Passage of the 2002 Farm Bill may prove to be the defining moment for family farm agriculture in our nation's history for the gauntlet has now been thrown down as to whether family farms are to assert themselves in an organized grassroots fashion or abdicate their remaining and dwindling power to corporate agribusiness.
It has been disgusting to see purported grass-roots membership farm organizations and those groups and organizations that purport to be the friends of family farmers grovel about for a few legislative crumbs off the table that were given them by the self-serving politicians that framed this new legislation.
While "commodityism" and "regionalism" once again reared their ugly heads in the debate over the legislation, the public, the media and the politicians were also being fed -- in daisy chain fashion -- a steady diet of anti-subsidy misinformation which not only betrayed the perpetrators ignorance of farm economics, but heaped scorn upon the US's already beleaguered farmers from nations near and far throughout the world.
Throughout this current anti-subsidy propaganda blitzkrieg and the resulting legislation the organized family farm community remained shamefully mute. Save for the National Family Farm Coalition and a few of its local and regional affiliates no group or organization publicly challenged these subsidy myths that were abroad in addition to openly opposing the final farm bill that has now been signed into law by President-select George W. Bush.
This lack of verve and spine not only resulted in farm legislation that is already doomed to failure, but as policy that only continues to contribute to an image of farmers and the communities in which they live as being greedy and absorbed in self-interest at the expense of the common good.
The result has been a public relations disaster for family farm agriculture, in addition to successfully playing into the hands of corporate agribusiness in its century-old campaign to rid agriculture of its "excess human resources."
As Keith Mudd, a farmer near Monroe City, Mo., so succinctly framed the current farm subsidy question, "regardless of where the income comes from, larger farmers will have the funds to buy out smaller neighbors. Therefore, it is not the subsidy that allows the larger farmers to buy out their smaller neighbor, it is the system. If Cargill and ADM had to pay for our production, the subsidy would not be necessary. If commodity prices were higher, farmers would make money from farming, would be less inclined to quit and would reduce the opportunity to expand farm size."
Mudd's analysis is the type of message that the public needs to hear with the same regularity that it has been subjected to by those who believe that "subsidies" are the "evil-doers" in agriculture.
Today, any family farm policy worth considering requires that two related and fundamental issues need to be enunciated in a clear and unequivocal voice as family farm agriculture seeks to speak truth to corporate power, i.e. a fair market price paid to farmers for what they produce and meticulous consideration as to the consequences of corporate concentration in agriculture and our food system.
It is incumbent, therefore, that family farm agriculture become focused on these two elementary issues and that in setting out an agenda to educate the public, the media and most importantly our elected representatives that it seeks every possible contrivance to bring these two issues constantly into the mainstream of public dialogue when it comes to the question of farm and food policy. Thus, through constant and unrelenting educational efforts we need to marshall those facts in a way that they become both clear and unambiguous.
Relative to the market price issue, it bears constant repeating, the words of former Texas Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower, chairman of the Democratic National Committee's Agricultural Council in 1984, when he chaired a series of eight nationwide farm policy forums on agriculture and concluded in his final report:
"When all was said and done, it came down to one word: Price. Other important issues were discussed at the forums sponsored by the DNCAC 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."
Thus, no matter what the agriculture-related issue from conservation to country-of-origin food labeling, family farm activists need to constantly return to the question of price and how an equitable market price for farmers can be achieved. That issue can be approached from several different angles, but somewhere in that mix there are a few essential matters that need to be addressed.
First, today's reality of just what constitutes an efficient family farm needs to be made clear. Again, as Mudd reminds us, "The Environmental Working Group argues that most of the subsidies go to the largest of farmers, who in turn use it to buy out their smaller neighbors. The truth is that all farmers, regardless of size, must use the subsidy just to raise the value received for their commodity above the cost of production. In most instances, the cost of production is covered and something is left over for living expenses. In practically no instance is anything left over that would be considered a return on investment (land and equity)."
In conjunction with an effort to determine just who is a family farm farmer and who isn't there is also the need for both regional and national full cost, life-cycle accounting and pricing studies for sustainable development agriculture. Not only would this allow people to more clearly understand the costs and what happens to their food before it leaves the farm gate, but it would go a long way toward dispelling the myth that the United States enjoys the cheapest food per capita of any nation on earth, when in fact our food system is replete with hidden economic, social, health, political and environmental costs.
The vast majority of those costs are now being borne by the public in general in various and sundry ways, ways which need to be shorn of their sophistry and laid bare as lies and deceit. In doing so the culprits, the propagators of such lies and deceit, those who A.C. Townley -- co-founder of the Non-Partisan League -- referred to as "the gamblers in the necessities of life," need to be held up to public scrutiny, warts and all!
By taking this approach we can demonstrate that the issue of a fair market price neatly folds into the second major issue that needs our immediate and carefully documented attention -- market concentration -- along with its many and varied forms and its resulting anti-competitive and anti-democratic consequences.
Clearly, these issues of a fair market price for agricultural commodities and increasing concentration must be joined together in not only a way that people can come to unequivocally understand, but that are shown as two cuts from the same cloth. To allow ourselves to be sidetracked by a lot of relative extraneous issues is only to play into the hands of our adversaries and divert our attention from the goal of achieving lasting social and economic justice in the context of the common good.
In short, as agrarian populist activists, we need to be the framers of our own arguments for economic and political democracy and not simply be placed on the defensive all the time or become entrapped in the classic "liberal dilemma." For, as Hightower has so straightforwardly put it, "we need to stop being progressives, and become aggressives!"
At the same time we also need to say to our well-meaning, but often single-minded colleagues, and to our sometimes apathetic, sometime passive farm neighbors -- if you are not going to be part of the solution, then you are indeed part of the problem!
There is no question that there are myriad agricultural and environmental issues facing us as a nation. But until we can authoritatively show that the system's issues are not the issue, but that THE issue is the system itself we will continue to see in agriculture unfair prices for farmers, more market concentration, and consumers forced to play Russian roulette with their own health and welfare and that of their families every time they shop for their food.
A.V. Krebs operate the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203; email firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ea1.com/CARP/