These are discomforting times for American farmers.
According to federal courts statistics, farm bankruptcy rates increased by 20 percent last year, the worst it’s been since 2011. Family farm operations are getting hit hardest.
It’s not just President Trump’s mercurial trade negotiations with major trading partners. The tariff drama almost wiped out the U.S. soybean industry last year, which would have spelled doom for hundreds of farms, mostly in the Midwest.
The tariff war coincided with years of depressed prices for U.S. farm products, a double whammy many farmers simply could not absorb, thus the soaring bankruptcy figures.
A more direct threat to border-state farms has been the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, leaving many growers with not nearly enough seasonal workers needed to do the job — the majority of them coming from Mexico without documentation.
CNN reported in the summer of 2018 that Santa Barbara County avocado growers were struggling to find workers. Overall the California Farm Bureau reported that more than half the state’s farmers said they didn’t have enough workers to complete the must-do farm tasks.
This is what intellectuals like to call an existential threat, while normal folks — including most local farmers — would call it a potentially dangerous and unnecessary calamity for the local economy.
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Maybe the celebrities in Montecito or the Santa Barbara elites don’t really understand or appreciate what is actually going on here in North County. Their only contact with reality comes with the purchase of fresh fruits, vegetables and excellent wines — from grapes grown in Santa Ynez Valley vineyards and crop fields in the Santa Maria and Lompoc valleys.
Many also don’t see the annual crop reports and their overall importance to the county’s economy. In fact, if not for the successful farm operations in North County, Santa Barbara County’s economy could shrivel like an avocado left too long in the summer sun.
Think of the county’s economy as a sleek sports car. Agriculture is the engine that makes it go, and as long as growers and ranchers are able to do their jobs, the county will continue to win races.
But if protracted trade wars and throttling immigration policy drive our growers and ranchers out of business, what will take their places in this county’s economic picture? Tourism? Retail stores? Industry?
Those are important pieces of the economic puzzle, but there is no way they could replace the billions of dollars agriculture contributes to the county economy, both in direct benefits and the ripple effect, year after year after year.
Uncertain trade policies and a dwindling supply of seasonal workers are harmful, and the evidence is demonstrated in the rising tide of farm bankruptcies. As of this writing, little is being done to keep the bankruptcy rate from soaring even higher.
The federal government created an exit from farm bankruptcy with a Chapter-12 filing specific to farmers and fishermen, allowing them to restructure rising debt. That was in 1980, a policy now four decades old and in need of updating.
Perhaps in a presidential election year President Trump will listen to the cries for help coming from farmers. The president recently spoke to a national farm gathering in Texas, but when he touted his administration’s successful new ethanol policy, the hall went dead silent, because at least to corn farmers the ethanol deal has been a sharp knife ripping through famers’ profits.
Santa Barbara County farmers are also feeling that sharp blade. What they want — and what all American farmers want — is policy stability, and to stay in business.