By SALLY HERRIN
The average U.S. farm family now makes less than 10% of its annual income from farming. Without subsidy payments to commodity farmers (the second of six years of declining payments under the 1996 "Freedom to Farm" bill), average farm family income in 1998 was about -$28,000.
Rural sociologist William Heffernan, University of Missouri-Columbia, says in 10 to 15 years it may be technologically possible for just 55,000 farmers to produce all of America's output of food and fiber. Unless structural changes occur, Heffernan fears, nearly two million farming and ranching families will be gone from the land in just one more generation, and the towns and villages that grace agricultural America will empty another million or so displaced families into hub towns and sprawling, overcrowded cities.
The senior U.S. senator from Nebraska agrees. In a teleconference with Nebraska journalists on June 15, Bob Kerrey laid the damage at the door of the 1996 Farm Bill.
Kerrey compared the estimated $30 billion tab for Freedom to Farm in 1999 to normal crop acreage programs of the 1970s, which he said cost taxpayers no more than $6 billion annually, and which provided better prices to farmers.
State Ag Director Merlyn Carlson admits 1998 is a year "we'd like to forget ... And 1999 doesn't look much better." University of Nebraska ag economist Roy Frederick sees no safe harbors for people trying to earn a living from the land or from livestock right now.
Republican Governor Mike Johanns admits it's hard to find a time historically when "literally every single farm commodity is being sold at below the cost of production. That's an unusual phenomenon, but it exists today." True believer Bryce Neidig, Nebraska Farm Bureau President and diehard Freedom to Fail fan, admits promises -- of bountiful export markets -- made to accompany the 1996 Farm Bill "just didn't take place and ag was left holding the bag."
In an unsigned editorial on June 2, the Omaha World Herald takes a shot at the 1996 Farm Bill with the headline "The Freedom to Go Broke?" The editorial frames Johanns' recognition that all is not well in the ag sector, and claims for the new governor the higher moral ground that I suggested a few months back in this space -- that Johanns, Hagel and other Republicans forget the party line on agriculture and do the right thing, in the OWH's modest words, "be in the forefront in monitoring the program as it encounters obstacles."
Is this leadership, or what? No, actually, it's too little, and as near as possible too late.
This tepid Republican response, from the statehouse and Farm Bureau, is the do-nothing, stay-the-course-straight-into-the-iceberg strategy that serves the grain trade well for their relatively modest political investments.
Take Chuck Hagel. He's already replaced Bill Barrett as ConAgra's sweetie. A few years back, Barrett was ConAgra's all-time campaign contribution lottery winner, but now that he's co-authored the disastrous Farm Bill, well, they've had their fun with Bill and he's history. As things deteriorate, look for the R's to feed our 3rd District Congressman to the fishes.
As for Hagel, ConAgra is his #1 campaign contributor at more than $25,000 since 1993. Hagel's had $10,000 apiece from ag processors Cargill and RJRNabisco, and handsome gifts from other Big Tobacco players, the gun lobby, beer wholesalers God bless them, and, oh yes, bankers.
Hagel's biggest single source of campaign finance (39.9%) is large individual contributions. Including his own large individual self-financing of more than $1 million (22.5% of his war chest) and another $1 million-plus from PACs, Hagel weighs in at a hefty 85% of campaign financing by an old boy constituency of all of the above.
Hagel's program for addressing the crisis in farm income, predictable and unpromising, chases the wrong rabbit:
Lift sanctions. Of course, lifting sanctions would increase ag exports by a mighty 1%.
Develop markets like China. Except China is becoming our competitor as a corn exporter. Meanwhile Chuck Sands, mega hog producer from Columbus, Nebraska, and Governor Mike Johanns, like Governor Ben Nelson before him, are busy exporting our pork production to, well, China. Plus, farmers don't export -- Cargill and ConAgra do, and these multinationals pit farmers around the world against each other in a race to the bottom of the economic barrel, while the grain and meat trade walks away with 17%-25% annual return to equity.
Hagel proposes non-solutions and Johanns wants to extend this failed farm policy. But while Republicans "monitor" the bankrupting of rural America, Kerrey and other farm state Democrats are working to restore the best elements of farm policies of the past, including the farmer-owned reserve and the value of managing production, as keys to price.
Ag producers are much like hourly workers, who cannot set their own wage and need federal protection in the form of minimum wage law. Farmers and ranchers cannot pass along their costs of doing business, because they do not set the price of what they produce -- the grain and meat monopolies, the only market there is to sell to, do. Without minimum price law, widespread farm failures, such as we saw in the 1980s, maybe worse, are inevitable.
"There is a way of doing this that will cost less money and will provide better support for the farmer ... You can't ... just say I'm going to ignore the market place and decouple my payments and pay out larger and larger amounts as the price drops," Kerrey said.
Kerrey is drawing in part on a National Farmers Union farm bill, based on the work of University of Tennessee ag economist Darrel Ray and proposed during the 1995-96 debate, that would have put more money in farmers' pockets and, after the first few years, cost taxpayers next to nothing. Republicans steamrolled that bill, and policy was adopted which guaranteed overproduction of commodities and stripped away price supports, while making farmers the "beneficiaries" of declining, unearned payments -- like irritating relatives, old and in the way, toward whom our charity wears thinner each year.
Today, Freedom to Farm has created exactly what the grain trade wants -- and pays for with a few million dollars in campaign contributions each election cycle -- lots of product and prices in freefall. And eventually, instead of two million farmers (down from 6 million in 1950), ConAgra and Cargill and ADM hope to have just 55,000 farmers to deal with, locked into contracts with biopatents and leveraged to the bills of their seedcaps.
Kerrey's statements in mid-June were unscripted, but right on the money: "If it doesn't bother you that we're going to spend $30 billion on a program that was promised to be less expensive than the old farm programs, then support the existing law," he said. "If it doesn't bother you to go from 500 to 400 to 300 to 100,000 total number of farms nationwide. If that doesn't bother you, if you don't care if we depopulate the High Plains, then, fine. Let the existing law go."
Dr. Sally Herrin is Education & Communications Director of the Nebraska Farmers Union. Email her at NeFUSal@aol.com.
By TED LANGE
More than 850 farmers and ranchers rallied with church and labor leaders and other family agriculture supporters in Sweetgrass, Montana, at the Canadian border July 9 to demand that Congress take immediate action to reverse the economic crisis in rural America.
The rally was part of a national day of protest coordinated by the Campaign to Reclaim Rural America, a Montana-based coalition of groups and individuals representing family agriculture, main street businesses, organized labor, church groups and conservationists.
Speakers at the Montana rally protested the inaction of a Congress which they said is doing little to stop a cartel of giant agribusiness corporations from manipulating commodities markets and paying farmers and ranchers depression level prices.
"The economic depression gripping rural communities did not happen overnight. It comes as a result of deliberate policy decisions made in Washington, D.C.," said Helen Waller, a farmer from Circle, Montana, representing the Northern Plains Resource Council.
"This conflict is about power -- unrestrained power handed over to multinational corporations to set whatever low price they choose for raw materials, and charge whatever high price they please for food at the supermarkets," she said. "Family producers and the rural communities that depend on the ag economy are going broke while these giant corporations reap record profits. It's time for Congress to reverse the policies that are allowing rural America to be exploited."
Montana Senators Conrad Burns (R) and Max Baucus (D) and Rep. Rick Hill (R) declined invitations to attend the rally but Senate and House challengers Brian Schweitzer and Nancy Keenan did attend and called for stronger congressional action. "Scrap it," was Schweitzer's answer to the Freedom to Farm Bill of 1996. "We need to start over," said Schweitzer, the only announced Democrat for the Senate seat held Burns. "It was a grand experiment to empower the farmer in the market. But we don't have a market. We have monopolies. It took us two years to go from $5.50 wheat to $2.50 wheat." Schweitzer said four companies mill 62 percent of the wheat in the United States. "What we need is competition," he said. "These are the same monopolies worldwide. What they want is cheap grain and large volume."
The Campaign to Reclaim Rural America is advocating an eight-point platform calling on Congress to reform international trade agreements, pass legislation to restore open and competitive commodities markets, direct the US Department of Agriculture and the Justice Department to enforce antitrust laws against giant agribusiness corporations and protect consumers by reforming food import inspection standards.
The day before the rally, the U.S. Justice Department gave agribusiness giant Cargill Inc. permission to buy the grain operations of its largest competitor, Continental Grain Co. One of the Campaign's eight points calls for this merger to be blocked, and many at the rally strongly condemned the Justice Department decision.
"The corporations have staked out a future for us that can only be called corporate communism," said Gilles Stockton, a Grassrange rancher who spoke on behalf of the Western Organization of Resource Councils. "Once again our government has taken us another mile down the road to the Stalinization of agriculture. Ultimately, the U.S. consumer is going to be the loser."
Stockton told the crowd that a centralized, corporate-controlled food supply poses a serious food safety threat to consumers. He pointed to whistle-blowing U.S. meat inspector Bill Lehman, whom he described as a hero for risking his job by publicly criticizing inadequate inspections of imported meat crossing the border at Sweetgrass.
Stockton said imported cattle are a big reason for the low prices ranchers are facing. "Imported cattle crossing that border right over there are not priced on a public market. They are part of the captive supply that the big three packers use to control cattle prices. They want us to believe the problem is oversupply, but every day a big percentage of the cattle they slaughter, they import from Canada."
The Montana AFL-CIO has passed a resolution supporting the Campaign to Reclaim Rural America and its Executive Secretary, Don Judge, called for solidarity between farmers, ranchers and organized labor. He said that like family ag producers, the steel industry has lost thousands of jobs as a result of unfair trade policies. And, as in rural America, the losses have rippled out and devastated entire communities.
Ken Moore, President of the Montana Association of Churches, responded to concerns over the concentration of corporate power in the marketplace, speaking to the audience about the Jubilee tradition in the Old Testament, in which land was periodically redistributed to avoid the accumulation of too much power.
Moore joined Bishop Mark Ramseth of the Montana Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and Brother David Andrews, National Director of the Iowa-based Catholic Rural Life Conference in telling the audience that the churches and church groups they represented supported agricultural people in their adversity. All said they have seen how whole communities are torn apart when farmers are driven off the land.
After the speeches were over, most of the crowd walked out onto Interstate 15 to block trucks importing agricultural products across the U.S/Canadian border. The three-hour blockade was peaceful, as organizers had negotiated with police and the U.S. Customs Service to have the trucks wait on the Canadian side.
In spite of the concern over imports from Canada, organizers stressed the importance of solidarity with Canadian farmers and ranchers. Campaign to Reclaim Rural America Chairman Dale Pfau, a Lewiston businessman, repeatedly urged the crowd to welcome the Canadians who had come to the rally.
Cory Ollikka, president of the National Farmers Union of Canada, addressed the rally. "Net farm income on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border is approaching depression-era levels," Ollikka said. "Some would have farmers blame their counterparts across the border. Farmers, however, know that the problem is not other farmers, the Canadian Wheat Board, or policies that support agriculture. The problem is increasingly powerful agribusiness corporations, trade agreements that undermine farmers' interests, and a marketing and distribution system that fails to pay farmers a fair and adequate share of the consumer's grocery-store dollar."
Earlier in the week a grassroots agricultural organization, the Bengough-Riley group gained attention in Canada by holding confrontational demonstrations against the Canadian federal agriculture minister and a federal task force on agriculture.
"We are basically doing in Canada the same thing the people are doing here today," said Ben Thomas, a farmer from Saskatchewan who attended a similar rally in Portal, N.D. "We are rallying against government, trying to get a change for agriculture, not only for present farmers but for future farmers."
For more information, contact Ted Lange, Northern Plains Resource Council, phone 406-248-1154, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or the National Farmers Union, 1-800-347-1961
Sen. Paul Wellstone, DFL-Minnesota, pledged to organize a national grassroots organization to try to dismantle the Freedom to Farm Act that Wellstone blames for the demise of family farms. In a June 29 news conference in St. Paul, Wellstone said Congress shredded the safety net that historically shielded farmers from wide price swings in the marketplace. "No matter what you are planting, you can't get a price and you can't survive," Wellstone said. At local elevators, he said, farmers can get $1.75 a bushel for corn, $3.13 a bushel for wheat and just over $5 a bushel for soybeans -- prices that won't cover a farmer's cost of production. He advocated immediate passage of a $6.5 billion emergency aid package, with $3.9 billion in direct cash assistance to offset farm losses caused by low commodity prices. He also would reinstitute income-protection programs and use federal antitrust powers to block future mergers and consolidations that limit competition.
Dave Frederickson, Minnesota Farmers Union president, said he'll work with Wellstone, but the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that he's worried that some farmers are so "beaten down" that they don't have much fighting spirit left.
For more information contact Wellstone's office, 202-224-5641, or thNational Farmers Union, 1-800-347-1961