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2000s Archive

Betting the Farm

Originally Published April 2008
Washington has created a tangled web of subsidies that determines the way our food is grown. One South Dakota family demonstrates why you should care about the Farm Bill.
Farm Bill

Late last autumn, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, was furious. After a year of hearings, staff work, and backroom bargaining, he had finally pushed a bipartisan Farm Bill out of committee. But before a single word had been spoken in debate on the Senate floor, President Bush had labeled the $286 billion proposal a budget buster and threatened a veto.

Farm law has its roots in the New Deal efforts of the 1930s to control overproduction of agricultural commodities, and it has been revised, reworded, and reauthorized every five years since then. Both the House proposal and the Senate version run more than 1,000 pages. The language is impenetrable. It is traditionally hammered out by an informal bipartisan alliance of farm-state politicians and agribusiness groups as if the food we eat and the way it is grown is their private preserve. In recent years, public-health experts, conservationists, chefs, healthy-food advocates, and family farmers have tried to insert themselves into the debate, but their voices are almost completely drowned out by those of industrial agriculture. As this year’s bill lumbered through negotiations, one frustrated congressional staffer observed that it would once again be “a patchwork of parochial programs lacking a vision.”

Harkin’s compromises weren’t perfect. He was the first to admit that. He had not successfully reduced commodity payments to rich farmers. Southern rice and cotton representatives blocked him. He had not gotten as much as he wanted for new conservation programs. Few farm-bloc legislators made the connection between farm policy and the obesity epidemic. But he had accomplished small victories: more money for organic research and conversion, a new program to put fresh fruits and vegetables in schools, incentives for school lunch programs to purchase food from local farmers, more money to support farmers markets. All that remained was to steer the Senate bill through the Conference Committee with the House. A veto threat was the last thing Harkin needed. Democrats started talking about tabling the whole mess. “Wait until after the election,” they whispered.

Meanwhile, on a sprawling farm in Walworth County, South Dakota, Matthew Stiegelmeier watched the debate in Washing­ton with disinterested disdain. He was spending his late-­autumn afternoons replacing nails on the barn roof. With his sisters Rachel, Martha, and Abby, and his young brother, Ben, he balanced precariously on the slick steel slope, prying out old nails and drilling in new ones—painstaking, monotonous work. But when the snow piled up last winter, the roof leaked. Amid the chatter of pry-bars and hammers and drills, I wondered out loud, “Can’t you tell your mom you’ve got schoolwork to do?” Rachel looked down at me scornfully. “This is school.”

Emily Stiegelmeier is matter-of-fact about her children’s chores. “The harvest is in. There will be too much work in the spring to do it then.” Matthew’s perspective is more poetic. “We have to fix fences before we fish.” All his life, Matthew has hunted deer in the fall, and the freezer has always been stocked with venison. But since his father died a few years ago in a farm accident, Matthew’s responsibilities have increased and hunting has fallen by the wayside. He is only 25, but his day-to-day obligations on the farm have become all-consuming.

Walworth County is on the edge of American agriculture. A hundred and eighty miles east, where House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson presides over Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District, the corn grows seven feet tall every year. To the west, the county runs headlong into the Missouri River, and, west of the Missouri, arid grasslands roll 500 rain-starved miles to the Rocky Mountains.

This is not a land of manicured apple orchards. There are no roadside pumpkin stands garnished with Indian corn. Gardening is a fleeting, late-summer indulgence. There are no fancy restaurants. No 4-H Club. No chapter of Future Farmers of America. Few people. Since the 1930s, politicians have claimed that a core precept of federal farm policy is to support the survival and economic development of small rural communities, but the population of Walworth County has declined steadily since the Great Depression and now stands at just un­der 6,000. In 1920, there were 653 farms. In 2008, there are 322.

The economic and cultural heart of American farming is found in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, where family farm values were shaped and where profits are higher and more sustainable. But farming in South Dakota could not endure without industrial methods. The landscape of Walworth County, shaped by 75 years of federal policy, is a vast, flat expanse of high-tech agriculture, where grain is not so much food as a standardized unit of production, and where growers keep afloat by participating in the farm program.

In 2005, government payments to Walworth farmers totaled $10,414,000, and the ’06 payments were even higher. The recipient of the largest federal subsidies in the county—more than a million dollars between 1995 and 2005—was paid $213,288 in 2005 alone, including $62,352 in disaster relief. The numbers are big, but the payments didn’t make him rich. They allowed him to persevere and plant another crop.

A century ago, this was cattle country. Millions of western cattle moved into the niche left by the slaughter of the buffalo. Those cattle were fattened on the native grasses of the northern plains and then trailed to the railhead at Mobridge (Missouri-Bridge) for eastern markets. But ranches that operated on the massive scale of the Great Plains could not compete against the Jeffersonian promise of the Homestead Act, which offered settlers small tracts of hardscrabble land in exchange for five years of backbreaking work. Once parceled and plowed, it was impossible to restore the large ranch landscape. Most homesteaders failed, sold out to neighbors or land speculators, and moved on. Not the Stiegelmeiers.

The family—Russian-Germans who fled the tsar’s draft—came to Walworth in the 1880s with the first wave of homesteaders. They were self-reliant and, unlike most homesteaders, knew how to grow wheat on windswept plains. Matthew is the sixth generation. He knows the family history back to his great-grandfather Jacob, who passed the land to his son Milton. Milton expanded the farm. “You could make money farming in the ’50s,” Matthew ex­plains. “But people didn’t want to farm. They wanted jobs in the cities. So there was good land available to buy.” When Milton’s sons came of age, he gave them land and loaned them money to get started. “That’s the crux of it,” Matthew says, his voice rising to emphasize the first rule of family farming. “If one generation won’t help the next get started, these farms can’t sur­vive.”

Today, the Stiegelmeier farm is 4,000 acres. Driving slowly through a rocky pasture, behind the wheel of a 1975 Ford F-250 pickup, his blue jeans torn at the knee and his jacket caked with grease and diesel, Matthew reflects on the family ethic. “This pickup was part of my education. I’ve pretty much rebuilt the whole truck. I’ve always said, ‘Why go to college to learn stuff I can get paid to learn?’ I’ve gotten paid to learn how to weld and paid to learn how to shear sheep.”

Every five years Congress affirms that federal farm policy should make it easier for farmers like Matthew to get started. But Wayne Schmidt, executive director of the local Farm Service Agency (FSA), can’t remember a single young farmer in the past decade who has purchased land in Walworth County. The value of farmland today is more than $1,000 an acre. With federal subsidies built into the land values and wealthy pheasant hunters eager to invest in private preserves, the value of land has risen 15 to 20 percent every year for the past five years, far more than agriculture can support on a sustainable basis. In today’s market, Matthew Stiegel­meier could not purchase his own farm.

For the past half century, wheat has been king in Walworth County, but in 2007 farmers went into the ground with a record planting of corn: 53,000 acres, up from 40,000 only a year before. The corn market has been booming. Corn for cattle feed. Corn for high-fructose corn syrup. Corn for 3,500 industrial products. Corn for export. Most of all, corn for the shimmering, subsidized promise of ethanol. But it wasn’t an easy decision for the farmers. The 2006 harvest was a disaster, one of the worst in memory, and nobody wanted to go through that again. Over a cup of coffee at the Cloverleaf Bar & Grill, in Selby, Stiegel­meier neighbor Steve Sawinsky looks back on the withering drought. “In 2006 we barely grew twenty bushels of corn [an acre],” he says. “We couldn’t survive without crop insurance.” He shakes his head and laughs. “They call this the lunatic fringe of the Corn Belt.” Persistence and short memories—that’s what it takes to exist on the edge. Disaster is a way of life. Federally subsidized crop insurance and disaster payments are the handmaidens of survival. So last year Walworth farmers crossed their fingers and planted corn—genetically modified, pesticide-resistant commodity corn.

It rained in the early spring, then slow and steady through July. It dried in September so the combines could get into the fields. “It was an excellent harvest—weather, price, everything,” Wayne Schmidt admits. After the October harvest, corn was piled in Day-Glo orange pyramids at every railroad elevator from Walworth to the Minnesota border. Local farmers made fortunes. At 100 bushels or more an acre and $4 a bushel, corn pulled other commodities behind it. Spring wheat went to $9 a bushel; soybeans and sunflowers also celebrated high yields and prices. The ’07 season was also a windfall for American taxpayers. Counter-cyclical and loan-deficiency payments for farmers in Walworth dropped to zero.

Like his neighbors, Matthew did just fine last year, but he did it without growing a single ear of corn, and that’s where his family’s story begins to diverge from that of the other farmers. “I’ve got a philosophical problem with growing corn. Most corn goes to livestock. I prefer to feed grain to people, and I prefer for cattle to eat grass.” He also has practical reasons. “I hate to cultivate. We’ve got rolling land. We’re always dealing with erosion problems. In Iowa, they have four feet of top­soil. We have four inches. Besides, I can’t use pesticides.”

In this bastion of industrial agriculture, where people are quick to tell you that heavy machinery, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified seeds, and the federal safety net make farming possible, Matthew’s family has gone back to an old-fashioned, diversified, organic family farm. While Congress, President Bush, and lobbyists are trapped in a vitriolic debate about capping subsidy payments to the nation’s richest farmers, the Stiegelmeiers are asking a totally different question: How do we use the land?

Matthew sits at the head of the supper table next to his wife, Danelle, and his baby girl, Katya. His brother and four sisters squeeze along the sides of the table, which is used for meals, school lessons, and prayer. Emily, the matriarch, sits with her back to the kitchen.

The meal comes entirely from the farm: hamburger from a steer, a salad of organic peppers, tomatoes, and basil. Steamed kale. Cheese and butter from Rachel’s dairy cow. Homemade bread.

Emily, originally from Pennsylvania, didn’t have much interest in organic farming in college. Back in the ’70s, Cornell was preaching the industrial model, and she came slowly to the idea of sustainable agriculture. After college, she joined the Peace Corps and met Jim Stiegel­meier, her future husband and a fellow volunteer, in the Philippines. They came back to Walworth County to farm.

Grandpa Milton gave land to his son and his new bride, and they tried industrial agriculture. But Jim hated the farm program, thought it made farmers dependent on the government. “Grandpa Mil­ton thinks Roosevelt walked on wa­ter,” Matthew offers. “Daddy thought he was a Communist.” Most of all, Jim hated pesticides. Several times in the late ’60s and early ’70s he got sick from them.

“One night at dinner, my sister-in-law told him, ‘I don’t see how you can be a Christian and put poison on food.’ That was the clincher,” Emily remembers. It was the early ’80s. Jim and Emily converted the farm to organic. They home-schooled the children and put them to work. “I’d rather sit on a tractor than in front of a computer,” Ben insists.

Jim and Emily turned the logic of the farm program upside down. Instead of planting one or two commodity crops and accepting whatever price the elevator offered, they went looking for organic processors who, ideally, would lock in a premium before they planted. Matthew shrugs. “Why put a crop in the ground that no one wants to pay for?”

The Stiegelmeiers diversified into organic spring and winter wheat, flax, rye, barley, and buckwheat and relied on age-old ways to fight weeds and fertilize the soil. They certified their pastures as organic and grew alfalfa to feed a herd of registered British White beef cattle. Dan­elle started a small herd of sheep.

This past year, Matthew made $11 a bushel on winter wheat at mills in Kansas and North Dakota, at the time a four-dollar premium over commodity wheat. Organic flax sold for $19.50 a bushel, a premium of ten dollars.

Most mainstream economists and farm-state politicians look at the Stiegelmeier experiment as a quirky, barely viable enterprise in an ocean of commodity grain. But agricultural economist Tom Dobbs sees something else. A professor emeritus at South Dakota State University and a Food and Society Policy Fellow, Dobbs is convinced that the Stiegelmeier farm is a model for the future—not because it is idealistic or good for the land, which it is, but because it works on the most remote, improbable farmland in the nation. “We think of the Great Plains as a buffer. In good times, grain production should expand, in bad times contract. But with farm subsidies, instead of buffering, we have created permanent overproduction, and disaster payments just encourage production on marginal lands. What the Stiegelmeiers are doing is an entirely different approach, and they are not alone.”

Dobbs’s recognition of the unique character of farming on the Plains is much like the vision offered by John Wesley Powell in his explorations of the region after the Civil War. Powell argued that small family farms could never work on the Plains. The terrain was too harsh. Disasters weren’t freak incidents, they were constant. Rather than trying to force the western lands to accommodate farming practices developed in the deep soils of the Ohio River Valley, Powell advocated organizing lands on the edge of the 100th meridian into cattle farms, supported by diverse crops where the land was suitable, surrounded by large pastures—which is exactly what the Stieg­elmeiers have done. “The farms and ranches along the 100th meridian can be productive,” Dobbs says. “But federal policy should not promote cropping systems that don’t suit the ecosystem.”

For Dobbs, the current Congressional debate that focuses on limiting commodity payments to rich farmers is a distraction. “Of course, close the loopholes. But people will always find new ones. Caps may work for a short time, but people will always find a way to get around them.” What is lost in the caps debate, says Dobbs, is the opportunity to shift the entire paradigm of federal farm policy from subsidies and price supports to conservation, stewardship, and support for innovators like the Stie­gel­meiers.

He and others call the new approach “multi­functionality.” It is an idea that has been hidden and underfunded in different titles and sections of federal farm policy for more than a decade but has never been promoted as a unifying principle. Most farmers, including Matthew Stiegelmeier, have never heard of it.

Under current federal policy, farmers receive “direct payments” each year, no matter what crops they grow or how they grow them. A multifunctional approach would build on and rechannel those payments, along with other crop-support subsidies, toward sustainable social and conservation goals. “Instead of tying pay­ments to crops and yields, we should tie them to the services that farmers provide for the public.” In the past, “public services” has meant cheap food at the supermarket, but Dobbs believes it is time to rethink the whole idea. “Pay farmers to reduce synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Pay them to enhance wildlife, diversify their crops, build soil, and restore wetlands. Pay them to develop local mar­kets for their products, especially fresh food.”

Dobbs is skeptical about the ethanol boom. “I just don’t think it is an economically viable approach to our energy problems.” And he is suspicious as well of the long-term impact of converting thousands of acres of marginal land to the production of energy crops. “We may end up undoing decades of good conservation work if farmers are encouraged to take land out of uses that enhance conservation and put it into ethanol crops.” But in theory, he believes that using farms to support wind, solar, and other alternative-energy programs is well within the framework of multifunctionality. Those are the carrots.

He is also prepared to use a stick. “If farmers want to plow native prairie, they should not be in the program. If they want to grow single-crop monocultures without rotation and play the commodity market, that’s their right, but the government should not pay for it. If they pollute, charge them to clean it up. Don’t use public money to pay large hog-confinement operations to build expensive waste ponds. That should be part of the cost of doing business.”

The tenets of multifunctionality are already at work in Europe. The United King­dom has folded the services of its old agriculture ministry into a new Department of the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. But don’t expect a breakthrough soon in the United States.

While this year’s Farm Bill winds its way through the Conference Committee, grain processors, cattle feeders, and the ethanol industry still control the debate in Washington, and they all profit from overproduction. Prices are high today, but the more farmers expand production to meet the opportunity, the more prices will fall tomorrow. So raw-commodity prices stay low over the long term, and tax­payers pick up the tab to keep struggling farmers afloat from one harvest to the next. And President Bush’s veto threat still lurks if Harkin or other reformers try to add new money to the Farm Bill to pay for multifunctional reforms.

This winter, times are good, and few of Matthew Stiegelmeier’s neighbors have any interest in going organic or making big changes in farm policy. Times are so good, in fact, that you can almost hear the farmers along the edge, the ones gathered at the Cloverleaf, complaining that next year will surely be a disaster.