Another Farm Crisis
What will it take to get consumers interested in the plight of independent
Millions of people lost their farms in the 1980s after the government urged
them to load up on debt in the 1970s and then cut off their markets while
the bankers cut off the credit. Even when the tractors rolled on Washington,
people in the cities couldn't care less because they didn't see how the
turnover of family farms into corporate agriculture affected them. Some
of the displaced farmers, with no place else to vent their rage, joined
militia movements, as Joel Dyer explored in his book, Harvest of Rage,
reviewed in this issue, but most of them simply left the land their parents
and grandparents tilled and found wage-earning jobs in the towns and cities.
The past 20 years have seen a consolidation of agribusiness industries,
giving farmers fewer choices of where they can buy their seed and feed and
where they can sell their grain and livestock. The Justice Department's
antitrust division, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen. A Democratic Congress
in 1994 passed the North American Free Trade Agreement that opened American
markets to Canadian and Mexican crops and a Republican Congress in 1996
passed a "Freedom to Farm" bill that removed price supports and
put farmers at the mercy of the "free market" rollercoaster.
The result has been a decline in personal farm income between 1996 and 1997,
a time when large agribusinesses were reporting record profits. According
to USDA estimates cited by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, lower corn and
soybean prices could cause a $1 billion loss of farm income in Iowa alone,
which could threaten up to 19,000 jobs in the state. In North Dakota, according
to the Farm Service Agency, 2,511 wheat and cattle farmers have folded in
the last two years, and an additional 1,807 are expected to quit this year,
leaving only about 26,700 farmers in this heavily agricultural state, the
New York Times reported. Farm income has nose-dived 98 percent in
North Dakota to $15 million in 1997 from $764 million in 1996, the Department
of Commerce said.
In the South, poultry processors have successfully gained a virtual monopoly
on production by controlling the farmers that are contracted to raise chickens
and turkeys for them. Farmers are required to make capital investments to
the specifications of the processors and they take the risks in raising
the birds before they are returned to the processor for a marginal profit
in a good year [See Editorial: "Shut down chicken racketeers,"
5/96 Progressive Populist]. Now pork and cattle producers are moving
in the same direction, towards integration of producers and processors,
where the meatpackers contract with farmers to raise livestock to the packers'
Small pork producers have been the backbone of the Midwestern farm economy,
where the sale of a few hundred hogs might tide over a family farm in a
year when the corn and soybeans prices weren't enough to pay the bills.
The movement of large-scale corporate producers into the market threatens
to make the small pork producer a thing of the past.
Again, most city dwellers are apathetic as long as the price of beefsteaks
and pork chops stays low, although Roger Hoffman of the Idaho Rural Council
notes on page 5 that meat prices at the supermarket remained unchanged while
farmers and ranchers were getting 15 to 20 percent less for their cattle
last year. Meanwhile, meatpacker IBP doubled its profits, to $180 million.
Small pork producers have similar complaints.
With just over two million farms remaining in the country, and more farmers
giving up every day, small farmers and ranchers need to look for other groups
to help. The Northern Plains Resource Council, a Montana-based grassroots
family agriculture and conservation organization, expressed a newfound solidarity
with organized labor in July when it organized a fund drive to buy 1,200
pounds of U.S. beef for striking auto workers and their families. "We
wanted to do something to show some real sympathy and to start making friends,"
said Jeanne Charter, an NPRC board member who ranches north of Billings.
Charter acknowledged that ranchers aren't known for seeing eye-to-eye with
unions. "But the more people thought about it, the better an idea it
seemed to do something to start building a broad enough alliance to challenge
the multinationals' predatory job and ag trading practices," she said.
"We can't let them get away with the age-old divide and conquer strategy."
Another potential ally of family farmers is the environmental movement,
which agriculture has held at arm's length.
Large-scale producers claim the right to put a factory farm with thousands
-- or hundreds of thousands -- of hogs anywhere they want, no matter how
the neighbors feel about the gut-renching stench. Family farmers who raise
a few hundred pigs seem almost pristine in comparison.
Hapless neighbors are forced to rely on spineless state environmental agencies
and the Environmental Protection Agency, which can fine the corporation
after the waste spills into the local water supply (after the hogs are sold
at a profit that makes the fine little more than a business expense). Good
luck trying to enforce air pollution regulations, even if state pollution
regulators were inclined to crack down.
Environmental groups have called on the Clinton administration to enact
a national moratorium on large livestock feeding operations until the EPA
can put meaningful regulations in place. Plainly, legislatures are not up
to the task -- at least not until consumers get energized. Perhaps the courts
can be called upon to uphold the right of neighbors to enjoy clear air and
clean water over the right of polluters to create public nuisances in the
name of the free market.
Consolidation of the nation's banking system also ought to raise concerns
among the nation's food consumers. Wells Fargo recently merged with Norwest,
which previously had taken over local banks in many Midwestern towns. When
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo sends in a new branch manager to take over
the bank in a small farming town, what's that young banker going to tell
the farmer who needs an operating loan but isn't sure he wants to use those
"Roundup Ready" soybeans or genetically engineered corn or he
doesn't want to inject his dairy cattle with hormones to increase milk production
because it isn't natural? The banker is going to tell the farmer that if
he doesn't do whatever Monsanto tells him to do, the banker won't lend him
the money and the banker probably will call in any other loans he's holding.
Where will the farmer turn then? Chase Manhattan or Citibank?
As Jim Hightower says, if you eat, you are involved in agriculture, so get
First, write President Clinton, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC 20500,
and urge him to impose a moratorium on large livestock feeding operations.
Such a moratorium need not interfere with the operations of small farmers.
Second, write your senators c/o the Senate and your representative c/o the
House, U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC 20515. Tell them that you want the USDA
to follow the recommendations of the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB),
the organics industry group whose advice the USDA ignored in writing the
proposed organics rule. that is, you don't want synthetic chemicals, non-organic
feed and antibiotics in your food. A sample letter and background information
can be found on the Pure Food Campaign Web site at http://www.purefood.org.
Third, support legislation by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen.
Harkin to restore farm income protection that was removed in the 1996 farm
bill. Their legislation was defeated along party lines in a Senate floor
vote in July. It would have removed the caps on marketing loans and set
the loan rates according to recent market prices.
Eventually new legislation will be needed to put a wall between producers
and processors. And the Justice Department will have to start applying the
antitrust law to banks and agribusinesses as well as Microsoft. But consumers
will have to realize that they have a stake in the survival of small, sustainable
farms and ranches.
-- Jim Cullen
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