Farms and Farmland

Round barn seen near Green, OH. Photo by Cedar Sanderson, manipulated in Vinci.

One of the things I love about my new home state is the farms. For one thing, living in New England for 20 years fighting the annual crop of rocks gave me a deep appreciation for the smooth fields of dirt here every spring. For another thing, I’ve always been a sucker for beautiful old barns. Round ones, like the one pictured above, are rare, and many of the barns I see around here look like they will come down in a strong wind, but there are plenty that are obviously still in use and producing the food that fuels my nation and beyond.

When the First Reader and I can take the time, there’s nothing we like better than to drive out into the country, and even though I’m the designated driver in our household, I’ll get him to take over so I can be leaning out the window capturing the verdant Ohio countryside.

Somewhere near Laurelville, OH. Photo by Cedar Sanderson, altered in Vinci.

Both of us know that we’d not become farmers. Him, because he’s been that. He grew up on a dairy farm not too far from where these photos were taken, and he knows how hard the work is, and how it takes a toll on the man who devotes his life to it. In 2016, the CDC released a report on the suicide rate by occupation in the US, and revealed that men working in the farming, fishing, and forestry fields lost their lives to their own despair at the rate of more than 90 in every 100,000 workers. The highest rate by occupation in our nation, and it’s the field that seems most unlikely. At least on the surface. Media portrayals of farmers tend to be jovial, at best, ranging to downright derogatory, at worst. But while I have difficulty finding sources of solid information in science-based studies on the topic here in the US, I do know some things from personal experience: human nature dictates that when a sense of failure overwhelms the brain’s ability to cope, sometimes suicide seems like the only available alternative.

Studies done in the UK, Australia, and India, where they are also confronting a high rate of suicide in the men who work the land, seem to indicate that the burdens of debt, the inability to make enough money to take care of their families, and a lack of mental health support system all contribute to the deaths. That last is where I am going to cast a skeptical eye. I don’t think that it’s the health care system that is the problem here. Yes, there’s a stigma against mental illness, and yes, goodness knows a farmer is usually a stubborn man who won’t admit easily that he needs help. I know that one and live it! But I suspect that you could take the ‘mental health’ bit out and just say lack of a support system. Farmers are, as a demographic, aging. The urban brain-drain (which is no new phenomenon) pulls more of the young people out every year. The ‘opioid crisis’ hits rural areas particularly hard and I can’t even imagine the pain a man who has labored with his hands every day of his life to feed his family feels when his child(ren) are sucked into the despairing maw of drug addiction. It’s not romantic or glamorous, as one friend tried to convince me of his marijuana and MDMA use. It’s self-medication for the inability to cope with life.

Ahem. Where did this soapbox come from? Ah, well.

The lack of support for farmers comes in more subtly insidious ways, too. The mass media’s constant attacks on the food industry undermine the farmer’s ability to make money, to grow efficiently and to bring to market his goods: constant calls for bans on pesticides, herbicides, GMO, over-regulation on trucking, not to mention the deleterious effects of over-regulation on farming itself. Far from being an idyllic bucolic existence, a farmer must be on top of not only his fields and livestock, with all the challenges that brings, but on his status re: taxes, regulations, public opinion, and more. It’s easy to go to work for an employer every day, and get a paycheck at the end of the week. It is incredibly challenging to run your own business, which is what a farmer does. Practically speaking, there’s no way that one man can manage it all on his own. And yet, that is what is expected of him. Is it any wonder there are men who break under the strain? It’s a wonder as many manage who do make it through the day!

While the American farmer has not seen his income drop so dramatically as the UK farmer has (and that’s an unbelievable and unlivable number, by the way – 80,000 GBP to a mere 2500 GBP), he can now only expect to bring home half of what he once did – 15 cents on the dollar, down from 31 cents on the dollar back in 1980. Which belies the somewhat cheerful Census of Agriculture, who presented this in 2012.

Five Facts to Know about Family Farms

1. Food equals family – 97 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the United States are family-owned operations.

2. Small business matters – 88 percent of all U.S. farms are small family farms.

3. Local connections come in small packages – 58 percent of all direct farm sales to consumers come from small family farms.

4. Big business matters too – 64 percent of all vegetable sales and 66 percent of all dairy sales come from the 3 percent of farms that are large or very large family farms.

5. Farming provides new beginnings – 18 percent of principal operators on family farms in the U.S. started within the last 10 years.

As we cruise along the byways of what’s sometimes called Flyover Country, sometimes the Heartland, I’m thinking about all this. I don’t know that there’s any good answers. In the day-to-day grind of a farmer’s life, all I can offer is that there are those of us out here who see the beauty in what you do. And I am not talking about my art adding a touch of softness to the reality of it all. I’ve been in a goat up to my elbow helping her kid. I’ve been in a hog up to both elbows making sure I got the carcase clean enough for my family to eat safely. I’ve been covered in hay, dirt, manure, and more unspeakable bits when I stepped in the shower of an evening, after it got too dark to work outside. I know what it feels like.

So if it’s lack of a support system, that’s what we can offer. A kindness to the men and women who work their fingers to the literal bone, and get no glory to offset the lack of pay. Who get blamed for ecological issues they are doing their best to avert because it will hurt them more than it will some dude off in a faraway city. An understanding of that which the farmers give us: safe food, and good food, and cheap foods. Let’s celebrate that. Have you thanked a farmer recently?



6 responses to “Farms and Farmland”

  1. Good post! We should encourage the use of Heartland, rather than the dismissive ‘Fly-over Country.’ Because words do matter.

    1. They do. And if I can make pictures that capture the beautiful heart, that might help a little.

    1. You’re missing a trick.

      In responce to the Savings & Loan fiasco, a law was passed that if the net worth of your business does not increase within any 3-year period, your loans automatically default .
      Farm machinery depreciates.
      This creates a vicious cycle, as you must borrow money to make capital investments you often don’t need, just to avoid being forced into bankruptcy.

      It’s one hell of a treadmill.
      But the manufacturers of agricultural equipment love it, as do the large agricultural concerns that frequently get to snap up assets for pennies on the dollar.

  2. Cedar, I want to share something that is part of the encouraging farm bit. It is a trio of family farm brothers here in nearby Kansas who put out music parodies about farming along with other great messages to help people better understand the farming life and how it works:

    If anything gives one hope, it is this next generation staking its claim, unashamedly, to the family and the farm and faith.

    1. Yes! That is lovely.