Will veterans and their family farms disappear from rural America?

Brett Copeland
Brett Copeland

By Brett W. Copeland

The 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture counted 371,000 U.S. military veterans who, altogether, farmed 129 million acres of land. These numbers will likely have dropped dramatically when the next census is conducted in 2022.

Years of corporate consolidation, trade wars, and a global pandemic have made family farms unsustainable and unprofitable, and harder for veterans to break ground as new farmers.

Veterans have always been an essential part of thriving rural communities. In 1992, 6.6 million veterans were living in rural (non-metro) areas. That number fell to 3.3 million in 2018 after three decades of financial crises, a corporate takeover of agriculture, and the unwillingness of politicians to address the needs of rural communities.

Rural Americans, like many veterans, struggle to find adequate health care and mental health services, affordable housing, and good-paying jobs.

Iowa is an example of how a corporate takeover of agriculture negatively impacts rural communities. Large-scale industrial hog confinements dominate the state’s landscape.

Austin Frerick and Charlie Mitchell write at Vox.com that “since the corporate takeover in Iowa, the state’s pig population has increased more than 50 percent, while the number of farms raising hogs has declined over 80 percent.”

“In the last 30 years, 26,000 Iowa farms quit the long-standing tradition of raising pigs. As confinements replaced them, rural communities have continued to hollow out.”

The veteran family farmer can’t compete with giant hog operations, especially with smaller passels and shrinking markets. In 2019, farm debt was $416 billion, while farm bankruptcies were the highest since 2011. Even with the Trump administration’s multiple bailout programs, relief only went to large ag operators and bypassed many family farms.

The jobs available in these hog confinements are underpaid. Frerick and Mitchell write, “One former Iowa Select driver told the Guardian in 2019 that he earned $23,000 a year for 12-hour days with no overtime pay.”

The work is also dangerous, particularly for veterans who have been exposed to Agent Orange or toxic burn pits. In Iowa, cancer rates in rural areas far outpaced those in urban settings in 2015. Hog confinements, despite releasing dangerous amounts of ammonia and other waste, can often be found within 1,300 feet of businesses, schools, and homes.

The federal government advertises ag life as a bucolic way of living for America’s veterans. USDA writes that veterans will find “the opportunity to be an entrepreneur, equipment repair specialist, soil scientist, and land steward all rolled into one.”

Until Republicans and Democrats expand rural health care, incentivize rural living, and demonstrate they’re willing to stand against corporate consolidation, rural communities and the veterans who live there will continue to disappear.

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