Friday, February 24, 2012

Record Profits for U.S. Farmers? Well, Not So Fast

JoelForgive us at the Farm Aid office for raising an eyebrow when we hear reports of “record income for U.S. farmers in 2011.” It’s not really that we disbelieve the numbers. It’s just that when we weigh such claims against what we heard directly from family farmers and ranchers over the 1-800-FARM-AID and farmhelp@farmaid.org Hotline during 2011, we know there’s more to the story.

Take disaster, for example. Whether we call it “natural” disaster or not doesn’t much matter, but 2011 was a doozy. In 2011, farmers’ disaster-related calls and emails into our hotline increased by more than 82% over 2010. Severe, prolonged drought across much of the Southwest necessitated hay lifts to assist low-income livestock operations throughout Oklahoma and Texas. All told, drought-specific hotline calls and emails accounted for close to half (43%) of all our disaster-related hotline contacts for the year.

Drought was bad enough, but disaster comes in many forms for farmers and 2011 was an especially hard year. Hurricane Irene devastated farms across many Northeastern states, especially small sustainable, organic or specialty crop farms, which face a decked stacked against them (and in favor of industrial commodity producers) when it comes to crop insurance. One such newly established Vermont farm we heard from—who we were able to help a bit with emergency funding—was literally swept away when a quiet mountain stream bordering the farm turned into a raging torrent following Irene.

Given what we heard on the hotline last year compared to 2010, in 2011 flooding was more severe (along the Mississippi and throughout the Missouri River watershed most prominently), and tornadoes were more frequent. Many readers will recall that Alabama was blasted by severe tornado storms, but even Massachusetts, which seldom gets tornadoes, was hit. Also, in an ominous sign of human-made disaster certain to increase in the years ahead, the hotline heard its first-ever, and frankly troubling, farmer calls and emails about hydro-fracking, especially about what it may be doing to groundwater supplies near fracking sites, which, as we all know, are multiplying like rabbits in several states.

Yet the hotline news for 2011 isn’t all doom and gloom. Traditionally, the Farm Aid hotline is a “crisis” line and we remain dedicated to serving farm families who are in trouble. But the hotline also provides farmers with a live, free info- and resource-sharing service. It complements our searchable online Farmer Resource Network, which anyone can access. At Farm Aid we take great pride in our decades-long role as a catalyst to the Good Food Movement, and it is gratifying to report that we continue to hear from new and beginning farmers seeking advice, counsel, training, grants information and networking help. During 2011, contacts from new or prospective farmers accounted for nearly 25% of all hotline calls and emails. In addition, contacts from self-identified sustainable and organic farmers, whether new or established, accounted for just under 24% of the total contacts for the year.

We hope to see all farms and ranches—including especially the small and middle-sized family operations that directly serve their local communities and surrounding regions—thrive in 2012. Give us a buzz, shoot us an email, or check out our online Farmer Resource Network, and we’ll try our best to help make that happen.

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