When milk prices bottomed out in the summer of 2016, Robin and David Fitch didn’t know how they could continue. Their four-hundred-and-seventy-acre dairy farm, in West Winfield, New York—a four-hour drive north of Manhattan—supported about a hundred and seventy milk cows. Sixteen years earlier, when they had married and started farming together, a herd that size would have been more than enough to keep them afloat. But milk prices kept falling that summer, eventually hitting fourteen dollars per hundredweight, down from twenty-five in 2014. The Fitches’ income took a nearly fifty-per-cent hit, while the debt they incurred from fuel costs, rising interest rates, and other expenses grew. The day came when they had to tell their two children that they might be forced to sell the farm. “My fourteen-year-old was in tears,” Robin recalled. “For the farmer, it means losing everything they have worked for their entire life—their land, their home, everything. It’s gone.”
The Fitches were not alone in their struggles. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that, between 2013 and 2016, net farm income fell by half, the largest three-year drop since the Great Depression. Some forty-two thousand farms folded during the downturn, and small and medium-sized operations, such as the Fitches’, proved particularly vulnerable. Now, with commodity prices still low and farm debt predicted to reach record highs, the nonprofit organization Farm Aid has warned that, if the market doesn’t recover soon, the country could see its highest rate of farm closures since the nineteen-eighties. Newsweek estimates that, at the peak of that crisis, two hundred and fifty farms closed every hour.
Many American farmers are looking to Donald Trump for relief. He was, after all, their preferred candidate for President, winning sixty-two per cent of the rural vote in 2016. “Farmers built this country, and I was hopeful that he was going to see that and step up to the plate for us,” Robin Fitch told me. The President will soon have the chance to do just that, as Congress readies the next version of the farm bill, the single most important piece of legislation for the nation’s food growers. First conceived during the Depression, the bill has since become a fixture of American policy-making, updated and renewed and haggled over every five years or so. The 2018 bill, which is due in the coming months and is expected to cost around nine hundred billion dollars over a decade, promises to be one of the most consequential ever. This year, even more than in the past, farmers such as the Fitches face an existential question: Will Washington come to their rescue, or will it let them disappear?
The farm bill’s unassuming name fails to capture its effect on American life. Besides providing crop subsidies, establishing pricing structures, and regulating farming practices, it allocates funds for disaster relief, school-lunch programs, and wildlife conservation. Some eighty per cent of the bill’s budget goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. “At one point, I started to catalogue the number of programs that were covered in the farm bill, and I gave up after a hundred,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, told me recently. “And every single one of those programs has a lobbying force behind it or it wouldn’t be there. And that’s just the farm programs!”
As the Fitches’ experience suggests, past farm bills have tended to benefit large operations over small and medium-size ones, which still account for ninety-seven per cent of all working farms in the United States. According to the Environmental Working Group, a D.C.-based nonprofit, the top ten per cent of wealthiest farms received seventy-seven per cent of commodity subsidies between 1995 and 2016. Roughly the same is true of crop insurance, currently the largest component of the farm bill behind SNAP. That’s where the real money is, Nestle told me. “What the insurance programs do is provide an incentive to grow as much food as you possibly can, because you know that the price is going to be guaranteed,” she said. The certainty of payment, backed by U.S. taxpayers, encourages big farms to get bigger, take risks, and then claim the insurance payouts if the crops fail to yield.
But the hard times that have befallen small farmers haven’t gone unnoticed. Earlier this month, I spoke with Representative Mike Conaway, the Republican chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, which is tasked with writing the 2018 bill. Conaway acknowledged that some existing programs “just didn’t work” for average farmers and that the safety net needs strengthening. “That does not necessarily mean I can protect everybody,” he said. Last year, Conaway defended the bill from a proposed seventy billion dollars in cuts over a decade—part of the President’s and the G.O.P.’s over-all plan to shrink the federal budget—negotiating with Representative Diane Black, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, to get the reductions down to about ten billion.
Conaway maintains that Trump has been supportive of the agriculture industry. But the proposed budgetary reductions, along with Trump’s threats to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement—a move that could potentially endanger forty billion dollars’ worth of exports to Canada and Mexico each year—would seem to undermine the President’s pledges to farmers during the campaign. They may also explain, in part, why Trump’s support among rural voters at one point dipped below forty per cent. (It has since climbed above fifty per cent.) In a speech earlier this month at the American Farm Bureau’s annual conference, in Nashville, Tennessee, the President sought to ease farmers’ concerns. He announced to an audience of five thousand that he was “putting an end to the regulatory assault on your way of life,” and boasted that most of the one and a half trillion dollars in tax breaks contained in the G.O.P.’s new tax plan would go to families, small businesses, and family farmers. A recent analysis by U.S.D.A. economists suggests otherwise, noting that the top ten per cent of farmers will enjoy the largest breaks. In the Nashville speech, the President made only passing mention of the farm bill, saying that he would support a version that includes crop insurance, a provision that his budget proposal had initially sought to slash by twenty-nine billion dollars. “We have been working every day to deliver for America’s farmers, just as they work every single day to deliver for us,” he said. “Farm country is God’s country.”
Though it is difficult to say what a small farmer’s ideal version of the bill would look like, there is no doubt that it would require radical revamping. According to several of the people I spoke with, that appears unlikely to happen. “This Congress isn’t going to change anything,” Nestle said. “This Congress doesn’t read bills. This Congress is going to do a farm bill that benefits its most generous supporters.” Conaway, for his part, suspects that, as he and his colleagues prepare the bill, the biggest fight will be not over farm assistance but the cuts to SNAP, which Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is looking to reform and which will likely bear the full ten billion dollars in cuts. “I don’t want it to be just a Republican bill, and that’s going to be the challenge,” Conaway said.
Robin Fitch has tried to remain optimistic about the bill. In the year and a half since milk prices nose-dived, her family has managed to hang on to its farm. But if prices remain low for much longer, she told me, “you’d be stupid to hang on.” She said that she wishes Trump knew the full extent of the challenges facing American farmers, “because I do feel that he is looking out for the best for our country.” But agriculture, Fitch acknowledged, doesn’t seem to be one of the President’s priorities, at least not right now. “If it were on a scale of one to ten, I don’t think it’s even on that scale,” she said. “And that does scare me.”
Name: West Winfield