Another Farm Crisis

What will it take to get consumers interested in the plight of independent family farmers?
Millions of people lost their farms in the 1980s after the government urged them to load up on debt in the 1970s and then cut off their markets while the bankers cut off the credit. Even when the tractors rolled on Washington, people in the cities couldn't care less because they didn't see how the turnover of family farms into corporate agriculture affected them. Some of the displaced farmers, with no place else to vent their rage, joined militia movements, as Joel Dyer explored in his book, Harvest of Rage, reviewed in this issue, but most of them simply left the land their parents and grandparents tilled and found wage-earning jobs in the towns and cities.

The past 20 years have seen a consolidation of agribusiness industries, giving farmers fewer choices of where they can buy their seed and feed and where they can sell their grain and livestock. The Justice Department's antitrust division, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen. A Democratic Congress in 1994 passed the North American Free Trade Agreement that opened American markets to Canadian and Mexican crops and a Republican Congress in 1996 passed a "Freedom to Farm" bill that removed price supports and put farmers at the mercy of the "free market" rollercoaster.

The result has been a decline in personal farm income between 1996 and 1997, a time when large agribusinesses were reporting record profits. According to USDA estimates cited by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, lower corn and soybean prices could cause a $1 billion loss of farm income in Iowa alone, which could threaten up to 19,000 jobs in the state. In North Dakota, according to the Farm Service Agency, 2,511 wheat and cattle farmers have folded in the last two years, and an additional 1,807 are expected to quit this year, leaving only about 26,700 farmers in this heavily agricultural state, the New York Times reported. Farm income has nose-dived 98 percent in North Dakota to $15 million in 1997 from $764 million in 1996, the Department of Commerce said.

In the South, poultry processors have successfully gained a virtual monopoly on production by controlling the farmers that are contracted to raise chickens and turkeys for them. Farmers are required to make capital investments to the specifications of the processors and they take the risks in raising the birds before they are returned to the processor for a marginal profit in a good year [See Editorial: "Shut down chicken racketeers," 5/96 Progressive Populist]. Now pork and cattle producers are moving in the same direction, towards integration of producers and processors, where the meatpackers contract with farmers to raise livestock to the packers' specifications.

Small pork producers have been the backbone of the Midwestern farm economy, where the sale of a few hundred hogs might tide over a family farm in a year when the corn and soybeans prices weren't enough to pay the bills. The movement of large-scale corporate producers into the market threatens to make the small pork producer a thing of the past.

Again, most city dwellers are apathetic as long as the price of beefsteaks and pork chops stays low, although Roger Hoffman of the Idaho Rural Council notes on page 5 that meat prices at the supermarket remained unchanged while farmers and ranchers were getting 15 to 20 percent less for their cattle last year. Meanwhile, meatpacker IBP doubled its profits, to $180 million. Small pork producers have similar complaints.

With just over two million farms remaining in the country, and more farmers giving up every day, small farmers and ranchers need to look for other groups to help. The Northern Plains Resource Council, a Montana-based grassroots family agriculture and conservation organization, expressed a newfound solidarity with organized labor in July when it organized a fund drive to buy 1,200 pounds of U.S. beef for striking auto workers and their families. "We wanted to do something to show some real sympathy and to start making friends," said Jeanne Charter, an NPRC board member who ranches north of Billings. Charter acknowledged that ranchers aren't known for seeing eye-to-eye with unions. "But the more people thought about it, the better an idea it seemed to do something to start building a broad enough alliance to challenge the multinationals' predatory job and ag trading practices," she said. "We can't let them get away with the age-old divide and conquer strategy."

Another potential ally of family farmers is the environmental movement, which agriculture has held at arm's length.

Large-scale producers claim the right to put a factory farm with thousands -- or hundreds of thousands -- of hogs anywhere they want, no matter how the neighbors feel about the gut-renching stench. Family farmers who raise a few hundred pigs seem almost pristine in comparison.

Hapless neighbors are forced to rely on spineless state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency, which can fine the corporation after the waste spills into the local water supply (after the hogs are sold at a profit that makes the fine little more than a business expense). Good luck trying to enforce air pollution regulations, even if state pollution regulators were inclined to crack down.

Environmental groups have called on the Clinton administration to enact a national moratorium on large livestock feeding operations until the EPA can put meaningful regulations in place. Plainly, legislatures are not up to the task -- at least not until consumers get energized. Perhaps the courts can be called upon to uphold the right of neighbors to enjoy clear air and clean water over the right of polluters to create public nuisances in the name of the free market.

Consolidation of the nation's banking system also ought to raise concerns among the nation's food consumers. Wells Fargo recently merged with Norwest, which previously had taken over local banks in many Midwestern towns. When San Francisco-based Wells Fargo sends in a new branch manager to take over the bank in a small farming town, what's that young banker going to tell the farmer who needs an operating loan but isn't sure he wants to use those "Roundup Ready" soybeans or genetically engineered corn or he doesn't want to inject his dairy cattle with hormones to increase milk production because it isn't natural? The banker is going to tell the farmer that if he doesn't do whatever Monsanto tells him to do, the banker won't lend him the money and the banker probably will call in any other loans he's holding. Where will the farmer turn then? Chase Manhattan or Citibank?

As Jim Hightower says, if you eat, you are involved in agriculture, so get active.

First, write President Clinton, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC 20500, and urge him to impose a moratorium on large livestock feeding operations. Such a moratorium need not interfere with the operations of small farmers.

Second, write your senators c/o the Senate and your representative c/o the House, U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC 20515. Tell them that you want the USDA to follow the recommendations of the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB), the organics industry group whose advice the USDA ignored in writing the proposed organics rule. that is, you don't want synthetic chemicals, non-organic feed and antibiotics in your food. A sample letter and background information can be found on the Pure Food Campaign Web site at http://www.purefood.org.

Third, support legislation by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen. Harkin to restore farm income protection that was removed in the 1996 farm bill. Their legislation was defeated along party lines in a Senate floor vote in July. It would have removed the caps on marketing loans and set the loan rates according to recent market prices.

Eventually new legislation will be needed to put a wall between producers and processors. And the Justice Department will have to start applying the antitrust law to banks and agribusinesses as well as Microsoft. But consumers will have to realize that they have a stake in the survival of small, sustainable farms and ranches.

-- Jim Cullen

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