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The Landlords of Swift County
By Mark Steil
September 22, 1999
Part of MPR Online's Trouble on the Farm section.
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A survey of farmers in Swift County in west-central Minnesota shows that agriculture is rapidly becoming a landlord-tenant system rather than the familiar independent family farm. That trend has accelerated as farmers' economic problems intensify.

LAND OWNERSHIP has been a source of pride and economic well-being for family farms but the survey suggests that's slipping away. Swift County farmer Nancy O'Leary helped poll 62 farmers in the University of Minnesota study.
O'Leary: I guess the biggest surprise that I had is the percentage of land in Swift County that's rented land and not farmer owned. I was surprised to see that 60% of the land of the farmers that were surveyed, was owned by other people; they were paying rent to landlords.
O'Leary says what's even more troubling is that control of cropland is no longer in the hands of local owners. One-third of the landlords live outside the county. And the percentage of rental land is growing fast - up a third in the last five years. University of Minnesota professor Richard Levins says the issue of land rental and other factors has produced a measurable decline in Swift County's farm economy. In 1975, farmers accounted for about a third of all personal income in the county. By the mid-'90s that had fallen to just over seven percent.
Levins: We don't have farmers making as much as they used to because of low prices. Second, we don't have as many farmers as we used to. And third, people who are not farmers are gaining a larger share of the benefits.
The Swift County survey identified several ways to help farmers stay in business. One recommendation is that farmers diversify into crops that are more profitable than the corn and soybeans which cover 90% of the county's land.

Another finding shows that medical care is a psychological and economic drain on farmers. Most farmers in the survey do not have health insurance, and they worry a major illness will bankrupt them. One proposal calls for farmers to buy insurance as a group at reduced rates. Swift County extension educator Craig Haugaard says the survey also found that women should play a bigger role in farm management. He says for one thing, they tend to be better at playing the markets than men.
Haugaard: In an up market you're more likely to see a guy hang onto grain because if the market is going up, it's got to go a little bit higher. And they're always trying to milk out that last nickel or last dime, and quite frequently, then, the market turns around and they don't reap that. Women in that market are much more likely to sell than their husbands for whatever reasons.
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The survey also points to changing attitudes. The University of Minnesota's Richard Levins says a third of the farmers viewed a former friend as a current enemy.
Levins: One that came right to the top of groups or org that farmers felt cared the least about their survival was agri-business - the larger corporations. In the 25 years I've been in this, I've most often seen farmers view agri-business as a partner rather than an adversary.
Swift County officials say there is little they can do about the major source of farmers' frustrations, low prices. But they hope to find solutions to some of the secondary issues like health care, crop diversity and management which can determine whether a farmer stays in business.