Murdering the Family Farm

Each time we break bread and slake our thirst there is in our presence uninvited guests, guests whose lack of visibility is and has been in direct proportion to their continuing role in providing us with the seemingly infinite cornucopia of food we have come to so take for granted.

These uninvited and invisible "guests" are the men, women, children and families who plant, grow, nurture and harvest our food -- family farmers, still the most economic, socially and environmentally efficient producers of food on the planet, and farmworkers, the slaves that we rent.

Yet, despite the vital role these people play in our everyday lives, they have become invisible to mainstream society; they have become the proverbial canary that our so-called free enterprise system has sent into the pits to alert us to pending economic doom, just as mining companies at one time used the canary to detect dangerous and potentially disastrous collections of gases in their mines.

The human toll, however, of such tactics is and continues to be staggering.

In its process of substituting capital for efficiency and technology for labor, corporate agribusiness has turned family farmers not only in the U.S., but throughout the world, into technological "junkies," endangering their own and their families' health and safety, converting "stewards" of the land into "miners" of the land, creating a class of corporate "welfare cheats" living off taxpayers, and basing farm survival not on earned income but on borrowed capital and so-called "rural development."

Likewise, under the guise of "freedom of choice" corporate agribusiness continues to seek to both standardize our food supply through relegating it to assembly-line "manufacturing" and moving its production from the fields to the "life science" company laboratories, while at the same time forcing consumers to pay higher and higher quantitative and qualitative costs for their daily bread.

By deifying "cost benefit analysis" at the expense of the "common good," corporate agribusiness has managed to annul the positive dimensions of the family farm system and eliminate its economic and environmental advantages, particularly as they relate to building genuine communities.

As social anthropologists Patricia L. Allen and Carolyn E. Sachs point out, any system built upon a foundation of structural inequities "is ultimately unsustainable in the sense that it will result in increasing conflict and struggle along the lines of class, gender, and ethnicity." Corporate agribusiness has become just such a system.

Thus, as we enter the dawn of the 21th century, our family farm system of agriculture is now facing its dark night of the soul.

Consequently, our family farm system of agriculture now stands on the threshold of eradication. In the U.S., for example, throughout the 1980s an ever-mounting numbers of farm bankruptcies, foreclosures, and forced evictions reaped a grim "human harvest" of suicides, alcoholism, divorce, family violence, personal stress, and loss of community.

Continuing through the 1990s, the very economic and social fabric of rural America has been ripped asunder. Meanwhile, the control of our food supply has been seized by corporate entities whose purpose is not to feed people, or provide jobs, or husband the land, but simply to increase their cash flow and reduce their transactional costs in order to placate their excess-profit-obsessed institutional investors.

Equally devastating, however, to family farmers is that not only have they become invisible to the general public, but that those allies within the consumer, environmental and labor movement that should be in solidarity with their cause tend to also ignore them, if not, in some cases see them more as an enemy than a brother or sister.

In a devastating and most perceptive interview appearing in the December, 1999 issue of The Sun, a small literary magazine published in North Carolina (available on the Internet at, Joel Dyer, author of Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City Is Only the Beginning (Westview Press), discusses at length this tragic splintering.

In addressing the accusation that farmers are despoilers of the environment Dyer points out: "Think how many 'I send ten dollars to the Nature Conservancy' pseudoenvironmentalists" there are. "They want to do a good thing for the environment without ever leaving their easy chairs. But how many thousands of rural people have they put out of work with impractical environmental legislation dreamed up by urban activists who lack practical knowledge of rural life? Suburban-chic environmentalism is a big source of rage in the hinterland, because it has imposed a certain standard of behavior to which many rural people don't want to be held."

"By the way," Dyer adds, "most small family farmers are not resistant to environmentalism: they pollute because, economically, they have to in order to stay on their land. They're angry because, quite often, environmental regulations are the last nail in the coffin of their way of life. Contrast this to large corporate farms, which pollute because it allows them to make more money."

As Dyer sums it up so well: "We on the left have put on blinders to the point where we aren't willing to reach out to middle-aged white men. Middle-aged white men are suppose to be the root of all evil! And I don't disagree with that notion in many ways: it's absolutely true that middle-aged white men are the root of most evil, because they occupy the positions of power.

"But there are 15 million poor middle-aged white men who have more in common with urban blacks and Hispanics than they do with the average CEO. So there's no help from the left because these rural men are vilified as 'rednecks' and 'Bubbas.' Besides, there are too many problems for people on the left to worry about as it is -- the last thing they need to take on is underprivileged white men. Can you imagine how hard it would be to raise money from wealthy liberals to help poor white males?

"... The left determines who is downtrodden and often that determination is based on just as shallow a measure as those the right uses to determine who is worthy ... The left needs to realize that low-income whites, including farmers and others in rural America, are not and have never been the enemy," he adds.

Dyer's point is well taken. It is much easier for urban activists to come forth and attract funding with "cutting edge" issues like the genetic engineering of crops, as was evidenced by a December 14, 1999, Wall Street Journal article ("Raising the Anti: For Those Fighting Biotech Crops, Santa Came Early") than to assist grassroots farm organizations that are having to deal with the day-to-day consequences of corporate agribusinesses' relentless efforts to destroy family farm agriculture.

Yet, even in their zeal to warn the public of the very real dangers of the genetic engineering of our food and while much of their attention has been given to the labeling issue, testing and the exporting of genetically engineered crops, little attention has been paid by these activists to the first "victims" of genetic engineering -- the nation's family farmers and their economic dilemma of what to plant and what not to plant, decisions that leave them at the pricing mercy of such commodity giants as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) -- "Supermarkup to the World."

In Dyer's correct analysis he observes that "rural Americans are a small enough percentage of the nation's population now that they can't effect our democracy the way they once could ... This means people in the cities are now capable of dictating, through the government, how rural Americans must live. And rural Americans are upset by this, because they don't want to change their way of life."

It is this loss of control and the forced changing of their "way of life" that has created so much rage within rural America. Sun's interviewer Derrick Jensen, in opening up the issue concerning corporate control of rural economies, recalls that a family farmer once said to him: "Cargill gives me two choices: either I cut my own throat, or they'll do it for me."

Dyer responds: "You've got to love farmers. They go straight to the heart of the problem. And the heart of the problem is that a few corporations have monopolistic economic control of rural America. Without that control -- if for example, we had anything resembling a free market -- the political control wouldn't matter. To gain political control, you have to have economic control."

Addressing the issue of why can't farmers accept the reality of corporate agribusiness controlling their farms and their business and get gainful employment in the cities, Dyer explains:

"Because it's not just the loss of a job -- it's the loss of an entire way of life. Rural America is a different culture. Farmers don't just say, 'Damn, these corporations sure are making it hard for me to get by. I guess I'll take that factory job in the city.' They don't want to go to the city; they want to hold on to the life they have. Consequently, they continue to lose money every year while they can't afford to feed their children. Twenty-seven percent of all kids in rural America go to bed hungry every night -- more than in the inner city. Those farmers can't buy food; they can't make loan payments. Their stress level goes up and they start having heart attacks. And some of them -- more that you'd imagine -- kill themselves."

In Nebraska, the state's Farmers Union president John Hansen notes that calls on his office's hot line are ranked on a one to five basis -- one being general information and five being life threatening/personal safety issues. A four ranking is high stress. In the last quarter of 1999 Hansen's office has received twice as many calls as the previous quarter and 67 percent of those calls have been in the four and five categories, with some of the four calls being inquiries relative to how families of the farmer can be assured of receiving insurance money in case of an "accident."

As Dyer elaborates, "five times as many farmers now die of suicide as die from equipment accidents -- which historically, have been the single biggest cause of unnatural death on the farm. And that's not even counting suicides made to look like accidents."

In losing their farms to foreclosure and the extreme level of depression they feel Dyer explains, "I don't even pretend to understand the anxiety they suffer. That's part of the problem of urban-rural relationships: we urbanites can see the despair, but we can't feel it. We can't fully grasp the feeling of 'My great-granddad homesteaded this piece of land and fought to keep it. My granddad took it over from him and made it bigger and better. My dad took it over from him and did the same. And now he's given it to me, and I'm going to lose it.'"

And, responding to Jensen's observation that "and not because you're a bad farmer," Dyer adds, "no, because of economics, consolidation, and activities of the federal government.

" ... it's worse even than a death in the family, because on top of the emotional distress is a thick layer of guilt. You feel as though you murdered that farm, as though you murdered your children's future, your heritage, your connection to God, and your connection to history."

Addressing the question as to the alarming growth of racist and anti-semitic feeling within rural America Dyer points out that "quite often, I've found rural people's racism and hatred for the government to be symptoms of economic stress rather than a simple ideological difference," occasioning Jensen to ask: "Leaving aside the racists for the moment, what is it that most militant farmers want?"

"I don't think they're greedy," Dyer responds. "They want to feed their families, keep their farms, work their land and make a decent living ... not a six-figure income, but enough to provide food and health care for their kids. If you give rural Americans that, they will be happy, because everything else stems from those basics."

Because rural America for most folks is out of sight, out of mind this human suffering and seething anger might as well be located on another planet, as Dyer notes: "Now we have generations of people who don't even drive from one city to the next. Their understanding of rural America is that big flat area their plane flies over. And should they wonder what life is like down there, they figure it must be pretty good, because they've seen those TV commercials in which Archer Daniels Midland says it's 'feeding the world.'"

A.V. Krebs is author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness (Essential Books:1992)

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