Farming once not only defined U.S. industry but also helped shape the nation's character. Today, it is facing the greatest decline of all occupations in America, according to government statistics.
Some 328,000 farming and ranch-related jobs are expected to be lost during the decade that will end in 2010.
Bill and Judy Heffernan wouldn't be surprised by that fact, which comes from the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Quarterly.
The Heffernans see a farm crisis that Judy describes as "very undercover. It's very quiet." Both United Methodists and rural sociologists in Columbia, Mo., they did the first study of farm families in crisis for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1985.
Bill observes that depression and suicide remain problems in farming, but that the hotlines and other emergency services set up in the 1980s have dwindled, and the few that are left - whether provided by states or nonprofit organizations - are succumbing to the national economic crunch.
"The level of despair among crop and livestock farmers is really pretty significant," says Judy, who is executive director of Heartland Network for Town and Rural Ministries - an unpaid position since grants from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries dried up last year.
People in the religious community say there is "sort of a quiet resignation to the demise of family farm agriculture," she says. In contrast, the 1980s saw extensive news coverage of bankruptcies and suicides.
"The farm crisis of the '80s really was a debt crisis," she says. She and her husband explain that U.S. government officials decided to raise interest rates knowing that certain businesses that are debt-dependent would suffer, and farming and construction took the hit.
"Farming requires a lot of capital - a huge amount of capital," says Bill, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri who farms full time now that he is retired. "And if you are going to farm, you have to borrow a lot of money. That's the way you get started."
Particularly hard hit during the 1980s were young and some middle-aged farmers who had large debts. They lost their farms, and with them, their homes and livelihood, Judy says. The effects of those losses extended beyond the family to church and community, she said.
The Heffernans' study provided data proving "the devastating toll this kind of thing takes on the mental health and consequently the physical health, the family relationships, the emotional, the spiritual, all those kinds of things," she says.
Using a standard mental health inventory provided by psychologists at the University of Missouri, Judy assessed people who had lost their farms for financial reasons. She found all the women and all but one man could have been classified as suffering from depression. Mental health professionals who heard the Heffernans' findings said more than half the scores were so high that the individuals tested could have been hospitalized.
"These people were caught in bad times," Bill says. They borrowed like professionals do for their training, expecting to pay their debts out of earnings. Officials who blamed the farmers for poor management skills were misleading, he says.
Meanwhile, prices of agricultural products have continued to decline. Farm prices, adjusted for inflation, have dropped steadily from 1985 to 2000 for commodities such as corn, wheat and soybeans to a point 35 to 50 percent below 1985 levels, according to John M. Dittrich in Key Indicators of the U.S. Farm Sector, updated in 2000.
The records for the last 20 years show U.S. agricultural imports rising and farm exports steady or dropping, Bill says.
Most family farmers must work jobs off the farm just to make ends meet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service reported in 2000 that 88 percent of the average farm operator's household income comes from off-the-farm sources. The agency noted that, in 1998, farmers earned an average of only $7,000 from farming operations.
"A lot of the bigger farmers also have very significant income off farm," Bill reports. They often live on what the spouse makes as a teacher, nurse or other off-farm employee.
The United Methodist Church has officially spoken out on behalf of preserving U.S. family farms. In a resolution titled, "Family Farm Justice," the church's top lawmaking assembly has called on general church agencies to lobby the government and multinational corporations "to bring justice to the local producers by lobbying for fair and equitable prices for goods and services produced."
Big business takes over
The Heffernans say they think the general public is unaware of two factors affecting current farm conditions: one is a policy to reduce or eliminate U.S. food production and the other is the substitution of monopolistic agribusinesses for the independent American farmer.
In some areas of agriculture, such as poultry and hog production, most of the work is done under contract to a large corporation. Bill estimates that 97 percent of the poultry in the United States is produced under a contract whereby growers provide labor, land and equipment but do not own the chickens. The grower is paid on a piece-rate basis. The same contract system is used in hog raising.
Such a contract requires long-term investment from the farmer or grower, he explains. Buildings and other facilities must meet the corporation's specifications. However, the contract is only for a short period, such as the time it would take to raise one flock of chickens.
If the farmer is in financial trouble and can't borrow money to put in a crop, a corporate offer looks good, Bill says. Farmers have done well in areas where they have a choice of companies, but over time, the companies achieve a monopoly and have the growers at their mercy, he says.
Through another kind of contract, a marketing contract, the farmer still owns the grain as it is grown. For the most part, grain is still grown with a marketing contract, Bill says, but the production contract is starting to appear in that area of farming as well.
"We're seeing those folks referring to themselves more now actually as 'serfs,'" Judy says, because the farmers have almost no say in anything. "They've borrowed money just to keep farming â€¦ and they are virtually powerless in relationships with these gigantic firms."
Statistics are telling: Four meatpacking companies control an estimated 79 percent of cattle slaughter, and four companies control nearly 90 percent of the cereal market, according to data on the Farm Aid Web site at www.farmaid.org.
For the move away from U.S. agricultural production, the Heffernans point to a book called The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio, by Steven C. Blank, with the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis. Published in 1998, the book suggests that the United States can import its food more cheaply than it can produce it, a theory that has been accepted at high government levels, the Heffernans say.
"That's where our national policy takes us - that's really where the international, the World Trade Organization policy - is taking us right now," Bill says. "That has implications for farmers in this country, but it also, of course, has implications for the people in the poorer countries who need to keep that food in their country."
Another idea advanced in the last decade touts super-sizing farms and reducing the number to 20,000 to 30,000 operations in the United States, Bill says. According to the Department of Agriculture, the nation had 1.91 million farms in 1997.
Some leading economists and agricultural policy people believe the smaller number of farms is all that's needed, he says.
Adds Judy: "Why would a country care about homeland security if it's going to import more and more of its own food?" # # # *Purdue is a correspondent for United Methodist News Service in Washington.