In Trump Country, a season of need on family farms


DECEMBER 26, 2019

Anne Lee mucks out the main dairy barn Dec. 4 during nightly chores at the Lee family’s farm in Berkshire, N.Y.

“Chicken noodle soup?” she wondered as she sat at her kitchen table with a pen and notepad. “No, I’ll make chicken and biscuits. That’s more filling.”

These days, Anne has only about $175 each month to spend on food, beyond the eggs, milk and meat that her family’s dairy operation supplies. So this has become her monthly ritual, going through several drafts to create an affordable meal plan that keeps her husband and five kids from going hungry.

“I wish I could make lasagna, but it’s expensive,” she said. So are fresh vegetables, except for cheap bags of onions and potatoes. Even “Fruit?” had a question mark next to it.

When Anne and her husband, Andy, took over his parents’ 305-acre dairy farm in 2013, they made a good living. But years of falling milk prices, complicated by President Trump’s trade wars, have left the couple nearly $200,000 in debt.

Farmers around the country are struggling to pay for basics like groceries and electricity as farm bankruptcies rise and farm debt hits a historic high. Calls from farmers in financial crisis to state mediators have soared by 57 percent since 2015.

“We’re supposed to be feeding the world, and we can’t even put food on our own table,” Anne said.

She has had less and less money for groceries each month, until one day in October when there was hardly any food in the house, and she started to investigate options she never would have considered before, like food stamps and food pantries.

“This is what need feels like,” she told her husband.

As she worked on the grocery list, her three girls, ages 9 to 13, wandered inside for lunch, clutching hats, gloves and a bunny named Snickers that they wanted to shelter from the cold. There were turkey leftovers from the Thanksgiving meal that only happened because Anne’s sisters had brought most of the food. The girls served themselves.

“Mom, I need cauliflower for my soup — and peppers,” said the oldest, Paige, 13, who makes dinner for the family some nights.

“That’s a big wish list, okay?” said Anne, 40. “Let’s see what we can make happen.”

At one point she looked up from the grocery list and frowned.

“Is that your second sandwich?” she asked Brooke, 9. She was thinking about the only loaf of bread in the house — about her husband and her 15-year-old son, Jason, who had yet to come in from the barn and needed their lunch too.

Chastened, Brooke put the top back on the Miracle Whip.

A bailout

It was Anne and Andy’s 18th wedding anniversary, and in between the chores and list-making and snow falling, Anne wanted some time alone with her husband, even if it just meant climbing into his battered Ford pickup to ride into town to get fuel for the tractor. On their honeymoon, the college sweethearts built a bed for the back of Andy’s truck and drove across the United States. There won’t be anything like that or even a date night this year — “that takes moola,” said Breanna, their 11-year-old.

Andy protested at first that Anne had too much to do at home, but by the time they were slip-sliding along the icy road, one of his hands covered hers. After nearly two decades together, the pair still steal kisses until the kids squeal, “Get a room!”

They talked for a while about the custom butcher shop they are building on their property that they hope will one day make things easier financially. But Andy grew quiet when they drove past an empty dairy farm, animals gone, barn collapsed — out of business since the last farm crisis in the 1980s.

“I don’t want to end up like that,” he said.

The decline in the dairy industry – driven by global overproduction and drop in American liquid milk consumption — hit rural New York hard, with the state losing more than 1,100 dairy farms since 2012, according to federal statistics. Then, last year came retaliatory tariffs from Mexico and China on dairy products after Trump-imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, a $125 million blow to New York’s dairy farmers, according to one state estimate.

About a half a dozen farms have closed around the Lees, and the ones that remain are bad off, Anne says, though self-reliant farmers often don’t discuss their troubles openly.

Anne handles the farm’s finances and juggles the bills by cutoff date, with the top priority keeping the 65 dairy cows — their livelihood — well-fed. She’s stopped answering the landline phone because it’s always bill collectors. The electric company is threatening to shut off their service.

The decline in milk prices has meant a gradual diminishment of what once was a middle-class lifestyle for the Lees — and the food budget that went with it. First they gave up delivery pizza. Then the Sam’s Club membership. Then regular grocery stores. Then apple and blueberry picking at nearby farms in the summer.

Now Andy, 39, misses the Little Debbie snack cakes Anne used to tuck into his sack lunch. Breanna and Brooke miss salad. Jason, a ninth-grader, went out and shot two more deer so the family would have more venison this winter. And then there’s Paige, rarely a complainer, who vaulted to the eighth-grade honor roll for the first time recently by tuning out the stress at home and doing her homework in study hall. Anne has noticed that Paige doesn’t eat half what she usually used to eat, but she hasn’t asked her daughter about it. Some things are private.

The Lees got $4,100 in federal bailout money this year, part of the Trump administration’s $28 billion trade aid package for hurting farmers, which has been criticized for benefiting large operations over family farms. A study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found that 60 percent of the money that flowed to New York state went to the top 10 percent of farmers.

The Lees are grateful for what they received, but it’s not enough to make a difference when the milk check is down $4,000 a month, Anne said.

In this part of New York — older, whiter, poorer than other parts of the country — voters chose Donald Trump in decisive percentages during the 2016 presidential race, the Lees among them. Like many farmers, they think their taxes are too high, their creeks and streams are over-regulated and that Trump still has their best interests at heart.

“We’ve had unfair trade for years and years. Somebody had to fix it, and he’s trying to fix it,” Anne said.

“I know a lot of people don’t like it but, you know, this was going to have to happen in order to make U.S. products become more competitive,” said Andy. “It’s going to hurt for a while.”

Anne has tried to help out by getting several part-time jobs — agriculture survey taker, substitute school aide and teacher, liquor store assistant manager and a movie extra at Syracuse’s film hub — which has been hard for Andy to accept.

“I’m supposed to be the primary provider in the house,” he said. “Now I can’t do that, my wife’s got to do that? It means I’m not doing a good enough job.”

He has been so down lately — so sure he’s failing the farm that’s been in the family since 1952 — that Anne couldn’t bring herself to tell him what she was about to do. She’d quietly asked for a Christmas basket from the local community center and learned about a mobile food pantry in a nearby town where she won’t be recognized.

Now she was going to apply for food stamps.

A handout

Anne pulled up in front of the Thomas P. Hoke Human Services Center, a low-slung building painted in red and white stripes. She stepped past the bearded man with a cane sitting on the steps — who seemed oblivious to the cold — entered the building and went through the metal detector.

She was there to finalize her application for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and had thought there would be a helpful social worker on the other side of the door. Instead she found a documents kiosk and a clerk named Courtney with blue eyeglasses and metal gauges through her stretched earlobes. The waiting room was crowded with families, people coughing, babies crying.

“Put healthy food on the table” a sign on the wall said. Another: “Stop Medicaid Fraud.”

“What are you trying to do today?” Courtney asked.

“I don’t know; I’ve never been here. I just want to do my SNAP,” Anne said. “Do I need to give my federal tax return or my state tax return or what?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Courtney said.

Anne scanned her pay stubs from her various jobs, which last year earned her $5,330. Then the Schedule F tax form that showed net farm income of -$12,979.

“Is there anything I can do today to find out if I get approved?” she asked.

They’d get back to her in 24 to 48 hours, Courtney said. Or by Monday, someone else said later in the day when she called in to check. Or in three weeks when she’d be notified in the mail, a third person said.

Anne was skeptical about whether she would be approved for benefits, anyway. An estimated 197,000 farmers, farmworkers, fishermen and forestry workers use SNAP, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, but farmers say they sometimes find it difficult to qualify because of complicated rules governing self-employment income. And the Trump administration has long-term plans to tighten SNAP eligibility for many.

But Anne had hoped to get her benefits before Christmas, which might free up a little extra money for simple gifts for the kids, like gloves or a dinosaur toy for her youngest, Levi, 6. Now it didn’t look like that was happening.

“This sucks,” she said.

She was back on the street in less than 20 minutes, far faster than expected, regretting paying $1 for two hours of street parking.

“Before, we were very private,” she said as she climbed into her car. “Now I feel like everybody can see our entire life.”

A need

This is what need feels like.

The regulars at the monthly food giveaway outside a little white church in Richford, N.Y., start lining up at 6:30 a.m., holding their places in line with a kind of honor system of laundry baskets and wheeled grocery carts, then return their cars to wait out of the cold. Anne showed up around 10, clutching grocery bags, and surveyed the place-savers stretched down the block.

“I’m not prepared for this,” she said.

The night before, she’d curled up in the leaf-green wing chair she’d put in an upstairs closet and opened her rose-patterned journal.

“Tomorrow, we go to the food bank,” she wrote. “Andy doesn’t know. I’m afraid if he knows it will upset him. I am so nervous about going. I don’t want people to judge me. I don’t want someone to recognize me and the kids find out and get picked on at school. It is very nerve wracking. But my mom always said it’s there for people that need a helping hand. Use it when you need to and help support it when you don’t. So maybe I can help volunteer.”

Now she was shivering in line, jumping up and down, waiting for the food truck to arrive. Organizers with raw, gloveless hands tried to check everybody in, but the computer was running slow.

“Look at her, she’s doing the hop, skip and jump,” one of the regulars said about Anne.

Finally the truck, a mobile food pantry from the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, pulled in and unfurled its doors, and the line began to move. Volunteers passed out milk, eggs, apple juice, frozen vegetables, tomato soup, chickpeas, cornflakes, canned pears, potatoes and rice. Anne grabbed two bags of apples and six bags of grapes. Fruit would be a question mark on the list no longer.

It was more than she could carry. It was almost more than could fit in the trunk of her car.

“Pretty good deal, huh?” said Peggy Andersen, one of the volunteers.

“I’m really excited,” Anne said.

Anne was able to cross so many items off her master grocery list that once she got to Aldi she only spent $73.12, and then another $39.38 at the scratch-and-dent store that sells day-old bread and dented cans of food. She was $62.50 under her $175 budget. Now, she may be able to keep the lights on in the house and put a little toward the $459 electric bill.

Back at home, the slate-blue farmhouse with the tin star over the door, the grocery bags covered the kitchen table, the pine bench where the kids sit and do homework, and the floor. There was so much food it would not all fit in the refrigerator, and some items would have to be stored on the side porch.

Andy came in from the barn for coffee and gave the spread a quizzical once-over, and Anne quickly copped to her stop at the food pantry. A complicated look passed over his face that she later explained was part relief — that she hadn’t bought all of it herself — and part defeat that she had to ask for help.

“We gotta do what we gotta do, I guess,” he said, and went back outside.

Later, the kids discovered the few treats Anne had bought at Aldi – $1.49 onion bagels for Brooke, the fourth-grader, and $1.49 off-brand cocoa rice cereal for Levi, the first-grader. They started eating fistfuls of the grapes.

“Mom, where did you get all these grapes?” Brooke asked.

“They gave them to us. At the food pantry,” Anne answered.

“Tell them that we love them!” Levi said loudly.

A break

In the evenings, the children put on their Carhartt coveralls and help Andy with chores in the barn, even Levi, working to unwind hay to feed the Holsteins from a bale bigger than he is. One night after chores, they paused to play before dinner. The kids slid down a small hill on a plastic sled and Grandpa’s old Flexible Flyer, the dogs barking and following them down. Snowballs arced through the air, followed by shrieks and laughter. A fat little half-moon rose.

Pretty soon it was time to go in. The family gathered around the table, and Brooke made scratch-and-dent store hot cocoa with rainbow marshmallows for everyone as others started dishing up dinner, which was tangy crockpot chicken with canned carrots and baked beans.

Anne, scrolling through Facebook, saw a hopeful headline.

“Hey, Andy,” she said. “Listen to this.”

Anne, and then Brooke, began to read out loud a Farm Progress article that quoted two University of Wisconsin at Madison economists predicting a further rise in the price of milk and “good times ahead for dairy farmers.” A first phase of the trade deal with China still to be finalized might also bring some relief.

“So, is it going to be better for us in 2020?” Breanna asked.

“It’s always going to be better for us in 2020, and 2021, and 2022,” said Anne.

“Have to be positive,” said Andy.

“We’re all still together and we all still have a roof over our heads,” Anne said.

“I mean about milk prices,” Breanna said.

“I guess that’s what they’re saying,” Anne said.

Then Levi wanted to know if there were any baked beans left, and Anne put the phone down to help him get more food.

Courtesy/Source: Washington Post