Farmers Battle For Survival Against Natural Disasters, Government Policy

image of American farm in the Heartland with American Flag painted on an equipment building.

 

By Lynda Bryant Work


 

Most Americans remember the bomb cyclone that hit and affected the central United States from Minnesota to Texas, with the hardest hit suffering from fierce wind, heavy snow, ice and rain.

The destruction was unprecedented, bringing catastrophic flooding to many areas leaving people stranded, farmland wrecked and livestock dead. Roads were destroyed, bridges damaged, and levies breached and collapsed.

During the severe spring winter storm and floods, farm fields were destroyed, stored crops flooded and livestock killed.

Flooding also threatened the safety of millions of private water wells in 10 states due to bacteria and industrial contamination.

More than a million acres of farmland were submerged for days in nine major grain-producing states and farms were ruined, with floods washing away huge tracts of corn, soy and other crops.

Calves, chickens, hogs and other livestock were wiped out in the millions.

The 2018 stored harvest was destroyed and left contaminated and rotting.

Producers in states with flooding – including South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Illinois – had at least 6.75 billion bushels of corn, soybean and wheat stored on their farms, or 38% of the total U.S. supplies at the time, according to USDA data.

Many crops were stored waiting for markets to reopen that disappeared due to Trump’s tariff war. But even if trade reopened, the crops are gone. The USDA considers flood-soaked wheat, corn and soybeans “adulterated” and says they must be destroyed.

The devastation hit as farmers were preparing to plant wheat, soy and corn, so an entire growing season was ruined not just due to the wet ground and timing, but the croplands were covered in with sand and silt and unusable until farmers could rehabilitate the land.

Following the extreme flooding in the 1950s, many farmers turned over the land 5 feet in order to bury sand and they can’t do that again because it will bring that sand back up. It was a catastrophic land loss and major dent in food producing are of the country. The Midwest which boasts of the globe’s greatest stores of topsoil has again been hit and more than half of the topsoil has been lost in the past 50 years.

River sand and silt cover farmland and must be scraped and hauled away to get to the topsoil.

Farmers have suffered great losses, and with that, the disaster will ultimately affect all Americans with the possibility of beef, dairy, wheat, corn and soy products rising in cost and shortages.

The old joke where someone asks a child where milk comes from and they answer, “From a grocery store,” is indicative of the lack of awareness of most Americans when it comes to the what the farm sector provides. There are two million farmers to feed 330 million Americans and agriculture is largely ignored by most people.

Many farmers have largely been ruined after several years of bad weather – hurricanes, floods and wildfires, livestock-killing blizzards. The economic toll on the agricultural community is suffering from that alone. Many are financially ruined and will never be able to go back to farming.

The hit to ag economy is deep and broad. Dead livestock, destroyed cropland, contaminated grain. The unexpected costs of hauling water and hay, fencing, scraping sand and silt from formerly fertile land mount up.

And still, no place to sell their harvests if they do produce a crop thanks to the tariff war.

While a federal bailout was provided, many home-grown farmers were not helped enough to recover the damage caused. Many payments were sketchy and slow coming and payments were going to sectors being questioned.

U.S. farmers were given a “bailout” of which the bulk went to the top corporate farms and some urban foreign meat packing plants. The independent farmer received little or no help.

The bailout program was designed to buy surplus commodities from farmers and ranchers and pitched in a way to protect farmers during the trade war. But the USDA didn’t turn away foreign-owned corporations that wanted in. The taxpayer was used to buy $5 million in pork products from a Brazilian-owned meatpacking firm, and a Chinese-owned product slated to profit from the bailout until the contract provoked such intense criticism, it was eventually canceled.

According to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), an agency that tracks U.S. weather and climate events, there a tremendous economic and societal impact from natural disasters. Since 1980, the U.S has sustained 241 weather and climate disasters where the overall damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion dollars, and a cumulative cost that exceeds $1.6 trillion.

In 2018, America was impacted by 14 separate billion-dollar disaster events – two tropical cyclones, eight severe storms, two winter storms, drought and wildfires.

From 2016-2018, there was a historic number of events with the annual average number of billion-dollar disasters being more than double the long-term average. The 14 events in 2018 represent the highest number of events, behind only the 2017 events (16) and 2016 (15).

Farmers have been particularly hard hit by natural disasters made worse by the tariff war. And while farmers can’t do much about the weather, planting seasons slipped by with little progress in many areas. And bailouts don’t cover much of the loss and expense to produce a crop.

Farmers are underwater not just from floods, but the retaliation of tariffs on more than 5,000 products. The trade war has done nothing to reduce the trade imbalance with China.

The imbalance between our export in goods to China versus U.S. imports created a trade deficit of more than $375 billion. Even after the tariff war escalated, the deficit increased to nearly $420 billion in 2018, a 12% increase in one year.

Agriculture and farm families in the bread-basket states have borne the brunt of the trade war. In terms of a hit to individual farms, prices dropped. Soybeans dropped at least 25% from a peak of $10.50 per bushel to as low as $8. And that could drop lower.

Across the board, farmers are losing, and with that the country also loses.

The 2017 Census of Agriculture showed an across-the-board drop in the number of farms, farmers and farmland in the United States. Land in farms decreases from 914,527,657 acres in 2012 to 900,217,576 in 2017. The numbers of farms decreased 67,083, and that has serious implications for the future, with more farmers going out of business in 2019.

Farmers have been pushed to the financial brink. Since 2013, farmers and ranchers have weathered a 45% drop in net farm income, the largest drop since the Great Depression.

The strain in today’s farm economy is no accident. It is the result of policies designed to enrich corporations at the expense of the ag sector. That, on top of natural disasters and tariff wars, will finish off what is left of one of the most hard-working communities in the U.S.

The bailout helped corporate farms, urban businesses and individuals, while the independent farmers received far less, if anything.

How desperate are farmers? 

A 2016 Centers for Disease Control Report indicated the national suicide rate for people working in agriculture were higher than they were during the 1980s Farm Crisis.

Too many farmers worry this will be the last for their farms. They fear they are letting down the generations who cared for the land before them, and the generations they’d hoped would follow.

America’s farmers and ranchers are pillars of their communities and the foundation for local economies. In 2019, as more and more farmers are forced into bankruptcy,  a ripple effect on farm service providers, input manufacturers and local purchasers and processors further taxes the economy of rural communities.

What affects farmers will eventually translate to the average consumer in higher prices and shortages. Americans can’t have the farm and food system they are accustomed to without having family farmers on the land..

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