Get Involved in Agriculture

Last week I was eating an ordinary supper for this time of year -- hamburger garnished with tomato and onion, cucumber, potato, and cookies for dessert. I found myself taking extraordinary pleasure in my supper, and I really couldn't think why until later, when it struck me: Everything on my plate was grown or baked by somebody I love.

This summer for the first time I am a half shareholder in Equinox CSA (community-supported agriculture). With other Lincoln families, I pay in advance for my vegetables which are raised organically by a local family. Barb and her husband and children, along with some volunteer participation by CSA members, provide us every Monday with the freshest possible produce, April through October, plus the happy conscience that goes with being both earth-friendly and helping out our local economy.

Since last spring, I've been buying fresh frozen chickens from my friends out by Fullerton. They bring me beef and pork as well. Annette is an amazing, prodigious baker, and so I have her hamburger rolls for the hamburger she raised, and her cookies to make me fat and happy.

If you raise your food, or live in a very small town, you know how your food is grown and by whom. Almost no one else in America today can say the same.

They say the making of sausage, like the making of public policy, is not a pretty business. It's better not to watch. I say that we'd better start looking closely at both.

It's not just treehuggers today who know we need to protect the vital systems of the planet. And it's not just farmers who understand that we need to protect the system of family farms and ranches that produce most of America's food and fiber. Everyone who eats has a stake, and that was a central message of Rural Unity Day, a meeting to demand income relief for farmers and ranchers in crisis.

Thirty farm and rural, church, education and business organizations sent their members to stand in the heat of Centennial Mall, Lincoln, Nebraska, on Friday afternoon, August 27, to hear a strong, unified message:

(ogonek) The farm crisis, described by Darrel Buschkoetter (the farmer of The Farmer's Wife on PBS) as good producers going broke, is here now.

(ogonek) The farm crisis is due to low prices, not lack of rain or bad winters or lack of exports. High-volume exports do not help when price is below the cost of production. Volume times a loss is just a greater loss.

(ogonek) Low prices are a direct result of the abandonment of federal farm policies established in the 1930s. Low prices to farmers don't benefit consumers. One bushel of grain produces 64 boxes of cereal. That's $2 to farmers, and $225 from consumers, with the grain trade pocketing most of the difference.

(ogonek) Farm policy must be rewritten to include acreage reduction, storage, and price supports.

(ogonek) All people of conscience and vision need to educate producers, the public, and elected officials about the desperate need for a fair price to ag producers as the key to protecting and preserving rural America.

"After fifteen years of lower loan rates, we have not improved exports," said President Keith Dittrich of American Corn Growers Association. The Nebraska chapter of ACGA was co-host with Nebraska Farmers Union for this event. "In fact in those fifteen years, using USDA figures, corn exports have never maintained the levels they were when loan rates were much higher, during 1979-84.

"The free market theory which was instituted by the 1985 farm bill [and set in concrete if not stone in the 1996 farm bill -- writer's note] has continued to be a dismal failure. The economic reality is that the theory of current farm policy is flawed due to the fact that agriculture works within a very unique business structure.

"This structure does not allow the independent producer the ability to price the product or manage inventory as most other businesses do. The ag producer also does not have the ability to know production potential or total cost of production until after it is produced. This leaves the independent producer at the whims of the market. Therefore, government must provide the means for the ag producer to fairly price the product and manage its supply," Dittrich said.

In case you haven't been paying attention: during the decade of the 1980s, one third of the rural population of Nebraska evaporated. Moved to Lincoln, Omaha, hub towns like Kearney and Norfolk.

This is not a simple matter of Dad changing jobs. Every farm failure is a tragedy. Families, marriages and individuals are harmed forever. Dreams and traditions are lost, not to mention homes. Small towns that serve family farmers and ranchers dry up and blow away. Some heal, some don't.

The family farm system of agriculture, the very foundation of Jefferson's dream of a democracy safe because the people owned the land, is on the line today. If we stand back, we will forever be known as the generation that sold the farm, that turned America, like most of the Third World, into a nation of landless peasants. Our family farm system, though down to 2 million farmers from the 6 million in mid-century when I was born, is the envy of the world. We work some of the finest farmland anywhere, we produce the highest quality, safest food, and we cannot make a living. Something is terribly wrong.

What's wrong is not an accident. Congress passed a farm bill that is having the effect the grain and meat traders who designed it intended -- unrestrained production and price dropping through the floor. This crisis was made in Congress and we must now find remedy in Congress. American society has a right to expect our representatives to be something better than choreboys and handmaids to the highest corporate bidders.

Everyone who eats has a stake in how food is produced. How our food is raised is inseparable from who raises it. Factory farms, sucking the profit out of rural communities for the benefit of absentee landlords and outside investors? Or women and men like Annette and Barb and Keith, independent producers who build and sustain their communities, who care for the land because they live there?

The women who raise the food I eat -- and feed my child -- attended Rural Unity Day. Barb sat with her children in a patch of shaded grass. Annette spoke from the podium as a mother, who hoped to see her son follow his dream of ranching like his mom and dad before him.

One by one, women and men of enormous dignity and all bearing the burden of a great and terrible knowledge stood up in the breathtaking August sun and asked for fairness for farm and ranch families and rural communities. Commodity farmers and livestock producers, sustainable agriculture proponents, religious caregivers, educators and business people, all spoke from the heart, all told of terrible suffering, and each one was asking for change.

Sally Herrin is education and communications director of the Nebraska Farmers Union. Email or phone 402-476-8815.

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