RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Paddling toward the Glacier

On Sunday, September 12, more than 25,000 music fans gathered in a stadium in Manassas, Virginia, just outside Washington D.C. The event was the Farm Aid concert, a fund-raiser and consciousness-raiser initiated in the mid-'80s by musicians Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Waylon Jennings.

The day after the concert, progressive farm leaders and friends gathered on the Senate lawn for a press conference. At least 40 media people attended.

The speakers focused mostly on the failed farm policy called Freedom-to-Farm, a policy that helps corporations control food supply and hurts family farmers. In the crowd were people from around the world -- the UK, Canada, and Poland. Also attending were U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, U.S. Representative Marion Berry, Farm Aid founder and singer Neil Young, and singer Susan Tedeschi.

Farm Aid has grown from its original fundraising mission to become an organization involved with education and activism. To join, and receive their excellent newsletter, call 1-800-FARM AID.

Comments from the press conference would take several pages, but here are some edited remarks:

Helen Waller, rancher, representing Campaign to Reclaim Rural America and Northern Plains Resource Council: "Farmers are broke, desperate, demoralized and angry ... Farmers sustain losses from both Acts of God and Acts of Congress, and frankly, the Acts of Congress are most devastating ... The economic depression gripping rural communities did not happen overnight. It comes as a result of deliberate policy decisions made in Washington D.C. ... This conflict is about power, unrestrained power, handed over to multinational corporations ... We're talking about Cargill, ConAgra, ADM, IBP, Monsanto, Smithfield and Tyson. They set whatever low prices they choose for raw materials and charge whatever high price they please at the supermarkets ... Economic power delivers political power and it is because of that political power we find ourselves today with the so-called "Freedom-to-Farm" Act which plays into the hands of the monopolized food cartel that the justice department refuses to confront. In the interest of food security, we must re-establish the integrity of the food-producing system in America."

Rhonda Perry, Program Director of Missouri Rural Crisis Center: "Is this the best farm policy corporate money can buy?" Crowd: "Yes." Perry: "Are we going to keep it?" Crowd: "No." Perry: "They're going to have to say they turned their head on rural America if they want to keep this bill."

Keith Dietrich of Nebraska, President of American Corn Growers Association: "Many political leaders are prepared to sacrifice family farmers just to save face after instituting such a monstrous national disaster called Freedom-to-Farm ... a doomed policy, a failed policy that was driven by multinational grain-processing companies and passed by elected leaders and organizations that were not representing the best interests of their rural constituents. All we're asking for is economic and social justice for rural America. We should ask for and receive nothing less from the government of this great nation."

Bill Christison of Missouri, President of National Family Farm Coalition: "Freedom-to-Farm sends corporations and vertical integrators to the bank and family farmers to bankruptcy ... The farm bill should be written to benefit family farmers and consumers, not the Cargills of the world ... a transnational corporation that steals our part of the economy ... And we must not forget, it was the American Farm Bureau that helped bring us Freedom-to-Farm."

Ralph Pace, Washington D.C., Executive Director of the Association of Southern Cooperatives: "Some seven years ago we stood here protesting the loss of black-owned farm land. Nothing has happened. The prices are the lowest they've ever been in 25 years ... Black farmers are down to under eighteen thousand in this country, less than 2 million acres of land, and I'm here to tell you just as it has happened to black farmers it will happen to all farmers. White farmers, Hispanic farmers ... I call this morning for unity ... "

Larry O'Neal, farmer from Georgia: "I've been farming for eighteen years ... After I couldn't make any money on corn and soybeans, I planted peanuts and cotton. But cotton is so cheap now I can't make any money out of cotton. It costs me $300 an acre to grow cotton and get 49 cents a pound for it. I cannot survive. I cannot provide for my family a livelihood if I can't make a decent profit. Congress doesn't care about family farmers. The family farmer is struggling trying to make ends meet."

Paul Wellstone, Senator from Minnesota: "This struggle is for all of us ... So many hardworking decent men and women and their children are being spit out of the economy and we're losing a whole generation of producers. And this will be bad for family farmers, bad for our rural communities, bad for the United States of America. I want people in our country to know that what is happening to family farmers is not inevitable ... It is the result of failed economic policies. Freedom-to-Farm has meant farming for free. It's so clear that our family farmers are being squeezed by a few conglomerates ... We're going to speak for ourselves, speak for our children, speak for our communities, speak for rural America."

Karen Armstrong Cummings, The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture: "I work with tobacco farmers who are trying to diversify their farm income and reduce their dependency on tobacco ... Freedom-to-Farm keeps tobacco farmers dependent on tobacco because Freedom-to-Farm fails. National Ag policy has changed to support corporations, not farmers. Tobacco growers have become more and more dependent on tobacco."

Congressman Marion Berry of Arkansas: "We cannot understate the contribution that American agriculture and family farm have made to the economic success of this country. Farm policy is a national security issue."

William Kleinfelter, the United Steelworkers of America: "Your problems and our problems are virtually the same thing ... We have lost in the last two years over 500,000 manufacturing jobs in this country ... good-paying jobs ... You may think we're up against amazing odds, and you are right ... but, the bottom line is that all politics is local ... We will stand with you. The steelworkers and farmers will never be defeated."

Eugene Dewitt Kinloe from Washington D.C. Community Harvest: "The food system is broken. I'm from a community about a mile from here that does not have a supermarket. It is a poor community. You've got ADM talking about that they're supermarket to the world. Well, I don't see that. It doesn't trickle down to my community. "

Brother David Andrews, National Catholic Rural Life Conference: "It's time to speak truth to power ... The respectful care of the land, plants and animals, belongs to family farmers, not transnational corporations. Our Polish friends faced an onslaught from a system that had a state monopoly on agriculture and they fought it, saving their family farms and not allowing collectivization of farms in Poland. Today we face a monopoly-controlled state that wants to collectivize ... We won't let that happen to us from Smithfield, from Murphy Family Farms or from IBP ... We don't want a politics of compassion or pity. We want the politics of justice ... We need to stop mergermania, including Cargill and Continental. I call on each state attorney general to object to the approval by the justice department in this merger. In God's plan, farming is stewardship, not cartel control ... Don't let them take your homes. Don't let them take your land. Don't let them take your souls ... Keep hope alive. God bless all of you."

Carolyn Mugar from Farm Aid: "Farm Aid is not just family farmers. It's every American who insists that their food be grown by people who care about safe, affordable food."

Neil Young, Farm Aid founder: " ... We step back and look at the big picture of corporate agriculture crushing the small farmer, and we wonder why the government would let this happen ... It may be that the big picture is about power ... There's only two or three ways to control the world ... we don't have fuel, but food we have ... we can go into every small country in the world and we can undercut their farmers and throw them out of business ... When we looked at this the first time, I felt like I was in a big bay in Alaska and I just saw a glacier. And for fifteen years, we've been paddling towards that glacier. The closer we got, the bigger it got and it is a monster. It is huge. And we have our icepicks out."

Susan Tedeschi: "This is not a test. This is a serious emergency. And call your senators and vote ... "

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1999 The Progressive Populist