Elizabeth Henderson

Henderson

When you go to the grocery store and look at the fresh produce, dairy and meat, where do you imagine it comes from? Do you picture small, local, family-owned farms and ranches with pastured cows and chickens?

That might have been true decades ago, but today, Big Ag dominates the food industry and makes it nearly impossible for family-scale farms to compete. Many farmers in New York state and around the country who work hard to get their products to market are in serious debt trying to keep up with a system stacked against them. Almost all New York farmers have to work second jobs or have a partner with an off-farm job to keep the farm afloat.

The number of farms in the state has been dropping steadily. The 2012 ag census counted 35,538. The 2017 census found only 33,438. Farmers are not going out of business because they don’t like to farm; the prices they receive in the marketplace do not cover the full costs of production. So after losing money for as many years as they can hold on, farmers quit.

Sadly, much of the relief dollars made available are going to the largest and wealthiest agribusiness companies rather than struggling small and midsize farmers. Of the $4.9 billion in COVID-related assistance funding in 2020, more than three-quarters of it went to the top 20% of producers. The top 1% of aid recipients each got a payment of more than $342,000, while the average check for businesses that make up the bottom 80% was just $4,600.

The way the federal government has propped up Big Ag at the expense of smaller operations is nothing new. Under the New Deal, federal aid programs ensured farmers got a fair price based on their cost of production and kept big businesses from controlling the market. But for most of the last 50 years, farm policy decisions have been stacked in favor of corporate fat cats. The largest farms and food companies keep getting bigger while family operations that used to be the backbone of food production — and entire rural communities — have been pushed out of business.

These practices have been particularly harmful to the Black farmers I’ve talked to whose families have faced well over a century of discrimination by the USDA, sending them into foreclosure, forcing them from their farms. The USDA even colluded with banks and developers to steal their land. The agency routinely denied timely loans to Black farmers for planting, which could spell a lost crop year, lost income, more debt, and sold land. According to some estimates, the USDA’s discrimination has robbed Black Americans of $300 billion in wealth and made all family farmers poorer and powerless in the process.

Family farmers — White and Black — are hurting. Our neighbors and our main streets in rural America are in crisis. So let’s deal with the problem at its root: stop bailing out big ag corporations with taxpayer dollars, and start nourishing the small and mid-sized farms that make our country great. Just as any crop needs sun and soil, we need better policies and programs that build on each other to lift all of us up: right now that means unlocking aid for farmers of color from the dark money interests dividing us. Our NY Sen. Gillibrand is leading the way, so now it’s time for senators Schumer, Stabenow, and others to move to support debt relief for all small-scale family farmers through the Relief for America’s Small Farmer’s Act making its way through Congress.

The fates of all farmers are bound together. So it’s only by combining our efforts that we can begin to breathe again.

Elizabeth Henderson has farmed at Peacework Farm in Wayne County, New York, producing organically grown vegetables for the fresh market for more than 30 years. Henderson is a founding member of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA).

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