With each passing day it becomes more apparent that our nation's family farmers are going to have to rapidly remove the shackles of the recent past, face political and economic reality and collectively organize for the future if they are to survive.
The choice is clear and stark!
Either family farmers must revive and adhere to their proud agrarian populist tradition or find themselves amongst the growing number of corporate agribusiness' "excess human resources."
As Populist historian Norman Pollack stresses, citizens must now, as they did in the 19th century Populist movement, challenge the strident materialism of our day and "work to achieve a democratized industrial system of humane working conditions and production of human needs." It was the 19th-century populists who sought to build a society, in sum, where individuals fulfilled themselves "not at the expense of others but as social beings, and in so doing attain a higher form of individuality."
Thus, the type of society family farmers and their rural neighbors should be striving for in the 21st century is one to be judged not at its apex, but at its base; that the quality of life of the masses should be the index by which we measure social improvement. Like their agrarian Populist predecessors, 21st-century populism must undertake to remain a radical social force within a present day political system that provides little or no opportunity for the expression of radicalism.
They should not wed themselves to a modern politically expedient populism characterized by racist and xenophobic attitudes. The 21st-century populists critique of existing arrangements must also go beyond economic conditions to embrace individuals' plight. They must address the dehumanization and loss of autonomy in a society that rapidly reduces the individual to being dependent on someone else's decision, laws, machinery and land.
Integral to this 21st-century approach is the conviction that individuals can consciously make their future. There is nothing inevitable about misery or squalor, or the concentration of wealth, or the legitimization of corporate power; nothing is sacred about the status quo, or about the institutions that safeguard that status quo.
Laura B. DeLind, a specialist in the Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University, has argued that the long-standing duplicity on the part of corporate agribusiness makes family farmers readily susceptible to (and firm believers in) agricultural programs, services, technologies and research that promote "efficient," business-like farm management and production.
"In turn, such strategies of commercial `self-improvement' serve an economic and political system dominated by corporate capital. The family farm, like the 'emperor's new clothes,' does not exist, at least not in any analytically or programmatically useful way," Delind continues. "It is a torturous twisting of reality, under the guise of 'conventional wisdom,' and it obscures far more than it reveals."
Efforts in recent years by many new, well-meaning allies of family farm agriculture, who unfortunately are ill-informed regarding the economics and history of agricultural policy, have been primarily focusing on such issues as genetically engineered crops, mad cow disease, animal rights, environmental issues, etc.
This, however, has only tended to muddle public perception when it comes to the plight of the vanishing numbers of "the modern-day independent, yeoman family farmers." It has in a very significant way tended to draw public attention away from the larger question of corporate concentration and the economic policies and political power relationships that such concentration exacerbates in agriculture. As DeLind concludes:
"The category family farm must be pried apart. It must be opened up so that its internal contradictions can be seen, not hidden, and used as a basis for identifying and comparing the relative class positions of producers. This would provide a keener awareness of the structure of agriculture (why and how policies do and do not work and for whom). In addition, any long-term action to reform the system -- to bring about a more equitable distribution of power and income -- must rest on class-based alliances which cut across the 'family farm' category and which are not coincidental with it."
By renewing their agrarian populist heritage family farmers also have the opportunity to emulate that progressive revolt that Ralph Nader has termed "still the country's most fundamental political and economic reform."
Populism, as noted historian Lawrence Goodwyn reminds us, was characterized by an evolving democratic culture in which people could "see themselves" and therefore aspire to a society conducive to mass human dignity. In stark contrast to their efforts was the direction they saw being taken by the corporate state in the existing society."
Populism clearly recognized that condition and thus believed that it was imperative to bring the corporate state under democratic control. "Agrarian reformers," Goodwyn points out, "attempted to overcome a concentrating system of finance capitalism that was rooted in Eastern commercial banks and which radiated outward through trunk-line railroad networks to link in a number of common purposes much of America's consolidating corporate community. Their aim was structural reform of the American economic system."
In his book The Myth of the Family Farm: Agribusiness Dominance of US Agriculture, Ingolf Voegler, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, points out that corporate agribusiness has managed to create its own self-serving "family farm" myth which it has supported collaterally by four other myths, namely, the work ethic myth, the free enterprise myth, the efficiency myth and the equal-opportunity myth. Belief in such myths has been the basis of the "conventional wisdom" that has not only exacerbated a wholesale exodus of family farmers from farming, but has reduced the role of those remaining in our food delivery system to being chattel, merely raw material providers for a giant profit-driven food manufacturing system.
It is time family farmers put aside such "conventional wisdom" that for so long has enslaved them, speak truth to corporate power and begin to act collectively in their own and in the general public's self interest. Clearly, the time has come!
Don't Whine, Organize!
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free email newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email firstname.lastname@example.org; web site www.ea1.com/CARP/