The Farm Crisis
Mabel Dobbs sits at her kitchen table in Weiser, Idaho. The room is sprinkled with family portraits and ranching memorabilia. A wedding portrait of Mabel and her husband Grant from 1984 hangs to her left – “Bull Rider” is written in rope below the photograph. There is a stack of packets on American agriculture on the table. Mabel folds her hands and begins. “I think it’s critically important…as I look back over the last 30 years, to constantly be retelling these stories. There is so much to garner from these stories. Today there are still such a huge number of people who are not able to wrap their heads around how we have gotten to where we are at with family agriculture, corporate agriculture, and all of the problems that are out there. I just think the stories have to be told.”
Today, Mabel is a member of the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils, but she got involved with the Western Organization of Resource Councils 30 years ago, before the Idaho group formed, when her own ranch was threatened by the farm crisis in the late 1980s.
“After 20 some years as a banker and a mortgage lender, I married an Idaho rancher in 1984 in Challis, Idaho.” Within their first year of marriage, Mabel learned the plethora of problems that plague the U.S. agricultural system.
“When I married Grant I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t understand this. How can you work all year long to raise your product and grow your product and go out on the market place and say what will you give me for this?’ I grew up in a banking industry where a producer produced whatever their product was, figured their cost of production, added a profit, priced their product and said this is my price. But that’s the way it is in agriculture. One of the most frustrating things in being married to a rancher and calling myself a rancher is that fact – that I do not have that control.”
Because of their lack of control over prices and policies that affect their livelihood, Mabel and her family have faced every agricultural struggle imaginable, from fighting bankruptcy to protecting their ranch during the farm crisis, fighting for fair contracts and prices, standing up for Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), to protesting the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and always worrying about the future of their ranch.
The Farm Crisis in the late 1980s was the result of failed policies, consolidation, land price fluctuations, and commodity crop booms and busts.
“The banks went to requiring farmers and ranchers to function on a cash flow basis rather than living on assets, which they had done for generations before,” said Mabel.
Selling the ranch was never an option for the Dobbs family. “Our retirement could probably have been much better had we sold out the ranch to someone from California and took the money and moved into town. But that was never, from the time that we struggled to stay and ranch and after we lost everything and started over in 1990, that was never a thought that I had,” said Mabel. "We knew our daughter Zane wanted to raise her twin daughters on the small ranch we had fought so hard to keep." It was important to Grant and Mabel to see this happen.
After securing their finances and the Mann Creek ranch in the 1990s, the Dobbs were then faced with new policies that threatened their operation. NAFTA resulted in the integration of the North American beef market. The big meatpacking companies in the U.S. began importing live cattle from Mexico and Canada to finish and process. These increased imports allowed the packers to consolidate control over the supply of live cattle and depress the market price for cattle raised in the U.S. When Congress passed legislation requiring Country of Origin Labeling, consumers were able to choose American beef products. Unfortunately for the American rancher, in 2015 COOL for beef was challenged and repealed.
“I believe the American cattle rancher has always felt they raised the best quality beef. We had no way to differentiate the beef that we raised from what was coming in from across the borders.”
Mabel wants to get back to the point where ranching and farming can support a family. That option requires producers having more control over their markets. “As it is now, 33 years after marrying a rancher, our markets are not any better. We don’t have any more control of our market today than we did then.” Policies like NAFTA and the repeal of COOL have impeded the American producer’s ability to compete with foreign and corporate producers and get a fair price for their products. This has discouraged young people from entering agriculture and making a living off of the land. Mabel’s youngest granddaughters, 18-year-old twins, have expressed interest in running the family ranch.
“There’s no way, had their mom and dad not worked off-ranch and grandpa and grandma afforded them the opportunity to acquire the small ranch in the Mann Creek Valley, that this could ever happen. That’s the sad part about where we are at in family agriculture today,” said Mabel, who spent years working in town while also helping run the ranch to make ends meet. For a number of years Mabel got her make-up on and dressed for work in town, then put on her Carhartt coveralls to drive tractor for Grant as he fed the cattle before starting her day as a mortgage lender. "That is just what you do if you love the life," said Mabel.
“When I got involved it was three, four companies in control of all the livestock slaughter in this country. You know it’s still that way 30 years later,” said Mabel. “The whole corporate control of our food system it makes me angry, it makes me sad, and you know the older I get the more concerned I get about that. Are we ever gonna learn? I think if we don’t tell these stories, if we don’t go back and say, ‘what have we learned from history,’ then how are we ever going to make people see how we got here, why we’re here, and what we need to do to fix it.”
Mabel’s dedication to fixing the American agricultural system has not dwindled. “I’ve been in this long enough to know that you have to personally touch people to get them involved…and that’s not always easy. I just know we have to keep the fight going.”
“One of the things that always encouraged me the most out of the last 30 years was going to the trainings and the board meetings of our groups. Seeing the younger group of committed organizers coming on board always gave me hope. I think over the last decade there’s more and more young people who see what the food system has evolved into over the last 20-25 years and are really concerned about their health, their wellbeing and the environment where the food they eat comes from. I think the opportunity is better now than it has ever been because of them.”