WHY WE NEED FARMERS
Daniel K. Finn’s recent article (“Why India Needs Fewer Farmers,” May) exposes many realities about farming today but fails to center the autonomy of the farmer or prioritize solidarity with the farmer in the fate of global agriculture. The author explains how across the globe, as a nation’s GDP increases, a decline in total agriculture employment follows. The author suggests that this is due to an economic factor, income elasticity of demand for food, and that it will be impossible to end rural poverty by supporting more agricultural workers. The solution is to help move farmers to other means of income generation, outside of farming.
What would this mean for the mostly rural spaces farmers inhabit and would presumably need to leave behind? Can we really afford to lose more productive and healthy soil to the unsustainable agriculture practices of “Big Ag”? And why should we laser in on the farmers’ culpability?
The Indian policy changes ushered in by Narendra Modi in 2020 that set to abolish government-stabilized markets and promote exported agriculture eerily echo the Nixon-era changes instituted by Agricultural Secretary Earl Butz. Butz, who is well-known for his directive for American farms to “get big or get out,” similarly prioritized production over all else with a plan to shift market attention to global exports. Such a mercenary strategy puts even mid- to large-size farms at a disadvantage and subjects them to the mercy of global markets and conglomerate food-supply companies that have achieved a near-monopoly.
The author does not mention the environmental implications of ceding to Big Ag and the alarming rate at which global farms are losing topsoil and relying on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Small and human-scale farms are some of our last partners in land regeneration.
Focusing our political voice to call for antitrust enforcement and a food system committed to connecting farms to direct end-users is a better way forward. When governments choose to support markets for the underdog, small and human-scale farms are not just viable options for living—they are desirable jobs.
GOOD FOR FARMERS AND SOCIETIES
Daniel K. Finn’s conclusion about the number of farmers ends up pointing to corporate exploitation as the solution. The just and quasi-public solution is supply management and commodity-price parity, which would prosper and stabilize farm families along with rural regions. This changes the entire scenario away from what Finn takes as a given: a power concentration that sees desperate rural people fleeing to urban ghettos, which splits up families and fosters unnecessary social dislocation. Finn’s paradigm is too small, his foregone conclusions false.
As an old farm boy, I had some questions for Daniel K. Finn. Growing up on a small Wisconsin farm with thirty-five-head of dairy cows, 120 acres under plow, two acres of potatoes, an acre of varied vegetables, and culled livestock for meat, I am well aware that farm income does not translate directly to the ability to support a family. We cut firewood to heat our home and cut logs to build additions to the barn and house. Farmers, especially small farmers, benefit from a substantial non-monetary economy. Finn’s graphs of declining percentages do not necessarily indicate a decline in actual farm incomes or an increase in farm-family poverty. Perhaps declining percentages overlook essential economic facts. Perhaps we could sustain a large number of families on small farms, even if the national economy is growing faster in other sectors like tech and finance.
I also wonder if the declining share of agricultural GDP and declining share of income spent on food, described as “fundamental forces at work,” reflect policy choices and consumer tastes that are less inevitable than Finn believes. The industrialization of agriculture is a policy choice that favors the transfer of farmland to fewer families using larger machinery to grow more monocultural commodities. We have chosen to favor large capital expenditures and to direct the largest share of government subsidies and disaster payments to the largest farms. Perhaps a more comprehensive agricultural policy would put greater value on keeping families on small working farms in order to sustain local community suppliers, business services, schools, and health care. Perhaps, also, it does not bode ill for small farms that people want to “spend a growing share of their food budget” on processed foods or prepared meals if those foods are grown by local farmers on small farms and the bread is baked at a local bakery on Main Street.
Lastly, is it really true that “no nation has been able to…maintain a large, stable proportion of agricultural workers and simultaneously ensure their long-term economic well-being”? Haven’t Switzerland and France and the Netherlands been able to do exactly that by recognizing a diverse rural landscape and economy as a national and cultural priority?
Saint Paul, Minn.
DANIEL K. FINN RESPONDS:
I am grateful to Ryan Haefke, Jay Howe, and Frank Schweigert for their responses. I share a number of their views. I agree that it’s bad policy for U.S. farm subsidies to go mostly to large farms—but it is not only the owners of large farms who prefer this “dollar per bushel” approach. Many small-farm owners have declared they don’t want “welfare” (subsidies for only small farms) but a “fair price” for everyone’s crops. I also agree that there should be regulation of fertilizer and herbicide use to reduce environmental damage, but small farms are as likely to complain about this as large ones. Minnesota (where I live) passed a “Buffer Law” that requires perennial vegetative buffers of up to fifty feet along lakes, rivers, and streams to help filter out phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment. Small farmers were as opposed as large.
At no point did I speak of “farmers’ culpability” (contrary to Haefke) and I do not favor corporate farms over family farms (contrary to all three). A personal connection between consumers and farmers is a wonderful relation that my wife and I benefit from, but that is impossible (due to constraints of money, time, and distance) for most of the four billion people who live in cities around the world.
Yet the most fundamental difference between my view and theirs concerns the title of my essay: “Why India Needs Fewer Farmers.” My argument was that like all other nations, India would find it impossible to maintain the current 50 percent of workers in farming and guarantee their economic well-being over the long term. Howe endorses “supply-management and commodity price parity,” yet Canada, the main Western democracy employing those methods, has only 1.4 percent of its workers in farming. Schweigert points to Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands as examples (presumably for India to follow) because they have maintained “a large, stable proportion of agricultural workers” with a guarantee of their economic well-being. But farmers in all three nations make up less than 3 percent of the national workforce.
Depending on definitions, there are between 100 and 150 million farmers in India. In fifty years, there will be far fewer. The morally responsible approach is to admit this, encourage policies that will assist many—especially children—to prepare for gainful employment outside agriculture, and design national and local policies for economic and environmental sustainability.