Being a farmer is anything but easy– something I knew deep in my soul before I’d ever attended even a single day of school. My grandpa was a farmer, my dad was a farmer, and as a kid I wondered if I too, would one day be handed down the affectionate title of, “Farmer Corey” just as my dad had inherited from his.
Yet, that day will never come, as last week I watched emotionally as the current “Farmer Corey” milked the last dairy cow our family farm is likely to ever see– in this generation, or the next.
Farming is hard enough all on it’s own– it’s not the kind of thing that needs extra help in being difficult. As dairy farmers there’s never a break from the sun-up and sun-down milking cycle 356 days a year, making it hard to ever stray from the farm beyond just a few hours. In between milking, there’s always an endless list of things to be done in care of the animals and the farm itself. Throw into that mix the fact that farming is often an extremely lonely and isolating profession; the host of challenges winter, flooding, or droughts can bring, the declining market prices on American agricultural products, and you have a job that is hard… hard enough even when things are going well.
My dad hasn’t been alone in this regard. Many of America’s farmers have been struggling intensely, with net income slashed by almost 50% over the past five years. Though resilient and often able to find a way to weather the storms of adverse conditions and fluctuating markets, American farmers have been unable to withstand the final blow to the American agricultural industry: Donald Trump’s trade wars.
As described by the Washington Post:
“Dairy producers were already struggling with low prices due to oversupply and America’s new thirst for alternatives such as soy milk when the Trump administration’s trade wars with Mexico, Canada and China hit, sending exports plunging and exacerbating gluts of various commodities.
Dairy farmers have lost at least $2.3 billion in revenue since the trade wars began, according to the National Milk Producers Federation…”
There have been a variety of factors in the past five years that left dairy farmers with dwindling paychecks. After the increased interest in alternatives to dairy products resulted in an over production of product that less people were buying, prices paid to farmers tumbled. Many were barely breaking even; countless more were going into debt to keep the family farm.
While things were already bad enough, Trump’s trade wars– specifically tariffs imposed on China resulting in the Chinese cancellation of purchasing American agricultural products– has been a point of no return for many farmers, as the average income went down another 16% even after previous losses. Many farms can’t survive the weight of it all: bankruptcies are up 13% from last year as we enter into the 2nd year of Trump’s trade war, farmer debt to income ratio has soared to the highest point since the farm crisis of the 1980’s (during which, ironically, the Corey farm first went out of business), Farm Aid has reported calls to their hotline jumped a stunning 50% during last year alone, and farmer suicides have even resulted in some milk distributors including the suicide hotline when sending declining paychecks to farmers.
Life as a farmer is hard– it doesn’t need any help being harder, though Trump’s trade war is certainly making it infinitely so. While earlier today Trump announced that he is delaying some additional Chinese tariffs, those will be of no help to American farmers– those delays are on cellphones, laptop computers, and toys. Even if it were to have helped, for many farmers it’s too late to save things.
Earlier in explanation of those delays, he said:
“We’re doing this for the Christmas season… Just in case some of the tariffs would have an impact on U.S. customers.”
More directly on the farm crisis, Trump took to Twitter just this morning and dismissed the impact his trade war is having on farmers– claiming that farmers are getting more than the Chinese would even be spending, but that the “fake news” won’t report it.
And to add insult to injury, Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture made a public joke that mocked American farmers as being a bunch of whiners.
While it’s true there have almost always been agricultural subsidies in America, they have not saved the American farmer from becoming the chief casualty in Trump’s trade war– farms across America are going out because they have lost, not because they have gained– and that’s anything but fake news. As with any product, much of the agricultural industry relies on selling their product abroad in addition to domestically. When Trump imposes hot-headed tariffs on China, prompting retaliation by cancelling dairy and soy purchases from the US, someone pays the price– and that someone is the American farmer no matter how many characters of a tweet he uses to deny it.
I stood by as a boy during the farm crisis of the 80’s, and saw the tears flow as my dad and grandpa watched the cattle truck drive off with the last of our cows.
I stood there as a man in 2019, now with just my father, and watched it happen all over again.
Neither of those moments in my life were fake news.
Yes, being a dairy farmer is hard work– hard enough all on its own.
It’s endless, thankless, and incredibly lonely.
But farming is also one of the most beautiful professions I could imagine. From the tending and care for the land year after year, to the first seed, that new birth of an awaited animal, all the way through the final harvest, and even death itself… Farming is beautiful, and critically important.
When I was about 5 years old, my favorite Christmas gift was a t-shirt that said, “Proud my folks are farmers.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I loved that shirt– because all these years later, I still am.
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I raised livestock all of my adult life until the fall of 2007 when we could no longer compete with the world oil market for our feed grains (too much of the corn crop going into ethanol production), and this after surviving–even prospering–the farm crisis of the 80’s.
Loading the sow breeding herd for slaughter is just as traumatic as trucking off the milking herd. I feel for your family.
Ben, I hurt for you, your dad and all the farmers I know who are hurting right now. Our nation is hurting, to the point of collapse, because we’re losing more and more empathy for others.
I was fooled into trusting that, though we surely had ugly Americans abroad, the majority of us were not narcissistic. It appears to the world today that I misplaced my trust. We’re losing our democracy to self-centered lies that a too large of a faction is deceived to believe as is supporting their self-centered agenda. Evangelicals, White Nationals, isolationists and believers that the USA was once before greater than three years ago are but a few who support the demise of our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution and our seeking a more perfect union seeking Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of mankind.
You hurt for your dad. I hurt for your dad who, at least, knew the rewards of hard work on a dairy farm. I hurt for my grandchildren because they are destined to suffer the consequences of short sighted national authoritarianism that we were fortunate enough to be free from, most of our lives.
I honestly don’t see a way out of this spiral down. If it were not for my Lord in me, and I in him, I would feel totally lost right now. I still feel more grief for others due to this national rule of deceit than I feel I can bear. I feel your pain and I don’t know how to relieve any for you, sorry, so sorry.
God bless you and your father.
So, sales of toxic, commercial milk from sick cows is down but our poor, so called resourceful farmers would rather blame the drop in sales to something out of their control, than switch to producing organic, pasture raised cows and wholesome milk- which is rising in sales with a greater return of profit! I pay at least twice as much for pesticide-free or organic produce, because- like milk, the supply is not reliably available in my town. ALL farmers are going to have to change the way they farm, PERIOD. Might as well get a head start on the other complainers!
Our farm was a certified organic dairy farm, so there’s that.
Thank you, Benjamin, for knowing what you are writing about…just thank you. I grew up on a farm and even owned a dairy for several years. Eventually we were losing money and had to sell out. Most of the farmers I know work too hard to be whiners. It simply isn’t an industry that people go into who don’t want to work hard.
Absolutely agree with your comment. Thank you.
Organic food is self defense. The switch to safe foods is well on its way now. Sprouts and Whole Foods are two good examples.
Ben, thank you so much for this post! For the first time in more than a century, on the afternoon of December 27, 2017, no cows were milked on the farm where I was raised. My brother sold the milking herd before circumstances forced it. I cried with him. We thought of our father who milked cows from his childhood into his mid-eighties, and saw it as a sacred calling from God. We feel the weight of the land, and of its creatures, as a holy responsibility. I serve a small rural congregation as pastor, and when I retire, my husband and I plan to go home. No, indeed. Farmers are not whiners. They pursue a sacred calling.