Sun setting on America's family farms

FROM HER farmhouse kitchen, Lavon Griffieon can see field after field of green, stretching out to the horizon. On one side, that is. On the other, marching up almost to the farm, are serried ranks of brown and beige houses, concrete evidence of a problem that America is starting to notice: urban sprawl.

Like their British counterparts, America's family farmers are under huge pressure as prices plunge to ever-lower levels and their debt rises to unmanageable levels. Many are simply selling out to land speculators. Their concerns rarely make it very high up the list of issues in Washington DC but the problems spawned by the farm crisis, are starting to coalesce into a new political agenda, against developers and the agricultural conglomerates that are squeezingsmall farmers from both sides.

And Mrs Griffieon, sitting in her neat kitchen with her husband and children, is at the forefront of that agenda. This Iowafamily is part of a growing political movement attracting attention at the highest levels. For several years, Mrs Griffieon led a local group that sought to educate Iowans about the workings of agriculture.

It might seem an unlikely task in a state where agriculture dominates the local economy, a state that seems to be submerged in fields of rolling green but, as she points out, "most Americans are three generations removed from agriculture and don't understand what goes on on farms".

In the past few years, the scale of the troubles that she and her farming friends faced started to move her towards something else, a more active campaign. What had been the small town of Ankeny to the south began to expand relentlessly, eating up those green fields like a swarm of locusts.

And as the farm crisis bit, more and more land become new housing. Mrs Griffieon founded 1,000 Friends of Iowa, a group that campaigns for farmers and against the insidious spread of development into farmland. Just up the road are four lifesize cows that bear her message in large letters: "Urban Sprawl/Ain't Too Pretty/Save Our Farms/Build In The City".

The scale of the crisis for family farmers is terrifying. Take pork, a staple of the Iowa economy. Pork prices had been good in 1997, but collapsed last year and have now sunk even lower. In 1997, hogs were going for over $50 a hundredweight in the auction pens at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, about $5 over the 10-year average. This year, those prices were dipping toward $30.

Economists are used to the pattern of the pork market, which even has a name: the "hog cycle". Prices go up, so farmers invest in more pigs. Overproduction reduces prices, and the pigs get slaughtered so prices sink again. But this time, the dip is lower and there is no sign of recovery.

Part of the reason is the massive spread of industrial pig farming, or "hog confinement" as it is called. The large food producers have created vast pork factories across the Midwest and the West and they aren't going to cut back. More and more small farmers go out of business every day. Farmland is worth about $2,700 an acre; development land goes for six times that. Just by selling, a farmer can erase his debts and turn himself into a wealthy man. But the land goes out of farming for ever, and another street of houses is added to the Iowa countryside.

Urban sprawl has started to pop up on the political agenda in other parts of America. There are several "1,000 Friends" groups across the nation, and similar efforts are multiplying. There were hundreds of proposals to limit urban expansion on the ballots at last year's election, and there will be more next year.

Vice-President Al Gore, the most likely Democratic candidate in next year's election, has become an advocate of Smart Growth. But it isn't just sprawl. The massive hog farms also became an issue in last year's elections, as dozens of small groups raised questions over the pollution they cause. America has also become more concerned for food quality, questioning both the reliability of imports and what goes into the food produced by the big industrial companies.

For these problems, and many others, many Iowans blame the producers. Todd Lust, a 36-year-old farmer, told Mr Gore to enforce competition rules to stop family farmers from going out of business when he visited the State Fair this year, but he didn't get the answers he wanted.

"Did you hear him say he was going to fight the corporations?" he asked a Des Moines Register reporter afterwards. "I think it's too late. They waited too late." Many farmers are giving up the struggle and are becoming contractors to the big conglomerates.

"It's becoming a lord-serf kind of thing," says Mrs Griffieon. But she will go on fighting. The family has been farming for six generations. "That's a hard thing to break up," she says. "You don't want to be the link that breaks."

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