By LEM HARRIS
Is this election important to farmers? Emphatically yes. All right, I can hear the average Midwestern farmer replying: "I certainly wish that was true. But here we are in desperate condition, but no serious discussion of our needs by Congress so far." True, but stay with me. Farmers do have a big stake in this election.
The main issue facing farmers today is price they get for their crops. Leland Swanson, President of the National Farmers Union, put it right on the line in testimony before the Senate Committee on Agriculture:
"The sad reality is that on average the raw food and fiber in the United States is produced for virtually no return to the farmer for his or her labor, management, capital or risk.'
This is because, though farmers are wonderfully productive, the enormous wealth they produce every year is largely absorbed by agribusiness, leaving farmers with income well below their true costs of production.
The only power that can curb the corporations and enforce fair trade for farmers is the United States Congress. Long ago, 1938 to be exact, Congress enacted legislation that provided full parity prices for producers of the major storable crops, including grain, corn, soybeans and cotton. These farmers enjoyed a degree of prosperity for nearly 20 years. What happened once can happen again.
Again I hear farmers saying: "Sure, but we have been trying to do get action out of Congress for a long time. But Congress thus far listens to agribusiness and not to us." True enough. Congress knows that the number of independent operating farmers is decreasing every year, Today they have less clout on Congress than ever. But new things are beginning to happen that can change everything.
Here is what is new: Independent working farmers are no longer alone in their fight to challenge the stranglehold of agribusiness on their market prices. Non-farmer forces are beginning to join their fight. This build up of farm support has been occurring over the past few years. It started with the appearance of representatives of organized labor (AFL-CIO) spokesmen at state conventions of the National Farmers Union, always with a similar message: "We workers in industry depend for our living standards on wages. Farmers depend for their living on market prices. We both have to continually confront corporate power to protect and improve our standards. Our interests are the same. We should work together."
This year the farm crisis deepened. Many regional farm protest meetings occurred, demanding the repeal of the current Federal Farm Act, called the Freedom to Farm Act but dubbed by farmers the Freedom to Starve Act. This Act, still in force, is terminating all previous efforts to bolster farm prices.
Last year something new happened at a farm protest meeting at a little Montana border town named Sweetgrass; the meeting was located there to facilitate the participation of Canadian farmers. Present and participating was Ken Maki, President of the Montana Farmers Union and Cory Ollika, President of the National Farmers Union of Canada. Also participating was organized labor in the person of Don Judge, Executive Secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO. Bill Klienfelter, Legislative Director of the United Steelworkers of America, was scheduled to come but canceled because of late breaking negotiations for the steelworkers import quota.
But the new feature at the Sweetgrass gathering was the appearance of a delegation from the newly formed Northern Plains Resource Council representing merchants, bankers, professionals and clergy from Montana's small towns, dependent on farmers' income for their existence. Many of these communities are slowly becoming ghost towns. The Plains Council had collected 13,000 signatures to a petition supporting farmers' demands. Here is another section of the population with a vital interest in supporting working farmers.
The decisive support for the farmers' cause is coming from organized labor with its millions of members. This became evident on the occasion of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Conference in Seattle last February. The AFL-CIO had issued a call to farm organizations, environmentalists, consumers and clergy to come to Seattle to take part in a mass protest against WTO's plans to permit international corporations to dominate world trade. Farm and the other organizations all responded and were on hand in Seattle.
For American farmers, the WTO plan would have blocked our government from any form of farm price aid or subsidies. The French delegates to WTO were equally opposed because France has large numbers of small farmers who for years have been protected by government subsidies. Similarly, the Japanese delegates insisted that they continue a policy of protecting their rice farmers from foreign dumping. Many third world delegates joined the opposition, because they have long been used as dumping grounds to the utter ruin of their native growers.
Here was a winning combination. The opposition of delegates attending the conference, dramatically supported by a mass of American citizenry on the streets outside. The conference adjourned with no agreement reached. international finance capital had been defeated, temporarily at least, by people's power.
Inspired by this success, the National Farmers Union and other farm organizations called for a fly-in from all over the country to Washington D.C., March 20. They asked for and immediately received the endorsement and participation of the AFL-CIO and the same supporting organizations., Here was the second great act of this nascent People's Front. They called it the Rally for Rural America, thus emphasizing the participation of the people of the small towns in rural communities. Helen Waller, one of the organizers of the Sweetgrass small town petition, and representing the Northern Plains Resource Council joined the Washington Rally.
Some two thousand farmers and their supporters massed in Washington on March 20. Upon arrival they met to discuss and adopt a program which included:
* Immediately pass a new farm bill that will establish non-recourse farm loans at near cost of production for storable crops.
* Restore competition to the marketplace through strict enforcement of anti-trust law.
* Negotiate fair trade agreements that ensure the right to develop farm programs that respond to the needs of farmers and consumers.
After adopting these principles, the Rally spent two days lobbying every congressman, the Administration and the Department of Agriculture.
Did this great Rally for Rural America make any gains? It is too soon to say. No statements have been issued. But there are indications;
US Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat from Iowa is serving his third term. In his first term, he introduced a bill providing non-recourse farm loans at near parity levels. His bill was modeled after the measure passed during Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal that gave farmers close to parity prices for 20 years.
If the Democrats win a majority of the Senate, Harkin will be Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. Last spring at a gathering of protesting farmers in South St. Paul, Minn., from nine states, he pledged that if the Democrats win the Senate and he becomes chairman of its Committee on Agriculture, he will put up one big fight for real farm legislation. If the Democrats win the House of Representatives, Congressman Gephardt will be Speaker of the House. Back when Harkin introduced the parity bill in the Senate, Gephardt endorsed it for the House. Democratic Presidential nominee Al Gore has made no commitment on the farm price issue, but his stand against monopoly power is encouraging. As for Bush, the Republican Party is so committed to corporate America that his opposition to any bill curbing agribusiness can be assumed.
The November election this year looms as the best chance for an Administration and Congress that can restore prosperity to farmers for the first time since the New Deal. Remember that from 1938 for nearly 20 years, farmers did receive non-recourse loans at levels near parity. The Government curbed agribusiness once, it can do it again. Best of all, farmers are no longer alone. They have the support of labor and of most organizations concerned with the welfare of our country. If a Congress with a Democratic majority is elected this November, the positions of power over farm legislation will be held by friends of farmers. If Gore is elected our next President, he will know that his most numerous supporters are the ranks of the common men and women.
Lem Harris of Norwalk, Conn., is a longtime writer on agricultural issues and is a correspondent for the People's World.