How Long Will Social Distancing Continue? + a Piece on Suicide Among Rural Farmers

Links to two COVID-19, one projecting how long social distancing will be required and a 2nd on why people should NOT shop again unless absolutely necessary. Plus we break from coronavirus and examine the plight of rural farmers.

After a few coronavirus observations, we focus today on the demise of the small farmer: Why are they disappearing? And how is the wealth of rural America being scooped up by Big Ag and exported to Wall St and other foreign investments. At the end of the post, we share a video from John Oliver who is signing off for all of America’s late night shows with a commentary that is alternatively heartfelt and funny, a moving piece.

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Tuesday, March 17, 6:30 – 8 :30 pm, Retake Our Democracy Community Meeting: Roundhouse Debrief and 2020 Primary and General Election Campaigns. PLEASE NOTE: Due to Coronavirus precautions, our in-person meeting will now take place online via Zoom. The good news is, you can participate no matter where you live! Just click this link https://zoom.us/j/314963117. Click here for more on this event.

Panic Buying Risks Your Contracting the Virus & Your Spreading It With Others…

You have two weeks of meals planned, but keep hearing that the stores are nearly bare and this could go on for weeks or even months. What do you do? The impulse is to risk a trip to the market to restock your shelves. Experts ask you to reconsider and get creative with the beans in the back of the pantry and the unidentified rice in a mason jar before going to the market. Click here for more on this.

How Long Will We Need to Practice Social Distancing?

It has been less than a week that social distancing has been announced in NM and people are already getting antsy. So how long might this go on? Experts tell the Washington Post, to ready for months, not weeks. Put these two articles together and you have a quandary with which we will apparently live for some time. The one thing that is absolutely true, the more rigorously we practice social distancing, the shorter the need to do so will persist. Click here for more from the Washington Post.

Small Farmers Whose Farms Are Destroyed by Trump Policies Turn to Suicide As Their Way Of Life Disappears

Likely you’ve read about the impact of the tariff war on the entire agricultural industry and especially on small farmers. But there is another Trump policy that is making the tariff impact even worse. And it appears to be an intentional effort to squash small farmers and consolidate big Ag.

To be fair, policies favoring big Ag have been a bi-partisan habit for decades. Indeed, one of the reasons that rural America voted overwhelmingly for Trump was his message that government has not served you; I’m your guy and I’ll drain the swamp. Democrats have an opportunity to ask small farmers, how did Trump’s tariffs work for you? Has your life improved? But Dems will need to offer something tangible to get a skeptical farm community to vote for them. Read on.

Why Is the Small Farmer Disappearing?

Let’s start with how US policy is destroying rural America and the small farmer. From The Nation:

This is part of a broader phenomenon affecting the entire economy, which I call the finance curse. The good news is that this can be decisively reversed without turning the clock back on progress—and with transformative economic and political results.”

The Nation: “Rural America Doesn’t Have to Starve to Death”

Long before Trump, US policy related to agriculture was tilting the scales in favor of big Ag, to the detriment of the rural small farmer.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, median on-farm income (as opposed to off-farm income, from working other jobs) has averaged a negative $1,569 per year from 1996 to 2017. More than half of farm households now lose money from farming. They keep going only because family members work other jobs. “

The Nation: “Rural America Doesn’t Have to Starve to Death”

But while the income of farmers has decreased, over the same period overall agricultural output has increased by 250-300%. Mechanization, genetic manipulation (ugh), and advances in information technology have increased profit….for the big guys, while squeezing out small farmers. Four factors compound the challenges faced by small farmers:

  • Big agriculture and their factory farms pollute the water supply and coerce pricing that squeezes out small farmers and ranchers
  • Coercive, “no-choice” contracts are used by big ag with farmers unable to negotiate and being forced to sign on the dotted line.
  • Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) generate enormous profits while also securing the vast majority of farm subsidies, purportedly put in place to protect the small farmer.
  • “Vertical purchasing” employed by big Ag has created internal buying systems where industrial farming operations by pass the local community, purchases seeds, fertilizer, equipment and all other manner of supplies, from national chains, where once they relied on the local economy.

CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, sometimes called factory farms. In each one, thousands of pigs (or tens of thousands of chickens) are packed tightly together in stinking ammonia-laden darkness, stuffed with antibiotics, their manure falling through slatted floors, and coalescing in pits where it rots anaerobically into a toxic stew that is then spread on fields as fertilizer, raising a stinking haze that can send nearby residents fleeing indoors.”

The Nation: “Rural America Doesn’t Have to Starve to Death”

But it isn’t just the environment and the unpleasant odor. Due to the vertical purchasing and Big Ag cutting out the local banks, supply store, feed store, and the other local shops, vets and service providers, small rural communities are being destroyed with stores closing and more rural Americans losing their source of income. Young people flee to the cities and older people are left in poverty.

And so the small family farmer is punished with the offensive smell of the very forces that are seeking to eliminate them. And what is Trump’s Agriculture Secretary’s response:

“What we see, obviously, is economies of scale having happened in America,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said approvingly last October. “Big get bigger, and small go out.”

The Nation: “Rural America Doesn’t Have to Starve to Death”

The callousness of capitalism in full display. And so, small farmers are faced with compounding challenges. Note below a series of charts that are impacting the small farmer and rural communities in which they live. First, squeezed by CAFOs whose mass produced agricultural products have much smaller costs, prices for goods decline.

With declining prices, small farmers with relatively fixed costs, must borrow.

With lower prices and increasing debt load, the one thing the small farmer can’t tolerate is mother nature making it more and more difficult to plant their crops. But that is precisely what occurred last year to family farmers. And in the age of climate crisis, they can expect more challenging weather conditions going forward.

Farmers faced with decreasing prices, increased debt and weather related challenges preventing them from planting their crops become consumed with stress. And, just to add salt to the wounds of the small farmer, when they begin to experience stress, mental health resources that could help the farmer cope with the crises are few and far between.

When your entire life, and the lives of generations before you, have been organized around farming or ranching and that all crashes down, the impact upon the farmer is devastating. From a USA Today:

When your farm doesn’t succeed or you have to sell off some property, not only are you letting you and your family down, you’re letting your family legacy down,” said Ty Higgins, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau.    

My great-grandpa started this farm, and now I’m the one that’s causing it to cease?’ Boy that’s a tough thought. But a lot of farmers are going through that right now.”  

USA Today: “Midwest Farmers Face a Crisis: Hundreds Are Dying By Suicide”

Farmers are among the most likely to die by suicide, compared with other occupations, according to a January study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study also found that suicide rates overall had increased by 40% in less than two decades.

A study by the University of Iowa found that farmers and other agricultural workers have the highest suicide rate among all occupations from 1992 to 2010, the years they examined in a 2017 study. Farmers and ranchers had a suicide rate that was, on average, 3.5 times that of the general population, the study found.

The USA Today article goes into more depth presenting brief case histories of the small farmer who is courageously holding on to the farmers who have given in to suicide. It is an important piece. To read the full US Today report, click here. To read the full Nation article, Rural America Doesn’t Need to Starve, click here.

The Nation article points first to the scope of the wealth drain being imposed on rural America and then to a potential solution to the above situation, a strategy that could reverse the wealth drain on local rural economies and increase the profitability of small farming. First the scope of the problem.

From the 1960s to the ’80s, about a third of each dollar American shoppers spent on groceries went back to farmers; in 2016, according to the Farm Bureau, that has fallen to less than 13 cents per dollar. Given total US food spending of about $1.7 trillion each year, that falling share suggests that the changes in the food system could be costing US farmers at least $150 billion a year—certainly many times the $18 billion in federal farm subsidies that were paid to them in 2018.

The Nation: “Rural America Doesn’t Have to Starve to Death”

Now the solution: reverse the flow of resources:

Imagine directing those outward-moving conveyor belts of wealth back to farm country, pumping a big chunk of that lost $150 billion into the shops, businesses, and wallets of rural Americans. This may not bring millions of farmworkers back to the countryside. But it would—if combined with modern high-tech farming methods—make sustainable family farming a vastly more viable proposition, reinvigorating rural communities.

The Nation: “Rural America Doesn’t Have to Starve to Death”

This blog has written about the exploitative qualities of corporate capitalism and its insatiable thirst for profit, no matter the expense to the environment, the local community and its residents, and to the nation. The mechanisms needed to reverse the flow of resources back to local communities requires us to entirely rethink our capitalist and colonialist assumptions. Band aids are not needed, a completely new system is. That is why Retake so often points to the need to not just fix the system that got us here, but to reinvent new systems that serve people, not corporations. Stay Tuned.

John Oliver on Coronavirus: Both Very Funny & Very Sober

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne



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5 replies

  1. Before I forget, please check out this interview with Iuval Harari
    https://edition.cnn.com/videos/tv/2020/03/15/yuval-noah-harari-amanpour-cnn-coronavirus.cnn
    Thank you for the summary of the Nation’s article.
    There are two actions we need to take. The first one is read Ronnie Cummins new book “Grassroots Rising (A call to action on climate, farming, food and a Green New Deal) and to follow his ‘plan’. This book not only changes the narrative but provides a clear plan that, believe it or not, can solve all our problems at once.
    To insure our (our communities and city) own resilience and ability to adapt to GW induced extreme climate changes we must begin to participate, as consumers, in the further development of our LOCAL FOODSHEDS. Santa Fe has a Farmers Marked and several groups of people participating in CSA’s. There are also many who grow their own food.
    However this is not enough. A large enough local foodshed with additional services, like one or two commercial kitchens, can provide most of the food Santa Fe needs.
    We need to acknowledge that we import most of our food, that we mostly do not know where the food is produced and that, as the article from The Nation explains, by buying supermarket food we unwillingly participate in the demise of local farming and farmers.

  2. Paul,

    1. The suggestion that we use the old rice and beans in the back of the pantry is a tad impractical given we may be hunkering down for months. Moreover, I suspect we would all gain a bit of extra immunity from some fresh fruit and vegetables. We don’t have to go the supermarket and cough on the employees. We can order on-line and pick up at the store without leaving our car. I am using Smith’s in Los Alamos to pick up reasonable amounts (not stockpiling). It is a two – three wait, but a way to get fresh produce.

    2. Something you might want to look into. The feds have advise against stockpiling face masks and implied that they are not effective. However, even the ordinary face masks block water droplets, which are an important source of coronavirus infection. If they are useful for health care workers, then it is nonsense to say that they are not useful for say, grocery cashiers. When people discourage their use, they are doing serious harm to people who have to interact with the public. See:
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/17/face-mask-coronavirus-covid-19-facts-checked

    • I wonder if markets will begin to do what you suggest, online order, pick up from your car. I’ll check with Co-Op. I have heard so much different information about masks, but hadn’t seen anything that said they worked for this. I’ll check out your article. Be healthy….

      • Interestingly, this situation may create a small handful of new jobs. La Montañita Co-op said they are going to advertise for staff to help manage social distancing, and maybe to fill curb-side orders and bring them out to customers who wait in their cars.
        Smith’s and Market Street/Albertsons have such a system, although now there are long wait times for an “appointment”.

  3. If you want to take action to protect local farms here in New Mexico, may I suggest opening a subscription with Skarsgard Farms? (https://skarsgardfarms.deliverybizpro.com/). We’ve been using them for years. Fresh, local, organic veggies and meals appear on our doorstep, and give New Mexicans farmers a reliable income, unlike feast-or-famine farmers’ markets. Plus, with coronavirus, it’s a safe way to “go shopping” these days..

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