Bruce Drinkman is a successful organic dairy farmer who milks 50 cows with his wife, Mari, near Glenwood City, Wisconsin.
Despite his 34 years of experience, the two-year drop in milk prices and four years of drought have meant no profits or savings. Last fall they were denied credit from their bank to purchase seeds to plant 55 acres in grains and corn this spring. To continue farming they cashed in Mari’s retirement account but the farm was placed into foreclosure around Christmas. After repeated attempts to refinance the farm with other banks, farm credit services and Farm Service Agency (a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA) they were turned down by all, and did not even attempt to obtain bank credit this spring. Fortunately Bruce was able to obtain credit from a vendor to buy seed, and at the end of April he and Mari filed reorganization bankruptcy, the only means they knew to preserve their farm, home and livelihood.
A recent survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago indicated that 11 percent of Wisconsin farmers with existing lines of credit may not have credit extended next year; this is especially significant because of the a 56 percent decline in net farm income in 2009. Dairy farmers have received prices far below their costs of production for nearly two years. With eroding equity, many are in immediate danger of losing their farms.
Farmland is so valuable that local (but often not locally owned) banks call in farm loans at the first opportunity, destroying families, communities, and regional economies. Farms entering foreclosure are listed publicly, further devastating owners while notifying speculators and investors of chances to take advantage of distraught landowners.
Something is askew. As the number of unemployed nationwide remains around 10 percent and the USDA holds summits on revitalizing rural America, why are experienced, efficient farmers receiving ridiculously low prices for their products, forcing family members to seek scarce off-farm jobs to support them? Why are banks and USDA denying them access to credit to continue their operations? Are these institutions conspiring to close farming operations in order to give investors the opportunity to purchase their land for a fraction of its worth?
A posting on Farmland Forecast, read by farmers, agribusinesses, investors and speculators interested in agricultural land, stated that “Midwestern U.S. farmland provides investors the best opportunity…Farmland may be [cheaper] in other regions of the world, but…may not have the same soil quality, transportation infrastructure, or government that supports property rights.” When an elderly couple with no heirs interested in or able to afford the farm decides to sell; when a younger farmer sells after incurring too much debt from low prices and rising input costs, there’s probably a corporate investor ready to buy. The land may be flipped to developers when enough profit can be made or planted in commodity crops (such as soybeans and corn) used primarily for livestock feed or ethanol production.
Sadly, many people who would like to engage in farming remain landless but are forced to rent or accept tenuous land use arrangements with no guaranteed long-term security. Speculators and investors only make matters worse by driving the price of farmland out of their reach, making less land available for the profitable production of fresh, local, and sustainable produce, eggs, milk, grains, and meat.
It appears that the people who depend on their land for survival and provide us with food–farmers, ranchers, fishers and laborers–are more expendable than people sitting behind a desk trading stocks, land, and communities’ futures. The solution to this situation is two-fold. First, restructure the pricing system to be fair and just for people producing or harvesting our food. Second, require banks that received Troubled Asset Relief Funds (TARP) to supply credit to and work with small businesses (including farms) in their communities. Demand this from your government. Otherwise, when farmers are forced off their land because they can’t profit from their labor or access credit for annual inputs, who will provide us the wonderful bounty of summer–watermelon, sweet corn, BLTs, and strawberries with whipped cream?