Where Did All The Farmers Go?
Posted Thursday, February 24, 2005
Several times a year, I hear someone complain about the development of farm land in our area. These complainers consider it a crime that so much of our farm land has been converted to housing, business, shopping, etc. They seem to consider the farmers and developers to be criminals.
If you want to know why so many farmers have sold out to developers, allowed the land to grow houses instead of crops and left the farm life that their families enjoyed for generations – read on. Do you know why more and more farms are growing houses, stores and filling stations instead of cows, corn and potatoes? Do you know where the farmers went? Well, my father and I are farmers that left the farm. Most of our neighbors have too. Most of us still live in the area; we just don’t farm any more.
Few people understand the farming they espouse as so charming and worthy. It was long hours, hard work and little or no pay. Most farmers had less money at the end of the year, after expenses, than those who clerked in stores. Some years the earnings were less than costs, too many years in fact where even the best farmers lost money and had to sell land to survive.
Although entire farms were lost in the great depression of the Thirties; in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, most farmers had to sell of lots and acreage for homes and development, even though they worked to exhaustion every hour they could and applied every possible correct business practice.
Even the most prosperous farms in Delaware, such as the Townsends with all their tens of thousands of acres, have not retained the younger generations of the Townsend family to work in the agribusiness. Farming is hard work. The hours can be even longer today than 50 years ago, with equipment maintenance, constant seminars on chemicals, land use, improved techniques and hours of record keeping, computer work, reading professional publications, etc. Not only do farmers still need to rise before the sun to tend the land and animals, but they must work into the evening hours on the business techniques and applications.
Profit margins are slimming by the year and not nearly worth the risk according to more and more farmers. There is seldom a farmer’s son or daughter who wants the farm life instead of the shorter hours, reduced stress, far lower risk and far higher pay of urban work and life.
More and more farmers are changing farms into recreational, entertainment and tourist attractions to pay the bills that crops won’t pay. Corn mazes bring in more money and far more profit than harvested corn, shelled corn or corn meal. Dairy farming as entertainment for urban tourists is far more profitable than dairy farming as agriculture.
Blueberry farms are not sustainable in most areas, with rising labor costs, unless they become U-Pick entertainment berry farms, with all manner of fruit pies, blueberry muffins and berry twig Christmas wreaths. You will see more and more farms become entertainment, destination, and recreation farms in years to come – or you will see houses grow on the land instead.
Even many cattle and horse farms sustain themselves by charging people hundreds or thousands of dollars to come shovel manure, castrate bulls, brand calves, or do the cowboy roundups that were once the jobs of people who got paid to do the work.
Dad stopped farming twenty years ago and says he should have stopped ten years before that. He was an award winning farmer and a superb businessman. He usually produced as much on each acre as ordinary farmers did on dozens or even a hundred acres. Dad learned to grow healthy corn with stalks just an inch or so apart when others had the corn one, two, or even three feet apart.
Some of our most productive farm land is now better suited for concerts, “Punkin Chunkin” exhibitions, lacrosse camp, baseball training, model airplane flying and other varied recreational uses for the land where I grew up farming, pulling weeds, driving cattle and riding in rodeos in the off season.
Even Dad’s productivity and his prudent management, did not earn the return farming that any other business had to earn to stay viable. Dad has owned and managed a few dozen other businesses and farming is the only one he had to abandon, although he loved it most. The risks of weather, market forces and government capriciousness have been and continue to be incredibly high.
A farmer producing more and more per acre with each decade is a trend that continues; keeping farm products at the cheapest levels in history. Part of the reason for our wonderful prosperity is that food takes such a small part of anyone’s income now. Fifty years ago, food took about 25% of an average family’s income. A hundred years ago, 50% of an average family’s income often went to food, if they were not farmers themselves. And five hundred years ago, many families could barely eat with the earnings they made. Before that most of what a family did was often based on getting enough food to eat. We have come a long way, with plentiful supplies of fruit, vegetables, protein and all manner of healthy food available for even the most poor usually. We should thank the American farmer for that!
Most of Dad’s land is sold and he has neighbors now; folks who have bought lots or acreage and built nice homes. He continues to buy more land today, but not for farming. The developments of Covey Creek, Cave Colony, Cool Spring Farms, Lazy Lake, Overbrook Shores, Eagle Crest and Cripple Creek are on parts of our farm or on property we bought from neighboring farmers and developed. From the age of about 21, I helped with the sales and marketing of those developments.
There are many other farmers who no longer farm, yet we American Farmers grow far more food than we need on the fewer acres. In fact American farmers grow so much food of all kinds that we export our crops to nearly every other country on earth and still drive prices down with oversupply.
American agribusiness needs less and less acreage to support the growing population of the world. This ever increasing supply of agrifood, far outstrips demand.
Farm prices, to the farmer, are tiny fractions of what they were in any past time. Most of the cost of groceries is due to packaging, advertising and distribution. In dollars adjusted for time; the price of food today, and the money to the farmer, is less than 10% of what it was a hundred years ago.
There is more than enough food to feed every person on earth and make them fat like we Americans are. There are substantial problems with transportation, distribution, and political systems but we could feed, clothe and shelter the world on FAR less acreage than we have in production today.
We even have the silly, actually insane, habit of paying farmers to not farm in our country. We take tax money from everyone, including all farmers, and pay thousands of farmers to not grow crops, animals and trees. I’m personally NOT farming about 500 trillion acres of farm land – I wish the federal government would pay me what they owe me… J
In the late 70s our government climaxed decades of federal laws, policies and financial changes aimed at the decimation and destruction of American farming. Whether the aims were intentional or not is debated. There were interest increases on farm loans from 5% to over 23% on loans that were guaranteed to be fixed rates, during the Seventies, and this devastated the farmer. The federal and state governments, during this same time, added highway taxes to fuels for the tractors, combines and irrigation pumps – to help keep the price of automobile gas lower. Diesel fuel to the farmer was 12 cents in early 1976 and was pushed to $1.35 by the end of the year with government taxes and policies.
This sudden increase of roughly a thousand percent in fuel costs was not any concern to our car driving public or the politicians – after all the farmers are not a major power at the polls and are too independent to organize. Interest rates on home mortgages stayed the same, but rates on farms and farmers homes and equipment went up by the week and month. You may remember Willey Nelson’s Farm Aide programs, in the Eighties, which still exist, and that were designed to help keep some family farms from bankruptcy.
As far as the evils of development here in the Delaware beach area: Usually those who are most outspokenly opposed to development are usually those who have greatly gained from it financially. These objectors are enjoying the fruits of our economy as newcomers or they are at times members of the old guard whose properties have multiplied in value as a result of prosperity brought to us by the purchases, expenditures, and contributions made possible by those other newcomers and tourists, who’ve come to visit or join us. Many objectors have retired here with money from urban jobs or have jobs here in some tourist related or supported business or live in homes that are only possible because of the developments they scream against.
Some anti-development folks feel the farmers OWE them the land to use and view freely and without responsibility. I see that all the time. In fact there are some people who trespass on farmer’s land to hunt, exercise their dogs, dig up plants, pick produce, play, or anything else they want to do as though it’s public property.
Some don’t see anything wrong with trespassing, even after being told not to do so. There are many people who want others to NOT use the land they own or use it in a certain way for the public good – while taking only the responsibility to loudly object not usually to help come up with energy, work or money to retain or regain what they love. Some people just demand the free and irresponsible enjoyment of the fruits of others labors and risks.
Requiring a person use his personal property, or not use it according to the wishes of others is a form of trespassing, a form of Communist Theory, everything belongs to everyone thinking. And, yes most of those whose objections are loudest are Marxists in fact or at heart. Most will admit that in private when there is no fear of exposure. Marxism hasn’t worked anywhere. Russia is now a free market while we are taking on the unworkable principles of socialism that decimated her.
Farmers bought land and equipment, most often with borrowed money, to feed the world – feed the world being the cry of the socialistic democracy then and now. However, that contract our government made with the USSR, China and parts of Europe was violated as a political lever, after the farmers had grown the crops and bought new equipment, with long term loans. There was no place to sell the crops and nothing profitable to do with the land. The federal government seemed to purposely push our independent farmers into the abyss of bankruptcy. Then outspoken non-farmers – so called environmentalists, encouraged all sorts of additional actions and policies to bring down the farming community all over this nation, and they still do. These are the same socialist democrats that want to feed the world free and stop the farmers from developing the land into homes and businesses. These same socialist democrats that hate all that farmers can do want the farmers to keep the farms so they can see the pretty rows of crops and spacious expanses of well kept land.
Getting back to the orchestrated annihilation of American farmers; they had to borrow money to stay in business, some of them for the first time and the loans were first emergency government sponsored loans supported by tax dollars at 3-6% for farm credit and production loans. Some loans even began at 1-2% for putting in soybeans, corn and wheat and the purchase of the expensive harvesting and storage equipment. The prices again forced up to sky high levels for these crops on the futures market as we had contracted to feed the world for decades and the world wanted to be fed more than we could produce.
The Feds then stepped in and increased the interest on the fixed interest farm loans a step at a time (just as they were doing the residential loans for homes) very quickly, over less than two years the rates went from less than 7% to 28% -- some even peaked at 32%. Farmers had obtained loans for up to 33 years at rates as low as 2% and they were going up in rate by sometimes 3% per month. The loans had been made at fixed rates. Many of the loans had annual payments tied to crop harvest sales and incomes. The predicted incomes were down to nothing. Many farmers just left the crops in the field as the harvested value was less than the cost of harvest. So as the fixed loan rules where changed and the loans increased by the week at times, in violation of the banking contracts. The farm prices plummeted as a result of the violations of our contracts with other nations to feed them.
Remember the late 60s and then the deadly 70s and the bankrupting of farmers across this country. Remember Willie Nelson and his Farm Aid music concerts to try and help the farmers, in the final days and weeks. Farmers across the country took other jobs, sold the edges of their farms as lots, sold less productive farms to developers or became developers in some cases. In too many cases they just quietly went out of business and the farms went fallow.
Simultaneously, there were no farm jobs to be had, the farms had become mechanized as every farmer was struggling to stay in business, labor was replaced with low-labor crops and we were stuck with the growing of these crops. People who had owned land for generations no longer had any farmers who wanted to rent the land at worthwhile prices. Some went to share cropping and found that half of the proceeds were nothing and didn’t pay the land tax. There went most of the potato, tomato, carrot, beet, sweet corn, pea, lima bean, radish, squash, pumpkin, blueberry, strawberry, fig, peach, apple, cherry, asparagus, beef, goat, dairy, hog and alfalfa farms we knew. There went about 70% of the farmers.
Larger farmers became hyper-productive, specialized in one low labor crop or two, became more mechanized, cleared the trees from every available acre, planted the crops closer together, used more fertilizer and insecticides and got into other businesses to try to get more productivity from every acre and raise outside income. Migrant laborers to help on the farms disappeared. Some stayed for a while in the canneries and then the canneries were closed. The ones that stayed open till the last did so by not paying the bills even if the cannery was inherited debt free.
Some farmers became insurance agents, bankers, liquor store owners, Amway salesmen, mechanics, tractor salesmen, stock brokers, politicians, teachers, etc. to help support the farm. Many signed the criminally one-sided chicken contracts with Perdue – there was nothing else they could do and keep the farm. They had to make changes whether they liked it or not. Farm kids went to the city for jobs. Little stores and in some cases little towns closed as less people lived on the few farms that remained.
Some places stayed alive such as this area. Muskrat trapping on the thousands of acres between Rehoboth and Fenwick Island that Phil and Ruddy had trapped for years was no longer profitable. The farms on Rt. One were no longer possible as the huge new equipment gradually couldn’t be moved easily on the ever more crowded roads.
More city folks, many of whom had grown up in rural areas and had to move to the city for jobs and income, needed some space, to get away from it all, and many chose this area. They still do. Some wanted to stay here, they still do. I have sold real estate in areas where development did not occur. I’ve seen towns closed, several of them, in western Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, etc. I’ve seen millions of acres of farm and pasture land go unkept and grow up in first weeds and briars and then volunteer juniper and cedar; some of it on Rt. One.
I’ve seen land values for farm land go from auction sales of $7,000 per acre in large farms right before the grain embargo to China and Russia to less than $1,400 a couple of years later. Some farmers, many farmers sold off lots or entire farms to stay afloat. I’ve seen 686 acres of rich river bed, bottom land, fertile ground that was sold for $300 an acre just after the Civil War, be sold again in the late 70s for $700 an acre – the loss in real dollars as they say, about 90% of value. The reason, farming the bottom lands of riverbed soil in West Virginia was no longer profitable. And no farmer would buy the land. I sold it to a city fellow as a retreat. He sold it again as there was no way he could leave the city and come to his retreat and earn a living anywhere near there. Another fellow bought it and developed it for those who wanted smaller acreage, along the river to vacation, hunt and fish.
You see, no one could make a living here in farming. Remember all the dairy farms that used to dot the county? Remember the vegetable farms and orchards and hay farms? You may know the owners. Most of them had to become developers or sell off the land. There are few farms left here for economic reasons. The Hopkins still have the dairy farm because tax dollars paid them top development value price for the farms and let them keep them for dairy operation, so tourists can drive by a dairy farm.
The Townsend’s are selling off the hundreds of thousands of acres they have a few thousand at a time, because no one in the family is willing to take the risks and threats of being a farmer anymore. They sold the chicken plant because of similar risks and threats. Chicken farms, that last hope of farmers, are failing by the day. If they are close enough to where people want to live they are being developed too. If not, they are being abandoned. It won’t be long and the chicken farms will join the dairy farms as abandoned property.
Now a lot of people want to stop the development of land. Some want to have a quiet peaceful place to live with no tourists. There are places like that and there is no one there. No one is coming there. No one is going to go there. There are no messy commercial establishments. There are no establishments at all. There are no newcomers, in fact, as one man told me. We had a guy who came here and didn’t get along well with others. We fed him to the hogs. Want some bacon, it’s tasty. And they smile a toothless grin. They had no money for dentistry either.
We finally found, over the years since farming came at risk, a multi-position income base. We have tourism, entertainment such as dining, listening to music, drinking and socializing with others for dating reasons -- and retirement. They, who come here, want to be here. The farmers don’t want to fight the urban viewpoints and can’t fight the economics for the most part.
If you want to fight development; then there are ways to prevent it. There are some GREAT deals in Ghana, Slovakia and Guiana right now. Great open spaces. Cheap properties abound. Often there are lots of trees with no one wanting to cut them. There is not likely a Wal-Mart there or an Outlet Center. There are great rural people with rural lifestyles still there and many want American Dollars to come and will sell out cheap. If you own a home that has gone up in value from $5,000 or so during the early 60s to a couple of hundred thousand now, or your family does; now is a great time to sell out, move out and recapture the life and lifestyle of our youth. But, that takes risk, management, hard work, long hours, investment, income to pay for the investments, and all those nasty things. Slovakia is ready. And they sometimes speak better American and are more well educated than most of us. Doctors are cheap; many make only $400 a month. So health care is cheap. Meat is cheap – you just have to hunt or buy from a hunter. Vegetable products are cheap too, some are even farmed, many are just growing wild and ready for the harvesting. And they are rife with nice healthy bugs and mold and fungus – not messed up with chemicals. Wanna go?
There are several dozen Slovaks living here for another few weeks and all but one I’ve spoken to are planning to come back as soon as they can get here. They are making more money than they’ve ever seen before – spraying vegetables and opening boxes at Food Lion here on Rt. 24. The bounty of that dirty capitalist super market, Food Lion, in that Edgehill Shopping Center commercial development that Stan fought the anti-developers to put there, is intoxicating to them. They’ll never be the same. They ride bikes from Milton where they room together to the Food Lion to work. They are happy for the opportunity we have here and hope to be able to return in most cases. Some hope to go back to Slovakia and do what they’ve learned here. So hurry, some of them may become developers in Slovakia. They all have commented to me that they can save lots of money while here because food takes so little of what they earn, compared to what it takes back home! And all that in an area where “all the farms are gone and developers have taken over.” J
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