Farmers question continued viability

The little red hen understood the farmer's plight. Remember the parable about the chicken who sought assistance in planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting grain and no one helped? Same thing when she asked for assistance in milling the grain and baking the bread.

But when the loaves came out of the oven, hot, aromatic and delicious, everyone wanted a share. The hen, being more pragmatic than generous, told her lazy neighbors to take a hike.

Farmers endure similar ingratitude.

“Farmers have had a limited voice in policy for decades,” says Brad Heffington, one of about a dozen Lamb County, Texas, farmers on hand recently for a skull session with Southwest Farm Press at Littlefield. “Now, we don't see that our efforts are appreciated by the public.”

The meeting, organized to give farmers a chance to air concerns, was sponsored by the Bula Gin Company and First United Bank.

Heffington and others say apathy and even scorn over government farm policy shows how little the public understands modern agriculture.

“Interest groups have turned the public against farmers,” says Karen Clawson, who works with the Bula Gin Company and farms with her husband, Larry.

That attitude, combined with the dismal shape of the farm economy, may jeopardize the future of independent farmers and the rural communities where they live, work and spend their money. Young men and women who grew up on farms are not coming back to take over from their parents after they leave for school or other opportunities.

“Our young people are looking for other industries,” says farmer Randall Gray. “Agriculture simply does not hold that much interest for many of them anymore.”

Gray, who started farming at 18, when he was a high school senior, says neither of his two sons wants to farm and he's not eager to convince them to.

“They don't want to work as hard as we have to on the farm for as little money as we get,” he says. “I believe if the money was available, the interest would be too, despite the hard work.”

He says young people with no farm background have little or no chance at starting an operation from scratch. “You just about have to be involved already to get into farming,” he says.

Cost of equipment and land, as well as necessary crop materials, would be prohibitive, farmers say. A general consensus from the group indicated a scratch start on a farm that would provide an opportunity for a decent living would require around $250,000.

“Most young people can't do that,” Gray says.

Tim Farris, with the First United Bank, says the economic boom that most of the country enjoyed until about 18 months ago skipped rural America. “We did not see the boom, and rural communities are drying up.”

He says new banking customers are not coming in. “Rural decline affects our businesses, churches and schools.”

Karen Clawson says schools in her area, White Face, have dropped to a lower classification, from AA to A status. “Two schools merged and remained at the A level,” she says.

Farmers gathered here say they want to continue, but they wonder how long they'll be able to hang on with commodity prices at near-record lows, production costs significantly higher, trade policies that favor foreign sellers, and politicians and a public that seem to care little about their survival.

“We love what we do,” says Jimmy Drake. “That's why we stick with it.”

“The rural environment has been a good place to raise children,” Karen adds.

They also point out inequities in buying power. “Companies that U. S. farmers made rich take technology to our competitors,” Karen says. In some cases, several farmers say, foreign producers can buy agricultural products at prices significantly lower than is available in this country.

“If we could sit down with agricultural product manufacturers we'd like to let them know that we need help,” Heffington says. “They need to call their Congressmen and ask for sound farm policy.”

He says a local John Deere dealer called following passage of the Grassley Amendment and asked how those limitations would affect area farmers. “He also wanted to know how they could help.”

That kind of involvement, throughout the infrastructure of agriculture, will be necessary, farmers say, to assure the kind of agricultural policy that will allow families to stay on the land and to encourage their children to come home.

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