Disease of the Month?

Farming has become the disease of the month on television. We have so many problem the media is paying attention to our plight as, never before. The Farmer's Wife, the story of a Nebraska farm family's troubles, was recently shown on PBS and Farm Aid just conducted their yearly telethon. Forecasts are that 25% to 30% of farmers in some states will lose their farms this year due to poor prices and weather-related disasters.

Months long drought in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas have been followed by such a march Of army worms that coops are unable to supply enough pesticide. Now torrential rains are causing floods. One of my Oklahoma friends says she feels like part of a Biblical plague.

Since we have the attention of the media, now is the time for us to ask for innovative solutions. But first we need to learn some of the ways we got to where we are. Ask your library to get you a copy of An Adaptive Program for Agriculture (Library of Congress No. 62-19146). This 70-page booklet is the 1962 report of the Committee for Economic Development which was comprised of 75 top leaders of the nation's most powerful corporations.

Let me quote a few lines:

"The movement of people from agriculture has not been fast enough to take full advantage of the opportunity that improving farm technology and increasing capital create for raising the living standards of the American people. The important lessons of agriculture are that the free market is precious and that its preservation requires positive action. We have noted that agriculture's chief need is a reduction of the number of people in agriculture."

If those words don't upset you, how about these:

"What we have in mind in our program is a reduction of the labor force on the order of one-third in a period. of not more than five years. This would be some 400,000 to 500,000 persons per year."

These executives might have meant well, but they didn't asked farmers if they wanted to be programmed off the farm. Although we keep hearing that living on the farm makes up for low income, we want to stay on the farm. It must be an attractive way to live because so many people. who make good money in the city choose to move to rural areas and commute.

I read about the adaptive program in Joel Dyer's Harvest of Shame, which explores the deep rural roots of today's growing and increasingly deadly antigovernment movement. Dyer quotes Dr. Glen Wallace, former director of rural mental health services in Oklahoma, a few weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing saying, "I don't even know if I should say this, but the minute the bomb went off I suspected it was because of the rural crisis. These people (the farmers) have suffered so much."

Dyer goes on to say, "Dr. Wallace and a number of his peers who specialize in rural psychology have been watching this metamorphosis in rural attitude from. anger turned inward (farm suicide) to anger turned outward (antigovernment beliefs) for nearly fifteen years. Suicide has become the number one cause of death on America's farms."

My role as a farmer advocate certainly includes hearing the terrible despair of poultry growers who call early and late with their stories of struggle to keep their farms. Now the television is full of farmers of every commodity leaving the land that is a part of their family history.

Farmers are told that exports are the future of agriculture. When that market hits a wrinkle, such as the current economic crisis, we have even more surplus commodities. This is not just a problem here in the United States. Farmers in France, Ireland and other countries have demonstrated in the streets recently, asking their governments for help.

Building a "field of dreams" only works in the movies. Farmers have overflowed that field with food and they aren't coming to buy.

So ... they programmed a lot of farmers off the land and we still have the same problems; it is time to look at the whole system. We must put as much thought and effort into finding solutions as is put into the constant quest to be efficient by using so-called economies of scale. (I detest that phrase, which is used as if that is the only way to be more efficient.)

In my commodity, poultry, how much to produce is a company decision and they keep expanding. At the same time, growers have longer layouts and fewer birds placed in their houses because of the oversupply of poultry.

Contract farming is supposed to be a risk management tool for farmers and will be a part of the agricultural future. As I have said before, contract farming has saved many small farms, but it will not work if companies do not pay enough to provide farmers with a fair price for their service and a reasonable return on their investment.

An idea came to me last year, after driving through the boarded-up towns in western Kansas, which alternate with concentrated livestock feeding operations. As I drove on into the Oklahoma Panhandle, with its distance between farms and ranches I was thinking about the pollution from similar concentration afflicting northeastern Oklahoma and northwestern Arkansas.

Somewhere out west of Woodward, it occurred to me that one of the reasons pigs are being stacked in great numbers into the same area as chickens is that the feed mills, which are being built large for economy of scale, can supply a lot more farms. The scenery out there encourages flights of fancy so I let my mind imagine smaller mills, rebuilding the rail system to transport corn from the Midwest and small packing plants that wouldn't tax the water supply so much and provide employment for a small area, not all of Mexico.

I had a neat little vision going there until I saw an irrigated field and knew that, unless water use was limited in some way, the drive to be more efficient (read that "make more money"), would turn any area into another disaster of concentration.

So then I thought about incentives for methods promoting a cleaner environment. It was just a short mental step to include social issues such as fair prices in this vision of sustainability. Could we call this the economies of social justice?

Will something like this work? I don't know. I only know what we are doing isn't working. There are many people a lot brighter than I who have ideas worth considering.

Somewhere I read that we should replace Most Favored Nation status for our trading partners with Most Sustainable Nation. This might be an idea whose time" has come. October 1 several senators sent letters to Secretary Dan Glickman and U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky stating that trade agreements should not undermine our nation's social and economic health but insure the benefits of trade are fair and include measures to help those adversely impacted by trade agreements.

Our trade policies in the long term should not aid continued overexpansion. They ought to encourage a pull situation for supply, not a push.

It isn't enough to continue our "you're gonna miss me when I'm gone" lament. We must use this time of media attention to put lots of different views of farming before the public.

Ina Young of Paris, Ark., is poultry chairman of Women Involved in Farm Economics.

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