By Joe Schroeder, Farm Advocate at Farm Aid
Since 1985, Farm Aid has responded to farm crises on the individual, community, and national level. Farm Aid has long supported and held up farmers who face crises and the farm advocates who help them through get through the hard times. As Farm Aid’s farm advocate, my job is to advise and refer farmers in trouble to resources that can help. My job is also to recruit and train new advocates and to help rebuild the infrastructure that advocates who came out of the 1980’s Farm Crisis relied on.
There’s a tension in those two responsibilities—responding to the immediate needs of farmers facing the worst deadline you can imagine, and building for the future. Never has it been more crucial to balance the two. There are real threats ahead of us. We only have 2 million farmers left (and only 1 million are making a living on the farm). Our farmer hotline calls have gone up by around 30% this year, and were up by same margin last year. In the first month of 2018 alone, I fielded 70 calls and emails from distressed farmers, and their situations are getting more dire.
What’s worse is that there are fewer trained advocates to do the heavy lifting of working with each farmer to sort out their options. And when people don’t have options, crises escalate. The support mechanisms that emerged from the 1980s Farm Crisis—like rural mental health provider networks, farmer hotlines, statewide farm advocacy programs, the interchurch support network for counselors–they’re all starving for resources and hanging on by a thread. Many have already been lost as their funding was cut away year after year.
Farmers, especially new farmers, need the expertise of folks who have been through this before. It’s not enough to know that grain and milk prices aren’t high enough and expenses are too high.
We need to rebuild the farm advocacy network, supporting farmers with the resources they need to survive, whether that’s financial counseling, legal advice or social work.
There are smart farmers, accountants, lawyers, and mental health professionals who know how to help. We need to give them a platform and a salary and coordinate that help. We have great models to refer to and thankfully the people who got us out of the last farm crisis are still doing the work and would be glad to advise. The Agricultural Credit Act of 1987, which put a moratorium on farm foreclosures to stem the tide of the Farm Crisis, came from advocates who knew how to fix the problem only because of the time they spent on the ground with farmers getting an intimate understanding of the problem. How will we know the best policy fixes to this current wave of crises unless we utilize these experts and train new ones for the next time?
There have always been more crises than advocates, but in the current farm economy the need for new advocates is greater than ever. Most people don’t understand the heroic masses of farmers saved, and the impact of the legislation and regulation passed, thanks to just a handful of advocates and the support mechanisms behind them.
What I can’t stop thinking about is the number of farmers lost because we didn’t have more farm advocates. My mentor, Benny Bunting, is just like the rest of the “senior class” of advocates still doing the work. They don’t retire. Of course, they want to retire…. It’s long, hard work to save a family farm, and they’ve sure done their part. But, they wonder, if they stop taking calls who will pick up the phone for the farmer who calls tomorrow?