When foreclosing on farmers meant a merit bonus in pay
November 19, 2021 5:02 AM   Subscribe

I think of the desperation that drove farmers to death by suicide and even, in some extreme cases, murder. I think of the empty eyes of the store windows. I think of the historical society in LeMars, where the second floor is a graveyard of pianos from all the small churches closed up, because the farms failed and families moved. It’s easy to see the Middle of America as an empty expanse, instead of what it is: intentionally disemboweled. Lyz Lenz writes about farming, disaster, and a memoir by Sarah Vogel called The Farmer’s Lawyer.
posted by Bella Donna (22 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
This article, as well as those linked at its end, are a great starter on this topic.

I grew up in Iowa in the seventies and eighties. One of the linked articles, Farmer Kills Banker, Wife, Friend, Then Self, has a personal resonance for me - the banker was the father of my classmate, Amy.
posted by Caxton1476 at 5:34 AM on November 19, 2021 [14 favorites]

Sarah Taber has another view on this kind of thing, here is one of many threads on family farms and also farmer suicide.
posted by rockindata at 6:28 AM on November 19, 2021 [9 favorites]

Each fire was treated like a separate event, rather than what they were: a symptom of Reagan-era policies that had plundered the land, leaving it empty and impoverished.

JFC, you could include this line in articles about incarceration, mental health treatment, health care, federally-funded infrastructure, education... What didn't Reagan ruin?

I have relatives in Minnesota farm country who have done well, but it's still hard damn work when you're not one of the agri-giants
posted by wenestvedt at 6:29 AM on November 19, 2021 [16 favorites]

From the Lyz Lenz article:
In 2019, thanks to Trump’s trade war with China, farmer’s were again facing another looming crisis. In September 2019, bankruptcies for farmers across America rose by 24 percent. The American Farm Bureau Federation reported 91 percent of farmers and farmworkers have financial issues that affect their mental health, and 87 percent are afraid they’ll lose their farms.
More about these bankruptcies (with stats and maps) in The Verdict Is In: Farm Bankruptcies Up in 2019 – Reviewing 2019 Farm Bankruptcies, American Farm Bureau, January 29, 2020.
posted by cenoxo at 7:03 AM on November 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

Wow, Caxton1476. I am sorry to hear that your classmate Amy lost her father in such a horrifying way and that you experienced any part of this tragic tale. Of course, it affected many many people. I just didn't hear about the farming-related disaster until I read the Lyz Lenz piece.

What didn't Reagan ruin? Good question, wenestvedt. JFC, indeed.
posted by Bella Donna at 7:15 AM on November 19, 2021 [4 favorites]

"Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company—needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them."

posted by doctornemo at 7:18 AM on November 19, 2021 [23 favorites]

I would heartily second the Sarah Taber thread - she has the knowledge of the science, economics and history of farming to put things into context, like this tweet:
"We talk about farmers like they're the proletariat.

But they own land, often $millions in equipment, employ the country's most exploited workforce, and actively lobby to keep their workforce down.

That ain't working class, folks. Family farms are management."
One of the things she notes is that in some of the statistics about "farmer suicide" in 2018, farm workers (aka agricultural labourers) were included in the statistics as "farmers". Living conditions among agricultural workers and farmers have long been very different.
posted by jb at 7:44 AM on November 19, 2021 [23 favorites]

I’m not familiar with the “family farmer” Taber is talking about. Our family farm was run by . . . our family.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 7:54 AM on November 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

Don.Kinsayder : when talking about the division of labour, things do get complicated. On some farms, the owners are also the only labourers (as you say was the case of your family farm). But on a lot of "family farms" (the majority? I don't know the stats, though I'm sure Taber does), the family who owns the farm employs labourers - maybe a few, maybe (as with vegetable production in southern Ontario) dozens of agricultural labourers. Even very small farms - like my friend's apple orchard - often employ labour for picking.

Taber's point is that farm statistics often count these non-corporate but capitalist (in the sense of employing labour) farms as "family farms" along with owner-operator farms. They are small business owners, not working-class people, but many farming lobby groups use the language of being the working class to promote their political interests - even (as Taber points out) using the deaths by suicides of their workers (often due to poor working conditions) to advocate for more subsidies and supports for themselves.

Her thread is a reminder that the whole story is a lot more complicated that the original article suggests - and also points out that the number of white farmers has not significantly decreased. It's farmers of colour who are much rarer today.

She also has really good things to say about the business of farming and how some of the culture among farmers means that they make bad business decisions they then blame on "the system".
posted by jb at 8:16 AM on November 19, 2021 [14 favorites]

Yeah, I think that she is making some broad-but-well-informed generalizations.

Like: my relatives have farmed the same property for 150 years. They fix their own equipment, to the extent that Deere lets them. (I have been in their giant garage with a tractor being worked on.) We visited a few years back, and there was a senior citizen joining the teen-agers, sorting corn. :7)

It's just them, plus a few hired guys, doing planting and driving the harvester that picks the beet and corn. The life looks like long days, uncertainty, and just...more than I would want to do (speaking from my comfy chair and IT gig).

But even with all the data laid out here, I agree with jb that there are a lot of individual stories and texture in an industry that spans a continent.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:18 AM on November 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh, but that's the magical era of St. Ronnie - debt going up, family farms being pushed out, living 20 minutes away from incineration by ICBM...you know. The good old days.

Which we pretend have ended, but the debt is still going up, family farms are still shutting down because the kids have been persuaded that they can all be reality show stars and de-targeted missiles can be easily re-targeted.
posted by lon_star at 8:19 AM on November 19, 2021 [3 favorites]

12 years ago an unbelievable number of people got caught in the gears of banks writing loans to everyone for any amount and for any reason. They knew exactly what they were doing but "Hey, let's don't look too closely here, don't want to kill this money maker."

Time came when this foolishness came to an end. Thank god that our government cares so about these poor bankers -- Why, they were too big to fail! We all remember how they used that cash only to make things right ... Oh, no, wait -- they gave themselves huge bonuses, bought another yacht or two.

I'm writing here because it was such a singular moment in the great collective excrement experiment of capitalism. And what (to me, anyways -- there were many things happened to many people) what was so wonderful about it is that it was the first time that I am aware of where the great unwashed of us had the chance to fuck over banks, as they desperately try to do to us, 365 days a year. So. Many. People. were completely upside down on their mortgages, and now the time to give the bank the keys to the house, and wish them the best. Even Suze Orman was advising this, and while I don't know much about her other than her name (which I surely do think is awfully cute -- Hi there, Suze!) one thing I did and do know about her is that she gave and gives sound advice.

But people would not do it. We are all so brainwashed, it just runs completely counter to our thinking to remember that it's just a goddamned contract, and hey, this time it wasn't a good one, so let's send this back. One of my sisters and her husband were absolutely, completely buried (I don't think it's come back even still, these long years later) but they just refused to use their right (Yes, it is a right, and for once it was a time when it could be used by us.) they refused to send the keys into the bank and go get a rent house.

Point of this blather is that banks are always quick to use their right (and in fact use their political juice to get laws improving their end of the contract) when it's us with our fingers caught in the car door. And we tend to feel bad if we're breaking a bad contract.

Things are fucked up.
posted by dancestoblue at 8:30 AM on November 19, 2021 [7 favorites]

The Middle of America is still trapped by the narrative of hard work and resilience. But resilience is something we celebrate, because it’s far easier to fetishize resiliency over great odds than to recognize who caused those odds in the first place.
Good stuff, thanks for posting.
posted by clawsoon at 8:59 AM on November 19, 2021 [8 favorites]

12 years ago an unbelievable number of people got caught in the gears of banks writing loans to everyone for any amount and for any reason.

Wrong. WRONG! WRONG!!!! 12 years ago the *federal government* decided that some people in major US cities had started paying too much for houses, and pushed up interest rates, which crushed job creation (1/3 of construction workers across the entire US lost their jobs by the end), which pushed people out of their homes. That's the order. And then Congress, because they decided that poor people losing their homes was the cause (only rich people are allowed to speculate), they cut loans to people with low credit scores to the bone, which prevents most marginal poor people from buying homes to this day.
A common refrain is "my credit isn't good enough to buy a home for $1200 a month, so I have to rent for $2k a month".

And did this moderate housing prices on the coasts?No they are higher than ever, but it did crush prices in much of the middle of the US, minus a few major cities.

they refused to send the keys into the bank and go get a rent house.
Have you checked rental rates recently? I mean, depending on where you live and unless they were interested in selling during the past decade, they possibly made the right choice.

Oh, yeah, something like 90% of mortgage dollars are now going to people with credit scores greater than 760 (of 800) so it's doubtful they would be able to buy. And buying is a good thing for most people, as it is both an inflation hedge (house payment stays the same over time generally) and a forced version of long-term savings, even if temporarily it's worth less than other homes.

You are correct though that 'we' do assign moral failings to people but not to corporations. So nothing changed with that.

Here's a pretty good article about what actually happened, not some dumb movie.

And I have to point out that high interest rates during this period crushed farming too.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:29 AM on November 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

dancestoblue: they refused to send the keys into the bank and go get a rent house.

FWIW, it turned out in the end that subprime borrowers didn't default at high rates, while prime borrowers, who had gotten second mortgages to buy secondary investment properties, defaulted at by far the highest rate and were the primary cause of actual (rather than in-anticipation-of) mortgage losses.

Which I guess your sister might be an example of, if it was a primary residence that she was holding on to and refusing to default on. People with low credit ratings didn't cause the crash, but our prejudices about them did.
posted by clawsoon at 9:57 AM on November 19, 2021 [5 favorites]

Here's a pretty good article about what actually happened, not some dumb movie

Yeah, no, that's from someone in the Austrian School of economics.
posted by ambrosen at 11:09 AM on November 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Here are a bunch of articles.
posted by clawsoon at 11:13 AM on November 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

Why do we think "family farms" are a good idea in the first place? Who among us actually wants to pick weeds for a living? The future is giant agro-business and automation. Only people with no options (insert racial/homogeny argument here) actually want to do stoop labor their whole lives.

India, for example, is struggling right now because it has an enormous swath of .5 acre micro-farms. There's no economy of scale. It locks your labor force into unproductive pursuits that could otherwise be moved into higher-educated and higher-paid intellectual labor. Go read Stalin's speech on Agrarian Policy and then come back and tell me if you're a capitalist or a communist.
posted by metametamind at 6:26 PM on November 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Why do we think "family farms" are a good idea in the first place? Who among us actually wants to pick weeds for a living? The future is giant agro-business and automation.

Well... giant agribusinesses and automation temporary foreign labour with no path to citizenship or meaningful rights, anyway.
posted by clawsoon at 6:55 PM on November 19, 2021 [4 favorites]

Leading 10 U.S. states based on number of farms in 2020*, M. Shahbandeh, Statista, Feb 24, 2021:

Texas was by far the leading U.S. state in terms of total number of farms, with about 247 thousand farms by the end of 2020. Missouri was ranked second, among the leading ten states, with 95 thousand farms as of 2020.

Farms classification
In the United States farms are classified based on the farm income and government payments into six sales classes. According to the USDA, about half of all farms in the US were classified in the 1,000 to 9,999 U.S. dollars sales class in 2018.

Farming sector in the U.S.
The total number of farms in the United States has decreased steadily since 2007. As of 2018, there were about 2.03 million farms in the U.S., down from 2.04 million in the previous year. Contrastingly, the average farm acreage in the United States has increased in the past few years. The number of employees, including both part-time and full-time workers, in this sector was over 960 thousand as of 2017.
posted by cenoxo at 4:22 AM on November 21, 2021

Why do we think "family farms" are a good idea in the first place? Who among us actually wants to pick weeds for a living? The future is giant agro-business and automation. Only people with no options (insert racial/homogeny argument here) actually want to do stoop labor their whole lives.

It’s fine if you don’t want to farm, but (a) don’t assume everyone has the same preferences as you, and (b) wow do you clearly not understand the variety of types of small scale farming possible. Or the terrible environmental impacts and diminished nutritional value of output from the monoculture style farming that enables giant agro-business and automation; or how much of the sucky parts of small scale farming are due to the political and economic pressures unfairly exerted by giant agro-business.
posted by eviemath at 8:31 PM on November 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

> metametamind: "Why do we think "family farms" are a good idea in the first place?"

I recently read an article by Sarah Mock about how her investigation into how to do small family farms "right" turned into a realization that maybe small family farms are actually not how farming should be done at all. I kept meaning to turn it into an FPP, but never did so here are some excerpts from that article, "I tried to prove that small family farms are the future. I couldn’t do it." (The Counter, 2021/10/19):
That was the question I wanted to tackle: If the small family farm was the future, why were so many people unable to build one that worked? Especially when, on the older, more conservative, and conventional side of the industry, farmers were not only preserving and building multigenerational farms, they were living quite comfortably while doing so.


“We live in a country that has romanticized small family farms a great deal,” Nate told me by phone in 2020, “and has made the highest and best form of agriculture this small family farm. It’s actually pretty unique to the United States. When you go across the rest of the world, people don’t have the same kind of romantic notions.”

This idea shook me to my core. I had never, in decades of being part of the U.S. agricultural system, considered whether the fundamental ideas of the system had been treated to rigorous scrutiny. I assumed that sometime in the past few centuries, other ways of organizing agriculture had been considered, experimented with, and duly rejected because small family farms were simply the most competitive, safe, and sustainable way to grow food in the world.


In plumbing the longer history of agriculture in North America, I came upon an unexpected, and exceedingly hopeful, phenomenon. Namely, a long history on this continent of organizing agriculture not around individual family units, private land ownership, and intergenerational wealth, but around community stewardship.

Before the European invasions, Indigenous communities across the Americas practiced myriad versions of use-based agriculture, often revolving around a commons system. These Indigenous farmers were (and remain) some of the world’s most advanced agriculturalists, and the plants they bred and cultivated dominate the world food system today, from corn to tomatoes to potatoes. In most known cases, these Indigenous groups controlled large areas of land collectively and allocated land for cultivation to individuals and families based on how much they needed and could manage well.
posted by mhum at 2:52 PM on November 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

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