America’s Decision: Will We Save the Family Farm?


America’s farm economy and farm communities are in crisis. Debt and despair, foreclosures and even suicides have swept across the heartland in recent years, turning entire regions into economic wastelands.

Despite the severity of the situation, solutions are possible; what is lacking is commitment on the part of our national leadership. For fundamentally, the farm crisis is a crisis of values. It is the result of a failure by our nation’s political and economic leaders to recognize the importance of rural America to the stability and strength of our democratic society.

In the fall of 1986, a column in the Wall Street Journal headlined, “Why Not Save The 31,000 Top Farmers?,” argued that farm foreclosures in the Midwest and South were nothing more than the inevitable workings of the marketplace, weeding out all but the most “efficient” farmers.’

While I disagree with the author’s premise, he identified the central question we face in formulating a farm policy: How many farmers will our society permit to own and work the land?

Do we want two million farm families owning the land they live and workon, preserving it for future generations? Or do we want our farms run as giant corporations, owned by absentee landlords and operated by day laborers? America must now decide whose interests our government will defend: the vast majority of farmers or the handful of large producers and agribusiness conglomerates.

The Reagan administration has given us its farm policy: big is best. As a result, we have witnessed families breaking under financial strain; banks closing at record post-Depression rates; small businesses going bankrupt; massive layoffs in factories producing agricultural machinery; the economic devastation of entire communities; and finally, the erosion of our soil and pollution of our groundwater by excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers.’ These events, the Reagan administration would have us believe, are the inevitable costs of progress.

These developments are not inevitable, nor do they represent progress. They result from agricultural policies that spur farmers to produce more andmore at lower and lower prices.

The Reagan administration portrays the farm policy debate as the “free market” versus “government control,” but there is no free market in agriculture. Through a variety of mechanisms, every nation controls farm produc-tion and commodity prices, and the United States is no exception. Because of the importance of an affordable and reliable food supply, American governments have always been involved in agriculture.

The time has come for the farm policy debate to move beyond mindless and misleading clashes about “free markets” versus “government control.” There can be no debate over whether government will be involved in agriculture. It will. Instead, we must focus on how government should approach the farm economy. What will its role be? Who will it help? What kind of agricultural system will take shape in the years to come?

Suggested Reading