Farmers, Fairness & the Farm Bill

where issues of producers, policy and equity converge

A Collaborative Research Project with Rural Coalition, National Family Farm Coalition & American University's School of International Service (Washington, DC)

Farming is a public service.

The concept of farming as a “public service” or “public good” has recently become a hot topic of conversation on justifying supportive farm policy. But the first thing to understand is what these terms mean. A public good, in an economic frame, is a good which nobody is excluded from using, and of which use by one individual does not prevent any others from accessing or using it. A public service service is a government-provided service for people living within its jurisdiction, be it directly (like infrastructure or education) or indirectly (through financing a service).

Applying the public good “concept,” farming should be considered one simply for its land stewardship (the natural environment being a public good) but also for its service to the American public through food production. Already, the American government unconsciously recognizes farming as a public through providing agricultural subsidies: “in the context of agricultural subsidies,” a public good “refers to non-commercial benefits that are determined through democratic processes to be in the public interest.”  If farming is enough of a public good to warrant publicly funded subsidies, it warrants support mechanisms for farmers beyond promoting commodity crops.

The idea of farming as a public good isn’t new; it was even discussed in social contract theory by philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Social contract theory proposes that a government is responsible for supporting and protecting public goods as part of the social contract, and since farming requires social cooperation and therefore a social contract, it is a public good and should be protected as such by policy. (For a deeper analysis of farming as part of the social contract, check out this previous blog.)

National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) is a national network of thousands of young farmers, ranchers, and consumers working to promote the concept of farming as a public service. (Check out NYFC blog posts tagged with “farming is a public service.”) The organization’s 2015 “Farming is a Public Service!” report presses the need for new and young farmers, explains the obstacle of student debt, and calls for federal loan forgiveness for new farmers under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

The report brings to light that America is in desperate need of young farmers: between 2007 and 2012, the number of farm operators dropped by 90,000, and the average age of the American farmer increased to 58. When these farmers are gone, who will grow our food?

According to NYFC, student loan debt is a major obstacle holding young Americans back from entering farming and maintaining successful agricultural careers. In a survey of 700 NYFC members and supporters with student loan debt, 53% reported that they are “currently farming but struggle to make their student loan payments on a farm income,” and almost 30% “didn’t pursue farming or are waiting to pursue farming because their student loan payments are more than a farming salary would support.”

The report suggests that in the same way the government incentives Americans to enter medicine, education, and other public service careers, it should encourage young Americans to make careers in agriculture as well, and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program offers an avenue for that.

The program “helps Americans enter professions that provide a public good but have salaries too limited at the outset to manage student loan debt,” and NYFC provides strong justification for new farmers to be included. First, “agriculture meets one of our most basic needs—producing the food we eat.” Second, “farmers manage and steward almost a billion acres of land, which is about half of the land area of the U.S.,” and thirdly, “farmers support rural economies, providing jobs and income.” But so far the program only considers farming a public good in New York and Wisconsin. NYFC is pushing to make it reach wider and urging Congress to extend the program to farmers nationwide.

The organization is also pushing for the Young Farmers Success Act, under which “a farmer would see the balance of his or her student loans forgiven after making 10 years of income-based student loan payments, freeing capital for farmers to acquire land and equipment.”

Supporters of the Young Farmer Success Act including the NYFC, led by farmer Lindsey Lusher Shute of Clermont, NY.

Supporters of the Young Farmer Success Act including the NYFC, led by farmer Lindsey Lusher Shute of Clermont, NY.

Aside from NYFC, Roots of Change, a “think and do” tank for sustainable food systems, has worked on the idea for a renewed social contract that treats farming as a public good and advocates for fair policy support as such.

Another rich resource identifying farming as a public good or service is the recent report “Hope from the Heartland,” which looks into how to bring more rural representation to Washington and how the Democratic party can better serve the American Midwest (or heartland). The report points out that the party is in a period of lower-than-ever support and identifies problems in it that alienate rural communities and farmers in the heartland.

Aerial view of Midwestern farmland.

Aerial view of Midwestern farmland.

Research for the report consisted of interviewing local officials in rural, Midwestern states that feel forgotten and overlooked by both Democratic and Republican parties and that their Democratic representatives only talk about issues irrelevant to rural and agricultural communities. The results from these interviews offer valuable suggestions for improvement in the party’s policy on and inclusion of rural and agricultural issues. Major emerging viewpoint were that Democrats must stay focused on bread-and-butter issues, develop better communication tools to counter conservative media, and most importantly include more voices of rural constituencies who share broad democratic goals even if they disagree on some social issues.

The report also identifies farming and agriculture as a main area where Democrats need more policy work. Interviewed for the project, Iowa State Senator Tod Bowman “traces the problems of Democrats to the farming culture and that they do not compete for farm votes.” The population of farmers, including part-time farmers is unique, complex, and is evidently misrepresented or underrepresented in Democratic politics.

Bowman points out that along with farm sizes shrinking due to consolidation, there is an increasing prevalence of part-time farmers (those who own fewer than 200 acres and those who rent out acreage). According to him, these farmers “may not be big landowners, but [they] still represent the farm culture of ‘looking at the bottom line, being more individualistic, and being averse to taxes and regulation.’” The takeaway from this discussion on the heartland farmers is that “no one talks to them” and that politicians need to reach out to more farmers and have more agricultural background and understanding in candidates.

President Barack Obama touring a field with California farmer Joe Del Bosque and his wife Maria in 2014 in response to one of California’s worst droughts in over 100 years.

President Barack Obama touring a field with California farmer Joe Del Bosque and his wife Maria in 2014 in response to one of California’s worst droughts in over 100 years.

Since farming is supported by the government (as a public service), it makes sense that farmers should have representation in shaping the policy that affects them. But whether it be through bringing farmers from the heartland to Washington or bringing recent college graduates into farming through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, the public sector has a duty to serve farmers just as farmers serve the public.

Farming is clearly a public good and it’s time we manifest it as such in both American policies and attitudes. Rather than think of farming as an industry to produce cheap commodities, it’s time we get back to seeing farming for what it truly is… A public service cultivating healthy communities and land. The heart of local and national economies. Foundation. Stewardship. Livelihood.

Community partnered action research on and for U.S. agricultural policy