DES MOINES, Iowa – Images of thousands of farmers streaming into India’s capital on tractors and carrying banners to decry potentially devastating changes in agricultural policy can seem a world away, but the protests in New Delhi raise issues that resonate in the United States and have led to dramatic change in rural America.
Indian farmers have left their homes to march through New Delhi in a desperate effort to force the repeal of laws they believe would end guaranteed pricing and force them to sell to powerful corporations rather than government-run markets. Despite decades of economic growth, up to half of India’s population relies on growing crops on small parcels of land, typically less than 3 acres, and farmers worry that without guaranteed prices they will be forced to sell their land and lose their livelihoods.
The dispute raises questions not only about agriculture but about dwindling populations in rural India where small communities are already struggling to survive – an issue mirrored in the parts of the U.S.
“These protests have gone way beyond the bills because this has spiraled into a larger conversation about the soul of rural India, which is something very familiar to those of us in the Midwest,” said Andrew Flachs, an anthropology professor at Purdue University who has extensively studied the experiences of cotton farmers in India. “We’re always talking about the spirit of American agrarianism and the soul of rural America and this has shifted into a conversation of those same dynamics in India.”
The images of farmers marching through New Delhi recall similar scenes in Washington, D.C., during the farming crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when hundreds of trucks and tractors flooded the National Mall. Thousands of farmers lost their land, in part because of government policies that caused soaring interest rates as demand for their products plunged, leading to falling land values.
In Iowa – one of the hardest hit states – there were about 500 farm auctions a month in 1983 when families had no choice but to sell.
Decades later, those memories remain fresh for Rick Juchems, whose parents had to sell their 640-acre farm in Iowa. Just as feared by those protesting in India, the American farmers lost their livelihoods and sense of identity.
“We were just trying to stay alive,” said Juchems, who later was able to continue farming thanks to his in-laws. “That’s what you work all your life for and then it’s gone.”
Rural economies in the Midwest that had been declining for decades were devastated by the farm crisis. But while many farmers who survived emerged more prosperous, the communities near them continued to struggle. Researchers fear the same could happen in India if New Delhi refuses to repeal the law that favors corporate farming.
Post-crisis, many Americans in rural areas were able to adapt, moving to cities and finding jobs, but Bengaluru, India-based social anthropologist Aninhalli Vasavi said farmers in India have few options. Even as economic realities force them to leave their rural homes, they often struggle in urban areas.
“India has not had a substantial industrial base to absorb the large population into gainful industrial or urban employment,” Vasavi said via email. “Instead, vast number of rural migrants are ‘adversely integrated’ into the low-end urban and construction economy.”
The challenges facing India are common to many developing countries in Asia, where farmland has been gobbled up, often for factories and property development, leaving legions of farmers without adequate compensation and bereft of their livelihoods.
In countries including Myanmar, Cambodia and China, many end up on the fringes of fast industrializing cities, finding low-paid work in service jobs such as massage parlors and delivery services that provide no social benefits or security.
Vasavi and others also worry about the environmental consequences of the shift from labor-intensive agriculture in India toward the large-scale farming familiar in the U.S. Such farming isn’t new to India, which implemented aspects of industrial farming – dubbed the Green Revolution – in the 1960s and succeeded in increasing production and reducing widespread hunger.
Even as the many small plots make India less productive than in the U.S., researchers say Indian farmers are good stewards of their land and avoid some of the environmental consequences seen in U.S. agriculture, such as fertilizer runoff and soil depletion.
Peggy Barlett, an Emory University anthropology professor who studies agriculture and rural life, said that while a push for industrial farming might seem obvious to Americans accustomed to large-scale farming, it makes less sense in India, where there is plenty of labor but less money for expensive farm equipment.
As more attention is paid to the role of agriculture in climate change, U.S. farmers also will be confronted more in coming years with the environmental cost of petroleum-based fertilizer, rather than relying on organic methods used frequently on small farms, Barlett said.
Ohio State University researcher Andrea Rissing said there has been a surge in young Americans growing vegetables on a few acres, in some ways more like in India than in the U.S. Midwest. Those small holdings meet a growing demand for fresh, locally grown produce.
Rissing said many of her students have no choice but to think small because farmland is so expensive, but they also are drawn to non-mechanized farming that improves soils and limits runoff into waterways. Others are building food hubs to market their vegetables locally, rather than send it to markets nationwide and abroad as is typical of large-scale agriculture in the U.S.
It’s the kind of farming Rissing prefers, but she acknowledges: “Farming is hard. It’s hard for small-scale farmers and it’s hard for big corn and soybean farmers, too.”
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