The Family Farmer:
An Endangered Species?
A “typical” Illinois family farmer in the 1970s
Across the Board
A milestone piece for me. My editor at Illinois Times, Alan Anderson, had written for editor Lewis Bergman at the New York Times Magazine. Lewis went on to start a new magazine for the Conference Board, the New York-based think tank for Fortune 100 companies. He called Alan with an idea for a piece, which Alan passed on to me. It was the start of a 36-year relationship with the magazine. It was a fun piece to do, too. I liked John Wilcox and his family, and ten years later we returned to his place outside Springfield to catch up.
John Wilcox counts out the days on a calendar he picked up at the feed store. "We set a record back there in April of '73. It was so wet that spring we only got in a day and a half of field work all month. The way it looks now, we'll break that this year." The winter of 1977–78 was officially the worst in the history of central Illinois. It is now late April 1978, a time of year when many corn belt farmers would have finished getting their new crop planted, and the ground is still sodden and cold.
Over Easter weekend an ice storm marched across the middle of the state, dragging down power lines and leaving Wilcox and his neighbors in the dark for eight days. The storm will join the drought of '76 and the wet spring of '73 on the list of events by which farmers reckon history. "Seems like we're setting weather records every year," grumbles Wilcox. His driver laughs.
Wilcox is riding in a green and white pickup truck driven by a hand, bumping down an oil and dirt road toward his house. He is 39 years old, a sharp-featured man of medium size, with more gray in his hair than his age would warrant. He lives with his wife Sara and their three children on a farm near Curran, Illinois, an accretion of houses and farm town merchandisers a few miles west of the state capital at Springfield. Wilcox is a family farmer—an endangered species, according to most accounts—and, like most of America's nearly eight million other family farmers, he is part businessman, part laborer, part gambler.
Wilcox is wearing his work clothes: blue jeans, flannel shirt, denim jacket, baseball cap emblazoned with a seed company's patch. The black dirt passing by the pickup's windows has been farmed since 1819, when two brothers of a family named Earnest came to Curran Township from South Carolina looking for good land and, deciding they would find no better, settled nearby. The land Wilcox farms is like that—mostly flat, well-drained, almost magically rich. He farms 900 acres of it with the help of his wife and a part-time hand, 350 of them in corn, another 350 acres in soybeans, the rest in wheat or hay and pasture for the beef herd he keeps.
Wilcox was born on his parents' farm a half-mile up the road from where he now lives, "a little piece of ground" on which they raised chickens and hogs and three children. "They learned it together," recalls Wilcox, "and I learned it from my dad. That's how most farmers learn the business." Wilcox's father is dead and his mother is living in a nursing home. Of the 900 acres Wilcox farms, 230 were left by his father to his mother.
The pickup bounces west. (The winter chewed up country roads and spit them out in the spring in softball-sized chunks.) Though it is traditional in the corn belt for sons to learn from their fathers about farming, it has become necessary in recent years to go elsewhere to learn about agriculture. Wilcox began his formal education in a one-room country school and finished it at the University of Illinois' College of Agriculture—an odyssey of a hundred miles and four generations of agricultural technology. Paul Findley, the man who has represented Wilcox in Congress for the last 17 years, likes to tell audiences that America outproduces the rest of the world because "we have educated farmers." John Wilcox is an educated farmer.
Even an educated farmer has to wait on the weather. As April drags into May, Wilcox and his neighbors are anxious to get planting under way. The agronomists calculate that a delay of two weeks past the optimum date for planting corn can mean a drop in yields of six percent in central Illinois fields and as much as 25 percent in the less forgiving soils farther south. Wilcox reads the soil temperatures every day. "When it reads out to about 50 degrees day and night, I'll go out," he says, assuming the fields are dry enough. Until they are he tends his cattle and waits.
Wilcox tumbles out of the pickup's cab and heads across the yard. "It's a little sticky yet," he warns as he tiptoes through the mud toward his red and white International Harvester Turbo 1066 tractor, a diesel-powered, 150-horsepower hired hand, the ultimate expression of mechanized agriculture. It's already rigged for field work. It carries twin stainless steel chemical tanks on its flanks, just ahead of the double-tired rear wheels that spread out its weight and enable it to crawl over the fields leaving only the barest footprint. Behind it are attached a 24-foot-wide field cultivator—with hydraulically operated wings that can be tucked in so it can travel narrow country roads—and a toothed harrow. Up top it has an enclosed cab outfitted with air conditioning, an AM-FM radio, and a CB radio.
Ccountry fairs still stage husband-calling contests for farm wives, an event begun in days when communication across the fields was done by voice alone. They are popular exercises in nostalgia, for the skill no longer has any use on most farms, like the wagon wheels or horse plows farm families sometimes use to decorate their lawns. John's tractor CB connects him with Sara Wilcox via a receiver propped up on the kitchen counter back at the house.
"It all sounds luxurious, I know," Wilcox explains. He's a little defensive about the optional equipment. Farm strikers paraded in front of the statehouse in Springfield last winter and harvested a crop of letters-to-the-editor from miffed city dwellers wondering how farmers could afford such gadgets if things on the farms were really as bad as they pretended. "When you spend fifteen, twenty hours a day on a tractor, those things are important. It's nothing different from what a lot of traveling businessmen put on their cars." The year-old machine cost Wilcox $35,000. Five years ago he could have bought it for half that amount.
Wilcox also keeps another, smaller, Harvester tractor ("Once they get on to one breed, farmers stay with it"), a $50,000 combine ($38,000 with trade) that sucks up corn and bean plants at one end and spews out shelled grain at the other, moldboard plows, chisel plows, and an eight-row planter that makes it possible for Wilcox, working alone, to plant seed and apply pesticides on as many as 100 acres in a day. It is farming in its most mechanized, capitalized, organized, scientific form, as remote from the simple husbandry of the early 19th century as Wilcox's planter is from a pointed stick. With such machines, farms come to resemble open-air factories. It is no accident that farmers no longer talk of growing food but of producing it.
With each trip over his fields Wilcox ups the ante in the game he plays with the weather and the world markets. Diesel fuel and repairs on his equipment in 1978 will probably average $19 per acre; depreciation another $23; chemicals anywhere from $24 to $46, depending on the crop. Seed corn costs as much as $50 for an 80,000-kernel bag, enough for three or four acres. Then there's rent on the land, storage costs after the crops are in, taxes, money for the help. Last year Wilcox harvested 150 bushels of corn per acre, better than the 105 bushels averaged by Illinois farmers (who grew more than a fifth of the corn grown in the U.S., more than any other state) and much better than the national average. It cost him roughly $1.77 to grow every one of those bushels. This year it will cost more. It always does. "You've got to be good at it," Wilcox observes, half-smiling, '"cause if you're not, you'll starve."
“See that pole down there? The one sticking up out of that field? That's where my hundred acres starts." Wilcox stands in his front yard and points across a muddy black carpet.
It is now nearly the first of June. In an ordinary year every corn farmer in Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana would have his corn planted by now, and many of them would be finishing up their soybean planting. But the Midwest has slogged through a wetter-than-ordinary May. Some farmers, trying desperately to get a crop in, ended up having to rescue mired tractors with winches and cables. Wilcox is better off than most of his neighbors because much of his corn acres are well-drained, high ground, though even he has a hundred acres or so that are still too muddy to work.
Of course, land means more than a way to make a living to a farmer. It is security against the fickleness of landlords, a pension for his old age, a legacy to his children, a measure of status, a means of maximizing production, a claim on the future. Wilcox owns only a little more than a tenth of the land he farms, 100 acres out of 900. He rents the rest, putting up his labor and machines and half the cost of seed and chemicals, and splitting the resulting crop 50/50 with the landlord. Though he rents more land than the average Illinois farmer, it is common for many young farmers to own only a part of the land they work. The reason is money.
The ex-prairie of central Illinois counties such as Logan and McLean—where 150-bushel corn is dismissed as barely above average—and Sangamon, where John Wilcox lives, is some of the best land in the world. "There may be some here and there that's just as good," Wilcox once explained, "but there isn't any that's any better." Some of that land has sold at auction for as much as $4,300 an acre. Even average prices have edged past $3,000 (an astounding figure even for the best farmland in the world) and prices, after a lull when corn prices dipped in late 1977, started creeping up again in the spring of 1978 when planting delays pushed corn prices back up.
The people paying such prices are not speculators or developers but other farmers. Inflation is partly the cause, but most of the price rise has resulted from farmers trying to outbid one another for a chance to put more land under cultivation, to work expensive machines to their capacity, to cash in before high prices went any higher. What Illinois farmers are doing, their neighbors have been doing all across the grain belt. Since 1972, farmland values in Michigan have nearly doubled, and in Iowa, as in Illinois, they have nearly trebled.
* * *
Wilcox wipes off his boots on the grass outside the kitchen door. His house is more than a hundred years old: a two-story, white frame farmhouse with green shutters, built on traditional lines, with a foot-thick skin to protect it against Midwestern winters and a storm cellar out back for the summer twister season when even foot-thick walls aren't enough to keep the weather furies out. The kitchen, according to custom, is one of the largest rooms, though its size is the only way it resembles its predecessors. The Wilcoxes remodeled it two years ago—a good year for farmers—and in place of the wood stove stands a Whirlpool "Connoisseur" electric range with see-through door and, next to it on a counter, and a microwave oven. Wilcox pours a cup of coffee and sits down.
"Four years ago I paid $1,500 an acre for the piece I have now. A guy came out from town and, like they say in the movies, he made me an offer I couldn't refuse." Those 100 acres might sell for as much as $400,000 today, if Wilcox were selling. "I wouldn't take $4,000 for it today. I think 'ground' "—both more intimate and less pretentious a noun, in wide use among those who farm—"is the best investment you can have right now."
But corn prices in 1977 were barely enough to pay the interest on land bought for $4,000 an acre with borrowed money. The farmers who can afford it (generally older farmers who built up their operations when land was selling for a thousand dollars or less per acre) are paying for it with the land they already own. With corn selling at $2.50 a bushel (a better price than farmers got through most of 1977), it takes the income from 2.3 acres of old land to pay for each acre of new land. Debt, not weather or the price of diesel fuel, is becoming the farmer's biggest threat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the ratio of debt to annual cash income among American farmers will be close to 190 percent by the end of 1978, the highest ever. Some don't make it, and in parts of the grain belt the farm auction is as familiar a ritual as the church supper.
Still, the push to buy ground is strong. "You can't find a farmer around here that won't go for another hundred acres if he gets a chance," Wilcox points out. "A farmer wants to go full speed." Wilcox offers himself as an example. He figures that with the equipment he has now he could handle a thousand acres. "I'd like to own more, if it's good and close enough to get to. But farming is such a closed up thing that ground is hard to get. Most of it's tied up in families or in trusts."
While he waits, he rents. In the old days a young farmer rented land from his father or an uncle, working it, saving until he could buy a few acres of his own, adding to that until he had a spread big enough to support a family on. But now a farmer can't survive by farming just 80 or a hundred acres, and with land prices so high there's no way he can afford to buy more than that. So those who want to farm but can't buy land farm for those who have land but don't want to farm.
Trouble is, a tenant never knows from year to year whether his rented ground will still be there to farm. Wilcox used to farm 80 acres of prime ground on what used to be Springfield's western edge until big out-of-town developers moved in and planted a 120-store shopping mall on it. Wilcox finishes his coffee and stares for a moment out the window at the land stretched out across the road like a swelling brown sea frozen into place. "A man," he says simply, "likes to farm his own ground."
"I’d just as soon be on a tractor as in a classroom. I couldn't live in town. I like going to bed at night and not having to worry about drawing the draperies." Sara Wilcox is a tall blond woman of 33 who smiles widely and could be easily mistaken for a suburban housewife. Her father was a farmer before buying into the grain elevator business in nearby New Berlin, where she grew up. She went to college in Jacksonville, 30 miles away, and became a special education teacher working with retarded children in area schools before her oldest child was born, six years ago. Like many of the latest generation of American farmers, the Wilcoxes could get good jobs in town. Neither wants to.
Sara Wilcox tends to the kids and the house and a garden out back, and in a pinch drives a tractor and hand-nurses orphaned calves. Her views of her role are traditional. She doesn't like the proposed Equal Rights Amendment and is a member of the Eagle Forum (though not an active one; going to demonstrations at the statehouse means finding a babysitter), part of the anti-ERA coalition that has kept Illinois the only non-ratifying Northern industrial state.
The winds of liberation may blow only fitfully across farm country, but like most farm wives Sara Wilcox's responsibilities extend well beyond the kitchen. She is, for example, bookkeeper for the firm of Wilcox and Wilcox. It used to be, of course, that a farmer added up what he got when he sold his crop, paid his bills, and what was left was his income for the year. But farming has changed radically—it has come to resemble manufacturing even in its language, according to which fertilizer and seed are referred to collectively as "inputs"—and not many half-million-dollar businesses do their bookkeeping on kitchen tables. There are fuel costs to record, taxes to be estimated, interest payments to be deducted, machinery to be depreciated. A smart farmer nowadays can even take depreciation on a cow.
To help keep their business straight, the Wilcoxes take part in a computerized farm records service managed by the Department of Agricultural Economics of the University of Illinois. "You have to account for every penny," says Sarah Wilcox. "Everything goes into that book." In return for a fee, the Wilcoxes get computer printouts that tell them everything about their operation, from feed-conversion ratios to how much they spent on gasoline driving to town for groceries.
Computer record-keeping and electric ranges to the contrary, country living remains different from life in the city, from which many farmers are isolated more by life-style than distance. But the city and what it represents—paved streets and neighbors one hardly knows well enough to say hello to and having to pull the drapes at night—is edging closer to the Wilcoxes. There is a fretful strain in Sarah Wilcox's praise of farm life; she uses words like "safe" and "secure" and confesses to feeling a little offended when she sees a strange car driving past her place. When her husband farmed some land near Springfield's suburban edge, neighborhood kids trampled his corn and passersby dumped trash in his fields. When they grew up, the city was seven miles away from the old farm. Now John Wilcox figures it's three and a half. "I hate to see town coming out," Wilcox admits. "They're building houses all around here and I don't know half the people who live in them." If it gets much closer, they say, they'll leave.
"Farm families have everything they'd have in town," Wilcox points out. Modern kitchens and color TV sets, paneled family rooms and campers—some farm families have swimming pools. "They have all that plus all the things they probably wouldn't have in town—a good close relationship with neighbors they like, a community church, good schools, and the sense of peacefulness you get living out here." They don't watch much television beyond Sesame Street for the kids and the news. The Wilcoxes' social life is built instead around church, the farm bureau, and friends. Farm work doesn't leave much time during the summers for more than an occasional jaunt to a St. Louis amusement park with the kids, but every winter for the last three they have traveled to the American Farm Bureau's national conventions, which gives them a chance at a week off in places like Houston and Miami.
The automobile and superhighways ended the farmer's physical isolation a long time ago, but there lingers a touchy sense of cultural isolation. Bob Hope performed at the Illinois State Fair a few years ago and made some tasteless jokes about the smells wafting across the outdoor stage from nearby livestock barns. John Wilcox was in the audience. "He acted like we were a bunch of hicks," he recalls.
And the children? The Wilcoxes' three children—Matt, six, Jennifer, four, and David, two—are growing up in a bigger world than their grandparents or even their parents grew up in. According to the U.S.D.A., the number of children under 14 living on American farms has declined 38 percent since 1970 to 1.6 million, partly because young families like the Wilcoxes are leaving their farms or can't get started in farming or can't afford to stay on the ones they own or seek out more secure futures as salaried workers in the cities.
So many things about farming have changed. One of them is the assumption that a farmer's children will follow his footsteps. The Wilcoxes will encourage their children to go to college as they did, though they say they won't force it on them. In the past the young went into farming because it was all they knew, but today farm kids have more choices. Young Matt Wilcox, for instance, went to preschool classes in the city before starting kindergarten in September in the nearby farm village of New Berlin. Even there, more and more of his classmates are city kids, the children of urban refugees. Matt proudly told a recent visitor from the city that his daddy lived on a farm. He had to be reminded that that meant that he lived on a farm, too.
* * *
“She just has a dull, lifeless look about her. She calved not too long ago and she had some trouble expelling the afterbirth. I think she's picked up a low-grade infection." Wilcox is on the phone, talking to a veterinarian in the town of Chatham. One of his cows is sick, but the vet says he can't see her until morning. Wilcox presses him. "That animal's worth $500. Another 15 hours and she might be stiff." The vet relents. He'll be there by suppertime—too late, as it turned out, because the cow died and left her calf to be hand-fed out of a bucket by Sara Wilcox.
Wilcox keeps as many as 150 cattle—33 cows, the rest calves and yearlings being fattened for slaughter. The latter laze away on feed lots, munching hay and shelled corn from an automatic feeder and slurping liquid protein from bathtub-shaped tanks. Beef prices have been up this year, mostly because of tight supplies.
Wilcox feeds his cattle with hay and corn grown on the farm. That protects him from grain price rises that bedevil cattle feeders who buy their feed. Ninety percent of U.S. corn and beans are eaten by livestock, and cattlemen are as happy to see corn prices go down as corn farmers are to see them go up. "That's why it's so hard being the Secretary of Agriculture," cracks Wilcox.
What he doesn't convert to beefsteak Wilcox converts to cash. He is sitting in his kitchen, waiting for the vet. "You sell your grain when you think you can get the best deal, of course. But sometimes you sell it because you need the money." Wilcox, like every farmer, listens to the grain market reports every morning on the radio. He reads, too, subscribing to Kiplinger's, Successful Farming ("The Magazine of Farm Management"), the Farm Journal, the Prairie Farmer, newsletters from the Farm Bureau and the extension service. "You can never read too much about the markets."
Marketing of crops, like everything else about farming, has become more complicated. "Rule of thumb used to be, closer to the new crop you get, the higher the price, because by then the supplies were down. That was the best time to sell, if you could hold on to it that long."
Farmers used to dispose of a crop in one or two sales, but no longer. Some sell in January because that's when the bills for fall fertilizer and income tax estimates are due. Or in the spring, when seed and chemical bills must be paid. Wilcox had been watching soybean prices creep up for months from their 1977 low of $4.70 per bushel; when they hit $6.47 in May he sold some of his beans. A lot of other farmers had the same idea and within a week the price had slipped back by as much as a dollar.
When Wilcox brings in a crop in the fall it is hauled by truck to a country elevator at nearby Archer on the Chicago & North Western rail line, where it's stored until he sells it. Wilcox has little storage capacity on the farm, preferring to pay the elevator a penny and a half per bushel per month to do it for him.
The country elevator buys it from Wilcox, then turns around and sells it again, usually to one of the half-dozen giant grain companies that dominate the market. Some of it goes directly to processors. An estimated 50 percent of the beans grown in central Illinois, for example, end up in Decatur, Illinois, the self-styled Soybean Capital of the World, where the sprawling kitchens of the A. E. Staley and Archer Daniels Midland companies transform beans by the boxcar into pig feed and ersatz soybean sausages.
Much of the rest of Wilcox's grain is funneled into the export trade. One elevator operator guesses that 90 percent of the corn and half the beans grown in mid-Illinois are shipped abroad. All the big grain companies have loading terminals on the Illinois River at Beardstown, Meredosia, or Havana. The Illinois, which is only an hour away from Wilcox's farm by truck, carries a third of the tonnage of the Panama Canal, a quarter of which is corn and beans. Every day, except when the river freezes up, lumbering block-long barge tows sidle up to the terminals to be loaded for the float south to St. Louis and New Orleans.
This traffic to the docks at New Orleans is vital for the grain farmers. Since the end of massive government price support programs of the Sixties, the export market has served to sop up America's chronic oversupply of food, which is now the nation's biggest export, worth $?4 billion annually. American soybeans, for example, find their way into Japanese margarine and Italian pork chops, American corn feeds South American cattle, and American wheat is baked into Indian bread. Roughly 60 percent of American wheat and beans and a quarter of its corn are sold abroad.
The state of Illinois does more foreign trade than many countries, much of it in food and farm equipment. On March 17, an 18-man delegation calling itself the Illinois Agricultural Mission boarded a jet for a trip to the People's Republic of China. The party included two Congressmen, the president of the Illinois-based John Deere farm implement company, the dean of the University of Illinois College of Agriculture, the heads of the state's economic development and agriculture departments, and a 350-pound Yorkshire hog named "Big Jim," after Illinois governor James Thompson. When he got back. Farmers Union president Harold Dodd explained that foreign trade was a lot like farming. The delegation had planted a seed, "cultivated it like crazy," and expected a harvest soon. Two weeks later, in a move the delegates said was not entirely coincidental, China, after a four-year hiatus, placed orders for a million metric tons of American wheat.
The need for foreign trade transcends politics, even here in the conservative heartland. The Russians are among America's biggest customers (by May 1 they had placed orders for 9.3 million metric tons of corn alone) and the People's Republic is a food market of staggering potential. "I know they're communist countries," Wilcox says uneasily. There are echoes in his voice of past arguments with friends and neighbors about the propriety of doing business with the communists. "But our biggest customers are Japan and West Germany, who were our bitter enemies not too long ago. Where do you draw the line?"
* * *
One evening every month, Wilcox drives into Springfield to the headquarters of the Sangamon County Farm Bureau, of which he is the president. There is a yard-square replica of the Declaration of Independence hanging on a waiting room wall over tables littered with Weeds Today magazine. Wilcox's destination is a spartan meeting room where he sits down with two dozen fellow farmer-representatives to talk.
The Farm Bureau is the biggest American farm organization. National membership is approaching three million, a twelfth of whom live in Illinois. On most issues it is the most conservative of the major farm groups, being flanked on the left by the Farmers Union, the National Farm Organization and, at the extreme, the angry tractor-caders of the American Agriculture Movement. The conservatism of the bureau and its popularity are not coincidental.
"I sort of grew up with it, 1 guess," explains Wilcox. His father was a charter member of the county group when it was organized 60 years ago. "I also happen to agree with the creed of the Farm Bureau. It's a conservative organization." (We reaffirm our faith in incentives, individual responsibility, initiative, freedom and the right to work, proclaims the Illinois chapter's statement of philosophy, rather than dependence on government.) "We believe in the democratic process undergirded by a faith in God."
In April, as these two dozen sober farmers gathered in earnest, subdued, polite conversation, the galleries of the United States Senate in Washington were filling up with farmers of a different sort, hooting and clapping their support of emergency farm legislation one Farm Bureau spokesman would later dismiss as "ill-conceived."
Many grain farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere regard the American Agriculture Movement as they would a distant relative who drinks a little too much: they are obliged to claim him as kin, but they are a little embarrassed by him. Wilcox and his neighbors survive short-term fluctuations in crop prices partly by planting more than one crop. As he explains, "That way you don't have all your eggs in one basket. If corn is down beans are likely to be up and balance it out for you."
But in the Plains states and parts of the South, geography and climate conspire to limit farmers to one crop. It was in the dusty wheat fields of the West, for example, that the American Agriculture Movement took root. There, farmers were stuck with more wheat than the world could buy or wanted, and were being squeezed into bankruptcy because of it. When corn prices started to slide in 1977, strikers from Kansas and Colorado were joined by some in Illinois, mostly from the southern and eastern counties where thin soils or drought had robbed farmers of crop enough to pay their bills. By December, tractorcades were rumbling into Springfield, clogging the streets of the capital while their owners besieged the governor, who patiently explained to them that he had nothing to do with the price of corn.
"I'm sympathetic to our neighbors out west," Wilcox says carefully, "but part of it's their own fault. A few years ago wheat got up to $5 a bushel, and when the government lifted its acreage limits they jumped in and planted everything in wheat and ended up glutting the market.
"We [meaning farmers generally] lost a lot of goodwill because of them. When you're trying to get sympathy for your cause from city people you don't pull into town and tie up traffic with a $50,000 tractor equipped with every convenience." Wilcox quarrels with the AAM over ends as well as means. The strikers originally demanded government-guaranteed prices set at 100 percent of parity—a reestablishment, in other words, of the relative buying power farmers enjoyed during the golden age of agriculture just before World War I. "What they're asking is unreasonable. One hundred percent of parity would knock us right out of export market."
The call to leave 1978 crops unplanted was ignored and the strike ultimately failed. But Congress proved more persuadable. In April, House and Senate conferees approved a trio of emergency farm measures providing for acreage set-asides and subsidy payments to boost farm incomes by as much as $6 billion, programs so extravagant that even major farm groups eventually lobbied against them and helped defeat them in the House.
Protecting farm incomes against the vagaries of the market has preoccupied the Federal government since the desperate days of the 1930s. It managed it by paying farmers not to grow food, by buying much of what they did grow, and by subsidizing prices in order to buoy farmers drowning in a sea of unsalable grain. The return to the free market engineered by then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz in the early 1970s worked wonderfully—farm incomes and U.S. trade surpluses rose, and price-depressing surpluses dwindled—but only as long as world grain shortages continued. With the return of full production abroad, demand shrank, surpluses piled up, prices fell. By the winter of 1977 the AAM was in Washington, packing the galleries of Congress and raising again the familiar demand that the government do something about what appears to be a permanent "farm problem."
In Illinois, for example, which has led the nation in corn production for the past two years, it cost the average farmer $2.48 to grow a bushel of corn in 1977 that sold for an average of $2.30 and that at times during the marketing year brought no more than $1.60. For wheat farmers the arithmetic was equally discouraging, and some Kansas farmers plowed their young crop under rather than lose more money. When farmers got together they joked sourly that at those prices a man could sell himself right into bankruptcy. Nationally, average annual farm income hit nearly $11,000 in 1973; by 1977 it has slipped to a little more than $7,000.
So acute was the problem in early 1978—and so threatening the pressure applied by the AAM on more conservative farm groups to do something—that even the American Farm Bureau Federation endorsed a Senate proposal to pay farmers $2.3 billion to not plant crops on 31 million acres. Wilcox puts the AFBF case this way: "I believe the free market system of supply and demand is the best way. It gets tight at times, and sometimes it seems cruel but it's cheapest to the taxpayer and best for the farmer." Farm Bureau members have an almost constitutional aversion to government involvement—many members prefer the word "interference"—in agriculture. But the alternative is sometimes unacceptable. "When production gets that much too big for demand," Wilcox admits, "I think the government ought to provide some kind of incentive to cut back production to sort of even things out."
After months of legislative pushing and shoving, Congress and the Carter Administration finally worked out a complicated program of acreage set-asides and subsidies, and by the June 15 sign-up deadline, half the country's growers of feed grains had agreed to let some 23 million acres of ground remain idle.
* * *
Whoever it was who first described a healthy corn crop as being "knee high by the Fourth of July" died before the days of modern hybrids. Even after its late start, John Wilcox's corn is as tall as a man by late July, and the fields surrounding his house, their life still buried only a month earlier, are bright green. The crop has survived the wet spring, a three-week dry spell in mid-June, infestations of, first, black cutworms and, then, European corn borers.
Even if growing conditions are perfect until the first frost in October, Wilcox's corn will not set any records. (Soybeans, which aren't planted until June anyway, were less bothered by the wet spring.) That isn't necessarily bad news when such a large part of last year's crop was carried over to this year: every time it rained during the planting season the price of corn went up a little in anticipation of a short crop, and when the skies cleared the price slipped back again—though not all the way to 1977 levels.
Wilcox walks through a pasture calling to his cows: "Ca-a-a-lves," he bleats. They loll in the shade of a gnarled tree, their ears bearing numbered paper identity tags. Beef prices rose through the early summer, too, after several seasons of break-even prices. In fact, the Carter Administration worried so much about the effect of rising meat prices on the inflation rate that they loosened beef import quotas to allow an additional 200 million pounds of foreign meat into the U.S. to bolster supplies. The move was mostly symbolic, but it was a sign that the government was again prepared to intervene in the market to protect the consumer. Wilcox, like most of his friends, sometimes wonders who the Department of Agriculture is working for. "It seems like they could let us make a little profit after so many seasons when we lost our money on our cattle," Wilcox says.
It is sometimes said that nobody ever saw a happy farmer, and it is true that griping about prices and the government and the weather is a favorite form of recreation among farmers. Actually, if the government doesn't let too much foreign beef into this country, and if the soybean export market stays strong and the corn tassles well, 1978 should be a fairly good year for John Wilcox. Still, the risks of failure are real enough. "I lay it all on the line," he says offhandedly, "and I do it every year."
Ask a farmer why he sticks with farming and sooner or later he'll mention the word "independence." John Wilcox uses the word often, and it is true that he is free of schedules (man-made ones at any rate) and the confinements of city life. But economically the farmer is as independent as the tail on the end of a dog. Fifty years ago, four-fifths of what a farmer needed to farm—his seed, his fertilizer, his fuel—he provided himself, from the farm. Today most farmers have to buy those four-fifths from somebody else. They are tied to the world outside the farm by webs of money and politics, and though it is still true that the world cannot survive without the farmers, it is also true that they cannot survive without the world. It is worth remembering that Sara Wilcox, to feed her family, has to buy food at the supermarket like everyone else.
The world is closing in on farmers in other ways. Some are obvious and physical; a million acres a year is lost nationally to shopping centers and subdivisions and superhighways. ("There's more people coming on," Wilcox warns, "and there's a head-on collision coming up.") City people are moving into the country, paving over land, pushing up taxes, crowding the schools.
But there are even more fundamental changes coming, rolling up like thunderheads rumbling along the far horizon in late summer. More and more people are telling John Wilcox that his way of farming is wrong, heedlessly exploitative of the land's resources, wasteful of energy, disrespectful of the environment—"a dinosaur," as one critic puts it, "on its way out." Energy-intensive farming—and American agriculture is an oil agriculture from tractor tank to grain dryer—is an impossibility in an energy-short world. If farming is to survive it will have to change, they say. The same must be said of the farmer.
Most knowledgeable observers believe that the solutions to the oil crunch on the farms will be technological rather than social, the discovery of new fuel sources and farm practices rather than a return to the smaller, more labor-intensive farms of the past. Already, colleges across the Midwest are experimenting with ways to create alcohol from corn residues and methane from livestock wastes, and solar-powered grain dryers and livestock pens no longer attract confused stares from passersby. Some of Wilcox's neighbors have joined the growing trend to reduced tillage methods that enable farmers to make fewer fuel-wasting trips across their fields; and organic methods, though still dismissed by many farmers as uneconomical, could cut the use of oil-based fertilizers and pesticides.
The story of American farming is largely a story of technological innovation, going back to John Deere's first steel plow in the 1830s. John Wilcox knows this. He doesn't farm the way his father did and his son, if he farms after him, is not likely to farm the way his father does. Concerning the changes facing farming, Wilcox reads and keeps an open mind. "Farming will be with us for generations to come," he predicts. "I know they're talking about getting protein from the sea and all that. But the ground will have to be used for food for generations to come. As long as people get hungry three or four times a day," he says levelly, "they'll need farmers." ●