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Local Economies Need to be the First Consideration
by LuAnn Rolling, District Conservationist

The land Stewardship Letter No. 2, 2022 looked at the role of commodity crops to rural communities. They state that when a form of production dominates a region geographically it should be safe to assume that it’s also king of the local economy. “But when it comes to all those millions of acres of corn, soybeans and other commodity crops growing in rural communities, the dollars generated are passing through like a speeding freight train - and it’s a one-way trip.” They state this means that the people who raise those crops are left to seek other forms of income to survive. The University of Missouri reports in The Importance of Off-Farm Income to the Agricultural Economy that 56% of principal farm operators had a main job off the farm in 2017.  They said that 63% of operators under the age of 35 had primary off farm jobs in 2017. The top reasons given for the off-farm jobs were more reliable income and health care benefits.

Ken Meter, a food systems analyst, says that most of the money generated from farms is leaving our rural communities. His conclusion is that the U.S. agricultural system is good at churning out record harvests of commodities that are sent all over the world or turned into industrial products like fuel, but this extractive system often does not benefit farmers or the communities they live in and has produced human healthcare costs that all of us pay for. Meter says that we’re spending $379 billion dollars on health care in the United States, which is 99% of all the money generated by all the farmers selling commodities in 2018. “So essentially when I give a dollar to a farmer for a bushel of corn or soybeans, I’m giving 88 cents to the medical system to treat me for the cost of a corn and soy-based diet and the lack of exercise and a lack of knowledge about food.”

Meter points out in his book Building Community Food Webs that today farmers earn one penny from each dollar’s worth of food they sell - a 98% decline since 1918. He says by 2018 the net cash income from crops and livestock fell to $4 billion, which is lower than Great Depression-era levels and only 1% of sales. “As it becomes increasingly expensive to raise a crop - it’s estimated the 2022 corn crop was the most expensive one in history and that 2023 will top that - farmers are increasingly reliant on huge amounts of credit to buy machinery, land and chemical inputs. He states that increasingly more of the debt is being controlled by corporations with headquarters in distant cities, states or even countries and that interest is not coming back to the local community. Virtually no inputs such as pesticides, fertilizers or fossil fuels are produced locally. He says, “Even what’s considered “farm income” is often not tied directly to selling the fruits of the land onto the open market. Through such programs as crop insurance and other subsidies an increasingly larger proportion of cash input is via government programs.” In 2019 government payments made up one-fifth of all farm income, which means decisions about how much money is given to whom are increasingly being made outside rural communities.

David Peters, Iowa State University sociologist, told Bloomberg News that landowners that sell out to the highest bidder are often not living in the community anymore, meaning their wealth isn’t staying local. “In addition, when a farm is sold it’s more than likely bought to add acres to a larger operation, not to serve as a basis for a new start-up.” He also said that today you have far fewer farmers and a small number are earning larger and larger incomes. “It doesn’t spread through the economy like it used to.” The Land Stewardship Letter suggests that reforming farm policy so that it stops favoring an increasingly consolidated system that treats farming communities as places to be strip-mined of their resources is one way to end this extractive system.  They suggest creating community-based food initiatives that emphasize localized, home-grown products that are processed and marketed in the region providing income for local folks first.