For the better half of the 20th century and into the 21st the progressive populist family farm movement has been able to take pride in the fact that perhaps its most articulate and staunchest activist has been Merle Hansen, a retired feed grains, grass and Charolais Nebraska cattle rancher who recently celebrated his 85th birthday.
Past-president and now president emeritus of the North American Farm Alliance, a former board member of the National Family Farm Coalition and a long-time farm organizer, Hansen has been a ceaseless outspoken critic of US farm policy and the dominant role that corporate agribusiness has played in conceiving and nurturing such policies.
"They are not only setting farm, trade and food policies for the US," says Hansen, "they set them for the world. I was with Jesse Jackson when he toured Africa in 1986. I talked with a lot of commissioners of agriculture while he was talking with the heads of state. I asked the commissioner in Tanzania, 'How do you set farm prices?' He said, 'Oh, that's easy, the Chicago Board of Trade.'"
Frequently citing Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis's plainspoken words, "You can have democracy in this country, or you can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but you can't have both," Hansen has tirelessly argued, as did Thomas Jefferson, that you can't have political democracy without economic democracy. "When I get a chance, I go out and talk about this thing, write about it, and preach about it," says Hansen.
In 1996 Hansen did an extensive interview with author Studs Terkel for Terkel's book Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century By Those Who've Lived It. In that interview Hansen recalls how, when he was 13, his father Carl was active in the Farm Holiday Association, which fought the judges, the banks and the railroads throughout the Midwest on behalf of family farmers.
He recalls, for example, his father frequently saying that the longer he lived the more ways he expected to see the people get repeatedly tricked into paying for a national railroad system that they had no chance of ever owning.
He likewise remembers "Franklin D. Roosevelt calling up Milo Reno [president of the Farm Holiday Association and the most militant of the farmers' protest groups of the 1930s] and stating, 'You got a revolution going on out there.' Reno replied, 'Boy, I sure have.' So Roosevelt went to Congress and said, 'Listen, by God, you better do something because these farmers are revolting, tipping over trucks and hanging judges. You sure as better do something.'"
It wasn't too long after that the Roosevelt Administration enacted legislation that established the idea of farm parity and the nonrecourse loan, which not only saved American family farm agriculture but would become the familiar theme on which Hansen would base his organizing efforts when speaking to farm audiences.
"There was a time when I was an outcast in my own community," says Hansen, "but that is not true today. When I opposed the Vietnam War, people wrote me letters threatening to kill my cattle and saying that I was a terrible, unpatriotic person. My kids paid dearly for it. Our car was vandalized and in school our kids were taunted and called Communists. My son John was starting to wear long hair and, boy, were they out to get him.
"He's a football player and a pretty tough guy, but about four or five damn hoodlums caught him in town and roughed him up. Today, when he comes to Newman Grove and speaks as president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, some of these very same people say he's really good.
"Oh, things have changed today," Hansen reflects. "I'm more respected in this community than I've ever been. I haven't changed, my community has changed -- and for the better. We talk about a lot of things, about what's really hurting today. They know they're only one mistake away from being totally wiped out."
Rather prophetically, in light of the recent election, Hansen noted in the aforementioned 1996 interview with Terkel that "the electorate is not always sore at the right people. This is the tragedy of America. We often chase the wrong rabbit. We have to try to convince people who their allies are and who their real enemies are."
Hansen, who was an agricultural advisor to the Jesse Jackson 1986 presidential campaign, has also been active for many years in Nebraskans for Peace. "Unfortunately, I don't get around as much as I used to," he says. "But I am still sounding off about conditions, about tying all the issues together. Whether we'll succeed or not, I don't know, but you've got to keep trying."
This writer's first encounter with the Hansen family was in 1971 when I joined Jim Hightower and the staff of the Agribusiness Accountability Project. Shortly after that we hired a young intern named John Hansen, and since the both of us were strangers to Washington, D.C., we rapidly became friends, hoisting our share of brew at day's end.
It was in 1976 at a conference for farmers and consumers in Nashville, Tennessee, sponsored by the non-profit Agriculture Marketing Project, that I first met Merle Hansen. Our meeting came after he gave one of the most poignant speeches I have ever been privileged to hear, pointing out to a literal who's-who of the public interest movement how all the various "causes" in which those present were involved were tightly interconnected in the struggle for economic and social justice and world peace.
"I think the most important thing for people to do now is organize grass-roots groups, where people get together and learn how to do things," Hansen told Terkel. "In the slavery days, if the master found his slaves knew how to read, he'd kill 'em. We desperately need truth seekers. I have a farmer friend who likes to say, 'The trouble is we know so damn much that ain't true.' What we're faced with is unlearning a whole bunch of stuff, and we've gotta start learning something about a new world. Yeah I'm still preaching, you bet!"
In the present day world we have few genuine heroes, but in the eyes of this calamity howler my long-time good friend Merle Hansen is indeed an authentic hero.
A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, which publishes the online newsletter The Agribusiness Examiner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.