Sally Herrin

Enviros Must Work with Farmers

A couple of 30-something guys recently spooked the environmental organizations by publishing a 12,000-word document stating that environmentalism is dead.

Evidence cited included the disastrous showing last November by candidates favored and bankrolled by the environmentalist community. Among Americans polled last year, almost a third said they think "some pollution is okay" if jobs are saved, nearly double the percentage holding that opinion just a few years back.

Maybe not coincidentally, the two 30-somethings now have their own 501-c-3, presumably with a mission to practice a "new environmentalism" and reach out, maybe by linking the environment to social and economic justice issues. The big environmental organizations, the report suggests, are not connected to their grassroots. Driven top down by professional environmental careerists, though well-intentioned, these groups seem irrelevant, having lost the common touch somewhere along the line and thus, inevitably, their way.

Maybe these 30-somethings are the version of Starbucks -- same old caffeine, brand new package. Or maybe they've got a point.

The reason I got into the whole farm and trade policy game is this: Of the land that makes up the United States of America, most of what doesn't belong to the federal government is still in the hands of family farmers and ranchers. Near as I can tell, the alternative is large-scale, concentrated agriculture by the big multinational corporations.

Between the two -- the few corporations or the many farm and ranch families -- which provides better stewardship? The families who have to live where they farm and ranch-raise their children with the consequences of their farming and ranching methods. Thinking it through, I decided that the most important thing I could do to protect the biggest part of the land was to KEEP that land in the hands of family farmers and ranchers. And here is where I differ from the policy-makers at some national environmental groups.

The heads of some of the largest environmental organizations do not care who farms the land. They don't actually oppose corporate agriculture, so long as they (the big environmental organizations) get to make the environmental rules.

During passage of both the 1997 and 2002 Farm Bills, despite efforts on both sides to build a coalition between farmers and environmentalists, at the 11th hour the enviros tried to make a separate peace, rolled over on price supports, and sold US ag producers down the river, to the lasting detriment of us all, including the environment.

Depressed prices mean ag producers -- who cannot set the price of what they produce due to monopolistic concentration in agricultural markets -- try to squeeze even the tiniest margins out of the land they have to farm. That means more inputs, more pressure to over-produce ... in short, more pressure on the land.

Recently, the head of the Environmental Working Group hailed the Bush administration's proposal to cap farm program payments, proving one more time they just don't get it. This cap does nothing meaningful either to reduce USDA spending (all farm payments together total about 1% of USDA spending) or to help farming and ranching families. In fact, days before the Bush proposal came forward, a group of progressive ag economists called for a return to the successful commodity supply-management policies of the mid 20th century, which provided profits in the market to ag producers and cost US taxpayers little, and in some years nothing.

Even the largest independent farmers and ranchers are small fry next to the real beneficiaries of current farm policy, the processors.

The real welfare recipients are the grain processors, and their subsidy is the LDP (loan deficiency payment), paid to farmers to allow processors to pay prices even further below the cost of production for every major commodity. It's not subsidies to American farmers that harm poor farmers in other countries, and the collapse of US prices is creating over-production, driving prices still lower for everyone. To live, farmers everywhere are pressed to farm more and more marginal land (more soil erosion polluting more water), with more inputs, using more energy and water, for less profit.

Meanwhile, people who have no money still can't buy, and many go hungry around the world, especially children. The processors are the only real beneficiaries, and no matter how low prices go, the grain trade still wins.

If I sound bitter, I am. I'm also a dues-paying member of Sierra Club, which has an outstanding organizer in my state, but in my experience the Club suffers some of the problems outlined in the report. Also in my state, a handful of authentic grassroots groups work very effectively on water and zoning issues, and sporting groups like Ducks Unlimited (they prefer to call themselves conservationists) go quietly about the business of protecting habitat, especially water.

Farmers looking down the abyss of another Farm Bill by a Republican Congress sure could use some real help this time around. The inability of some large environmental organizations to appreciate the structural problems in US farm policy prevents their participation with farmers and consumers -- who are increasingly on board with important issues like mandatory country-of-origin labeling -- for what could and should be a powerhouse coalition.

Sally Herrin is District 5 president of the Nebraska Farmers Union and teaches English, psychology and philosophy at Southeast Community College in Milford, Neb.

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