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How Do We Save the Farmers – A Common Sense Home Reader Discussion

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Farmers around the world are in crisis, with alarmingly high suicide rates. MinnStar Bank notes, “In recent years, more than half of the U.S. farm households have lost money on their farming operations each year, with an estimated average loss of ($1,325) for 2017. The loss in available household income from the farm operation is compensated for by off-farm household income earned by farm families…” American farmers are killing themselves in record numbers, with suicide rates at twice that of veterans. The problem is global.

How do We Save Our Farmers?

The article “Why are America's farmers killing themselves in record numbers?” states:

The US farmer suicide crisis echoes a much larger farmer suicide crisis happening globally:

  • An Australian farmer dies by suicide every four days
  • One farmer a week takes his or her own life in the UK
  • One farmer dies by suicide every two days in France
  • More than 270,000 farmers have died by suicide since 1995 in India

The very people who want to take care of and feed the rest of us can't afford to pay their bills and put food on their own tables.

It's a huge challenge, but if we don't ask the question, we won't find answers. We can't keep doing things the way they've been done, because at this rate we'll run out of farmers. August and I talked about this quite a while at bedtime last night. I have hopes for Lean Farm style models, but that's only part of the equation. Perennial crops and having more than one crop (permaculture style agriculture) would add insurance against changing weather, but also adds complexity.

I asked our readers, “How do we fix this?” This post shares their responses below. I invite your to add your thoughts in the comments.

Let People Know About the Problem

“Farmers don't mind hard work and extreme hours. But when the family is split because one of them HAS to work off the farm for health care benefits and the schools make demands on the kids time if they want to be involved in sports and music programs, then you have taken out one of their supports. Then if they are undercut by imports such as cheap imported produce that could be bought regionally, you take away that income stream.

When the public demands cosmetic perfection in the produce, it makes no allowance for how things actually grow. Things like milk production are geared to regular marketing and I wish the public would realize the incredibly low prices that the farmers are getting. Basic price is the same or less than it was when my parents were farming decades ago.

Any solutions are really complex. I read that in New Zealand, things have turned around for the dairy industry when the country's economic downturn resulted in a complete loss of the subsidy structure. There was an extremely hard decade or so, but now they actually have a market based dairy industry, rather than government price supports.” – Debra

I Feel Powerless

“Laurie, here are my thoughts:

Those statistics make me sad, yet I feel so powerless to even be able to make a difference.

I know nothing about gardening, (the last one I planted died), but am so grateful to those who produce our food.

My diet is comprised primarily of fresh fruits and vegetables- I would be sad (and sick) if it was not for farmers who work so hard to provide us (me) with the healthy nutritional food that I eat every day.

If there were others taking action for change (who, unlike me, knew what they are taking about and could take the lead) I would willingly join in to be a voice in change.

I am so grateful for the fresh produce that I can buy at the store and that I eat every day.

Thank you for your newsletter, I love hearing about your wonderful homesteading adventures and learning from your website (also, I have a Harvest Right Freeze dryer on layaway and love reading about what you do with yours)” – Julie

Label Meats and Buy Local

“Hi Laurie, I am a new follower, in fact this is my first news letter from you but you have hit home with me already. I grew up on a small farm in South Dakota. My father and brother still farm but as you said it is getting harder to make a living wage everyday.

I don't know what the answer is either but the country of origin labels on meats are a good start. I believe there is a push to have those removed. Another thing that helps, would be to support your local farms at a farmers market or if you know a beef or pork producer and have freezer space, ask them if it would be possible to buy a quarter or half beef or pork directly from them. Once you have “farm” grown, you'll realize how much better the taste quality is and those producers probably know the name of a good local butcher (another way to keep your dollar local) who can do the processing.

Just some thoughts,
Thanks!” – Julie

“Buy local support your local farmers without them we shall starve they are the backbone of the world perhaps we nerd to look into how they do it in Europe they seem to do great.” – Anni

Be Aware and Vote with Your Wallet

“I don’t know if we can fix this!

Perhaps we can at least help…. starting with being aware.

Here are a few statements that I have heard or read over the years:

Farms are the only business that buys retail and sells wholesale. Tax preparer for dairy farms central NY

Where will we grow our food if they keep building homes and shopping malls on good farm land? German immigrant in Ontario Canada

During the depression farmers dumped their milk on the road to protest low prices even though people were starving. Book written by lawyer in Ohio

When I can, I vote with my wallet, I buy from farms in the area rather than a chain grocery store.

There are very few farms near me selling to the public so my course of action has been to clear areas, build raised bed gardens for vegetables along with planting fruit bushes and trees. I started keeping a small flock of chickens several years ago and have added some perennial food source each year. We have lost 2 hives so far but will try again this spring.

We’ve lost trees after 4 years to severe weather and or rodent damage, produce to cold wet weather but some food shows up on the table and the coop. I do not live in an area where I can be self sufficient but I hope to be somewhat self reliant next year. I’m in my late 60’s and plan to retire from over 40 years of owning a small business.
Our communities and ecosystems deserve our time and effort or they will not be here for us or future generations.

Everyone needs to keep learning and trying, to keep working for the best, not necessarily the easiest or most profitable.” – Avis K.

The Government and GMOs are Causing Problems

“Laurie, One of the main contributors of Farmers financial problems lies with our government. These days it is hard to find fresh produce in the stores that are grown here in America. Also if they grow GMO produce, they cannot export it many places and more and more companies are finally listening to consumers and are not using anything with GMOs. Those right there have cut way into farmers finances. There are of course other contributing factors also.” – Monica

Farmers Need to Seek Help

“I am honestly not surprised by the suicide rate in farmers. I am saddened by it. As a woman who had her husband commit suicide, I understand the frustration and hardship that this has on the family. And the feeling of helplessness for the person who does commit suicide. It will be a year in June since I lost my husband. I have been fortunate enough that my 2 boys have been able to survive it and I am surviving it.

My biggest thing is for people to seek help. There is always someone willing to listen and help in any way possible. My boyfriend and I are now raising my 5 year old son together and we always reiterate to him that his dad was sick and he didn't feel that he had a choice in anything that happened. Its amazing to me how much a 5 year old understands.

We have a small farm and we include my son in everything that he can. I believe that the farm is helping him to get through it. There are several places that can help anyone who is thinking about suicide. I know I was personally devastated by this and I would do anything to have my sons' father back. I thank you for posting this info in the newsletter and maybe just maybe you saved a life by doing so. Thank you.” – JoElle

Editor's Note: FarmAid offers a Farmer Resource Network and Crisis Support Resources.

Value Added Products Can Help Support Farms and Farmers

“Here in Australia there is the same problem. Crushing problems, prices for crops which do not reflect the cost and effort taken in the production.

Landline is a TV series produced by the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). The series visits the producers and shares their story. It focuses on the hardships AND the wonderful turn around in fortunes by enterprising business ideas and value added products, such as:

  • Cheese produced and sold at markets.
  • Seaweed gathered and marketed to an increasingly appreciative market.
  • Free range non nitrite added bacon.

There are heaps of things I could name, but perhaps you could ask people who are doing well to share their success stories? It is uplifting and also raises purchasing interest in prospective customers. Just a thought.” – Margaret

How do We Save Our Farmers?

Get Back to Small Farms and Diversified Income

“Good Morning Laurie,

Boy! Did you hit a nerve with this subject. I have read similar statistics. How can you not go into a tailspin when you are urged to always go big or go home? Personally I blame the corporate model that is enabled by the USDA. You have to keep buying bigger or you don't get the grant that will prop you up and eventually, the house of cards topple. But it wasn't that long ago when most farms ranged from forty to a hundred and twenty acres. It was understood that part time work would be secured off the farm or there would be some form of diversification. At this time, a farm where you make money off of something other than direct farming is mocked.

I think the small farmer will be the ones to save agriculture. Women will play a great part in this as they tend to be better stewards of the land. I think we will continue to see more CSAs, more farmers markets, more urban farms and more farms where people go to have weddings, dinners, retreats…… and the farm gets paid off. The largest equipment might well be an old Ford 8N or a UTV. The most important crops might be hay and chestnuts.

I think when we take in the big picture of actually feeding people and raising the appropriate food for that task, instead of being slaves to row crop corn and GMO soybeans, that we will see a shift in what it means to be a farmer. It was at least ten years ago when I saw a farm market show that covered a local grower who was raising salad greens on his acreage.

Low Costs Help Boost Net Income

He had five acres approximately. He had one acre producing. It was in numerous varieties of lettuce that he took to farmers market. His spouse worked off farm. His equipment was a tiller and a used golf cart. Because his costs were low he made around twenty thousand that year he said. That year was a good year for big ag as well and on the Brownfield network they said that after the payments that farmers were making around twenty thousand that year. But who had the better life? who actually grew food that would go into a person's mouth instead of producing a questionable feed source for livestock?

Definitely time for a new farm model.”  – M. McFarland

Some Pockets of Hope Exist

“Yes! I believe the small, diversified farmer/homesteader is the answer. Our family just bought 31 acres this last week to begin our own journey into this movement.

We are very blessed to live in Southern Missouri. It's a very good food-minded area of the country, not by everyone but there are wonderful pockets of knowledgeable people, for sure. It's hard starting over from scratch, but I have learned a lot on our micro farm and am ready to branch out.

The government wants farmers to get stuck in a mono-crop trap of debt, because they make money off of them. Such a sad situation, that's never how The Lord intended for His people to live.” -Kristi

Don't Depend on One or Two Crops

“I think that a lot of the problems with farming today, is the fact that there is too many depending on 1 or 2 crops and if one fails for what ever reason the farmer is in big trouble. When I was growing up on a farm in west central Indiana, we rotated 4 crops, corn, beans, wheat, and clover. We had cows and hogs. Now very few grain farmers also raise live stock. Of course the farm equipment now is so expensive you have to farm 1000's of acres just to pay for the equipment.”- An old farmer, Ray H.

“Miss Laurie,

I agree that diversity is key in future farming models, including belts of native (to that area) plants to encourage pollinators and reduce the loss of top soil through such intensive farming practices. Smaller scale farms and permaculture practices will also improve on the current system.

Thank you for your emails each week.” – Cindy

Food Giants Have Too Much Power

“As long as you have Tyson, Cargill, and other mega food suppliers doing what they like, nothing is going to change. As I am a Canadian, I have no say, however when you toss out those Congressmen and Senators, maybe things will change.” – anonymous

Educate People About Food

“Regarding the farmers…sigh. I think society overall just takes for granted that food is readily available and doesn't even think twice as to how it arrives in their supermarket. I know I did until I began gardening. Every year, my garden gets a bit larger and I plant another fruit tree and another berry bush. When people find out about my gardens and mini-orchard they always ask, “What do you DO with all that?” Right now, my harvest if for personal consumption (and sharing with neighbors and family). I try to buy local as much as I can, or at least limit my diet to foods in season (or self preserved) and that which hasn't traveled too far. No, I don't need watermelon from Argentina in December.

I think there's also an ignorance around what is food quality and what it takes to produce quality. I'm astounded when I ask a friend if she would like some eggs from my chickens when they're in overdrive and she replies, “Oh, no, I just got a dozen at the store.” I really, really, really want to reply, “You cannot compare the quality of the eggs you purchased in the store with the ones that were laid yesterday by chickens who see sunshine every single day.” But, I do value other aspects of our friendship, so I try to educate on the sly.

Know Your Food

Another example is when I spend all summer canning and someone says, “Why would you spend every evening canning pizza sauce when you can just buy a jar for a dollar at the store?” People, I know EXACTLY where those tomatoes came from (my garden) and under what circumstances (no pesticides, no other chemicals, no slave labor equivalents), and I know EXACTLY what went into that jar.

I don't have any answers for the farmer situation, except that those who know need to educate those who don't. There needs to be an education process for what it takes to grow and produce what we eat–and the real costs–not just the subsidized prices we see.”  – Mary

Connect Urban Dwellers and Farmers

“It seems the best way to support our farmers is to act locally. Up here in Montreal, we have a support system for our small farm owners. We pay a certain amount every year and then pick up food baskets at various locations around the city.

A couple years ago, Transition NDG organized a dinner bringing together urban dwellers and young farmers. We ate a meal prepared with local meat and produce and the farmers told us about the difficulty they are having trying to keep feeding us. When you make it personal like that, people tend to take notice!

The dinner was held in a neighborhood café and about 50 people came out. The farmers drove in from the outskirts (75 miles, for some). City dwellers learned a great deal getting a first hand account. The farmers also offer stages during different seasons and hire students to help in the summer months. Produce stalls were added to services at our local green coop as well. What has come out of this is a network of like-minded people, farmers and urbanites, with both benefiting from the relationships.

Transition Towns are all about growing local economies and it could be a good place to start to see if anything is being done in your country. There probably are some initiatives somewhere. Here is the link to the US Transition hub.

Thank you for doing what you do and for bringing this very important topic up in your email. Hopefully, more people will take notice and do what they can.” – Helen in Montreal

Understand and Challenge the Status Quo

“There is so much that is tangled about the prevailing scenario for our farmers.

Very few Americans have spent more than a few hours at a time with empty bellies, but they have been taught to be hungry for a self-destructive world.

We have a bureaucracy that we vote into office, and we have come to expect that they will keep the structure that feeds, houses, transports and keeps the perils of life at bay.

We understand, most of us, that there is an exchange of energy expected of us, and that productivity helps drive the mechanisms that keep our world providing for us.

The concept has gone frighteningly off the tracks, or maybe it never truly worked.

Our World is Toxic

We have industries that produce housing, food and transportation, but the housing is so toxic that other nations outlaw many of the materials and techniques our building industry requires by law.

We accept artificially “healthy” looking and “tasty” “food” made with processes that include and often require toxic chemicals to grow, process and transport. This is food that does not properly nourish us, and as a population, is degenerating us to he point where by means of disease, we lose our productive capacity

We rely on transportation for work and for pleasure that costs far more to fuel than we can productively generate.

Some of us have understood this dysfunction We are choosing to live in a way that reduces or eliminates the entropic, inherent, inevitable collapse of a reasonable intention.

Be the Change

We bought land and are homesteading because we wanted to grow our own food. Our goal is to use permaculture to learn practical and economical ways to make it work. We are stunned at how much energy and skill it will take to raise the livestock that we have been told will bring our land to optimum vitality and productivity. Oh, well, dig in and get there!

Thankfully, many of the most brilliant, productive minds in our society are turning this way, too, and are teaching us how and what we need to learn to achieve our goals.

And fortunately, we are young enough to understand that our ignorance and mistakes are not doom, but an opportunity to seek knowledge and skill.

And again, so thankfully, our neighbors and peers a little further up the road generously point the way, adding their genius to the body of knowledge and inspiration that will elevate some of us beyond this current phase of self-destruction.

I knew that farmers were struggling against a mighty tide of middlemen who work the system, but leave very little to nourish the source. The farmers that I have associated with in the last couple of decade have foreseen the squeeze engulfing them, and have redirected their efforts to a scenario that would sustain them instead. It is still tremendously hard work, and heroic.

To me, their achievements are inspiring and deserve to be a new kind of front page news. Rather than war, venality and destructive schemes, conscious action to uphold humanity and the intricate, immense cycle of life are far more effective as motivation and insight towards creating a better world.

I love these questions you are examining and inviting us to consider. The topics you write about get our creativity going, and the questions place that inspiration into a larger and deeper context. We will always be stronger when we set our roots deeper.

Much appreciated!” – Sandy

Model Successful Local Farmers

“Laurie, we have a local small farm that seems to manage quite well. (Frazier Farms) They only open twice a year, two growing seasons per year in Florida, and have a loyal following. The corn is their signature crop, but they sell a variety of other produce. Maybe you could contact them and see if they could offer you some pointers on managing a successful small farm. I believe David and Sharon Frazier are the owners. Good people. I am a loyal customer and will vow for their character and integrity. Good luck with your plight to save our small farmers. One person can make a difference, but I'm sure many will follow your stride.” – Sincerely, Steve

High Suicide Among Farmers is Nothing New

“High suicide among farmers is nothing new. It has been high… forever. It is a hard life, tons of work and the fruits of it not always come easy. Other than that they live in a quite isolated social group.
Too much time to think too.
It will not change, but they will not disappear, neither.
It has always been this way around the world.
Now you can sleep at night I hope.
Don’t worry, be happy.” –  Laura

Get Rid of Industrial Agriculture Monocrops

“Urge dejar la agricultura masiva e industrializada del mono-cultivo, se tiene que diversificar para logar un equilibrio entre la tierra, plantas, animales y humanos. Todos somos uno solo.Deseo infinito que alguien les abra los ojos a los millonarios que hacen trabajar a los agricultores de la manera màs inadecuada la forma de alimentarnos. SALVANDO LA AGRICULTURA NOS SALVAMOS TODOS.

Saludos y deseos fervientes que tomemos el mejor camino para un futuro cercano, esto es un problema mundial.” – Beatriz

Translation via google translate: It is urgent to leave the massive and industrialized agriculture of the mono-crop, it has to diversify to achieve a balance between the earth, plants, animals and humans. We are all one. I want infinite that someone opens their eyes to the millionaires who make farmers work in the most inadequate way the way we feed ourselves. SAVING AGRICULTURE WE SAVE ALL.

Greetings and fervent wishes that we take the best way for the near future, this is a global problem.

“You know when I grew up we learned you rotate your crops every Year and you get larger and Better Quality because Each one uses different Nutrition from The Soil and puts others back in the Soil. This Large Farm staff is Bull and so is Greed. This humongous Chicken, Pork farms are destroying our Lives with Poison true Water and soil corrosion!! Start Thinking and be Positive and Teach your Kids well and Variety is the Spice of Life Remember This” – Amen HANS LOVE ???? ???? ????

Get Away from Government Subsidies and Chemical Agriculture

“I read a long time ago that the government subsidize the framers to not to grow crops, on top of that a lot of them take out farm loans, of which will never end, to get by each year. On top of all of the chemicals used to make things grow. If we could get them out from under the governments strong arm and start using permaculture, and rotational crops, sections of land to rest with cover crops. Whats going to happen when all of the farms fail, most of there children don't want anything to do with farming. look at the age of the farmers now. Its no wonder they are taking there own lives, can you imagine the stress? that is why I'm learning to farm on a small scale just enough for me and a little left over to feed those in need.” – Robert

Hacking the Food System with Permaculture

“There's a permaculture farm in the middle of Sweden run by Richard Perkins, an Englishman who moved over here.

He wrote a book called Making Small Farms Work, all about being earning a good living on a small farm, whether you're renting the land or own it. Here's video where he describes some of what they're doing there called “Hacking the food system”. (See below.)

Hope some of your readers find this helpful!” – Katie

Form Farm Co-ops to Sell Direct to Consumers

“The Farmers are not getting their fiscal fair share as the gluttonous middle-men and wholesalers etc. and everyone in the food chain are extorting the system and getting away with it except the farmers….
The Farmers should form true coops that will represent them eliminating the middleman, wholesalers etc.…
If it were only possible the Farmers should created a slowdown, when people realize there is a shortage you would be amazed at how fast the system would change…” – anonymous

Learn from the Old Ways

“Hi Laurie! I can totally relate to some of the difficulties farmers face. It can be discouraging to the max!

Let me begin with a positive message first. The land my husband and I live on is what’s left (about 80 acres) of the whole section my husband’s family homesteaded at the end of the 1800’s. They were quite self sufficient, but also relied on neighbors coming together during harvests.

They had a few pigs, one to butcher and eat, and the rest to sell or barter. We found some of Paha’s old ledgers showing sale of a hog here and there for a needed implement, tools, flour, etc. They had a cow for milk,  butter, cream, etc. and if overly abundant they sold some or bartered. They of course had chickens, a horse for trips to town in the buggy, or to use with the plow, etc. There were oat and grass fields for feed and an apple and pear orchard. They also had plenty of timber for firewood and of course a huge garden. Needless to say, I wish it was still laid out this way, minus the pigs.

Working Towards the Future

Over the last 100+ years, the homestead has gone through many, many changes. When my husband and I took over, orchard, pastures and fields had been done away with to turn it into a Christmas tree farm. We were sad, but did our best to make the most of it. At first we did well. Then sales tumbled, as there was a glut in the market in our area. Having all the eggs in one basket, as always, proved to be a serious problem. Many of the trees are extremely overgrown, but we are still selling by cutting out the tops and also reserving sections to sell boughs.

We are hopeful that once these are finally a done deal, we can once again put in some pasture since I’d like a couple milk goats. We do have chickens, a garden, a couple producing apple trees, a couple plum trees (nothing from them yet), and become as self sufficient as possible with help from others wishing to barter, trade, sell and exchange goods. It worked well in years past, and I believe it is still the best solution for living healthy, organic lives. Just my thoughts and hopes.” – Kathy

Editor's Note: This reminds me of stories my mother told me about her parent's farm. You can read more about their story in “How to Homestead (Not Quite) Like Grandma Used to Do“.

Do We Just Need More Farmers?

“Interesting question!!! Did the article offer any analysis of the demographic of farms/farmers? Are we talking about all farms of all types? I would like to know how the small farmers, those who practice sustainable agriculture and bring us healthy animals and produce — are they skewing the statistic, or are they the profitable sector? Joel Salatin/Polyface Farm says his practices are profitable, but he doesn't deny the big effort and commitment it takes. Is it the heavy workload and vulnerability that leads to depression/suicide? In a fantasy world the CAFOs would be what the market shuns, making them less viable, but I can't see that being a reality soon.

Have you ever done a cost analysis of your produce? The benefit of eating good stuff all winter is hard to quantify, but it's easy to see what you'd pay for a quart of commercial tomatoes or peaches in January. Hmmmm

The vendors at the largest of the Farmers' Markets in our area (western Washington state) seem to be prospering … at least they are surviving year-over-year. There appears to be an increasing supply of grass-fed beef, free range chicken and fresh produce in our area, too. Do we just need more farmers? A true Food Revolution? We can hope!

Thanks for the intriguing question! It stimulates a lot of thought.” -Linda

Use Tech to Connect Like Minded People

“I propose we start by doing what Americans are best at – helping each other. For instance, county by county volunteers that will work for farmers for free, drive livestock or grain for free, etc. we set up a group bartering system… “what skills do I have that you could use and vise-versa. We could even get an app for that! (See what this hillbilly did there?) and… call it Even Steven!!!” ~ Samantha

Editor's Note: Volunteers are extremely tough to find. It's difficult to find people to come out and pick excess food, even when you're giving it away for free. The app may be more successful, but personal connections are still the gold standard.

How do We Save Our Farmers?

What do you think we can do to help out Farmers?

What options do you think will work to help restore farming? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

You may also find interesting:

Special thanks to Common Sense Home writer, Deb Ahrens, for allowing me to take photos on their family farm.

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3 Comments

  1. 1. Grow your own if possible. 2. Buy local: farmers markets, CSA’s (Community-supported agriculture)(Local Harvest, https://www.localharvest.org/), neighbors, barter, farms with stands. 3. Read the labels: where is it grown, where is it processed, where is it packaged. 4. Buy fruits and veggies in season, eat seasonally. 5. Use your local butcher (if you don’t butcher your self), he always has meat to sell.
    6. Talk – listen – share…

  2. Hello Laurie & August,

    I am a lifelong rancher & farmer, a former grad student in cattle genetics, animal science degree, raised 100s cattle & ranch horses over 6500 acres on a Native American rez, etc. Now I am retired — for my livestock “fix” I do homestead & miniature cattle directories; websites such as miniature-cattle.com, and heritage-cattle.com, etc.

    What made me speak up here today, is, I also work online with a registry service company CEO & owner of Midwest Genetics, LLC., helping develop programs to address these issues facing farmers and ranchers today. One only has to compare the price per pound of meat or a gallon of milk at the grocery store, with the prices producers receive for these products, to see how unfairly small the profit margins are for the guys that produce them. We are developing one program in particular that I believe will bring actually make a difference helping producers direct market, and sell safer, healthier food to local consumers. Our “conception to consumption” program is a partnership between us (American Livestock Producers™) and the Tennessee State University Department of Agriculture. If anyone wants to find out more, I will take questions by email, donna@internationallivestockregistries.com.

    Laurie, when things get moving, and we have the program to actually show you, I will write you an article for your website here.

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