RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

More than a Sound Bite

While Farm Aid TV viewers saw mostly music acts cut with snippets from speakers, on site in Virginia concert day kicked off with press conferences.

The presidential press conference was initiated by Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson, who invited about 200 farmers and the press and four presidential candidates -- Buchanan, Bush, Gore and Nader.

Progressive farm groups asked three questions: Will you support a new farm program that ensures that farmers earn a fair price from the marketplace, not from the taxpayer? What will you do to restore competition in the marketplace (including a moratorium on mergers, banning packers owning livestock, and reining in biotech companies)? Will you support US trade and farm policies that end the disastrous practice of exporting and importing farm products below their true cost of production?

First was Senator Byron Dorgan, for Al Gore:

"I come from a little county of southwestern North Dakota and there's a Lutheran minister -- you all have seen the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral? -- the Lutheran minister in my home county says she has four funerals for every wedding in her church.

"People are leaving, people are dying, no new people are coming in, the average age is going up. Prices are down, costs are up. Every direction a family looks -- trying to work the farm out there -- they see monopolies.

"This is not some unique accident. It is a deliberate corporate highjacking of the economy in rural America ... Some people want to debate this in terms of dollars and cents. Family farms produce a whole lot more than just grain and meat. Family farms produce community. They produce a culture.

"Europe has already recognized it. We don't and we must.

"We need to repeal the Freedom to Farm Bill. We need to break the back of monopolies crushing family farmers and we need fair trade.

"We're about four or five votes short in the Senate on every one of these issues. We can't even get a hearing on Freedom to Farm. The chairman of the Agriculture committee in the Senate refuses to hold a hearing on the issue of repealing Freedom to Farm ...

"The Clinton-Gore administration says, 'Freedom-to-Farm doesn't work.' If we elect the right people to the Senate and the House, have a Congress that doesn't lose these votes, instead wins these votes, and a President who says, 'Let's repeal Freedom-to-Farm,' I think we'll get it done.

"About four or five choices that are different in the Senate ... will change that vote and will repeal that bill, replace it with a fair price for family farmers.

"I was in Cuba a while back. People in Cuba don't have enough to eat. We can't sell grain to Cuba because we don't have the freedom to sell.

"I voted against that bill (Freedom to Farm). I said it would lead to lower prices and it has. Someone here said we have the best farm program corporate America can buy and I believe that."

Dorgan was surprised by booing and hissing when he mentioned the Clinton administration. A Dorgan aide told me the Senator worried that farmers would lose faith that there is a difference between the Dems and the Reps.

One difference: The Democrats sent someone to Farm Aid, which the Republicans did not. The message to family farmers was clear: As only 2% of the population, you don't matter.

Pat Buchanan told the crowd to go ahead and boo if they disapproved of his ideas, saying, "I've heard a lot of disapproval ...

"Clearly, Freedom-to-Farm has failed. The policy fails, you change it. Secondly, if the Clinton administration can use anti-trust laws to bust up Microsoft, why don't they use it to bust up these agricultural cartels?

"Last year when I was campaigning, corn, beans, hogs, apples, tomatoes -- you name it -- every single commodity was selling below the cost of production. Now, when that happens there's a fundamental endemic problem. And that problem is the global economy and the globalization have been established of, by, and for the multinational corporations.

"Now. Look what is happening on the Hill. They not only put them [multinational corporations] ahead of family farms, they put them ahead of human rights, they put them ahead of national security. Both political parties are bought and paid for by the business round table and this is why you get the trade policies that you do.

"China sells us 40% of their exports. They buy 1% of ours. That is managed trade. This policy with China is adopted for the multinationals not to sell there, but to move factories there. What you gotta do with China is sit down and say 'Look, we bought 80 billion from you. You bought 10 billion from us. You're gonna buy 50 billion more from us or you've sold your last pair of chopsticks in any mall in America.'

"Ralph [Nader] and I opposed NAFTA. When it was passed, in Canada the Canadian dollar was worth 80 cents to the American dollar. The Canadian dollar was cut in value so now the wheat and cattle come in to North Dakota because they've taken unfair advantage.

"I've got a friend who ran the largest tomato farm in Florida. He said, 'you gotta protect us from unfair practices. So Mexico cuts the value of the peso by two-thirds, cuts the price of tomatoes by two-thirds, floods the United States, he's out of business.

"You're right that if the anti-trust laws can be used against Microsoft they can be used against these cartels that are shafting the American farmer. Secondly, when prices of any commodity fall below the price of production, stop importing the commodity into the United States. Now that is putting farms ahead of any free-trade ideology and we gotta do that. The Europeans do it. They make no apologies.

"Third, and I agree with Byron Dorgan on this one, that the United States ought to stop using food as a weapon and export food and agricultural goods that feed people and don't go to dictators all over the world.

"So what I say in the last analysis is, if you believe in family farms, then you gotta put that ahead of the ideology of free trade, and if saving the farm means violate so-called free-trade ideology, you gotta do it.

"But right now, my friends, this is going to keep happening and happening until I believe you get rid of these two parties that I believe are bought and paid for by the same big multinationals. And you get a party in there -- I don't care which one it is -- that starts putting America and Americans first."

Hardly waiting for his introduction, Ralph Nader jumped right in:

"Well, there's a lot to agree with here. I'll just extend it a bit. I haven't heard names of the companies yet. Let's talk about who owns our government. Who runs agricultural policy. Who buys and rents most of our politicians, with notable exceptions like the great Senator Dorgan who voted against the Freedom-to-Farm bill in 1996, now he has to defend the Clinton-Gore administration which signed the Freedom-to-Farm bill.

"We're talking about Cargill, Continental Grain, ADM, IBP, Perdue, Tyson -- those are the companies that run Washington, D.C. And the first reform is getting corrupt money out of politics -- public funding of public campaigns.

"Second would be to initiate the six-month notice provided in the GATT and NAFTA trade agreements, the six-month notice of withdrawal so we re-negotiate trade agreements as if people mattered, not corporations.

"Third is to do what the Elkins Act did years ago. It prohibited railroads from owning coal mines. And we have to prohibit meat packers from owning livestock production and grain packers from owning grain production.

"This last week, Business Week had a cover called 'Too much corporate power?' and in ten pages, they answered yes. And in the editorial they said, 'Corporations should get out of politics.'

"Almost three years ago I started an agribusiness project and Mike Stumo and Doug O'Brien helped start the Organization for Competitive Markets -- OCM. The website is A few weeks ago they issued a whole food policy, from the preservation of family farms all the way to benefitting the consumer.

"Some of those whole food policies include enforcing the anti-trust laws against agribusiness conglomerates and implementing a moratorium on mergers among the large agribusiness corporations -- a statutory moratorium. It also includes strengthening the farm program for grain commodities to include a farmer-owned grain reserve, a long-term land idling and conservation program, and a non-recourse loan program for family farmers.

"We also support a different kind of USDA. We have to push the USDA toward less capital-intensive and more environmentally beneficial production, supporting value-enhancing agriculture.

"And then saying to those giant corporations -- Novartis and Monsanto -- if you think you're gonna get away with changing the nature of nature you've got another think coming.

"You're gonna have to answer the basic scientific questions that you have not answered as you've plunged this technology recklessly throughout farm country. And furthermore, we're gonna demand that every American that goes into any supermarket or food store is going to have the right to genetically-engineered labeling for food. By the way, 90% of the people want labeling for genetically-labeled food.

"And targeting government food procurement towards small and local farms. It is an absolute tragedy that the people in this country who grow and harvest our food, and that includes farmers and farm workers, are paid the least, treated the worst, and damaged the most.

"And these guys in the commodity markets are making tons of money in Chicago and elsewhere. That is a completely upside down system of economic injustice.

"I think it's time, really, to go past denunciation and we have to organize by connecting farmers with consumer groups and environmental groups in a giant Seattle-type coalition. Because, as Saul Alinsky once said, 'the only way you fight organized money is with organized people.'"

I was surprised at Nader's ability to rouse the crowd, and then at the crowd's enthusiastic response. But my next surprise was seeing Nader wandering around, talking informally to press and supporters. I listened for a few seconds before realizing, hey! I have a tape recorder! turn it on! and so I got the following:

"... the almighty dollar reigns supreme, and people are turned into spectators watching video corporate culture day after day instead of developing their own arts and crafts and going to their own plays and their own musicals in their community. And this is getting worse and worse, so much so that these kids are growing up watching the screen thirty hours or more a week and don't even know what it's like to go into their neighborhood community and help build their own culture with their own creativity. That's the damage of corporate culture. It's centralized, it's commercialized, it's homogenized, and it forces people to be spectators instead of doers."

Someone asked if the American people know they need a third party and Nader said:

"Well, certainly the national media is doing its best to make sure they don't know. There's really one corporate party in this country, with two heads -- one may sip Pepsi, the other sips Coke, all beholden to giant corporations who now have turned our government into a government of the Exxons, by the General Motors, corporate, for the DuPonts. Our democracy, our government, our elections have been highjacked by big money and the agents for this highjack are the politicians who think that money in their campaigns is more important than standing up for the American people and that's why we've gotta take our government back and that's why we've gotta have a new party that comes out of the grass roots and is of, for, and by the people, and that's the Green Party and we're building for the future after November, not just trying to get as many votes as possible before November.

"The basic struggle is between the civic culture and the corporate culture. We either have a sovereignty of the people in this country with all of the creativity and justice and opportunity and prosperity, and trusteeship for future generations that this entails or we have a sovereignty of big business which is what we have now where everything's for sale. A society dominated by commercialism is a society headed for further decay, headed for further standardization and homogenization. And that was a warning to us by every major religion in the history of the world.

"It began in stages. It began with the control of our media, which started out with radio which was supposed to be nonprofit and no advertising. It started with people basically forgetting about the necessity to separate commerce from politics, to separate campaign dollars from corporations from our elections. It started with people who forgot the difference between commercialism and civic initiatives that led to our schools cutting deals with Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola, our universities being corporatized, increasingly in terms of what's taught, what research is being done. Corporatism and commercialism creep up on us day by day and they recognize no boundaries other than those that are imposed on them externally, and that's what we have to do -- build a civic culture to run the political institutions and to hold the corporations to boundaries where they cannot develop a society where everything is for sale."

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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