I was first aware of Al Krebs in the 1990s at a Farm Aid event. Merle Hansen of the North American Farm Alliance was walking everywhere at the meeting holding fast to The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness. I asked him about this. He said the book was his bible -- the magnum opus on the history of exploitive corporate agribusiness by Al Krebs. Krebs, I soon learned, was the guru, the intellectual and activist genius of the family farmer advocacy movement and like everyone else I craved to know him -- to sit next to him and attempt to absorb his vast knowledge. In subsequent years that’s precisely what I have tried to do at every opportunity.
On Oct. 9, 2007, this renowned pro-family farmer/anti-corporate agribusiness journalist and historian Al Krebs died from liver cancer. He was 75 years old -- and what a fighter he was!
Talking with Al was always a unique experience -- you would share a thought on something agricultural, he would respond and then suddenly launch into a discourse of facts and figures and personal experiences about the issue you had barely touched upon and barely knew about. I talked with him frequently from my Atlanta home, sometimes into the wee hours of the night and was usually astonished by his depth of knowledge. You were suddenly being taught the history of it all -- probably more than you wanted to hear. As John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said, “once Al learned something it was in his head forever.”
Al was born in Santa Monica in 1932 and grew up in California. His father, Albert Valentine Krebs Sr., was the chief electrician for a movie studio. He was responsible for making the birds fly off the phone lines in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and he made a special bit for the talking horse, “Mr. Ed.” His mother, Ione, made braided rugs which she sold in a shop that was frequented by celebrities. He was married from September 1958 to October 1971 to Margaret, who has since re-married. Al has two sons, Jonathon and David, and two grandsons, Alexander and Ryan.
Al was quite involved in the Catholic Church which, he told me, offered a vast array of speakers on civil rights and other justice issues in the 1940s and ’50s that left its mark. In 1957 he received a bachelors degree in English from Seattle University. Prior to that he was already writing and involved in journalism. In high school, Al began his career as a journalist with the Los Angeles Examiner in the sports department, where he compiled statistics of various sorts as he covered the vast school sports program in Los Angeles.
John Hansen noted, “anyone unfortunate enough to attend baseball games with Al got the entire lineup history and current statistics, the ownership and management history, and the batting averages with men on base with either right or left handed pitching.” Al’s good friend Mike Galvin commented that though Al was “a kind and gentle person, Al said he never hated anything but the New York Yankees.”
His Seattle University experience offered Al the mixture of journalism and activism that continued for the rest of his life. Galvin notes, “Al worked on the Seattle University Spectator as an editor and writer. He was very active in school activities, including Catholic social activism, politics and the intellectual discussions and debate during a time leading up to Vatican 2. He also was an assistant drama critic to Lou Guzzo at the Seattle Times before moving to San Francisco, where he pursued a career in teaching and writing. His concern for the poor went so far as to help establish soup kitchens for the homeless in connection with the Catholic Worker movement.”
The next phase of Al’s life and work was a lineup of the most profound activists and organizations in American family-farmer and farm-worker activism. In the early 1960s he was a free-lance journalist and contributor to the National Catholic Reporter. This was when Al encountered Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers. I have tried to imagine the spirited conversations these two must have had -- I would love to have been the infamous fly on the wall! It was during this period in 1964 that Al broke the news about the Mexican and Filipino Grape Workers Strike in California’s Central Valley.
From the 1960s to the present, he worked for the National Sharecroppers Fund in New York (1969-70); Jim Hightower’s Agribusiness Accountability Project (1971-75); Consumer Action in San Francisco (1975-76); San Francisco Study Center (1977-1989); California Food Policy Project (1978-1980); Rural America (1979-1983); Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law (1989-1992); PrairieFire Rural Action (1993-95); and finally, director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project (1995-2007), which was devoted to monitoring the activities of corporate agribusiness from a public interest perspective. His work included weekly email updates, “The Agribusiness Examiner” to over 1,000 subscribers and the weekly “Calamity Howler,” with articles and information on non-agricultural corporate and government abuses from Karl Rove to the Iraq War fiasco to the concern for miners’ safety, etc. (He wrote separate “Calamity Howler” columns for The Progressive Populist.)
He served on the Board of Directors or volunteered for the North American Farm Alliance; National Family Farm Coalition; Organic Consumers Association Policy Advisory; and Family Farm Defenders. He was featured at Farm Aid events. He was asked to speak on the shenanigans of corporate agriculture at events in India and Europe.
In his agriculture research, he got to know the likes of anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt (author of As You Sow) who, during the 1930s and ’40s New Deal period, engaged in research on the harmful effects of corporate agribusiness and large acreage ownership in rural America and the disastrous consequences of industrial agriculture on the workers and communities alike. He occasionally talked with noted economist John Kenneth Galbriath who, he told me, stressed the importance of federal assistance to farmers based, of course, on empirical research. In a controversial 1954 speech to USDA graduates, Galbraith said that the Eisenhower administration’s contrary opinion on farmer assistance was “sonorous boondoggling” and an “evil viewpoint.”
The views and research of Goldschmidt and Galbraith resonated throughout Al’s agricultural philosophy, research and commentary.
What was it like to work with Al? Here’s what John Hansen had to say: “Al was a close friend of mine. We met in 1972 when we both worked for the Agribusiness Accountability Project in Washington, D.C. Al taught me how to do agribusiness research. His journalistic background and the research standards he brought to every issue were impeccable. His research and writing on agribusiness and family farm issues changed the course of more than one public policy battle over the many years.
“You had to be glad that Al was on our side. Anyone unfortunate enough to go grocery shopping with Al got the ‘rest of the story’ on who owns what brands and the ‘illusion of choice’ in the supermarket aisle. The passion of his life was family-farm agriculture. He had more institutional memory on who the agribusiness conglomerates were than any other person I have ever met or known.
“He was a walking family-farm agriculture historian who chose to defend our traditional system of family farmer and rancher owned and operated agriculture. His research skills and standards were remarkable. When you got the facts from Al, you knew they were solid, or he would not have used them.”
All of his work prepared him for what most consider his major achievement -- The Corporate Reapers: The Book on Agribusiness, published in 1992 by Essential Books. Al described to me the process of writing this mammoth history and how thankful he was to have had friends with whom he could discuss the book as well as the supportive community that offered him financial assistance and space to concentrate. It is said to have taken 10 years to write The Corporate Reapers in various phases. Ralph Nader helped fund the project.
The Corporate Reapers is a detailed 600-page history of American agriculture from the 1700s to the 1990s. Al described the struggles and movements of family farmers and rural communities to hold on to their livelihood, their land, their economic independence and integrity while constantly being challenged by corporate agribusiness and corrupt politicians. Al explained at length that corporate agribusiness control is at the expense of consumers, the environment, our health and our democracy. Nader wrote, “A veritable almanac of information, The Corporate Reapers details how multinational agribusiness has worked to destroy the family farm. Krebs explains that the decline of the family farm is not a result of the interplay of market forces, but rather of the price-fixing and anti-competitive policies of Cargill, Continental and ConAgra and the allies.”
In the introduction Al provided an overview of the philosophy behind the takeover by corporate agribusiness the past century and its anti-competitive thrust described by Nader. The rest of the book is the history of it all and what folly it is to destroy our family farm tradition and that all of us -- farmers and non-farmers alike -- are threatened by this. Al wrote, “what is the meaning of economic and political democracy when corporate power so often is able to impose its own will and narrow interests on a government originally designed of, by and for the people, and thus thwarts the will of those very same people?”
Al appropriately dedicated his book to the “stewards of the land: those men, women and children who plant, nurture and harvest nature’s bounty of food.” He wrote in Ralph Paige’s (Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives) copy of The Corporate Reapers. Al wrote, “Ralph: Seek the facts, Agitate, Raise hell, Reap the harvest, and share the bounty. In Solidarity, Al Krebs.”
Lessons from Al Krebs? There are so many for me! Here are a few. (1) If you want to challenge corporate America, he told me, one effective way is to purchase shares, attend shareholder meetings and raise hell.
(2) Don’t let anyone get away with not speaking out about injustices -- even and especially if they are your friends.
(3) You can’t be effective in your organizing work unless you can it back up with facts and history -- so know them!
(4) Everyone must stand prepared to move forward for justice no matter your circumstances --money or otherwise --just do it! Be vigilant!
He was an inspiration and always there in 2006 when we at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, where I work, were researching farm subsidies and the impact on black cotton farmers should Congress end the program. I spent hours talking with him about farm subsidies to understand the program and its history. Al agreed with one of the Alabama black cotton farmers we interviewed who warned that “if the government gets out of agriculture, both farmers and consumers are doomed. All of us will have to serve at the behest and control of corporate America.” The farmer inferred that all of us might starve if that’s what corporate America wanted.
Toward the end of his life Al was prepared to fight the battle for the 2007 Farm Bill. He was never able to get the financial support he needed for his newsletter but nevertheless he made sure his newsletter was published regardless. In one of his last newsletters, on June 11 of this year, Al wrote: “With the 2007 Farm Bill on the horizon and most likely a new Democratic Party administration in charge THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER has no intention in relenting its demand for full accountability from not only government policy makers and officials but also from farm organizations.”
When USDA Secretary Mike Johans retired in September 2007 to run for the Nebraska Senate seat being vacated by Chuck Hagel, from his bed Al called Kathy Ozer, director of the National Family Farm Coalition, to discuss what this meant. In recent conversations with Al, Kathy also asked him if he would like the recent biography of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and, of course, he did. “He was political to the end,” Kathy said.
I have just touched on the history of Al Krebs. Importantly, however, his legacy will be profound as he taught and mentored so many in the agriculture movement. Mark Ritchie, now Minnesota’s secretary of state, with whom Al had been associated for years, told me that Al managed to bridge and bring together the west, mid-west and eastern agriculture family-farm and farm-worker movements because he knew them all. Ritchie also said that he was instrumental in bridging the generations of farm movement advocacy work, which was a major and important achievement and contribution.
I will finish this with words directly from Al. He was so prolific that it’s difficult to choose something appropriate from his vast work. But I decided it best to choose a passage from the last chapter of The Corporate Reapers, which is a challenge to us all. The chapter is appropriately entitled “Bringing the Corporate State under Democratic Control.” His challenge is, unfortunately, as relevant today as it was when it was written in the 1990s.
“As the United States confronts the economic and political morass of the 1990’s and keeping in mind that the early 1990’s also marks the centennial of the agrarian populist movement, the time has come to disengage ourselves from the endless fratricide debates that have existed in the past among farmers, farm workers, labor, consumers and environmentalists. Rather, this period should be viewed as that one propitious ‘democratic moment’ in our lifetimes that we begin to seriously put together a progressive populist movement.
“It is time to be bold in our vision if we are going to be about the business of reviving the agrarian populist spirit of the 1880’s and 1890’s, we need to both think and act ‘globally,’ but act locally.
“Yes, Joe Hill. We need to quit mourning and start organizing!
“Rural Americans and family farmers in particular have traditionally associated themselves with the ideals of American democracy as enunciated by Thomas Jefferson and embodied in the rich historical tradition of agrarian populism. They should not be ignored for the leadership they can and should provide in our nation’s continuing struggle for economic and political democracy.”
Heather Gray produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this first appeared at CounterPunch.org.
From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2007
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