyrighted” software that run the tractors many functions, similar to computer chips in most cars. Adding new parts to a tractor or breaking the software locks altogether (banned under Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) could result in exorbitant charges and days out of commission as farmers may have to wait for a John Deere representative to visit the farm to service the vehicles.
“We can’t communicate with the electronics on a tractor anymore,” farmer Kyle Schwarting told PRI. “Let’s say you’re out in the field planting corn, and your tractor breaks down. In my case, the nearest dealership is 75 miles away, so for them to come out could cost me $2,000 to fix a $50 part.”
That’s an unsustainable and arduous burden put on the farmers, many of whom are turning to hackers to help override the software for significantly less money than it would cost John Deere to fix it.
“Tractor hacking is growing increasingly popular because John Deere and other manufacturers have made it impossible to perform “unauthorized” repair on farm equipment, which farmers see as an attack on their sovereignty and quite possibly an existential threat to their livelihood if their tractor breaks at an inopportune time,” reports Jason Koebler of Vice’s Motherboard.
Seed patets work much the same. Monsanto, the poster company vilified for its genetically modified seeds and companion herbicides, is known for forcing farmers into contracts under the promise of increased yields and profits. But those promises often fall short, causing farmers to accrue debt, and even breach contracts looking to make up for lost profits.
Around the world millions of farmers have sued Monsanto over its patents and the debts the farmers say are unwarranted. The company does not permit saving its genetically modified seeds, forcing farmers to purchase new seeds season after season. And it has even been known to sue farmers if “unauthorized” seeds wind up pollinated without paying the company its requisite kickbacks. It has sued more than 100 farmers, receiving judgements in its favor of nearly $24 million—some of which came from farmers who didn’t plant the seeds at all, but are rather victims of crop drift from neighboring farms. That’s not to mention the issues with herbicides like Monsanto’s Roundup leading to resistant “superweeds” no longer killed by the herbicides, which forces farmers to increase the chemicals and use stronger ones, even though GMOs came with the promise of decreased chemical use. And there are numerous claims and lawsuits pointing to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, for its link to serious health issues, including cancer.
In India, where farmers are lured into contracts with seed and chemical companies like Monsanto, thousands of cotton farmers have reportedly committed suicide for failure to meet anticipated yields leaving them indebted and disgraced.
“Rapid increase in indebtedness is at the root of farmers taking their lives,” says activist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva.
“Two factors have transformed agriculture from a positive economy into a negative economy for peasants,” she wrote, “the rising costs of production and the falling prices of farm commodities. Both these factors are rooted in the policies of trade liberalization and corporate globalization.”
Perdue Farms, one of the nation’s largest producers of poultry products, runs a similar system with its chicken farmers. Perdue owns the chickens, but it doesn’t raise them. That’s outsourced to thousands of farmers across the country. Perdue will supply the feed and often requires its farmers to enter into contracts on equipment or housing for the chickens, but it is never upfront about how much it’s going to pay for the chickens once they reach market weight. It’s a system called “tournament” where a company like Perdue sets an average price it’s going to pay for chickens only to be determined after the farmer is already raising the animals.
“But some farmers will get more than [the average price], and others less, depending on a formula that measures their performance. It’s mainly based on feed efficiency: how much weight the chickens gained, compared to how much feed the company supplied,” reports NPR.
“The farmers are ranked, like teams competing in a sports league. The top-ranked farmer can get paid up to 50 percent more, per pound of chicken delivered, than the one at the bottom.”
For farmers, this can be highly stressful—one farmer compared it to feeling like a student after taking a test, unsure of how he had performed and knowing how much weight was attributed to the outcome. Imagine if your employer paid you against a national average, varying your paycheck from month to month based on how your work compared to other employees you’ve never even met.
“It’s at the expense of the farmer, because the farmer’s not the one making money,” Benny Bunting, a former chicken farmer who now works for Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, told NPR. “The company is making money.”
Worker Safety and Labor Rights
Mother Jones contributing writer Tom Philpott pointed me toward a story he wrote in 2011 on the treatment of slaughterhouse and meat processing facility workers. Slaughterhouses and processing plants have some of the highest worker injury and death rates, all because, as Philpott notes, profits are valued over safety.
“Corporate profit strategy shifted in the wake of the 1970s-era stagflation crisis—in a way that transformed not just meatpacking but also the broader business landscape,” he explains. “Companies could no longer assume they had the power to raise prices to burnish the bottom line. Wage inflation, and the fear of it, convinced them that holding prices down was the better idea. Profit would be eked out by selling ever greater volumes of stuff—and by holding costs, including labor costs, to a bare minimum.”
According to the National Farm Worker Ministry, most farm workers (not necessarily farm owners) make about $7.25 an hour and work 42 hours per week, “but this ‘average’ varies greatly,” the Ministry notes, depending on length of time at the position, location, and type of work. In some cases, farm workers take in only 0.3% of total income while the manufacturers (labeled products) bring in 49% of the profits.
Farm wage and labor issues have been reported across the country from North Carolina to Michigan and California. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a non-profit based in Florida working to help bring livable wages and safe working conditions to tomato farm workers. The tomato industry has not only been linked to unlivable low wages, but also egregious human rights violations including seven cases of slavery reported in Florida just since 1997. Illegal workers make their way over the border, often times recruited out of Latin American countries with promises of living the “American Dream.” But many wind up at the mercy of headhunters who bring them to farms where they work for significantly less than what the National Farm Worker Ministry quotes. In his 2011 book “Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit,” Barry Estabrook visited farm workers living in the back of semi-trailer trucks rigged into makeshift homes that they are forced to pay a large chunk of their already low wages to live in.
“Everything came with an exorbitant imaginary price tag,” Estabrook told NPR. “To stand under a cold hose at the end of a day’s work was $5… [and if] people didn’t work, they were beaten. Some were hospitalized.”
While subsidies may seem like they support farmers—and some do—it’s not a perfect system. Farm subsidies often go to commercial farms with net profits of millions of dollars a year for some of the most common crops including wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton for use in food and livestock production, fiber for clothing, and ethanol for fuel. Smaller farms—the ones we typically imagine when we think of America’s bread basket—don’t often qualify. Subsidies offer protection for the corporate farm—a bit like Wall Street bailouts, leaving family farms to fend for themselves against volatile markets.
Subsidies also often benefit the landowner and not the farmer—a huge consideration since nearly half of subsidized farmland is on rented property. Less than ten percent of that land is owned by other farmers—meaning property owners who may do no farming whatsoever are often the recipient of the subsidies.
“There are so many moving pieces that small shifts in the workforce, water use, and the climate have a massive impact throughout the entire system,” Brad McNamara, CEO and co-founder of Freight Farms, an agricultural tech company focused on local produce ecosystems using old shipping containers, recently explained to Food Tank. “It is essential to keep a holistic understanding of the relationships between all the components in our food and agricultural system and to consider the ripple effect policy decisions will have on the smaller players involved.”
According to the National Center of Policy Analysis, subsidies lead to overproduction of certain crops, which leads to decreased prices that can fall below production costs. If you’ve ever wondered how a fast-food hamburger can cost $1, that’s in large part due to government subsidies–lobbied for by industry-led trade organizations–on crops that go into the burger.
Taxpayers also bear the burden by paying for the subsidies that may be hurting small farmers even when they’d rather that money go to those smaller farm operations producing a higher-quality crop than the corporate farms.
Kathleen Merrigan, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, says big isn’t necessarily bad, though, and that larger farms that receive subsidies could eventually be leading the way toward a healthier farming system. “The more land we can get into organic production, the better,” she told Modern Farmer. “I want single moms on SNAP benefits in the middle of the country to be able to afford organic produce. It can’t just be for the elite on the East and West Coasts.”
Next Generation Farmers
Corporations still have huge stakes in what’s being farmed, where, by who, and how much, but America’s farming landscape is changing. Small farmers are getting more visibility at local farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer programs that allow them to charge a premium for products instead of going through a middleman. Livestock producers are embracing cooperative models, and taking steps to transition to organic and more humane practices, with the USDA even paying for some of those costs. And as interest in clean, sustainable, organic, and humanely raised food is at an all-time high, a new generation of farmers is rising to meet that demand with enterprising creativity.
For Merrigan, the future is going to succeed if women take on a larger role. “Hillary Clinton would have been the right president to put a spotlight on female farmers, not just domestically but around the globe,” she says. “The world’s farmers are predominantly women, and if they were given equal access to resources, education, and leadership positions, global food production would increase by 30 percent.”
But the future of our farm system–and its relationship to corporate agendas–is going to take efforts from every sector, not just the farmers (male or female). We’re already seeing a rise in innovative technology reshaping farming and the urban farming movement is poised to make “local” farms as local as the corner bakery.
“The future is so much bigger and more complex than we could have ever imagined. Over the past few years, we’ve gotten to witness the emergence of a new industry of agriculture technology, and it’s poised to make a dramatic impact on the food system,” says McNamara.
“One of the most amazing things we’ve been able to watch is how many are interested in joining the movement towards a better future.”
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