The Future of Farming in America

I don’t know if the county fair is still the indispensable element of American democracy that an early 20th century editorial claimed it to be, but I sure do enjoy my annual visit to the Washington County Fair in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. My kids and I love seeing everything from blue ribbon-winning woodwork and photography to 4-H exhibits about county fair history, and they’ve gotten pretty good at one of the carnival games. And eating a Pronto Pup and cheese curds now is a good warm-up for the more intensive food experience coming three weeks down the road at Minnesota’s enormous state fair.

Another staple of our county fair experience: pig racing!

But last night I couldn’t help but feel a bit less enthusiastic as we toured some of the livestock barns and other exhibits. I’ve never felt more keenly that I’m just a suburbanite visiting a rural way of life that I depend on, a way of life that’s in dire crisis.

For example, as we admired the Holsteins and Guernseys in the cattle section, I wondered if those exhibitors would still be farming in the years to come. Milk prices have been plummeting for about five years now, and while that’s great for the budget of a family with two milk-guzzling nine-year olds, it’s terrible for the people who raise those cows. Just last year, about 2,700 American dairy farms went out of business — a third of them in Wisconsin alone, where the country’s main dairy state is seeing an average of two farms close each day.

Dairy is an $88 billion industry in Wisconsin, and I’m not sure that number even includes indirect benefits for towns and counties whose economies depend on such farms. In a February report on the crisis, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel cited research showing that “Each dollar of net [dairy] farm income results in an additional 60 cents of economic activity[.]”

At least in the case of dairy, part of the problem is overproduction. But that’s been exacerbated as foreign markets for export have closed off. After all, American farmers make for a convenient target in a trade war started by an American president.

Whether or not Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum have helped American manufacturers, they’ve devastated American farmers. Cheese shipments to China are down nearly two-thirds. (The Trump administration has responded with a bailout that costs taxpayers millions, but reimburses Wisconsin dairy farmers with only a tiny fraction of their losses.) And dairy’s not alone. Soybean farmers, for example, also face lower prices and higher tariffs.

An abandoned barn on a former dairy farm in Wisconsin – Creative Commons (Ryan Schmitz)

Moreover, farmers live on the front lines of climate change. This year, University of Minnesota scientists found, higher rainfall and higher temperatures have ultimately boosted the yields of soybeans and corn in Minnesota and neighboring states. But the benefits are unevenly distributed. Just driving between the Twin Cities and my in-laws’ place in Iowa this summer, it’s been evident that all our spring rain did some farmers no favors. And other agricultural regions in the United States and Europe — or of wheat farms up here, which depend on cooler conditions — have seen yields decline significantly thanks to this year’s steamy conditions. If nothing else, a more volatile climate makes life even less predictable for embattled farmers already uncertain of their future.

As my kids petted baby animals in a booth sponsored by Future Farmers of America, I wondered just how many farmers there would be in the country’s future. While many states are trying to attract young people to agriculture, a 2017 census found that the average American farmer is now 57.5 years old. And while agricultural states struggle to attract younger people to the occupation, older farmers are struggling just to hold on. The Journal-Sentinel story featured an elderly couple that was paying virtually every dollar they earn from milk production just to pay off debts and insurance premiums. The husband bought those 300 acres when he was 17, but as he struggled to get by on Social Security payments half a century later, it wasn’t clear that he and his wife could keep farming.

As I’m sure this post makes clear, I’m no expert on agriculture. I’ve barely touched on complicated topics like farm subsidy policy, the rise of corporate farming, and the potential for sustainable techniques like regenerative farming. But I know how easy it is for those of us in cities and suburbs to pay no attention to these issues — all the more so if we find horrifying the politics of our rural neighbors. (About three in four rural voters in the Farm Belt went for Trump in 2016.) There are good reasons to question whether “economic anxieties” drove such voting in 2016, but there are real fears facing farmers, and I hope that such concerns aren’t ignored by all but the lowest-profile candidates in the sprawling field of politicians looking to take Trump’s job.