The Farmer and World Food Shortages
MOST of the working people in the world—yes, three out of every four—live on farms and are often desperately poor. The vast majority of these poor are in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In good years, they eke out enough food for themselves, their families and possibly a few others. In bad years, many starve.
In the more industrialized sectors of the world a smaller percentage of people produce food for the majority of the population. One of the most productive lands is the United States, where, although small farms exist, large ones predominate.
In the some forty years since the Great Depression, the increase of corn per acre in the U.S. has almost quadrupled, going from an average of 22 bushels to 84. Wheat has jumped from 13 bushels to 31; and rice, from 2,100 pounds per acre to 4,600, on the average.
In 1974, with more land than ever under cultivation, the U.S. farmer produced almost 1.8 billion bushels of wheat, second only to the Soviet Union. The 1974 U.S. corn crop was 4.6 billion bushels, the largest in the world. And 36 million head of cattle were slaughtered, a 7-percent increase over 1973.
This tremendous bounty of food is produced by only 2.8 million farmers in a nation of 208 million people. That means that each farmer feeds about 74 Americans.
Although this food is produced at a fairly modest price when compared to many other countries, persons on fixed incomes and those in lower economic brackets have been paying a rising percentage of their money for food. While farmers may sympathize with the hardships of others, they too face financial problems.
What Farmers Feel Forced to Do
The U.S. farmer would like to help feed the poor throughout the world, and he has provided considerable food for millions of starving people in other lands. Between the years 1965 and 1972, the United States says, it provided 84 percent of all so-called “food aid” in the world. However, only 20 percent of what is allocated for “food aid” by the U.S. goes to famished nations; the rest is sold to those who can pay the price.
Profit is considered vital, since the way the U.S. agriculture system operates requires the farmer to make money on what he produces if he is to stay in business. And to try to make known their need to make a profit, some farmers have taken drastic measures. In several states they killed hundreds of calves and threw them into ditches to rot.
Of course, farmers may admit that such killing is a shameful waste of food, but a cattle farmer from Motley, Minnesota, adds: “It’s also a shame for a farmer to work a year and find out he’s $20,000 or $30,000 in the hole. . . . I think that’s a lot bigger shame than dumping some of this meat in the pit.”
Recent economic developments have hit many farmers hard. For example, to bring a calf to the point where it can be sold for veal has, at times, cost farmers more in grain than they received for the animal at the market. Likewise, the feed used to produce one hundred pounds of milk can cost more than the milk itself. As a result, in Wisconsin nearly ten dairies a day were recently reported to be closing.
On the other hand, some farmers are doing well financially. One, who farms about a hundred acres in Iowa, admits: “I can truthfully agree with the Secretary of Agriculture that I never had it so good. So my conclusion is, it depends on where one lives. Here it is good, at other places it is very bad.”
But even those who had an excellent year know that their condition can change almost overnight. Thus, in 1974 grain farmers generally made good money, since grain sold for high prices. But many cattlemen who needed the expensive grain to feed their cattle went bankrupt.
Why this uncertainty and lopsidedness?
Basic Farm Problems
Many farmers consider the weather a number one problem, and expert meteorologists confirm that recent peculiar weather patterns are hurting farmers. To take one instance: In Iowa last year, heavy, devastating rains washed out much land, preventing early planting. Then a sizzling July with temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit ruined vast sections of crops, only to be followed by a record-breaking early frost on September 2.
A major new problem is the tremendous increase in the price of petroleum, upon which modern agriculture is dependent. It has been estimated that the equivalent of eighty gallons of gasoline is used to produce just one acre of corn. The operation of farm equipment, as well as the production of commercial fertilizers, requires petroleum. In 1972 petroleum-base fertilizer was $65.50 per ton; by 1974 farmers were paying $175.00.
Also, the cost of farm machinery has skyrocketed. In some cases a tractor that cost $7,800 about two years ago now costs twice that much. Even at that, at times manufacturers did not keep up with demand and farmers had to wait three to six months for delivery of new equipment. Getting replacement parts was sometimes a bigger job than buying a new tractor, so some farmers buy two tractors or combines, even at inflated prices, just in case one breaks down at a critical time. In the long run, they figure, it costs them less than would the loss of the crops.
Seed prices too have risen astronomically. The average cost of seed corn rose over 30 percent between 1974 and 1975. Also, baling wire, used to bale hay, has gone up over 400 percent in three years.
Then there is the somewhat related problem of farm labor. When the farmer is forced to use unskilled labor to run his equipment, many repairs are often needed. One Midwest farmer, listing the reasons why he quit the farming business, put as the first point: “The difficulty in hiring honest and dependable labor.”
There are dozens—possibly hundreds—of “little things” that seem to have hit the farmer at one time, resulting in a tremendous collective blow. Yet, at the same time, there has been pressure to produce more because of food shortages. But rising costs often make expansion difficult.
Farmland, for another example, is steadily increasing in price. In the state of New Jersey, it now costs, on the average, over $2,000 per acre! And, says the Denison (Iowa) Review: “This year’s  statewide 31 per cent jump in the value of all grades of farm land comes on the heels of a 32 per cent rise in 1973.”
For these and other reasons farmers say that they must now have higher prices for their products.
Setting the Prices of Farm Products
Yet, farmers say, they are locked into an economic system that does not allow them to set the price of their own product. Farmers charge that they must take the price they are offered for their products, which may be less than what it costs to produce them. But, then, just suppose that farmers could set their own prices. Would the whole world somehow be better off?
Frankly, consider: How many grain farmers, who did quite well last year, shared their wealth with not-so-prosperous cattle farmers? The Seattle (Washington) Times, reporting on the state’s recent Association of Wheat Growers’ meeting in Spokane, says: “The farmers . . . obviously enjoy their prosperity . . . If wheat farmers finally seem to be in the driver’s seat, they are not about to apologize for it.”
The farmer, actually, is just part of an economic system that, in effect, demands that each person look out for himself. It is based on the so-called profit incentive. Consider the effects that this incentive has had in a time when the world is calling for more food.