Guest Commentary: Helping small farms stay healthy
-March 2nd, 2017
“He farmed through the ’80s,” was the phrase used to describe my father-in-law’s career.
Navigating severe ups and downs, multiple neighbors going under, depressing outlooks, extremely low crop prices, and deteriorating land values, my father-in-law got the family dairy farm through the toughest farming decade in recent memory.
Thirty years later, American agriculture may be on the verge of another farm bust.
I know firsthand that agriculture is a business, and that farm families will experience these cycles. As newlyweds, my husband and I had big plans for our farm. We rented our 200 acres of dryland wheat from family and set out on our plan to expand our tiny operation as we worked full time.
For three years, we farmed our small crop and tried to buy or rent a few more acres so we could make a living. We were fortunate—and unfortunate—to farm during the highest wheat prices on record. The 2012 drought tightened the supply and escalated all crop prices.
For many, this was their boom; for us, this was our exit ticket. As recent college graduates, we didn’t have a big enough checkbook to compete with more established investors and farmers to expand our operation.
We moved on and into the city, still working in agriculture, but no longer on the farm as we had planned.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasted that American farm incomes will drop by 9 percent in the coming year. As the Wall Street Journal noted, this is the fourth year of the steepest slide since the Great Depression.
However, the doomsday scenario is shortsighted. Four years ago, American farmers experienced record farm incomes for three years previous. It was the boom of the century, and those who were cautious and frugal will likely survive the current downturn.
In Washington state, our agriculture story is more hopeful than the rest of the nation. The most recent data indicates that Washington ranks sixth in net farm income. Our farms are more profitable, and our crop diversity provides marketplace resiliency. Also, on a national level our farmland values are holding better than they did in the ’80s, and chances of a similar dip are unlikely.
There are cases this year in Washington of family farms going out of business, especially in wheat country. This is a sad but inevitable fact of farming through booms and busts. However, there are many policy choices Washington state and the nation are making that promote the preservation of dysfunctional farms, such as subsidies that favor large farms and excessive regulations that disproportionately target smaller farmers.
Smoothing access to trade markets, decreasing reliance on conservation programs that deter retiring farmers from selling their land to beginning operators, and removing ineffective and redundant policies will make it more affordable and easier for the American farmer to survive our next bust.
Madi Clark is the Kennewick-based agriculture policy research director for the Washington Policy Center, a conservative Seattle-based think tank.