In the future, just toiling hard—the first commandment of agriculture—will no longer be enough to assure a farmer success. New technology, world trade, and a host of smaller factors are bringing momentous changes to American agriculture, and farmers who expect to stay in business are going to have to guard their independence with quick thinking and tough choices. Dramatic reforms of government farm programs are called for as part of the necessary adjustment, and we will examine some below. Bit it is primarily farmers themselves who are going to have to work their own salvation.
The first thing they are going to have to decide is what kind of famer they want tot be. There are basically two options: The top fifth of U.S. growers (fewer than half a million individuals) run large, efficient family farms as commercial enterprises and produce 85 percent of our agricultural output. Most of the rest are part-time farming families who have found agriculture a good complement to a day job, an off-farm business, or a spouse’s salary. Farm labor is what economists call “lumpy”—there are periods when you wear itself out, then long stretches where you can do nothing at all. That can fit well with another job, even when the farming is done on a reasonably big scale.
Big boys and part-timers alike have family incomes above the national average, but they earn them in very different ways: The first devote themselves entirely to agriculture and bring home an average of about $100,000, while the latter derive about three-quarters of their income from nonfarm sources. (In between the commercial and the part-time farmers are very small scale full-time farmers, who are often distressed and rapidly disappearing.) Even farm families that are fully dependent upon agriculture are finding it advantageous to diversify their income sources. One example would be the Baxter operation located near Stockley, Delaware. Jim Baxter is a jowly, unpretentious man, feeding a smoky trash fire and loading junk onto a truck when I find him in his barnyard. The day before, a tornado had touched down and destroyed part of his grain bin and elevator, a reminder of the unpredictable natural environment within which farmers work.
“There’s been a Baxter farm here since 1903,” he explains, “but it’s changed a lot over the years.” With his two sons, Baxter started a farm-machinery parts business on the premises to supplement seasonal crop income. They also put up a string of chicken houses. The modern broiler industry was born nearby, in the area where Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia meet, and it has broken into specialized components on the way to becoming a super-efficient business.
Large companies like Holly Farms and Perdue Farms Inc. supply day-old chicks, special feed, and technical advice to growers, and they buy up the mature birds for processing and marketing. In between, nearby farmers provide the careful attention and efficient husbandry needed and, in the process, generate a predictable cash flow.
Every few weeks, flocks of 50,000 to 100,000 birds circulate through the Baxters’ controlled-environment chicken barns. Though they require careful watching, the chickens remain a sideline on a relatively small piece of the family land. Between the chickens, the parts business, and the older grain-raising operation, Baxter Farms has become a diversified operation, with labor and financial demands smoothed and balanced out.
A more full-blown example of agricultural specialization is Harry Mitchell. Near Berlin, Maryland, Mitchell owns a com- pact 10V2 acre spread. On that tidy bit of carpet he has put up a half dozen chicken barns that 105,000 fowl call home. Every few weeks the companies with which he has contracts bring in a load of peepers and take away a load of squawkers. With his feathered guests zipping from infancy through adolescence, to prime McNugget-making age in a mere 49 days, Mitchell can run five-and-a-half flocks through his operation every year, a staggering total of more than half a million birds (let’s say 3.5 million dinners). And aside from a few guys he calls in to wave their arms and make fox noises when it’s time to herd a mature flock into the processing plant’s trucks, he does it all alone.
Despite the tremendous productivity they make possible, the new patterns in broiler raising are controversial with some farmers, who consider contract-growing just one step above being a hired hand. One worry is that the trend could ultimately turn some farmers into little more than assembly line workers without much independence. Not all farmers, though, want the responsibility of running a complicated top-to-bottom business. Many complain about the heavy capital investments that farming requires today, the difficulties of managing so many different facets of an operation, and the crazy swings they face in commodities markets.
To a considerable extent, contract growing relieves farmers of these burdens. It brings infusions of money, machines, and management help. It moves price risk to the supplier/processor’s shoulders. And it can make a bigger pie for everybody, because integrated processors like Frank Perdue can do sophisticated marketing and advertising that individual farmers cannot easily get into.
Farming was dying out in the Eastern Shore counties around Mitchell’s place when the eight integrated companies reorganized local chicken production. Today, the region is the most concentrated broiler producing area in the United States, sending 150 tractor trailer loads of poultry across the Northeast every day, providing a huge market for local corn and soybean growers, and spreading ripples of prosperity through a territory that was once one of the poorest on the north Atlantic seaboard.
Rather than just concentrating on one stage of the growing process, some farmers are capturing more of the agricultural profit that once went to middlemen. Richard Justiss and other grain farmers interviewed in this series have put up elevators on their places and started storing and trading grain. Wheat grower David Magness got a spraying rig and buys wholesale chemicals so he can do for himself what he used to hire out. Vegetable farmer Charles West built his freezer a few years ago and now not only runs his own stuff through it but also packs branded vegetables for wholesalers and retailers.
The freezing plant now generates more than twice as much income as his farm. Leonard Martens is about as near a polar opposite to the empire-building Charles West as can be imagined. But using his own diversification strategy he, too, has stayed in the farming business long after many of his neighbors have moved on. A kindly man with a gently rounded belly and a big sense of humor, Martens was originally an egg farmer. He was squeezed out of that by a drop in U.S. consumption and the increasing decrepitude of his laying sheds. Today, he markets and delivers in his old van the eggs a partner produces. Though it is clear Martens hasn’t made much money farming for some time, his egg partnership and the cattle he runs on his pasture land allow him a living.
The slanting spring sun ricochets off a long necklace of “Property Available” signs on both sides of the road leading to his place, and it obviously gives him some satisfaction to have kept intact one of the largest pieces of contiguous land in his area. Despite some tough scrapes, Martens has made adjustments and preserved his way of life without accepting a single government subsidy. He points out with quiet pride that all of his cattle are registered Beef Master hybrids, beautiful light chocolate animals, with sturdy young calves thick among them.
Recognizing that it can be hard to make a living just producing bulk commodities that are in chronic surplus, farmers have long tried to add value to their output by feeding some of it to animals who transform it into something pricier. A few head of cattle can serve as a kind of shock absorber on a small farm, because they can be grazed on fallow land, damaged crops, or harvested stubble, “finished off’ when grain prices are low, and sold when beef prices turn favorable. Likewise, a dollar’s worth of corn thrown to a piglet can bring a farmer more than two dollars’ worth of hog six months down the road.
Other kinds of specialization and “value-adding’’ are available to farmers who want to stay in agriculture but are feeling squeezed out of traditional farming. Instead of trying to wring ever higher yields of unprocessed food commodities from their land, some small farms have turned to producing low volumes of high-quality specialty products like pond-raised trout, hydroponic vegetables, game meats, unusual cheeses, seasonal fruits, or local wines.