Farm Crisis and the Progressive Community

by Merle Hansen

Newman Grove, Neb.
"We went to work, and plowed and planted, the rains fell, the sun shone, nature smiled and we raised the big crop that they told us to, and what came of it? Eight-cent corn, 10-cent oats, 2-cent beef and no price at all for butter and eggs, that's what came of it. Then the politicians said that we suffered from overproduction." The lament of a farmer a century ago, quoted in Populist Revolt by John Donald Hicks

Now, a century later, the farm and rural crisis continues to fester. It allows conservative religious, political, social and economic forces to grow to the point where they seriously threaten democracy, the environment and our food security.

Unfortunately, the progressive community has not fully recognized the seriousness of the farm problem and has failed to appreciate the magnitude of the political fallout. Unless the progressive community understands the exploitation of farmers and rural people that is taking place, it cannot bring rural people into a coalition for a progressive agenda.

Farmers are the producers of raw materials in an increasingly corporate-dominated food system. Corporate agribusiness is dedicated to cheap raw materials, low wages as it processes and transports the food, and high prices for the consumers. Production and distribution of food is the largest single sector of the USA's and the world's economy. Just in terms of size, this cannot be ignored by any serious economic, political or social thinkers, regardless of political persuasion.

The food business impacts not only the quality and quantity of the food we eat, but the water we drink, the air we breath and the sustainability of the land we live on. Corporate agribusiness sets the prices of raw materials at the farm gate and the price at the grocery store shelves. It also has far-reaching effects on poverty, hunger, malnutrition, environment and social breakdown of society.

Vandana Shiva, in the September 11, 1995, issue of The Nation, reminds us how women's rights are tied to the land and that women still do most of the farming in the world. She reminds us that women do most of the shopping and preparation of food as well. Land reform, so closely tied to many other issues, cannot be left off the progressive agenda.

The most profitable industrial sector of the U.S. economy is corporate agribusiness. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Trade Organization, the North American Free Trade Agreement and other world economic policies and organizations help to consolidate corporate power, which ensures that these corporations control the world food economy. This comes at the expense of farmers, workers and consumers.

If we continue to allow this elite group of economic giants to dominate the farm and food sector, we are poised to dump two billion of the 3.1 billion people who still live in the rural areas of the world into the cities. There unemployment and other social, political and environmental problems await them. The forces rapidly pushing the world towards the industrialization of agriculture are the same forces dominating U.S. farm and food policies.

The chronic crisis of low farm prices and high production costs during the 1980s forced off the land 24% of the rural population in the USA. Nebraska lost one third of its rural population. Since 1945 the United States has eliminated 4 million farmers. Land loss among blacks in the South continues at a rate two and one half times greater than the national average. At one time there were 926,000 African American farmers. All of our black farmers may be gone by the year 2000.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reveals that farmers now receive only 13% of their total income from the sale of farm commodities. Farmers, their spouses and children must seek employment off the farm to get the income that allows them to continue farming and to live on the land. And these farmers many times are used by big business interests to drive down wages in the job market and to bust unions by taking the jobs of striking workers.

American farmers, producing below the cost of production, also are used internationally in a race to the bottom in "worldwide sourcing." The sheer power of corporate agribusiness, in the market place, at the Board of Trade, in the USDA, in the government, allows farm policies and food prices to be set by the transnationals. Cargill, operating in about a dozen countries a few years ago, is now in 63 countries. Former President Jimmy Carter has said that the primary cause of poverty in Africa is low commodity prices.

These low commodity prices are no boon for consumers. During the 13 years through 1992, farmers had a 2.1% negative return on equity [that is, a loss], while the corporate agribusiness sector had a 16.7% return on equity [that is, a profit]. A prime example of excessive profitability is General Mills, which had a yearly average return to equity of 52.3% from 1986 to 1991. These figures predate the huge increase in retail cereal prices to the consumer since 1991.

Full shelves in the super market belie the real story of rising hunger in this country and around the world. While the food producers of the world have been growing enough food so that every person could have a 3,000-calorie-a-day diet, three quarters of a million to one billion people suffer from hunger, malnutrition or starvation. It is getting worse; in 1950 "only" 200 million people were hungry, malnourished or starving. Nowadays 40,000 children are dying of starvation each day. A food system that allows increasing starvation amidst abundance must be changed.

There is a long history in this country of worker and farmer struggles. The Populists who rose from the Farmers Alliances in the 1890s were the leading proponents of social justice causes, such as women's suffrage, eight-hour work days, child labor laws, trust busting and the right to organize. They also opposed expansionist and imperialist foreign policy. Mark Twain was vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. The Populists a century ago elected 147 members to the U.S. Congress and controlled 17 state legislatures. These Populists recognized the impossibility of political democracy without economic democracy.

Unfortunately in recent years there has been a failure on the part of the victims (workers who receive low wages, farmers who receive low prices and consumers who are charged high prices) to organize against their common corporate enemy.

Jesse Jackson's campaigns in 1984 and '88 are instructive. He reached out to farmers even though not many farmers were reaching out to him. He came to view the farm crisis as another problem of inequality. He put the farm problem on the national agenda. This opened the gate for him to then talk about a progressive agenda to rural people. This changed the view of many rural people as to who their coalition partners should be. It temporarily slowed the lunge to the political right in rural areas that already was underway.

Jackson ran strong and won many rural counties in the 1988 Democratic primary. His role in the farm and rural crisis changed the direction of the farm movement at the time and made it into a more constructive force. If the Rainbow Coalition would have gone on to organize Rainbow groups in each precinct and county from this core, we might have a different country and rural community today. Instead, we have a vacuum filled by right-wing demagogues such as Pat Buchanan, not a progressive vision and hope.

One of the best-kept secrets in this country has been the massive opposition to GATT by rural people worldwide. In places as diverse as India and Western Europe, demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of largely rural people occurred over several years. The rural opposition to GATT and NAFTA in this country also has been strong but unrecognized.

(Although many progressives appear to have given up on rural people, it was a pleasant jolt to have the Zapatista peasants come out of the mountains of southern Mexico with fire in their belly for social change, opposing an international issue like NAFTA and calling for land reform - one of the most important needs in almost every country in the world.)

Disastrous agricultural policies will not be turned around by a few brave souls isolated from the larger social justice movements. It will take more of what Manning Marable advocated for African Americans: "The promised land of full equality and economic equity can be achieved, but only in concert with other groups of the oppressed." Farmers belong to this army of the oppressed.

Progressive activists must become more aware of how agriculture fits into the their struggles for social justice. Not often is agriculture incorporated into the roll call of social justice issues, the list of topics at conferences on social justice issues, or as a part of the thinking and analysis of the progressive community.

Although the ranks of progressive farm and rural people have been greatly depleted, as have other movements, farm and rural people do not represent a hopeless cause by any means.

Choosing coalition partners is an important step for the progressive movement. If we are to achieve equity, the farm and rural crisis is an issue we can afford to leave off the agenda. After all, rural and urban progressives have much to learn and gain from each other as we begin again from square one to organize. We must gear our thinking toward building a movement that thinks globally and acts locally for the long haul with the goal of justice.

Those who hold power cannot and will not extricate themselves from their own folly. That must be done by organized people demanding justice. We must organize, the people's way to learn, teach and change history.

Merle Hansen, a farmer from Newman Grove, Neb., is president emeritus of the North American Farm Alliance and a longtime advocate for family farms.

Nota Bene

"Justice should be the only goal of any government or people." Thomas Jefferson.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has " Margaret Mead

"Agriculture without political knowledge cannot expect justice or retain liberty." John Taylor, a friend of Jefferson

"We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics," Franklin D. Roosevelt

"We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both." Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, October 17, 1941

"The only real struggle in the history of the world ... is between the vested interest and social justice." Arnold Toynbee, historian

"Don't mourn, organize," Joe Hill

"The limit of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress." Frederick Douglass

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