Food -- its quality, price, safety, availability, and its healthiness -- have in recent years have received attention in newspaper and magazine articles, books, TV documentaries and movies.
While such issues concerning the food we eat are important ones, unfortunately the vast majority of this attention has tended to obscure if not detract from the crucial issue concerning the fate of the nation's family farmers and whether the consuming public and our elected representatives care enough about their future and the communities in which they live.
Judging from recent history the answer to that question, fueled by the propaganda from corporate agribusiness, is a resounding "no."
Not only is there a genuine disinterest in the question of how family farmers economically survive, but there is also a seeming indifference to the concentrated corporate power that is driving farmers into bankruptcy and the loss of their farms.
In my 1992 book -- The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness -- I sought to explain how corporate agribusiness at all levels dominates our food economy, our trade policies, our health system and our agriculture.
Since then, I have seen only two books, amidst all the material that has appeared concerning food, that specifically deal with the plight of our family farmers.
Evaggelos Vallianatos's comprehensive and rich This Land is Their Land: How Corporate Farms Threaten the World [Common Courage Press, 2006] shows that if we abandon family farm agriculture to corporate agribusiness, we not only place the very staff of life at peril along with our nation's rural culture, but we also deny the age-old principles of economic and social justice without which democracy can not spread and flourish.
In Victor Davis Hanson's straightforward and brutally honest Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea [Free Press, 1996], we are confronted with the ultimate challenge by this Greek scholar and former California raisin grower when it comes to dealing with modern agriculture.
Thus, both authors in their own way confront agriculture's must basic problem -- a fair price for what they produce and dealing with corporate power. It is not that the introduction of genetic engineered crops, country of origin labeling, soil depletion, organic farming, eminent domain and environmental issues among others aren't important, but even if all these problems were to be satisfactorily resolved, family farm agriculture would still be confronted, as history clearly shows, with the fair price and concentration issues.
Going to back to the early colonists rebelling against the British over the quit-rent system and high tariffs which were being imposed upon them by King George -- which, not surprisingly, led them to become the bulk of George Washington's revolutionary army of independence -- to their subsequent rebellions against the state's high tariffs on their crops to pay for the war debt that led to the demise of the Articles of Confederation and the adoption of the US Constitution, farmers have fought for fair prices.
In the early 19th century the economic inequality between the agrarian south and the industrialized north certainly played a large part in the eventual war between the states, just as the series of economic panics and crisis after the war with western farmers angry over the lack of access to Eastern capital culminated in the agrarian populist movement prior to the turn of the century.
Due to the success of the populist movement, and the possibility that it might unite with the labor movement in a concerted effort to not only gain fair prices for their products but fair wages for all workers and radically change the economic structure of the nation, corporate America united along with a rejuvenated Republican Party ushered in the Progressive Movement as a counter offensive movement.
Throughout the 20th century the ramifications of that struggle has manifested it through farm depressions, the New Deal, the "get big or get out" era to the most recent "freedom to farm" legislation.
When we look at the dire situation, therefore, that has perennially faced family farm agriculture we see it as not just a period of periodic crisis but as a chronic crisis which stems from two basic long-standing facts:
1) The accelerated erosion and destruction of our nation's rural economy and its "family farm system" of agriculture is the result not of failed programs and policies, but precisely the opposite. It is the result of carefully developed and successfully implemented policies designed by corporate agribusiness to concentrate its own economic power and thereby eliminate from agriculture its abundant and productive human resources, and
2) US farm policy has been based historically not on the reality of what was taking place in agriculture and within the national economy, but rather on self-serving, contorted explanations of that reality by various policy planners and implementers who represented an ever-narrowing body of "communities of economic interests."
Consequently, throughout our history we have witnessed a wholesale exploitation of our agricultural system by corporate agribusiness and its "communities of economic interests" directed at driving farmers, farm workers, labor and consumers apart while diverting the taxpayers attention away from the root causes of this chronic crisis.
It has done this by preaching about farm practices and "excessive" government regulations, by creating artificial divisions within the farm community and by replacing a fair price in the market place with an ever-escalating unfair burden of debt.
At the same time, unfortunately, many farmers and consumers have failed to recognize or understand the ulterior motives of such corporate/govern-ment/land grant college planning, and the success of these "communities of economic interest" in obtaining their primary goal -- namely, destroying farmers economic and political power through forced liquidation caused by enforced low commodity prices.
In pursing its objectives, corporate agribusiness has sought to steadily diminish the role of the family farmer in the production of our food, reducing them to a small group of economically and politically impotent raw material providers controlled afar by a select number of giant corporations.
Make no mistake about it, agricultural policy and the prices paid to farmers are determined not by what is taking place in the fields and orchards of the country, but in Washington, D.C., and in board rooms all across America and the world.
What is needed today is to trace the history of US agricultural policy from a family farm perspective in such a way that it will hopefully educate consumers on how that policy has steadily evolved into the self-destructive form we see today and which poses ultimately a threat to our food supply and our democracy.
At the same time, farmers need to be reacquainted with their proud prior struggles for economic and social justice. By hopefully inspiring them to reject the propaganda put forth by the "enemies within" and politicians beholden to their corporate paymasters who traditionally count on the farm vote while betraying their constituencies by their ag policy votes, farmers can effectively organize and demand federal legislation, such as the upcoming 2007 Farm Bill, that is just and fair.
Through the ages Thomas Jefferson has been revered for his belief in family farm agriculture and its respectful place in our nation's economy so it is appropriate that we invoke his thoughts today on the subject.
Agriculture, of course, by its very nature has undergone a number of changes since his day, but the one principle that was at the core of Jefferson's thinking should act as a cornerstone for all of agriculture -- that you can not have political democracy without economic and social democracy.
A.V. Krebs publishes the online newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner, email firstname.lastname@example.org. He is author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness.
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