Sunday, April 23, 2017

Student considers farm policies in social welfare

This student reacted to the film we watched in class: The River (1937), and reflected on the situation on farms and in farming communities of Central Illinois today.
Looking at the Farming Administration and watching the River documentary, and considering the requirements as they were for farmers for that time (1937) to now, it seems to me the farming industry hasn’t changed too much.  We still produce corn, wheat, beans, and hay for feeding the animals and we raise: cows, sheep and pigs, at least in our area.  When, The River was filmed, way back in 1937, they even irrigated.  We still do today as well.  They system is different, but with our technology we still irrigate. If you were born rich, your acreage keeps growing and your banking account does too.  If you’re not well-off, and if you don’t have acreage like the big farmers do, you struggle to stay alive or you get out farming. It’s the same way today.

My husband’s family were big into farming.  We paid our bills each month, and took out loans to get a bigger supply of tractors and combines.  We got more and more farm ground.  We were lucky.  Some other farmers were barely staying alive, with no new tractors and combines; they were selling off pieces of their farm ground.  You could see them— how they lost a piece of themselves each time they had to do that.  The same situation was shown with The River, people worked hard and their kids were dirty.  Those of us today who work in agriculture know this. Especially looking back at what we have been through, it seems it is often the case, that the farmers worked like dogs and the woman stayed at home.  The farmer’s wives took care of the home front, fed them meals, as well as cooking and cleaning and you needed to feed our “man” while he was in the field.  We still do that today.  I’m not sure if everyone does that but in our little town, we do and we feed them at noon, everyday.

Grant Wood’s Dinner for Threshers (1934) 

We also get money for NOT planting the soil, like we saw in The River.  USDA pays us and sometimes plant alfalfa or not disrupt the plants and animals that to preserve the animals and plants that live there.  Robert Frank, who guest-blogged on the PBS Newsdesk, stated, 
Paying farmers not to grow crops was a substitute for agricultural price support programs designed to ensure that farmers could always sell their crops for enough to support themselves. The price support program meant that farmers had to incur the expense of plowing their fields, fertilizing, irrigating, spraying, and harvesting them, and then selling their crops to the government, which stored them in silos until they either rotted or were consumed by rodents. It was much cheaper just to pay farmers not to grow the crops in the first place.

You mention the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays some farmers a rent for not growing crops on land that could help protect the environment if it was used for something else. You also refer to various policies and laws that attempt to maintain the sustainability of farming in the United States. This aspect of the federal social welfare policies that aim to prop up the economies of rural areas and ensure that America produces an abundance of food usually gets overlooked. In fact, since many of these policies are in the Department of Agriculture, and are described as part of “farm policy” and people are generally biased to think of welfare policies as “urban policies,” many textbooks of social welfare policy do not give any attention to agriculture policy, aside from the children’s food programs and SNAP and WIC.  

The division between successful farmers and failing farmers does seem mostly attributable to access to capital investment. If you already have money, and you are free from debt, you can acquire more land, take advantage of economies of scale, invest in bigger and better machinery, and increase your yields.  If you have a small farm, and you cannot get money to enlarge or purchase the better equipment, you must find some other way to make a success of your operation.  Niche farming might work for some, but that also requires a development of a market for specialized crops.  Direct marketing to consumers also can make smaller farms economically viable, but generally you need to be able to deliver your crops to a large concentrated mass of consumers, or bring your produce to farmers’s markets where the volume of sales will make the effort worthwhile.  In San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle a farmer can sell $2,000 of produce on a single day at a farmers’ market (if the weather is good and the produce is of high quality and priced right), but I doubt any of the farmers at the Springfield farmers’ markets can sell more than $600 in a day. 

The film The River described the people of the Mississippi Delta as ill-fed, ill-housed, and ill-clad.  I believe conditions have considerably improved since the 1930s.  Indoor plumbing and electricity, nearly universal within twenty years of the making of that film, have made a large difference.  Food benefits for the poor have also helped. But rural areas today, especially in the areas along the Mississippi River as it stretches south from Illinois, are terrible. 

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