Farmers put food on the table, but the costs of farming are often hidden from those of us in the kitchen. The American farmscape is changing rapidly, and unless we do something about it soon, we may lose a vital part of our heritage — and have trouble eating.
Many independent farmers struggle to survive in an industry that favors the large and consolidated over the small and independent. Now, America’s Midwest appears to be harboring a speculative bubble in farmland that could burst explosively, bankrupting farmers, threatening food security and radically changing both the American foodscape and landscape. Similar issues can be seen in other nations, such as China, where farmland has value beyond its worth as a place to grow necessary crops.
One of the early warning signs of trouble came in 2010, when the USDA National Resources inventory noted that in the five years between 2002 and 2007, more than four million acres of farmland were lost to development. This happened across the nation as farmers realized that their agricultural land would be worth much more if they sold it to housing developers than if they kept it in the family or sold it to another farmer. Many farmers were forced to make such sales due to the economic pressures squeezing small farms in the U.S.
The result was a significant contribution to urban sprawl, but more than that. Take a close look at those dates: right as farmland in the U.S. was being devoured by development, the U.S. economy overall was gearing up for a massive housing bubble characterized in no small part by suburban and urban sprawl, and the destruction of rural areas. That same land that was selling at record prices for development played a disastrous role in the economic crisis that started in 2008, losing value rapidly and leaving homeowners sitting on worthless land.
Some of those developments were abandoned, and sit rotting away in regions across the US. Walking away from such developments in order to get out before they incurred any more debt, contractors, developers, and other members of the real estate industry left those houses to their fate, many in a state of half-completion. The farmland they’d been built on, much of which was what is known as “prime” because of the excellent soil conditions, couldn’t be reclaimed for farming, and thus sat locked up and unusable.
Now, as prices for corn, soy and wheat, otherwise known as the big three, creep up in the Midwest, so are the prices for the land farmers grow those crops on. Farming has always been subject to a boom and bust cycle and that’s no exception here, with many farmers selling land while costs are high in order to get as much as they can out of the deal — another reminder that family farming in the United States is a bit of an endangered species, with shrinking numbers of people planning to go into farming. Those who do want to farm or take up the family mantle are stymied by high prices for land as well as the costs of farming itself.
Tragically, many farmers are also taking on record amounts of debt by betting against their land. As the price climbs, so does available credit, and bankers seem ready and willing to extend loans where they weren’t before. When the inevitable drop in value arrives, farmers will be left sitting on millions of dollars worth of debt they have no realistic chance of repaying, putting them in the same position as underwater homeowners during the residential real estate crisis.
As with the prior land bubble, the farm bubble will have a ripple effect across the U.S. economy, making it troubling for economists and government agencies concerned with chances for economic recovery. It’s also a worry for food security, because the push towards monocropping and industrialization of farming is bad news for crop and industry diversity. America needs small farms not just because they are part of a long cultural tradition, but because they play a valuable economic role.
The warning bells are being clearly sounded across the Midwest; whether anyone plans to act remains to be seen.
Photo credit: Beth Rankin