One January morning, the roads were snowy and the wind was biting cold as we began our 10,000-kilometer journey through the heart of America. Rumela Gangopadhyay, a theatre artist, and I wanted to see the state of farming in rural America, the quintessential “Trump country.” Sristy Agrawal, Rajashik Tarafder — young physicists pursuing their PhDs — and I wanted to see the state of farming in rural America, the quintessential “Trump country.”
Shooting in the bitter cold during a pandemic was difficult, but the warm welcome we received from farmers of all stripes — Republican, Democrat, black, and white — more than made up for it. We were shocked to learn that small farmers dominate the American farm landscape, just as they do in India. They make up 90% of all farms, but only 25% of the market value is generated by them. This was our first indication of the country’s rural crisis. Small farm income has been steadily negative over the last decade. In February 2020, the average farm income in the United States was a negative $1,400. A farmer, Brent Brewer, told us that while wheat production costs have tripled in the last 20 years, the farmgate price is still about the same.
Farmers’ share of the retail price in the United States has dropped from 50% in the 1950s to less than 15% today. Debt has surpassed $425 billion, only missing the all-time record set during the 1981 recession. Calls to suicide prevention hotlines are up, as are loan default rates and bankruptcy filings. Today’s farmer suicide rates are 4-5 times higher than the national average. We learned about a farmer who dialed a suicide hotline while sitting alone in his darkened kitchen with a loaded gun in his lap. We learned of a local bank officer who committed suicide after being pressured by his bosses to recall loans and bankrupt farmers he had known for years.
Rural counties have seen population losses in nearly 80% of cases. A grain farmer in Iowa, George Naylor, showed us boarded-up houses in his neighborhood. Local businesses such as seed manufacturers, grain elevators (granaries), repair shops, and even hospitals began to vanish as farming declined. Every year, about 1,000 schools in rural America shut their doors. Almost every farmer we spoke to blamed their predicament on the Reagan-era “opening up” of agriculture and the emergence of “Big Ag” — the massive agro-corporations that now control American agriculture.
A global recession set in as the administration abolished Great Depression-era structures for family farms including price support, grain-reserve loans, and parity pricing (similar to MSP in India). Farmers awoke to find farm-gate prices had plummeted, land values had plummeted, and interest rates had risen dramatically. As a result of the lack of government funding, a quarter-million small farms closed, over a million generational farmers were displaced, and abandoned towns started to appear throughout the rural landscape.
Today, nearly 75% of all poultry farmers in the United States are poor, and Big Ag controls everything from “farm to fork” and seeds to grocery stores. At least two-thirds of the seed industry, 80% of chemical fertiliser, grain trade, dairy processing, meat supply, and nearly 100% of farm machinery are controlled by four major corporations. Meanwhile, companies benefit from government money in the form of write-offs, business facilitation, and crop insurance subsidies. About 70% of the $50 billion in government subsidies in the United States goes to the top 20% of farms.