“Growing Agribusiness”

Last week we attended a Chamber of Commerce breakfast featuring a speech by the Virginia Secretary of Agriculture as well as the official in charge of promoting agriculture in our county.  For folks like us, who believe that a sustainable agricultural future begins with producing enough food locally to feed ourselves, it is frustrating to listen to politicians championing things like exporting soybeans to Japan and beef to Russia, while the people in our county are eating poor quality food imported from China and California.  Someday I expect our descendants will look back at times like this and marvel at our stupidity.

At the breakfast they released the results of a study commissioned at public expense to analyze the potential for “growing agribusiness” in the area.

I found some of the data in the report to be particularly interesting.   It revealed, for example, that in 1969 over 5,000 people locally were employed in agriculture, and cash receipts were about $30 million.  Today only about 1,500 are employed in agriculture and cash receipts are over $70 million.   Further, whereas 20 years ago most area farms were profitable, today most operate at a loss and the trend lines show this situation worsening every year.  In 1969 well over 90% of farm income came from farm products (crops and livestock).  Today only about 70% is from farm products.  The rest is from government payments and “other farm income” (defined in a way to include other government payments).  On top of all of this, the average age of the principal farm operator continues to climb, from a little over 50 in 1978 to over 58 in 2007.

This data does not describe a healthy farm economy.  It describes an economy employing fewer and fewer people, less and less profitably.  It describes farms operated by aging owners who are likely losing money, despite increasing “cash receipts” and increasing dependence upon government payments.

I know the folks who presented this were well-intentioned, but as I listened to them I wondered how some things that seemed so obvious to me could be escaping them.  The reasons given for the declining farm employment, for example, included mechanization and brain drain (farmer’s children leaving the area for higher-paying jobs).   Unmentioned was the most obvious reason:  most of our farm labor is now done by seasonal workers from Mexico, while many of the farm workers of a generation ago are now part of the reason we have one of the highest rates of unemployment in the state.

The increasing farm cash receipts are misleading.  Elsewhere the report shows that farm profitability is decreasing, notwithstanding those increases (which may not have been adjusted for inflation).  Most importantly, in the 1970s farms were diversified.  A typical farm family grew most of their own food.  Now most of the few farmers who remain buy their food in town like everyone else.  Much of the farming of the 1970s was not reflected in “cash receipts” even though it put food on the table.   Those extra “cash receipts” of today are being largely spent buying things farmers didn’t need to buy in the 1970s.  And no matter how high your “cash receipts” are, if your expenses are higher then you’re going broke.

I reckon that’s enough of this rant, so I’ll stop for now.  To me this study just confirms what is evident to anyone who looks around him–this farm economy was hijacked by “agribusiness” which is rapidly running it into the ground.