Farmers Can't Eat Rhetoric

Undoubtedly in the coming debate over the 2007 Farm Bill and the 2008 presidential campaign the name and ideals of Thomas Jefferson as they apply to family farm agriculture will be repeatedly invoked. To most family farmers, unfortunately, it will be empty political rhetoric.

It has been said partly in jest, partly in serious reflection that our nation's farmers frequently reach all the right conclusions for the wrong reasons as they go about attempting to assess their plight in relation to "America's chronic agricultural crisis."

The confusion regarding what exactly is meant by the term "farm fundamentalism;" how the agrarian ideals of Thomas Jefferson, who believed so strongly in the family farm system in America, have been corrupted, how the Protestant ethic has been used by corporate agribusiness and its "communities of economic interest" as a means to divide and conquer rural America, all have played major roles in creating the hodgepodge of thinking that ones finds today all too often in many of our farm communities and urban centers.

Lost in this cacophony of self-evaluation is the one fact that seldom have the farmers' movements, except for perhaps the agrarian populists, seen their own movements in the context of a fundamental and deliberately constructed gap between the persistent maladjustments of the economic structure of agriculture and social status of rural America on the one hand and the economic and social status of urban America on the other.

To better understand how this gap has been constructed it is important that we first recount some of those fundamental characteristics which have become the hallmark and associated with the American family farmer.

Second, we must recognize how on the one hand the so-called Protestant ethic has helped mold and shape those characteristics while at the same time we understand how those ideals fashioned by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton have been influencing the political, economic and social thinking of our farm communities.

Finally, we need to evaluate the content and nature of the principal attack that is being made on our current family farm system as it has been evolving from and responding to these aforementioned influences.

Despite past perceptions by their urban neighbors, farmers have always possessed an essential intelligence, both in their adaptation to the environment, in the matter of self-preservation and in individual self-expression. At the same time they have essentially remained attuned to the manifestations of rural life, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed, the farmer is a "slow" person, "timed to nature, not to city watches."

While desirable, the truth of the matter is that Emerson's ideal has unfortunately pretty much remained just that -- an ideal, for the reality of the situation has been quite a bit different. Discussing the nature of land ownership in this country, it was pointed out by the Protestant theologian Dr. Walter Brueggemann that "the city is not simply a place, the city is a way of thinking about social reality."

Likewise, since most land ownership in this country historically has either been exercised or controlled by those who live timed to "city watches," it can be said that many family farmers within the capitalist system have frequently found themselves powerless.

As a property owner, head of the family and imagined ruler of his own economic destiny, many a family farmer continues to mistakingly identify with the wealthy and dominant class despite the fact that the erosion of the farm economy keeps robbing him of all vestiges of any real financial or political power.

It was James Madison who wrote that, "those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination." It was also Madison who, quite wisely, said that "all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree."

For nearly a century it has been exceedingly difficult for most commercial family-type farmers to accept the fact that they have been evolving into proletarians, producers of raw materials for what has essentially become a oligopolistic food manufacturing industry. Instead, they doggedly cling to the myth of their own independence.

Slowly farmers have come to realize that their production costs and the markets for their commodities are being determined by factors unrelated to the inherent physical or human resources or even the theoretical world demand for such commodities.

The fact that there is really no such thing in agriculture today as a "free market" is often overlooked today in the farmers' desire to successfully integrate themselves into the nation's present economic structure.

Agriculture itself, it has been said, is competitive, although in reality it is totally dependent on noncompetitive sectors. It is sandwiched between a tightly concentrated inputs industry which protects its profits by passing on its cost to the farmer and an equally small number of commodity traders able to play off producers on one side of a nation or globe against those producers on the other side.

Addressing this very question in a brilliant Gregory Foundation Memorial Lecture on "The Rural Foundation of American Culture" at the University of Missouri on Jan. 26, 1976, Dr. Walter Goldschmidt observed:

"I said earlier that one aspect of the Protestant ethic is a belief that each individual's value is established by his accomplishment, and that for that reason each person should be allowed to grow as wealthy and powerful as he can. But this unfettered growth of wealth and power threatens the very social framework out which it has emerged. It is not an easy dilemma to, for it confronts freedom with equality -- an age-old issue ...

"How much freedom? How much equality? Very much is at stake, not only for the farm communities, but for the whole of the American polity.

"If, as I have suggested, the growth of corporate of agriculture is not a product of efficiency, intelligence and hard work -- of virtue according to the Protestant Ethic -- but a consequence of policies and manipulations, the matter takes on a different character. The task is to reformulate policies respecting agriculture so that the competitive advantage of large scale operations are removed, so that the ordinary working farmer has an equal chance. If this is, it may not be necessary to resolve the dilemma between freedom and equality."

It is necessary that in any discussion of the shaping of the farm character and how that character has impacted on the development of US farm and food policy and that process from which it has evolved one must immediately recognize the importance of the questions posed above by Dr. Goldschmidt. How much freedom? How much equality? And, who has primarily benefited from US agricultural and food policy decisions?

A.V. Krebs publishes the online newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner, email He is author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2007

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