Farmers in Crisis (No, Not in the Soviet Union)

Among my morning scan of the depressing, depressing news of the world, I came across this piece in The Guardian: “Why Are America’s Farmers Killing Themselves in Record Numbers?

In a way, this is not a new story. As the article notes, the farm crisis of the 1980s, which brought us Farm Aid and other efforts to save family farms, also initiated an epidemic of suicide. And it’s not suicide alone, but also the chronic stress, strain on families, and collapse of rural communities caused by an untenable economic situation.

I know I’m far from the first to say this, but it bears repeating because we still haven’t gotten the message. We in America reside, blissfully ignorant, on top of a mass of contradictions when it comes to food. We can find enormous abundance in our supermarkets, yet millions—at least 20 percent of children—face poverty and food insecurity. Millions live in food deserts. Some of us favor local, honest, sustainable food, but it’s often out of reach for everyday people who have not seen sustainable increases in real wages in decades.

At the same time, the federal government spends hundreds of millions annually on farm subsidies. And yet farmers cannot make a living. The political economy of agriculture in America (and this is not an American story only, as the article rightly notes), incentivizes ever larger, ever more industrialized “enterprises,” with attendant effects on rural communities, water, soil, biodiversity, and more. The apparently cheap (but in fact costly in terms of fossil fuels and subsidies) food props up an economy based on keeping low wages as low as possible.

Imagine this: the minimum wage kept pace with increases in productivity since the 1960s. It now has risen above $20 an hour. Even a minimum-wage worker working one full-time job earns almost $50,000/ year. One might, in that case, be able to afford real food—as opposed to what Pollan called edible food-like substances—and farmers might earn what their food was worth. But the business of America is the business of paying people as little as possible for their labor, whatever the consequences. One of which is that farmers cannot make a living, and are driven by despair to take their own lives.

Our food issue is an economic issue is a labor issue is a class issue.