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"Poverty, Racial Discrimination and the Family Farm,"

by Stephen Carpenter January/February 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

Food and fiber are raised on some two million farms in the United States. The vast majority of American farming operations arc family farms. Squeezed by unwise government policies and an everenlarging industrial agriculture, tens of thousands of family farmers are forced from the land each year. Despite the continued growth of industrialized corporate agriculture, the vast majority - perhaps 95% or more - of the farms in the country are operated by a family, are of a modest size and rely primarily on family rather than paid labor. Over 60% of all farmers hire no wage labor at all. (By contrast, less than 2% of all farms account for half of all agricultural labor hired.) Those family farmers - of all races - remaining on the land often live in poverty.

It is easy to get the impression that virtually all of these farmers are white. A conservative estimate holds that at present only about 6% of the country's farms are operated by people of color, or, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines it, people who are "other than white (black, Asian, American Indian, or other races) or of Hispanic origin." But in many parts of the country nonwhite farmers account for 10-20% of the farmers.

Family Farmer Poverty

Farmers generally are twice as likely as the rest of the population to live in poverty. The bulk of poor farmers are in the Midwest and South, although there are also significant numbers in both the West and Northeast. Nearly every state has areas where poverty among farmers has been widespread for a number of generations.

Poverty among farmers can sometimes seem invisible. When the Harvard School of Public Health's Physician Task Force on Hunger in America found "hunger counties" throughout the agricultural Midwest and South, the general reaction seemed to be one of surprise. This may be true for a few reasons. First, like rural poverty generally, geographic isolation can hide farmer poverty. Few people witness the actual living conditions of farm families. Second, the very large economic differences among farmers - income inequality is far more extreme among farmers than in the nation as a whole
- are often blurred by the "we're all just folks" ideology of many farm communities, in which conspicuous consumption is frowned upon and those struggling economically hide financial difficulties. Third, some low-income farmers seem well-off because they have significant assets - farmland, tractors and the like - and a fairly large gross income. A closer look, however, often reveals that the farmer has little or no equity and a small net income.

Farm poverty is also not much noticed because the mainstream agricultural organizations, the media and the USDA affirmatively choose to ignore it. A reader of Farm Journal, probably the most influential agricultural magazine, would almost certainly never read that a significant portion of the country's farmers live in poverty. Statistics regarding farm poverty quoted in this article come buried in the appendices of obscure USDA Agricultural Research Service studies.

Poor Farmers Feed America

When poverty among farmers is discussed at all, apologists for economic inequality in agriculture sometimes suggest that since poor and struggling farmers have small operations, these farmers are really marginal to the agricultural economy as a whole. Further, since a large percentage of low-income farmers are forced to work off the farm to make ends meet, they are sometimes described as merely "hobby" farmers. Two facts undermine these arguments. First, while farmers living in poverty tend to operate farms smaller than average, it is not the case that low-income farms are merely marginal operations that produce little. In fact, more than 20% of all agricultural production in the country comes from a farm where the household operating the farm lives in poverty. Second, while many poor farmers have off-farm income, the farm families living in poverty work on average over forty hours per week on the farm - in addition to off-farm work. Off-farm income therefore works to supplement farm income, not replace it.

Family Farmer
Dispossession and Its
Social Cost

More than 30,000 farms are lost each year in the United States. This pace of dispossession has not noticeably slowed since the height of public attention to the "farm crisis" in the mid-1980s. Agricultural economists expect the loss of family farms to accelerate in the next decade.

For a farm family, dispossession means the end of employment and, without realistic prospects for similar work, often long-term poverty. Beyond this, it means the loss of a home, a place in the community and, in many cases, a family heritage.

Family farming is also crucial for the economic and social survival of many rural communities. More than 500 rural counties are dependent on farming as a central basis of their economy. One rule of thumb holds that for every five to seven farms that go out of business, one business in town also folds. While such indirect effects are difficult to measure in purely economic terms, the downward "multiplier effect" of fewer farms is certainly significant. Inevitably, the loss of family farms leaves a community with lower overall income and an increase in poverty.

The decline of family farming also undermines a community's social vitality. An absolute decline in the number of farmers cripples churches, community groups, public schools, hospitals, social services and ultimately the prospects for a viable community-wide social life.

Because farming communities already have relatively high levels of economic distress, and the potential for new forms of development is severely limited, the decline may be nearly irreversible. In sum, the ongoing farm crisis is really a rural crisis in which the underpinnings of whole communities are threatened.

Finally, the demise of family farming is also an environmental issue. As one would intuitively suspect, evidence suggests that farms using the most environmentally sound practices are modest in size. Certainly the very largest livestock operations (hog and chicken "factories," e.g.) are an eco-logical catastrophe.

How Race and Ethnicity
Matters in Family Farming

The typical non-white farmer was reared on a farm and has worked his or her present farm for about two decades. In this and many other respects, farmers of color share a similar set of circumstances with white farmers. In several crucial ways, however, life is much more difficult for non-white farmers. Smaller farms and discrimination result in an average household income that is one-third lower for non-white farmers than white farmers; rates of poverty are about 20% higher for nonwhite farmers.

The fate of African-American farmers is instructive. Black farmers tend to own smaller farms, which makes them especially vulnerable to economic downturns. They also find it more difficult than whites to secure mortgage loans, obtain government assistance and reap the benefits of federal farm programs. (See the Washington Post article cited below.)

Dispossession is an especially acute problem for African-American farmers. The failure of Reconstruction to create the conditions for a sustainable yeoman agriculture after the Civil War left African-American farmers largely trapped in a sharecropping economy that resembled slavery. Still, many blacks managed to acquire land; by the 1920s more than 200,000 African-American farmers owned land, and in total nearly one million black families farmed. However, during a single generation, from 1954 to 1987, farms with African-American operators declined by 95%, and between 1950 and 1974 the number of African-American owners dropped 80%.

As a USDA demographer observes, this has been "one of the most remarkable social and economic transformations in the history of our country." The decline of black farming continues today. The nation stands at the verge of losing, perhaps permanently, significant farmland ownership by African-Americans.

Agricultural Policy
and Farm Programs

A full explanation of the origin of the predicament of family farms would be lengthy and complicated. Certainly, technological innovations and changes in the larger economy have contributed. The full extent of the problems, however, has hardly been inevitable. In many ways, large and small, federal farm policy has contributed to the decline of family farming. Although farm programs in general are sometimes defended as promoting family farming, they, and a number of other government efforts - in research and extension services, as well as direct subsidies and tax policies - historically have tended to encourage the concentration of agriculture in the hands of fewer and fewer farmers.

The 1996 Farm Bill - technically known as the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act (FAIR Act) - sets farm programs for the next seven years. Under the FAIR Act, farm program payments to farmers are scheduled to decline somewhat through the year 2002 and then, supposedly, end. Congress chose not to focus these payments on family farms As has historically been the case with farm programs, large operations will receive a disproportionate share of the payments. Even when Congress has designated that funds should be limited to medium- and small-sized farms, the USDA tends to interpret the statute in ways that funnel resources to larger operations.

The Demise of Family
Farming is Not Inevitable:
Priorities for Policy

Although the siege of family farmers continues, changes in government policy could take steps toward equal-ing the playing field for all farmers:

· Target Farm Programs to Family Farmers
As noted above, federal farm programs go disproportionately to larger operations. It is also true, however, that roughly one-third of all farmers living in poverty receive USDA program payments of some kind. Thus, although a relatively small percentage of the payments go to farmers living in poverty, for poor farming families the payments can be extremely important. The PAIR Act may be reopened for changes. If so, these payments should be targeted for family farmers.

· Preserve Family Farm Credit Programs
Credit problems are central to the concerns of family farmers. Virtually every farmer uses short-term operating credit to purchase inputs - such as seed, fertilizer, feed and the like - and then pays the debt from farm proceeds. Most farms also have at least some real estate debt. Access to credit is therefore a serious problem for low-income farmers, especially nonwhite farmers. The USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) is designed to serve as the lender of last resort for family farmers. FSA therefore serves as the lender to tens of thousands of smaller, lower-income and higher-risk farmers.

Perhaps more than any other single program in the federal government, FSA's farm lending targets struggling family farmers. The recent FAIR Act undermines this program to some degree, and budget cuts have limited its effectiveness. Lending programs directed to family farmers, particularly nonwhite farmers, should instead be preserved and enhanced.

· Treat Discrimination at USDA Seriously
Discrimination by USDA has played, and continues to play, an important role in limiting the opportunities of the country's minority farmers. In fact, discrimination in modem agricultural programs has been aggressive and systematic. Public USDA responses to evidence of discrimination have become predictable. Wide-spread discrimination has been identified repeatedly over the years, perhaps most effectively in a series of U.S. Civil Rights Commission reports. In the face of such information, USDA officials admit there has been discrimination in the past and promise to do better. Just this fall, for example, a high USDA official was quoted as saying that discrimination is still a problem with USDA programs, but that USDA would improve in the future. A similar admission and promise was made before Congress by USDA officials nearly a decade ago.

The central problem is that discrimination by USDA against farmers has never been a priority for the Department. Discrimination complaint procedures, for example, have been weak, ineffectual and poorly funded. There are signs that the present administration is interested in creating an effective and aggressive discrimination complaint procedure. If such an effort is not successful, one day soon there will be few farmers of color left to use it.

· Pursue the Connection Between Family Farming and Sustainable Agriculture
Traceable in some respects to the once tiny organic farm movement, sustainable agriculture is on the verge of gaining mainstream acceptability. The definition of sustainable agriculture is hotly contested, but most proponents agree that it involves the use of fewer chemical fertilizers, pestiides and drug treatments for livestock. In practical terms, this tends to mean: using more crop rotations to fight the effects of weeds and insects; fertilizing the soil from on-farm sources such as small groups of unconfined livestock and nitrogen-fixing legumes; using biological practices and integrated pest management; and using careful conservation techniques. Arguably, sustainable farming is the best way to preserve family farming and rural communities. Unfortunately, farm programs have tended to penalize farmers using sustainable practices. Research, extension and other USDA programs should focus on developing and promoting sustainable practices.


Readers of Poverty & Race likely are familiar with the working conditions of migrant agricultural laborers and with conditions in meatpacking and other food processing plants. To this inventory of exploitation in the making of the nation's food and fiber we should add that of family farmers.

Stephen Carpenter Stephen Carpenter is a staff attorney with the Farmers’ Legal Action Group (1301 Minnesota Bldg., 46 E. Fourth St., St. Paul, MN 55101, 612/223-5400).

Portions of this article appeared in the April 1996 issue of Clearinghouse Review.

A Dec. 11, 1996, Washington Post feature, by Michael A. Fletcher, “Bias a Perennial Crop for Black Farmers. Lawsuits and Complaints Blame USDA for Foreclosures, Dwindling Ranks, is available from PRRAC with a SASE.

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