Throughout the world there is hardly a nation where family farmers have not come to recognize their common enemy -- corporate agribusiness! EXCEPT in the United States of America!
Examining a county-by-county red n' blue political map of the US after the recent mid-term elections one cannot help but recall, as this column did recently, American economist Thorstein Veblen's musing in his 1923 essay, "The Independent Farmer" that "farmers are surrounded by bankers, railroad magnates and food processors who profit from their effective collusive control of the market while the foolish farmer does little more than identify with the very people who are most adept at exploiting him."
Red being Republican and blue being Democrat, the northeast US was a mixed bag of colors while the south was also mixed, but more red than blue. But once one reached the Mississippi River, from that point on west it was almost solid red, except for Texas's southwestern border and a strip of land west of the Cascade mountains stretching from the Canadian border to San Francisco, California.
This is not the first time in recent elections we have seen such a pattern, and yet, with each election we see family farm agriculture in these United States continue to suffer and struggle for mere survival. As has been said, the best approach, when one finds oneself deep in a hole, is to stop further digging.
There was a time when one saw the rural/conservative/Republican vote in predominantly rural states, somewhat offset by the state's more urban liberal vote, which had the affect of occasionally nudging that state into the Democrat column. But judging by the recent aforementioned political map even that rule-of-thumb no longer holds.
Meanwhile, family farm agriculture continues to wallow in chronic crisis while the full disastrous dimensions of both Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone's tragic death and the results of the Republican sweep of Congress, the White House and Supreme Court are just beginning, at this writing, to be seen in our nation's capital.
As the National Family Farm Coalition executive director Kathy Ozer points out: "We face major new challenges in our work to change farm and food policy in the US for several reasons.
"First, the mid-term elections returned Republican control to the Senate. Second, the death of Paul Wellstone profoundly impacts the Coalition and our work on farm and food policy.
"Despite a worsening economy, the election debate emphasized a post-Sept. 11, pro-Bush war agenda. Voter turnout reached only 39%. The outcome of this election is far greater than who makes decisions on the details of farm or trade policy -- it can determine who sits on the Supreme Court or gets appointed as judges across the country."
Ozer notes that the minority House leadership of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.) will surely determine the tone of the House for the next two years, leading up to the 2004 presidential race.
Almost completely ignored in that struggle for minority House leadership was the candidacy of a real progressive who entered the race at the last minute. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), a long-time champion of family agriculture and farmers' rights, got little attention from the media, but what she had to say was far more interesting than most of the pseudo-populist tripe coming out of Washington, D.C. recently.
"To win," Kaptur charged, "our party must adopt a reform paradigm. We will never raise more money than the Republicans -- never! We must elevate the non-money wing of the Democratic Party and create populist symbols to convey our message.
"We should hold up key Republican fundraisers, such as Jack Welch and Kenneth Lay, as the 'poster boys' for the failed GOP economic strategy. We should hold the Republicans' feet to the fire on rising bank fees, skyrocketing insurance rates, tax breaks skewed to the richest Americans, and a failed deregulation strategy.
"But we Democrats," she adds, "have to articulate an alternative for America's families and workers. We should work with Democratic governors and state legislatures to push prescription drug initiatives. We should propose a federal national health insurance plan for small businesses. We should propose a national service program to help students pay off their college loans."
In addition to a counter-cyclical economic stimulus plan that includes visionary projects such as high-speed rail to get our country out of recession, Kaptur urges championing an energy independence plan that would liberate our foreign policy and help solve our balance of payment problem.
"We should," she concludes, "stand up not only for the steel industry, but also the textile workers in the Southeast, the auto parts industry in the Midwest, and the small businesses such as tool-and-die shop owners and the family farmer all around the country. They're all in trouble, and nobody's standing up for them because they're not giant multinational corporations pumping money into the political system."
In further outlining some of the grim realities faced now by the family farm movement in our nation's capital, NFFC's Ozer notes that on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) replaces Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.) as chair of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommit-tee. He also replaces Sen. Tom Harkin as chair of the Agriculture Committee. With Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) as the Senate Majority Leader, that gives major influence to the South -- heavy rice and cotton supporters -- further raising farm, trade and disaster provision questions.
Ozer adds: "For agriculture and food issues, the most significant shift is Sen. Cochran replacing Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Sen. Richard Luger (R-Ind.) will step down from the Agriculture Committee chairmanship to lead the Foreign Relations Committee. The Ag Committee's Democratic numbers will fall in correlation with the overall Senate, meaning Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) will likely lose his seat on the Ag Committee."
A small taste of what is sure to come can also be seen in President-Select George W. Bush's recent appointment of Daniel Pearson, who most recently served as assistant vice president for public affairs for Cargill, the world's largest grain trader, to fill a seat at the International Trade Commission. The appointment came after several senators, including Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who takes over as chairman of the Finance Committee in January, complained about a lack of ITC representation for "farmers" who account for more than $50 billion in annual US exports.
The ITC, a supposedly non-partisan investigative branch of the US Trade Representative (USTR) and somewhat similar to the role that the Congressional Research Service has with the US Congress, accepts submissions from the public and does its own research on the possible effects of trade.
Clearly the times are a-changin' for family farmers to put aside inbred political traditions, petty differences such as regionalism and commodityism, phony issues such as the estate tax question, such myths that the USDA actually represents the interests of family farmers, and such beliefs that the pseudo-populist politicians they routinely vote for year after year actually care for their future.
November's mid-term election results at the same time continued to show the repercussions of the Democratic Party's near abandonment of its black and Latino constituencies. Family farmers and rural communities now need to start preparing to show, in turn, the Republican Party in 2004, the dire consequences of its ever-increasing slavishly patronizing of those very same "communities of economic interests" that are driving them out of farming and off the land by the thousands.
The hour is late, maybe too late, but family farm agriculture needs not only individual leadership in this dark night of its soul, but more importantly it needs to adopt as its battle cry in the immediate years ahead the mantra of its last true political friend Paul Wellstone -- "organize! Organize! ORGANIZE! ... and ... We Will Win! ... We Will Win!"
A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WaA 98203; email email@example.com; web www.ea1.com/CARP/