The Next Farm Crisis is Here and Farmers Can No Longer Afford to Be Ignored

Jim Hightower February 15, 2017

February 5, 1979—Thousands of economically struggling farmers arrive in Washington D.C. (many after traveling for days on tractors with top speeds of 15 miles per hour) to draw public attention to rising farm debt and unfair federal ag policies. By the end of the day, 17 tractors had been impounded.

Dur­ing the farm cri­sis of the 1980s, an Iowa farmer asked if I knew the dif­fer­ence between a fam­i­ly farmer and a pigeon. When I said no, he delight­ed in explain­ing: A pigeon can still make a deposit on a new John Deere.”

That’s fun­ny — except, it real­ly was­n’t. Worse, the bit­ter real­i­ty of the trac­tor joke is still true: The farm cri­sis has not gone away, though hun­dreds of thou­sands of farm fam­i­lies have. The eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion in farm coun­try con­tin­ues unabat­ed as agribusi­ness prof­i­teers, Wall Street spec­u­la­tors, urban sprawlers and cor­rupt­ed polit­i­cal elites squeeze the life out of farm­ers and rur­al America.

Remem­ber last year’s pres­i­den­tial debates? Trump and Clin­ton talked about the needs of hard-hit work­ing-class fam­i­lies, vet­er­ans and coal min­ers among oth­ers. But, hel­l­loooo, where were farm­ers? Indeed, where was the mul­ti­tude of pro­duc­ers who toil on the lands and waters of this coun­try to bring food to our tables? All went unmen­tioned, even though eco­nom­ic and emo­tion­al depres­sion is spread­ing through their com­mu­ni­ties, thanks to bank­rupt­cy-lev­el prices paid by cor­po­rate mid­dle­men. In the past three years, farm income has declined steadi­ly, plum­met­ing 12 per­cent in just the last year. But these cru­cial-but-endan­gered food pro­duc­ers were total­ly dis­ap­peared by the polit­i­cal cognoscenti.

Actu­al­ly, the farmer has long been for­got­ten in Amer­i­ca’s pres­i­den­tial dis­cus­sion. In a New York Times op-ed, Pro­fes­sor A. Hope Jahren report­ed on the dis­cov­ery she made when read­ing through tran­scripts of past debates: Farm pol­i­cy has­n’t come up even once in a pres­i­den­tial debate for the past 16 years.” That’s Bush-Ker­ry, Oba­ma-McCain, Oba­ma-Rom­ney, and Trump-Clin­ton! Not one of them men­tioned the peo­ple who pro­duce our food. Jahren notes that the mon­e­tary val­ue of farm pro­duc­tion alone is near­ly eight times greater than coal min­ing, a declin­ing indus­try whose vot­ers Clin­ton and Trump avid­ly courted.

Pur­chas­ing food has become a polit­i­cal act

This dis­re­gard for farm­ers and food pol­i­cy is not only irre­spon­si­ble, but also polit­i­cal­ly inex­plic­a­ble when you con­sid­er that food is far more than eco­nom­ics to peo­ple. Pur­chas­ing food has become a polit­i­cal act that takes into account cul­tur­al, eth­i­cal, envi­ron­men­tal and com­mu­ni­ty val­ues. This was con­firmed last March in a nation­al sur­vey pub­lished by Con­sumer Reports show­ing that huge per­cent­ages of shop­pers con­sid­er pro­duc­tion issues important:

  • Sup­port­ing local farm­ers: 91 percent
  • Reduc­ing expo­sure to pes­ti­cides in food: 89 percent
  • Pro­tect­ing the envi­ron­ment from chem­i­cals: 88 percent
  • Pro­vid­ing bet­ter liv­ing con­di­tions for farm ani­mals: 84 percent

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, no mat­ter what We the Peo­ple want, most of the polit­i­cal class will­ing­ly sur­ren­ders farm­ers, and food itself, to indus­tri­al agribusi­ness. That would be that…except for one thing: You! Far from sur­ren­der­ing to the inevitabil­i­ty” of a cor­po­ra­tized food future, the great major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans con­tin­ue to push for­ward with the alter­na­tive future of a local, sus­tain­able, humane — and tasty — food sys­tem that ben­e­fits all.

The ongo­ing bat­tle for our food future pits the agri-indus­tri­al mod­el of huge-scale, cor­po­rate-run oper­a­tions against the agri-cul­tur­al mod­el of sus­tain­able, com­mu­ni­ty-based fam­i­ly farm­ing. The big mon­ey is with the glob­al goliaths of cor­po­rate ag, but the grip the giants once had on the mar­ket­place has been slip­ping as con­sumers and farm­ers (espe­cial­ly younger pro­duc­ers) are mak­ing clear that they pre­fer non-indus­tri­al food. One mea­sure of this is the con­trast­ing for­tunes of biotech vs. organ­ic production.

Biotech’s bro­ken promise

The promised mir­a­cle” of genet­i­cal­ly altered crops, intro­duced in 1994 by Mon­san­to, turns out to have been ephemer­al. The prices of cor­po­rate-altered seeds have sky­rock­et­ed, yields from those seeds have not met expec­ta­tions, plant­i­ng GMO crops has forced farm­ers to buy more pes­ti­cides, and con­sumers over­whelm­ing­ly oppose GMO Franken­foods. Thus, few­er farm­ers are using the biotech indus­try’s prod­uct: U.S. farm­ers cut their plant­i­ngs of GMO crops by 5.4 mil­lion acres in 2015, and sales of GMO seeds fell by $400 million.

Not only does con­sumer demand for organ­i­cal­ly pro­duced food keep going up, but such major pro­duc­ers as Gen­er­al Mills and Kel­logg are switch­ing to greater use of organ­ic ingre­di­ents. As of last June, the num­ber of Amer­i­ca’s cer­ti­fied organ­ic farms was 14,979 (up by more than 6 per­cent from a year ear­li­er), and sales of organ­ic prod­ucts zoomed up by 11 per­cent to $43.3 bil­lion in 2015, about four times more than the growth in con­ven­tion­al food sales. This rise would have gone even high­er, but the demand for organ­ic is now out­strip­ping the sup­ply! Con­sumers clear­ly want to buy more, thus cre­at­ing good oppor­tu­ni­ties for new organ­ic farm­ers — and a bright future for agri-culture.

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Jim High­tow­er is the author of six books, includ­ing Thieves in High Places (Viking 2003). A well-known pop­ulist and for­mer Texas Com­mis­sion­er of Agri­cul­ture, he cur­rent­ly writes a nation­al­ly-syn­di­cat­ed col­umn car­ried by 75 pub­li­ca­tions. He also writes a month­ly newslet­ter titled The High­tow­er Low­down, and con­tributes to the Pro­gres­sive Pop­ulist.
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