Don’t Trust the Antitrust Narrative: Farmers Benefit from Industrial Ag. Workers Do Not.

Most farmers in the US are wealthy and benefit from industrial agriculture. Farmworkers are not — and they’ll be the ones to democratize the agriculture system.

Farmworker on a potato farm in Declo, Idaho. (Kristen Strough / USDA Flickr)

The antitrust critique of industrial agriculture dominates discussions of the farm economy in progressive media and policy circles.

In a fiery attack on Joe Biden’s agricultural team during the 2020 campaign, David Dayen argued that cattle ranchers, hog farmers, and crop producers are all at the mercy of corporate middlemen like Cargill and Bayer, who exert excessive control over the industry and bend farmers to their will. In her 2020 book Break ’Em Up, Zephyr Teachout uses the metaphor of “chickenization” to compare the plight of chicken farmers forced to use the feed supplied by Tyson to rideshare drivers who must accept Uber’s rate cuts. “Some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies may be in agriculture and are making huge profits,” Teachout writes, “but farmers are poor and insecure.”

The antitrust movement is not wrong to focus on the power of corporations: agribusiness has helped transform huge swathes of the globe into biological wastelands, depopulated the countryside, and created a class of hyper-exploited workers. But the standard antitrust analysis overlooks how much US farmers benefit from, and are invested in, the current system.

Farmworkers’ low pay and dangerous work conditions, meanwhile, put them in direct conflict with farmers. They have long led fights for environmental and labor reforms — and the industry’s dependence on their labor gives them potentially enormous bargaining power. They — not farmers — will be at the forefront of any effort to democratize agriculture.

Affluent Farmers

Most farmers in the United States today enjoy high incomes and wealth. The median farm household has a total income 21 percent higher than the overall median household and 75 percent higher than the rural median. Ninety-seven percent of farm households boast a higher net worth than the median household, and the median farm household has a nonfarm net wealth 2.5 times higher than the median household and a total net wealth nine times higher (both of these figures account for debts).

The general farm economy is also strong. Despite innumerable reports that use total farm income to argue US farmers are in crisis, per farm net income has rarely been better. Five of the ten best farm income years since the Great Depression have come in the last decade.

How, then, do antitrust writers produce so much data to suggest that farmers are poor? Most often, they misinterpret numbers that require a great deal more context. One of the most common antitrust arguments is that the farmer’s share of the food dollar has fallen from 37 cents in 1980 to around 15 cents today. This is true — though the share hasn’t changed much since at least 1993 — but total spending on food is up and the number of farms is down. The upshot: farm revenues are at near record levels today.

Antitrust writers also often use summary statistics skewed by the Department of Agriculture’s idiosyncratic definition of “farm.” David Dayen writes that “more than half of all farm households are losing money.” But the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, the source of many such figures, includes an enormous number of “farms” that do very little farming, if any at all.

After the USDA’s constituency of farmers declined sharply after World War II — and along with it, the department’s influence — it began to liberalize its definition of “farm,” counting rural properties with no agricultural production at all as farm operations when they are deemed capable of producing $1,000 in sales. If you have a hundred acres of grass and woodland, a fifth of an acre of fruit-bearing trees, or a fifteenth of an acre of berries — as many wealthy rural residents do — you’re a “farmer” according to USDA.

Almost a quarter of the operations in the 2017 census did not sell any farm products whatsoever. Though the census reports around two million agricultural operations, two-thirds of these, according to the best available data, are retiree or “lifestyle” farms. Unsurprisingly, they drag down aggregate measures of farm income.

Farm organizations portray low- or zero-sales farms as low-income families struggling to get back into agriculture. In reality, most of these farms are owned by wealthy rural and exurban residents who have no interest in farming as a business.

The median household with a “residence” farm — a category that makes up almost all small-scale farms and the majority of all farms — lost $1,600 in farm income in 2019. But these same households, at the median, take in more than $100,000 in total income and hold around $450,000 in net nonfarm wealth — about four times the median US household. As journalist Maggie Koerth put it in a 2016 investigative report, most small farmers in the agricultural census “aren’t the farms of the poor; they’re the yards of the upper-middle-class.”

Farm households have significantly higher net worth than non-farm households. With only non-farm assets and debts included, the median residence farm household, which families tend to own for lifestyle reasons, has about 2.5 times as much net wealth as the median white household and 22 times as much as the median black household. With farm wealth included, the median residence farm has almost 5 times as much wealth as the median household. Commercial farms, which are responsible for the vast majority of all farm production, have an astronomical net wealth of $2.7 million — about 130 times that of the median black household. Almost all farmers, meanwhile, are white.

The few farms that do engage in market production tend to make boatloads of money. Only about 340,000 farms, 80 percent of them family-owned, accounted for 90 percent of sales in 2012. These are what USDA calls “farm businesses,” excluding so-called “low sales farms,” which churn out almost no agricultural products. Even farm businesses with “moderate sales” boast a median farm income of $46,000, a median household income of $95,000, and a median net wealth of $1.8 million. “Midsize” farms make a median of $102,000 off farming and have a total net wealth of $2.4 million. These figures shoot through the roof for larger operations.

Note: Figures for income and wealth of farms are from ARMS special reports for 2019. Share of sales is from the 2012 Census of Agriculture Typology Report. Median income and wealth for all US households is from the Survey of Consumer Finances for 2016.

What About Debt?

Many readers will be surprised to read that farmers have so much wealth, since antitrust analysts and journalists often point out that total farm debt is at an all-time high. What they don’t mention — in addition to not adjusting for inflation — is that farm assets have increased at even higher rates.

Farms also often have substantial nonfarm wealth they can draw on when their incomes dip. The net wealth figures cited throughout this piece account for both debts and inflation, while the total wealth figures account for nonfarm wealth.

Animal farmers, who figure prominently in the conventional antitrust narrative, are no exception to the general rule of farmer affluence. David Dayen, in Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power, writes that “a 2013 Pew report noted that 71 percent of all chicken farmers earn incomes below the poverty line.” Zephyr Teachout uses the same figure in Break ’Em Up, as does the Open Markets Institute in an oft-cited report.

The source for this figure appears to be an unpublished 2001 report that found 71 percent of households whose only source of income is a chicken farm were in poverty. The comparable number for today is not readily available, but data from the USDA (obtained for this article) show that even the lowest-sales broiler farm businesses boast a median household income of $69,000 and a net wealth of over $1 million. The figures are similar for cattle and hog farmers.

Source: Special tabulation from USDA.

None of this is to say that there aren’t chicken farmers, dairy farmers, and some other farmers who struggle. But the numbers tell us that farmers are overwhelmingly wealthy and overwhelmingly conservative. Studies of campaign contributions have concluded that agriculture is among the most conservative industries, and a poll last year found 80 percent of farmers approved of Donald Trump.

The story is quite different for farmworkers.

Exploited Farmworkers

Farmworkers perform most of the labor in US agriculture, yet they are relegated to a second-class status. A special tabulation we received from the USDA shows that farmworkers work 60 percent of the hours on the farms that account for 90 percent of all agricultural production, while earning a fraction of the money. Farmers may only earn 15 cents of each food dollar, but farmworkers receive only 1.2 cents — and split those cents among more people, since there are far more farmworkers than farmers.

Data on farmworkers in animal production is patchy, but an expert who studies farm labor in California found they may earn about $30,000 per year. Crop workers, meanwhile, have a median annual income of $17,500 to $20,000 and a third have family incomes below the poverty line.

A leading expert estimates two-thirds are undocumented. They often lack safe drinking water, toil under body-destroying labor conditions, and are exposed to dangerous levels of pesticides (at much higher levels than farmers). With no hope to purchase enough land to enter commercial farming, researcher Philip L. Martin writes, they labor in “an apartheid industry.”

A farmworker on a ten-acre field in Singer, California. (US Department of Agriculture / Flickr)

And when things go wrong, farmworkers are often offered up as scapegoats. In the rare instance that authorities prosecute animal abuse on agricultural operations, it is almost always farmworkers who are punished. A familiar pattern has emerged when animal rights organizations release videos of feedlot animal abuse: owners express their shock and dismay, workers are fired, and local prosecutors charge those workers with animal abuse. The owners are not held criminally liable despite creating the working conditions that lead to such abuse.

Many large farms also do their hiring through subcontractors that use the threat of deportation to keep wages down and unions out. While some farmers feel pressure from companies like Bayer, farmworkers feel a much more acute pressure from farmers themselves.

The farm lobby and other conservative interests work hard to keep farmworkers under their thumb. Recently, they pushed to expand the H-2A visa program — which President Trump agreed to — a program many farmworkers and organizers compare to slavery.

Farmworkers with an H-2A visa must stay with their employers and risk deportation if they complain. A 2020 study found that 38 percent of Department of Labor investigations of agricultural operations uncovered H-2A violations, while a 2020 analysis of one hundred interviews with H-2A workers found that 94 percent had suffered three or more “serious legal violations,” which included “seriously substandard housing,” “verbal threats,” and significant wage theft.”

And perhaps most perversely, many farmworkers come to the United States in the first place because American foreign policy — trade deals, coups, and other meddling — destabilized their homes and drove them out in search of decent wages.

Class Conflict in the Fields

The antitrust movement is aware of many of these problems of worker exploitation and will readily concede the need for greater labor protections. But their unmistakable focus is on farmers, which has led them to endorse a trickle-down theory in which farmers, post-trust-busting, will grant their workers a cut of the extra profits.

According to antitrust advocates Sandeep Vaheesan and Claire Kelloway, “Reducing the oppressive buyer power of massive retailers like Walmart, and dominant meat processors, like Tyson, would help return a larger share of the food dollar to producers, and, by extension, their workers.” This sounds logical — if farmers had more money, they’d have more of it to give to their workers — but it quickly falls apart under scrutiny.

Farmers have plenty of income to share with their workers already, yet, as private businesses are wont to do, they share as little of it as they can. When profits spiked in the mid-2000s, wages didn’t budge. When they jumped again in the early 2010s, wages rose only a modest amount, with the largest hikes actually coming after farm income dipped again. Philip L. Martin, the scholar of farm labor, attributes a recent uptick in wages to a decline in immigration and state-level increases in the minimum wage, rather than generosity among hiring managers.

Agricultural workers don’t need wealthier bosses, they need more rights — to unionize, to be free of harassment and mistreatment, to decent food and housing, and to collectively own the land they work.

Farmworkers harvest zucchini on the Sam Accursio & Son’s Farm in Florida City, Florida. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

The antitrust approach also does little to solve more fundamental problems in agriculture. In 1524, the German peasant leader and preacher Thomas Müntzer lambasted the nobility for taking living creatures as their private property. He wrote, outraged, “that all creatures have been turned into property, the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth — all living things must also become free.”

Karl Marx approvingly cited Müntzer three hundred twenty years later, when he argued that capitalism not only degrades how we relate to each other, but also how we relate to nature. As long as we treat living things as commodities, neither they, nor we, will be free.

A programmatic path to the liberation of all things is beyond the scope of this essay — instead, we offer a critique. Antitrust enforcement can be a useful and even necessary tool at times. With at least two-thirds of farmland in the hands of the same wealthy owners responsible for 90 percent of sales, the antitrust movement would be well-served to renew calls for land reform that were popular with earlier US agrarian and left-populist movements.

But when antitrust proponents use concentration to explain all the ills of agriculture, they distort reality. The break ’em up response to industrial agriculture may distribute human and animal misery more evenly (at best), but it does not address the root of this misery: exploitation.

The standard antitrust analysis posits that tending to the needs of a small, highly conservative, and well-off constituency will ultimately benefit their workers and society. This is a mistake. Not only are there far more farmworkers than farmers — at least 2.5 times as many as there are farm businesses — farmworkers are already at the forefront of movements against environmental abuses and labor violations by their employers: that is to say, farmers.

In recent years, farmworkers and their families have won collective bargaining rights in New York State, a new union in Washington, and safer pesticide regulations throughout the country, despite massive institutional and legal disadvantages. Still, farmworkers lack basic labor protections in most of the country, much less the kind of extravagant public support that farmers receive.

Farmworkers understand that the size of a farm tells us next to nothing about its labor or environmental practices. As Margaret Gray and others have documented, smaller-scale and local farms often have among the worst working conditions and wages. Instead of idealizing yeoman farmers, we must fight for a future where we collectively hold the land together, and farmworkers labor for no one but themselves. Only they have the ability, through withholding and redirecting their labor, to shut down and reshape food production in the United States.

Antitrust writers argue that breaking up agribusiness will help farmers and farmworkers alike. They dream of a cross-class alliance, but deny the intense conflict already with us, playing out every day in fields and farmhouses across the country.