Growing, Owing, Gone

The farm crisis was supposed to be over a decade ago­when the TV crews packed up and the celebrities went home. But in places like Renville County, farmers have been harvesting hard times ever since.

Swoboda graduated into the role of amateur counselor, handling a one-woman hotline. Word among family farmers was that if you're in trouble, call Delores. And they did: As the '80s crisis deepened, she fielded more and more calls from families facing foreclosure, bankruptcy, and ruin. The trick then, she says, wasn't to tackle their financial predicaments long-distance--who could?--but just to get the callers talking. "A lot of times I could talk these people out of killing themselves. We did lose a couple that I had been talking to back in '89, '88. But most who did that never told anybody about their problems. Kept it to themselves. Didn't even tell their best friend or their wife that they were in foreclosure."

In the early 1990s, Swoboda says, the calls tapered off. By then the media had moved on. Country music stars and movie celebrities tired of making the American family farm their cause célèbre. The moment of crisis, if not its root causes, had passed.

But lately Swoboda's phone has been ringing again, just like old times. "I had one guy calling up," she says. "Three of his neighbors are renting land. They have no land for themselves that they own. He said 'I'm bringing those three over, and the rest of the busload is just people with one problem or another.' I thought, 'Jeez, has it come to this again? He's bringing over a busload of farmers?'"

Dawn Villella

In 1996 the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress passed what's known as the Freedom to Farm Act, a broad bill that overturned 60 years of national farm policy. Since the Great Depression, the federal government had played a key role in the country's agriculture: controlling the supply of commodities such as corn and soybeans, and ensuring farmers a bottom-line price for their products. Freedom to Farm changed all that.

The new legislation phases out government-guaranteed prices over seven years, and releases farmers from the centralized controls that used to direct what crops they could plant under federal-subsidy programs and when. Proponents of the bill say it essentially opens up the farm economy to the free market, allowing supply and demand, rather than federal bureaucrats, to dictate prices and production.

The result has been wild fluctuations in the price of supplies and major farm commodities across the country and in the Midwest. After the bill passed, corn shot up briefly to $5 a bushel, then just as quickly fell to $2. It's been declining steadily ever since. When the Asian economy began to falter last year, it put a severe crimp in the demand for American grain; the resulting surplus has driven prices even lower. "There's some serious volatility," says Ridgewater College's Steve Zenk. In the era of federally managed agriculture, he goes on, "we used to have some stabilization in the marketplace. When there was a nice, steady, even supply, prices didn't get too high, and they didn't get too low. By comparison to today, that looks pretty good."

Two years under free-market rules hasn't helped the small-scale family farmer. The change in policy, Zenk and others in his field agree, has increased the number of corporate and cooperative operations around Minnesota. As a result, the new rules--and the new agricultural economy--have also forced small-scale farmers either to increase their holdings just to stay afloat or to go out of business. Back in the late 1970s, Zenk says, the price for corn hovered around $2 a bushel, and stayed around there until prices began their current decline. At the same time, the cost of living--not to mention the cost of fertilizer, equipment, and other expenses involved in running a family farm--has continued to rise dramatically.

"A tractor in 1975 would have cost about $20,000 brand new," Zenk says. "A comparable machine now would cost $70,000 or $80,000. But we're still getting the same kind of prices [for crops] we got back in 1975." The minimum wage for most workers in America has steadily increased over the past two decades, but not for farmers. Imagine trying to finance a home today while earning 1975's minimum wage--$2 an hour.

Faced with bleak numbers like these, most farmers in Renville County have either stopped farming, or, when feasible, increased their arable land holdings. "Our answer all these years to offset the bad prices is, 'Well, we must need to grow more acres,'" Zenk says. Some measure of the pace of consolidation is captured in a 1992 survey taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture. The average size of Renville County farms has shot up markedly in the past decade, as the total number has inevitably declined. In 1987 there were 1,455 farms in the county. Twenty-five percent of them were larger than 500 acres, and consumed nearly 60 percent of the county's farmland. Within five years, these large-scale acreages made up 31 percent of all farms, and accounted for nearly 70 percent of the land. At the same time, the total number of farms in Renville decreased by 20 percent. Zenk points out that in the six years since, the trend has only worsened.

But not all of the small-scale farmers who've left their livelihood went bankrupt, he says: Some retired and moved to town, quitting while the quitting was good. Many farmers who've quit in the past decade now rent out their acres--in some cases to neighboring farmers under pressure to grow or go under, in others to large-scale co-ops or multinational corporations.

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