The family farm does not need saving

In an election year when a grain embargo, high interest rates, inflation, and extremely adverse weather conditions are playing havoc with the nation's agricultural economy, political panaceas are the last thing farmers need. However, many political "answers" to falling farm income can be expected between now and the Nov. 4 general election.

What America's food and fiber producers do need is political and public recognition that the family farm, while changing, is alive and well despite efforts by many in politics and elsewhere to argue otherwise.

Public confusion has been created by talk of corporate takeover of US agriculture, of mysterious "middlemen" who supposedly inflate food prices, and by suggestions that the best answer to falling farm income is more of the same government involvement which helped create it.

It is time for the American people to compare the realties of today's agriculture with the media myths that surround it.

The agricultural figures are astonishing. In the United States only 3 percent of he population handles all of the farming activities needed to feed and clothe the other 97 percent!

Even more astounding, this task is done so well by this small group that even in times of high inflation, food prices have not risen nearly as much as have other mainline living costs.

While a majority of the entire population must engage in agriculture in a number of other countries (65 percent in India), each American farmer feeds nearly 70 others -- about 20 of them living in other countries.

Wholesale application of modern technology to American farming has made this production possible. "Peasants" in developing countries sow grain by hand and harvest with sickles, while US farmers use high-speed mechanical drills for seeding and harvest with self-propelled combines.

So many Americans have been freed from the hard work of farming in so little time -- historically speaking -- that much of the US population has only a hazy understanding of what now takes place in the country.

With the vast majority of all voters living in cities and towns, it is not inaccurate to say that the future of American agriculture depends to a large degree on the clarity of this understanding.

Unless well traveled, many otherwise knowledgeable Americans might deny that food in this country is a bargain, although food here now costs less in terms of average disposable income than literally anywhere else in the world.

The 16.5 percent US share of after-tax income spent on food compares with 23 percent for the United Kingdom and Belgium, 25 percent for Finland, 26 percent for France, 28 percent for Denmark, and 35 percent for the Soviet Union. In selected developing countries, the food-cost share is between 50 and 80 percent of disposable income.

There are those who suggest that, good as the US food production record is, there are hidden costs in terms of diminished human values are, in theory, corporate agriculture engulfs the family farm.

The may be reassured. Conglomerate farming -- that is, farm ownership and operation by large corporate interests -- poses little or no threat to family farming.

Fifty years ago, from 2 to 3 percent of all US farms could be classed as corporate operations. Today, that has fallen to less than 2 percent. Further, almost all of these incorporated farms (over 80 percent) also are family owned and operated, with 10 or fewer family stockholders. The family farm if often incorporated for tax-saving reasons and to create a separate legal entity to allow the continued operation of the farm as a viable family unit on the demise of the original owners.

Conglomerates that enter agriculture have a long and dismal record of failure. Returns on conglomerate farm investments are something less than 4 percent. Conglomerate farming is not a growth industry.

But, through consolidation and sometimes incorporation, the family farm is changing in keeping with a changing America. Political or social pressures to prevent change in an attempt to recapture the virtues of a simpler life could hurt the family farm by freezing it in a rigid, moribund pattern.

A return to the "good old days" of horse-and-buggy farming would require that one person in five leave his or her nonfarm occupation to work in production agriculture. There, a first job would be to produce and train about 25 million horses and mules to do the far work (about 21 million were in use 50 years ago) and about a third of our present farm acreage would go to feed this horsepower.

Food would cost about twice as much as now, with just barely enough to go around. Diets would run heavily to cabbage and potatoes with little meat, cheese, or milk.

A bright spot would be agriculture's independence from OPEC oil -- but, since farming consumes only about 3 percent of total US energy, this wouldn't be of much national help.

Of course, such a retreat from the advances made by modern agriculture in America is out of the question. Farmers and their families only wish to keep moving -- forward! That is progress.

Progress, stimulated by reduced political tampering and lessened regulatory interference with the farming and ranching business, will do more to sustain the family farm than any panaceas offered by vote-seekers campaigning this year to "save the family farm!"

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