Following is the text of a recent open letter addressed to family farmers and farm activists from Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate in this year's presidential election.
No one sector of our economic system has felt the disastrous affects of corporate concentration, power and control more than our nation's family farmers.
Family farmers have been at the mercy of an ever-growing corporate behemoth, from the devastating financial debt crisis of the 1980s to the ruinous Freedom to Farm legislation of the 1990s -- legislation enacted and signed by a Republicrat Congress and a Republicrat President.
Big corporations and their billionaire owners and executives have not only taken daily control of our agriculture and food system, but also our work, pay, housing, health, pension funds, bank and saving deposits, public lands, airwaves, elections and our very government.
Rather than challenge this rule by Big Business and Big Government, our political leadership and our two major political parties have surrendered themselves to such corporate power.
As a candidate for the presidency in this election year, I believe there is nothing inevitable about misery or squalor, or the concentration of wealth and corporate power; nothing is sacrosanct about the status quo, about the power structures that safeguard that status quo. As rural citizens concerned about the survival of family farmers I believe you can make a difference and I am writing this letter to ask you to join with me in helping to make that difference.
In this regard, family farmers have a rich tradition. There is nothing to compare to the farmers' drive in Texas during the late 1880s which signed up 250,000 farmers and led to the early stage of the 30-year populist revolt -- still the country's most fundamental political and economic reform movement since the Constitution was ratified. And these farmers did it largely on foot and with pamphlets.
How, without today's communications and transportation facilities, did the farmers manage to cover so much ground, create so many lasting institutions, and elect so many state legislators, governors, members of Congress, and almost the president of the United States? Because they owned what they controlled -- the land. And they controlled what they owned -- the land. And they aggregated their vote around specific agendas designed to limit the power of the railroads, banks and absentee "Eastern financial moguls."
Now we see our two-party system is crumbling. They are hollowed out and don't have much basic grass-roots support. They're basically two parties with a lot of money fighting against each other with 30-second electronic combat ads on television. The only way we are going to regain control of our political institutions is to help build a progressive political movement that will break up the concentration of wealth and power -- this plutocracy that reigns over our democracy.
Most Americans are not aware today that were it not for off-farm income our family farmers would closely resemble a farm economy in depression-impoverished and enslaved to an ever-increasingly large globalized transnationally-owned and controlled food manufacturing system. USDA figures for the 1990s show that "average farm operator household earnings" from farming activities as percent of average household income was an alarming 11.8%.
Today, farm gate prices of the big five commodities -- corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and rice -- have collapsed to near record or record all-time inflation-adjusted lows. The average national market price comparison between 1996 and 1999 of major farm program crops tells a tragic story. The average national market price of corn has fallen 30%, soybeans 35%, wheat 41%, cotton 35%, and rice 40%.
For nearly a century now, the inability of most farmers to receive a consistently fair and equitable return on their investment has left them with basically only three options: selling their land and exiting from agriculture altogether, attempting to borrow money from public and private lenders in an attempt to remain in farming, or seeking employment off the farm in an effort to economically survive and hopefully retain their family's farm.
Their inability, however, to receive a fair and equitable return on their investment (to say nothing of simply being able to meet their production expenses) has little to do today with the fact that they are "efficient" producers, but more to the question of what they are being paid for what they produce.
In 1984, Jim Hightower, former Texas Agricultural Commissioner and one of the co-chairs of our Citizens Committee for Nader/LaDuke, chaired a series of eight nationwide farm policy forums on agriculture. In his final report he concluded:
"When all was said and done, it came down to one word: price. Other important issues were discussed at the forums ... during the past six months, but the overwhelming consensus among participating farmers was that the other concerns -- overproduction, soil and water conservation, high interest rates, lack of credit, entry by young farmers, the depressed farm service industry, and the farm program's high cost, to name a few -- could and would be solved when farmers received a fair price for their products."
Near record harvests, Congressional bailouts, so-called "free trade" -- and don't let anyone ever use that phrase "free trade," it's corporate managed trade -- are not going to solve the basic problems that our nation's family farmers face today.
I support policies that enable farmers to realize a fair price for what they produce; open and competitive markets where they can sell their products; anti-trust laws that prohibit the kind of mergers and acquisitions that are currently ruining family-farm agriculture and a Department of Justice that will effectively enforce such existing and new laws; and a trade policy that is designed to benefit the crop producer, and not simply become a giant government subsidy for the likes of the Cargills, the ADMs, the ConAgras, the IBPs, the Tysons, the Chiquitas and the Smithfields.
It is no coincidence that these same giant corporations are also the same corporate paymasters that have subverted our two major political parties with their vast amounts of cash and in turn been the recipients of government largess. A striking example of such corporate welfare was recently noted by national farm columnist Alan Guebert.
In the July 27 Federal Register, the USDA proposed to pay ag processors up to $450 million to make ethanol from America's ever-growing piles of grain. Under the quietly offered plan, USDA hopes to make quarterly payments to some 50-plus bio-energy makers over the next three years to make fuel. If adopted, USDA could end up paying Archer Daniels Midland, the admitted price-fixer that produces 42% of the nation's ethanol, $189 million. When Guebert explained that to one farmer-caller recently, the farmer's only reply was, "So ADM gets back its $100 million price fixing fine with interest."
As you may know over the years I have spoken out on such family-farm issues as food safety standards, the misuse and overuse of chemical poisons, the exploitation of farm workers, the USDA's decades-old discrimination of black and minority farmers, usury interest rates charged by an increasingly consolidating banking industry, and excessive and unnecessary subsidies to giant agribusiness corporations.
In addition, for years I have frequently called for local, state and federal government assistance in promoting self-help programs to assist family farm agriculture in building a sound alternative economic base through community supported agriculture programs, organic farming practices, the raising of industrial hemp, and the use of solar energy and other appropriate technologies and sustainable agricultural practices in addition to opposing the planting of inadequately tested genetically engineered crops.
I have also voiced repeated opposition to the exploitative policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and have opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), which I feel are subversive of democratic processes and are push-down, not pull-up, trade agreements.
When it comes to the question of trade, Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to John Jay in 1809, said it well:
"Manufactures, sufficient for our own consumption, of what we raise the raw material (and no more). Commerce sufficient to carry the surplus produce of agriculture, beyond our own consumption, to a market for exchanging it for articles we cannot raise (and no more). These are the true limits of manufactures and commerce. To go beyond them is to increase our dependence on foreign nations, and our liability to war. These three important branches of human industry will then grow together, and be really handmaidens to each other."
These family farm issues -- fair price, open markets, enforcements of anti-trust law, fair trade policies -- are the issues that need to be put before the American public, not only because they are issues that get to the heart of the axiom that you cannot have political democracy without economic democracy, but because they are vital to our every day livelihood -- the availability, quality, quantity, price and safety of the food we eat.
In this Presidential campaign that we are currently engaged in, I believe that these issues along with the many other economic, social, health, labor and environmental issues that we face today as a nation should be addressed and debated by the candidates in open dialogue. We are starting a broad-based, progressive political movement to end once and for all the limited choice Americans have between Tweedle Dum Republican and Tweedle Dee Democrat, both in hock to big corporate interests and money.
Unfortunately, at the present time I am being denied that opportunity to engage in debating such issues this October, principally by the two major parties and their corporate patrons. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a non-profit organization run by Democrats and Republicans, says only candidates with an average of 15% or more in five leading national polls will be allowed to participate. That threshold is virtually unattainable without the national exposure of a televised debate. At the same time I need only 5% to qualify for federal matching funds. Obviously, this is an injustice and citizens who care about preserving democratic elections need to write to the CPD urging them to drop such a restriction.
Write Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairmen of the Commission on Presidential Debates, and ask them to change their rules and allow presidential candidates with 5% voting support in national polls or more than 50% opinion support in national polls to participate in the debates.
Mail should be sent to:
Frank J. Fahrenkopf and Paul G. Kirk
Commission on Presidential Debates
1200 New Hampshire, NW Box 445
Washington, DC 20036
In the meantime, I am hoping that I can count on the support of rural America and family farmers throughout the nation who share the same ideals and goals to help me be included in the national debates prior to our November Presidential elections. Together we can make a difference for rural agricultural justice.
PS: A member of our Citizens Committee for Nader/LaDuke is currently seeking to organize a national Family Farmers Committee for Nader/LaDuke. If you would like to join such a committee I urge you to contact Al Krebs, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201 firstname.lastname@example.org. For additional information on these issues and how you can get involved in the campaign contact the Nader 2000 Food and Agriculture Organizer, Kevin Webb, at (202) 265-4000 or Kevin@votenader.org.