There were about 100 potato farmers in Northampton County, Pa., when William Tallman began potato farming several decades ago.
"Now there are three," says Tallman, shaking his head. "I don't mean to sound bitter or ugly, but it's just the economics of the thing."
Under pressure from languishing prices, rising costs and increased competition from corporate agriculture, independent family farmers nationwide have suffered severe financial hardships in recent years even as the rest of the country has largely prospered.
The Penn Northeast Conference can't solve farming's problems, which are rooted in complex geopolitical economics, but it wants to help. Joining with Lutherans and farm advocates, the conference cosponsored a free Hoedown for area farm families that drew 850 guests to a cavernous hall in Hamburg, Pa., on Saturday, March 17.
Tallman—dapper in a black 10-gallon hat, crisp white Western shirt, string tie and cowboy boots—was one of the guests who feasted on a catered dinner then square danced, round danced and two-stepped into the night.
"The Hoedown was a morale booster," says the Rev. Ruth Schaefer, a retired UCC pastor who is one of two ministers running the Farm Advocacy and Resources Ministry that organized the night out. "It was for the farmers, [so they will] know that the church is there for them."
"It's nice that they did it," says Russel Schantz, fourth-generation farmer from Emmaus, Pa., who appreciated the church's honoring and valuing agriculture families in a time when the rest of the culture seems not to care. "I think they take us for granted a lot of the time."
Schaefer agrees. In the ministry she leads with her husband, the Rev. Dick Schaefer, a retired Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, she finds many Christians are oblivious to the plight of the family farmer.
"Consumers see the high price of food and they figure that the farmer's getting a fair share, when actually it's everybody in the middle [making money]," she says.
In their talks to congregations, the Schaefers explain how the farmer's portion of the retail food dollar has plummeted.
For instance, in 1956 a pound loaf of bread cost 18 cents and the farmer made 3 cents. Today, says Schaefer, the average cost is $1.69 but the farmer makes only 4 cents.
"It's a real struggle because farmers cannot meet their expenses and yet they're working all the time," says Schaefer. "We need to fight for fair farm wages."
As farmers have suffered, so have rural communities, many of which have been slowly losing their stores, their tax base and population, making it harder to maintain churches, schools, fire departments and other institutions. So at stake is not only the food we all depend on, but also a way of life that has helped define the United States.
"We want the church to pray for the farmer and we want the church to acknowledge the farmer," says Schaefer. "We want to see the farmer succeed."
Schaefer offers these suggestions for those wanting to support farmers:
Pray for farmers;
Buy groceries from a farmers market, farm stand or cooperative that gives growers a higher percentage of the retail dollar;
Ask your grocery store where the produce it sells comes from. Ask the store to buy and promote more local produce;
Invite farmers to speak at your church. Listen. Act;
Form a church task force to study and advocate for farmers;
Ask your state and federal legislators to work for family farms.
Rob Blezard, a free-lance writer in Gettysburg, Pa., buys all his eggs from Allen A. Weikert & Son, a trusting family farm that keeps a self-service shop in the back room just off the kitchen of their farmhouse.