Sunday, March 28, 2021

Note: this post was written by Professor Silvia Secchi. Some of the farmer data presented here may seem to be slightly different from my (CJ) last post. Neither of us is wrong; rather, it relates to a distinction USDA makes between “primary” and “principal” producer. 

Photo of Silvia Secchi
Silvia Secchi.

There was a recent New Yorker article that really irritated me. Full disclosure, reporters flying in and out of Iowa twice and writing long pieces about the state tend to make me cranky in general. But this one was focused on “rural white grievance,” misinformation, and the changes we have been seeing in state politics, and of course, it had a strong agricultural focus. I have a somewhat different take on what is happening, inspired by a short Twitter thread by Prof. Shoemaker, who grew up in Iowa, and which she wrote the same day the New Yorker article came out.

Here are some facts. Land values are at a historical high in Iowa. This is in part because federal subsidies, which used to be countercyclical, are now “baked in,” and get capitalized in land prices. You can see in the figure below (in real dollars), how historically, subsidies went down during good times for U.S. agriculture – which unfortunately tended to correlate with wars and troubled times for importing countries. This is no longer the case: even in the very good days of the ethanol boom, subsides remained high. Iowa is the highest beneficiary of these subsidies in the country, and the corn belt overall disproportionately benefits from them. Since 1949, the earliest date for which ERS publishes state level estimates of subsidies, in real dollars, Iowa has received more than twice the subsidies of California, where the value of agricultural production is about 60% greater than Iowa’s. Specifically, large, conventional farmers (who also happen to be mostly white) get the great majority of the subsidies in the state.

Line graph showing federal subsidy payments 1933-2021

The Census of Agriculture in 2017 enacted some changes that make it difficult to compare the trend of Iowa farmers’ characteristics across time. Do not get me started on that, but essentially, this change allows for some inflating of the number of farmers. Because of the change, I am going to give you a snapshot rather than go back to historical numbers. I am going to use the term “principal producers” and farmers interchangeably – this is the category that USDA now reports consistently about, even though it is not the most meaningful in my opinion; for example, because there can be up to four of these producers per farm. In 2017 there were 115,630 principal producers and 86,104 farms in the state.

Half of the 86,104 farms in the state had revenues of less than $50k, which means that at best they accounted for less than 3% of the revenues (sales and government subsidies, let’s not forget those) of all Iowa farms. Conversely, the 7% of farms with revenues of over $1 million brought in 35% of the revenues. Half of them had farmed areas exceeding 1,000 acres.

Young producers (by USDA’s definition, 35 or younger) were less than 9% of Iowa farmers. They were 78% men, while Iowa farmers as a whole were 73% men. They were 99.4% white not Hispanic/Latino, which is consistent with the overall farmer population, though not with the state overall, where 85% of the residents are white. Only 38% considered farming as their primary occupation (48% for farmers overall), and 25% of these young producers owned no land—everything they farmed was rented. In comparison, this figure is only 10% for the larger population of all farmers.

It is not a coincidence these helicopter reporters often speak to older farmers. The young ones are hard to find, what with them having off-farm jobs and there being so few of them. What is the real story here? Less than 4% of Iowans are farmers, even using USDA’s overly generous definitions. What this means is that a minority of farms and farmers drives Iowa’s agricultural policy and economy. Young farmers are struggling to make it in a sector where land has become very expensive and hard to come by because of ongoing subsidies that most benefit the silent generation, boomers and Gen Xers. Iowa’s agriculture is eating itself, on our dime. Unlike the ouroboros, unfortunately, there is no rebirth in sight unless we change course.

And here we are, off the election cycle, with journalists STILL flying in from the outside to explain what it happening in the state to ourselves and the coastal elites, and being surprised. Where are the “nice” Iowans, the stewards of the land, who care about education, and the health and wellbeing of others?

I object to the framing of the New Yorker piece because I think that the answer to that question may be obscure if you hop in and out of a plane to find it, but those of us who live here see it when we look at our rivers, the state of our schools and public health system, and how we treat immigrants (for example, see story reported on by Carroll Newspaperman Doug Burns and LaPrensa Newspaper Lorena Lopez) and refugees (let alone “those people from Chicago”). What we see has not emerged overnight or in the last five years, and addressing it will require us to face the hard questions that Dr. Jones brought up in the last blog post and Dr. Shoemaker referred to in her Twitter thread.