“It’s not like it used to be,” said Jerry at the Co-op. I was giving my girlfriend a whirlwind tour of Kiester, MN, on a cloudy Monday morning. She had asked him how Co-ops have changed over time.
“The guys used to come on down in their manure boots, sit around the table, and have a cup of coffee over crop prices and the morning news! Now there’s none of that; just a lot of backdoor deals to try to get ahead of one another,” he soberly reported.
“Do you ever see it coming back?”
Jerry’s profound response, “No, if anything, the area is transforming to a plantation model of farming where we have a few folks owning most of the land and a lot of hired hands working for them – kinda like slavery – but you know, people will be paid a living wage,”
Immediately following the succession of the southern states before the Civil War, the U.S. Government enacted the Homestead Act, an act that declared loudly and clearly that we’d have a different kind of agriculture in the north. In stark contrast to the slave labor plantations of the South, all citizens (as long as they were of age and hadn’t taken up arms against the U.S.) were eligible to homestead a farm and try to make it on their own.
Since then, Midwestern states have triumphed the family farm as the economic unit of American agriculture. Many laws have been passed to ensure family farms are protected from competition by large corporations and multi-national interests, as well as to protect them in during economic downturns and natural disasters. However, the march of time and money supports Jerry’s statement.
Many factors influence farm size. As the cost of living creeps up, it takes more land and the advantages of an economy of scale to sustain a family. Generally speaking, the value of commodity crops is out of the farmers’ hands and the government subsidizes farms to make up for crop value when times are tough. Farmers are constantly in competition with one another to pay for rented acres and gain the first rights to purchase properties after landlords retire or die. Slowly but surely, those with land accrue more land, and those without land area squeezed out. Hired hands may outnumber family members on many family farms now, and family members that own parcels of the farm may live and work thousands of miles away. At the same time, there are many farmers experimenting with new crops, cropping methods that improve the efficiency of their operations, and new ways to use old crops for more value. The entrepreneurial spirit has always been strong in the farming community!
It’s not like it used to be, but the American family farm experiment continues.