Farm Subsidies, Frankenfoods and Food, Inc.: What You Don't Often Hear in the Media About Farming

8 years ago

I grew up with soybeans in my backyard and, for a while, hogs. I learned at a young age of the dangers of explosive dust and which chemical containers to stay away from and to not touch hot metal, seriously, ever. I also occasionally got to sit in a combine with my grandfather (even though it wasn't running), ride in a red wagon behind a tractor and eat sweet corn fresh out of the field. I am an Iowa girl, the daughter and granddaughter of farmers.

And so, every time I read another book about the horrors of American food production or see the trailer for Food, Inc., I get fired up.

In March, I wrote a rant on my personal blog, Surrender, Dorothy. That made me feel better for a little while. But recently, I realized it is almost time for my favorite color of green (which is the color of a cornfield right around mid-July), and I got to ruminating on how little we hear from the family farmer in the media about ... farming.

So I called up my cousin, a third-generation Iowa farmer who, along with his father -- my uncle -- still farms the land behind my parents' house as part of their 2,800-acre operation, to see what he had to say about this business of food production in America.

Define "Corporate" Farming

From the get-go, it was clear I had little idea what I was talking about. I immediately led with a question about misconceptions and referred to corporate farming, which is what I hear about a lot in the media.

"Define 'corporate,' Rita," my cousin said. "My dad and I are family farmers, but our uncle R. is corporate. Does he seem corporate to you, in the way you hear talk about corporate in the media?"

Um, no. If my uncle is a corporate farmer, then the S corp under which I write off my laserjet expenses and record the minimal income I make each year from freelancing puts me in the same "corporate" category with Meredith Corporation, applying the same standards.

I asked what he thinks the most common misconception is about farming in mainstream media.

"That there are a ton of big farms -- this idea of 'corporate' farming has been blown way out of proportion. Most farms are still family owned and run, and the stewardship of that land is very important to us."

He's right. From the USDA's Web site:

Most farms (98 percent) are family farms. Large family farms are often organized as family corporations, and these account for growing shares of farm sales, but–contrary to popular belief–the share of farms and sales accounted for by nonfamily corporations is small and has been relatively stable since 1978.

We talked a little about Food, Inc., which for the most part does portray farmers and ranchers as people who are cruel to their animals and who take unnecessary money from the government. "Listen," said my cousin. "If we abuse the land, it won't produce. God has only made so much tillable farm ground, and He isn't making any more. Without the type of farming we do now, we can't feed America. It's not just that there aren't enough people interested in walking beans -- there isn't enough land."

Farm Subsidies and the Cost of Doing Business

I've listened to nonfarmers banging on farm subsidies my whole life, and I do think that -- like welfare, like other government programs designed to help people when they need it most -- there are folks out there who abuse them. But let's first break down why they exist.

It's not easy to calculate how many acres you'd need to farm in order to quit your day job. My cousin said he needed about 1,200 acres to justify his existence on the farm, but some people would consider 5,000 acres full-time work, others 700. It depends on what you're growing, where the land is located, and how many mouths there are to feed.

"Farming is one of the few professions where you buy all your seed, equipment and chemicals retail, and you sell everything wholesale," said my cousin. He explained that he gets different kinds of government subsidies.

  • The kind that built the terraces behind my parents' house.

    This type is used to prevent erosion, which benefits the farmer and the surrounding community, preventing run-off into creeks, for example, and increasing the amount of tillable land on a farm.

  • The CRP -- Conservation Reserve Program -- this is the one you hear about when people bitch about the government paying farmers not to farm. "Sometimes," my cousin said, "the land is so poorly drained or there is so much overabundance of crop that the government decides it's worth more as grass than farmed. In essence, they're paying you to leave the soil alone. It started in 1986 when there was too much crop, and it's an adjustment the government made."

    "Like toying with interest rates?" I asked.

    He laughed.

  • Real subsidies -- when the government pays you to farm to the tune of about $20/acre, in my cousin's case. This one, my cousin said, he has actually considered turning down in the past, but he commented that he puts it back into the business to prepare for the bad years. I remember there was a bad year recently, when the fields were so wet the crops didn't go in until at least a month past normal and everyone walked around with tight faces until the plants started to grow.

  • Crop insurance -- Farmers can buy crop insurance so if there is a Grapes of Wrath-style complete and total failure, they have enough to make it to the next year. "You can't make a living on it," my cousin said, "but you'll make it through a season. We only see it subtracted out on the bill."

They Get Paid Only When They Deliver

I don't know about you, but I get a paycheck every two weeks. I was self-employed for a while, and ... it kind of sucked. I never knew when I was going to get paid, and I often had to beg clients for my money. But nowhere in there was my paycheck affected by the elements. Too much rain will not keep me from writing this post, for instance.

I asked my cousin how much much of farming he has any control over as we talked over the BP oil spill and what that's done to fishing and farming along the Gulf Coast. "Everything in farming is in God's hands," he said. "I can't make a seed grow." However, so much science has gone into farming that a drought that would've caused a total crop failure when my dad ran a tractor in the '70s is something a seed in 2010 might be able to weather. Which led me to my next subject: genetic modification.

Genetic Modification and Frankenfoods

I asked my cousin: "Should I be scared of the tomatoes in the grocery store that taste like water and are the size of my head?

He thought "scared" was maybe harsh. He mostly deals in corn and soybeans and really can't comment on tomatoes. He believes in the FDA, which doesn't exist, as he pointed out, in many countries. He believes in small farms and big gardens, in CSA and in sustainable living. "More power to them," he said. "If anything, it should show people how difficult it is to raise a successful crop."


"In this country, we always have 30 to 60 days' worth of corn and soybeans in storage at all times, because the farmers and elevators store it. I'm still delivering last year's crop. But what a fantastic place we live in that we're not hungry, that we can pick and choose what we want to eat. People in this country haven't been honestly hungry in generations -- how many countries in the world can say that?"

And I thought: Yes. How privileged we are to be able to make such choices. To not be hungry. Because we have grown enough food.

What It Takes to Farm Today

My cousin has a degree in farm operations from Iowa State University. "But," he said, "I didn't learn to farm in college -- I learned the science behind farming in college." He came home from school after running a tractor all through high school and learned the business behind farming. "I've had exposure to it my entire life, I have a degree, and I still make mistakes," he said. And they're expensive mistakes.

I asked what if? What if Rita Arens suddenly understood how to farm and wanted to make a go of it? He told me I would need $6k/acre (depending, again, on the area) to buy the dirt, somewhere around $200k plus per implement (tractors, combines, etc.), which have to be traded approximately every three years. And I would definitely need 20 percent down, in cash, to get the loan. "If you don't take care of your equipment, you will fail," he said. He actually used the word "fail" a lot, which is why I am still amazed anyone would take a chance on farming, let alone both sides of my family, and for so many generations.

Those Dangerous Chemicals

"What would happen if you didn't use herbicides and insecticides?" I asked.

"We couldn't feed America," he said. Basically, weeds (which you combat with herbicides) steal nutrients from the crops and also mix their seeds into the crop seeds upon cultivation, which affects the next generation's product quality. Insects (which you combat with insecticides) eat your crops before they can mature and be cultivated. And that, he said, is how Frankenfoods came about -- people breeding seeds to resist these natural predators.

In his mind it came from when corn mutated to resist corn borers and a bunch of other stuff that seriously made my head hurt. The science and chemistry behind farming is unbelievable. But there are also many natural processes that farmers do to combat insects: They rotate between corn and soybeans in the fields every year to avoid corn root worm establishing itself, a practice my cousin refers to as an "insecticide program," even though no chemicals are involved. It's mind-numbing to hear how many natural predators there are to our greatest food sources.

"Used properly," my cousin said, "pesticides and insecticides are not harmful to the environment. You know who the problem is? The guy who walks into Home Depot and buys Round-Up for the weeds that grow in the cracks of his driveway. He doesn't dispose of the extra properly." Not as though his livelihood depended on its proper disposal.

I hung up thinking about all I'd heard from my cousin, what I knew to be true from growing up around family farmers, what I read all the time about childhood obesity and cruelty to chickens and what have you. Here's the thing: It's like everything in life -- there are good apples and bad apples. But please don't walk away from this article without considering the other side of Food, Inc.: the family farmer who sees the stewardship of the land as the only path to survival, for him and every person in this country and abroad who depends on his crop surviving and being safe to eat, and who realizes there is only so much tillable soil, and God isn't making any more.

Rita Arens authors Surrender Dorothy and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.