Raw Deals for Family Farmers

By Jim Van Der Pol

The recent Supreme Court decision allowing virtually unlimited corporate spending in our elections is sure to accelerate some trends already in place. The government, which already serves as a corporate handmaiden and enabler through its regulatory agencies, is apt to become even more so. And that does not bode well for local food systems.

Raw milk sales are the current case in point. Issues surrounding milk are a bit remote to most of us here on the prairie, as traditional dairy is located to the east for the most part. This is not because of any unsuitability of our geography for the milking of cows. Indeed, there is a 2500 cow dairy just ten miles north west of my farm, and a 6000 cow establishment eight miles straight north. Neither of these places would sell me a bottle of milk, even assuming I was foolish enough to want it. There is also a 5200 sow hog establishment four miles to the east. We are a sacrifice zone here. A decade ago, the politicians in St Paul, in cahoots with the grabby industry booster types that are to be found everywhere, decided that since we along the “I-29 corridor” in western Minnesota were lightly populated, attempts would be made to site huge livestock establishments here, thus minimizing the legal hassles apt to be encountered elsewhere. Informal agreements were reached with both of the Dakotas, and here we are. They have won the battle. A few of us still fight the war.

And, as always, since we are few in numbers and weak, we need to choose our battles carefully. Raw milk is the first issue, and there is no doubt at all that it will be followed in no particular order, by animal identification (NAIS) and irradiation of meat. Our farm, for instance, would suffer additional cost if NAIS were implemented because the system would force us to identify every animal, passing the cost on to our customers, while our big “neighbor” to the east would be able to get by with a single premises identification. Irradiation of meat will be imposed on all small processors as soon as the conventional meat industry fails spectacularly a few more times, sickening and killing with dirty meat. Irradiation will then be seen as a general one size fits all solution, small processors will close, and the demise of hundreds or thousands of small meat marketing efforts such as ours will be mourned by a chorus of the same sanctimonious politicians that brought it on. Big Meat will be delighted.

What all of us who are being or will be impacted by these actions have to do is to begin to think very carefully of boundaries. We must think of what we will and will not do in terms of obeying laws. This is a matter of conviction and action, and a situation where each of us will need to be very sure of what our innermost beliefs and values will allow. Some of us will decide these things differently than others, and we are going to need to exert all the tolerance we can muster, right within our own groups. Defiance of government is never to be taken lightly. There are always consequences, often severe. On the other hand, it does seem that defiance of government is the only thing that ever moves the government.

We are weak, as I said before, with virtually no money, and we are few in numbers. What we do have going for us though, is the revulsion many American citizens feel toward their own government. The ongoing spectacle of a Senate that simply will not do anything useful coupled with a Supreme Court that enables the richest and most powerful organizations ever to populate the earth at the expense of the millions of ordinary citizens it ought to be protecting is turning people in their thinking. Most people simply cannot figure out why they should not be able to buy a glass of milk from a farmer. When it is explained to them that they can’t because the government says they can’t, they recognize the situation and a little voice inside many of them says: “Drink it anyway”. We Americans are thoroughly under corporate control and many of us long not to be, without really even knowing what it is that bothers us. Understanding that the government is too often acting as the corporation in disguise is an easy step for many people.

I am no anarchist. I’m not even a libertarian. I have always been and still am a believer in the role of government, and I would not for that reason encourage anyone to defiance. I think the government has an important role in maintaining order, in defending the people and their communities against huge powerful interests, and to serve as an organizing principle when people want to use it to do what they cannot do alone, such as obtaining reasonable medical care without losing their life savings. That it does not do these things does not excuse me from expecting it to do better and from working to make it do better. For our farm and business, we will work within the system to the maximum extent we can and put off any drastic decisions about disobedience until we are forced into them. We are working diligently to make sure our customers understand what is probably going to be coming and that they have some power within the system to protect what has become for many of them an important and vital connection to the land.

Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn. This appeared in Farming magazine.

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2010


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