Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

Quality of Life on the Agricultural Treadmill: Individual and Community Determinants of Farm Family Well-Being*

Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

Quality of Life on the Agricultural Treadmill: Individual and Community Determinants of Farm Family Well-Being*

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Individual quality of life (QOL) is a critical foundation of stable and cohesive societies. This research examines QOL among Iowa farmers, who as a group have seen their numbers decline precipitously over the past decades as the farm economy has undergone major restructuring processes. Farm families are nested in rural communities, many of which have also experienced persistent population loss and economic decline over the same period. A multilevel modeling approach is employed to examine determinants of subjective QOL over time, using 29 years of longitudinal data. Results point to positive relationships between household income, community vitality, and farm family QOL. Individual stress and economic dependence on farming were negatively associated with QOL. The finding that community vitality is a critical determinant of farm family quality of life supports long-standing appeals to increase investment in community development efforts.

By many measures, rural areas across the United States have experienced longterm stagnation or decline in well-being compared with metropolitan areas. Longterm trends of population and economic decline have been punctuated by crises (e.g., the Farm Crisis of the 1980s) that have precipitated major changes in quality of life for many rural people. These dynamics have been felt more strongly in the Midwest and Great Plains, where processes of agricultural consolidation and restructuring and loss of manufacturing jobs have led to population loss and concomitant declines in ability to provide necessary services among municipalities (Carr and Kefalas 2009; Johnson and Cromartie 2006; Longworth 2008; Morgan, Lambe, and Freyer 2009). Taken together, these long-term and ongoing processes have had a profound impact on the quality of life (QOL) prospects of rural populations.

Restructuring and consolidation processes have radically changed the face of agriculture over the past 70 years. Following the Second World War, the products of agricultural research and shifts in economic policy led to major changes in the U.S. agricultural sector (Altieri 2000; Redclift1990). Mechanization, the development of crop varieties whose yields are highly responsive to chemical fertilizers, and the advent of agrochemicals for weed and pest control increased yields among the commodity crops that were the focus of agricultural research (Altieri 2000). Simultaneous policy efforts increased access to low-risk credit and other subsidies for machinery and off-farm inputs, and Extension-led promotion of the new practices sped the widespread adoption of specialized crop monocultures that were high-yielding, highly dependent on purchased inputs, and capital intensive (Altieri 2000; Gardner 2002; Redclift1990). The substantial increases in yield and productivity, combined with decreased importance of labor in the production process, led to a swiftdecline in the number of farms and farmers. Between 1940 and 1999, the number of farms in the United States decreased from more than six million to just more than two million (Antle and McGuckin 1993; Gardner 2002).

The process whereby this increasingly capital-intensive and specialized production of a handful of commodity crops has fueled the long-term decline in farm numbers is often called the "agricultural treadmill" (Cochrane 1993). In short, the treadmill mechanism operates as follows. Because most farmers specialize in production of commodities such as feed corn or soybeans, which cannot be differentiated in the marketplace (i.e., Farmer John cannot claim that his feed corn is superior to Farmer Jane's, because for most intents and purposes, the corn is identical), they must take whatever the market price is when they choose to sell their crops. Because the price of grain is the same for all farmers, the farmers who earn profits are those who aggressively adopt new technologies that reduce production costs and boost yields relative to other farmers. …

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