RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Farmers Plead
for Democratic
and Open Debate

This just in: A group of farm organizations, headed by the Rural Coalition, has issued a list of proposals for the new federal farm bill. This new farm bill will replace the old "Freedom to Farm" bill that many farmers call "Freedom to Fail." And, if you think farm bills are written only for farmers, think again. Consumers and taxpayers are the major stakeholders in this USDA creation, because consumers eat three times a day, and taxpayers don't want our dollars going straight to the bottom line of multinational corporations.

At the top of the farm organizations' proposals is a plea for "democratic and open debate" for "all with a stake in the food system ... The policy should promote biodiversity and protection of the global resource base and assure the food security of future generations."

But "democratic and open debate" is not the way the Farm Bill discussion has proceeded. In the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee, the two Texas leaders rammed a proposal through with no input. Their proposal is strikingly similar to "Freedom to Farm."

The Senate Ag committee, chaired by Iowa's Tom Harkin, has promised there will be hearings, but none have been set. Congress wants to pass the bill by the end of September. Another four years of the current policy will kill the fledgling rebirth of local markets and put our food future firmly in the pockets of mega-corporations.

The Rural Coalition suggestions aim to "restore justice, sustainability and security to our food system." The four main goals are in the areas of: (1) Global and Community Food Security; (2) Justice and Equity for all Participants in the system; (3) Care for the Land and Resource Base; and (4) Equitable Access to high Quality and Affordable Food. They suggest 20 specific legislative proposals to carry out their four main goals. For more information on these proposals, see the Rural Coalition web page at

The suggestions stress fair trade for exported and imported foods, protection of workers' civil rights, fair wages and dignified working conditions. This would nourish companies that work on the principles of equal exchange, paying a fair wage to farmers.

Without equal exchange, low food prices reflect the exploitation of farmers and farm laborers, who are often displaced, uneducated people with no choices. Next time you gaze groggily into your coffee cup, visualize Juan Valdez and his donkey. Now think about Valdez's family. Where they are going to sleep tonight? What will they eat? Will his kids get an education?

Under "Care for Land, Resources and Communities," the farm groups suggest incentives for "Environmental Stewardship and Sustainable Agriculture." Such suggestions, carried out, would mean an end to thousands of animals packed into Confined Animal Feeding Operations. Those suck water at the rate of 50 gallons per animal per day, pollute the water and dump it into the creeks.

The farm groups suggest re-directing research to support small farms. This would disrupt the land grant university-chemical company co-dependency. Current research directs money to such wizardry as machines that plow, plant, dump chemicals, and harvest. The machines run day and night, guided by satellite positioning systems. Researchers imagine thousands of acres -- entire counties -- managed by teams of computer geeks from NASA-like rooms in the suburbs. That's how to solve the farmer problem -- get rid of them!

Re-directing research to support small farms would mean keeping farm families on the land. Farm families support rural communities, schools, churches, and hospitals. Keeping farmers on the land means promoting landscape diversity that machines don't care about but farmers enjoy. This leaves space for wildlife, rather than squeezing it away.

For the consumer, small farms don't necessarily mean high prices. Usually, my purchases cost just the same as grocery-store buys. However, my experience confirms that buying from small farms means less spoilage, which makes costs lower.

But the grocery store ads scream, "Low Prices! Big Values!" And, quite often, they sell fresh produce at a "loss leader" low price, knowing they'll make it up in the soup and cereal aisles.

It's impossible to determine the economic life of grocery store produce. We don't even know what continent the grocery store tomatoes come from, and there are so many variables between the seed and your shopping cart: Government subsidies for export and import, growth hastened by fertilizers, chemical protection from pests, ripening in a warehouse. And who provided the labor?

The small-farm tomato economy is simple. The money goes to a neighbor, who buys seed, hauls manure, and perhaps pays for water. Then he pays his taxes, helping support the school for your kids.

Under "Equitable Access to High Quality and Affordable Food," the coalition suggests emphasis on farmer cooperatives, farmers markets, enforcement of anti-trust laws, labeling standards for GMO and imported foods.

At present, ten organizations have endorsed the "Goals for Just and Sustainable Agriculture and Food Policy." Endorsers include Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Federation of Southern Cooperatives (Georgia), Land Loss Prevention Project (NC), Rural Advancement Fund (SC), Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (MN), Hispanic Organizations Leadership Alliance (MD), Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture, Wright Farm and St. Thomas Livestock Association of the Virgin Islands.

The specific legislative proposals of these signers reflect their diversity. They suggest expansion of the food stamp program, including an increase in minimum benefits to $25 and increasing the eligibility to working families.

The proposals ask for payments to small farmers who are at present unable to benefit from any federal farm payments. A weather disaster for a mega-farmer means the US government throws out a financial lifeline, even scrambling to rebuild roads in foreign countries. For a small farmer in America, especially with perishable goods selling to a local markets, a weather disaster is, well, a financial disaster.

We consumers have power. Our dollars built this unfair system, and we can redirect our dollars to build a better one. At the same time, it would be nice to get a friendly nudge from our tax-supported programs. Take a piece of this farm policy, learn it by heart, and call your senator and Senator Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate Ag Committee, to teach them about it.


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