Answering the Call for Reform

A few days ago, Robert Reich weighed in on the farm bill debate on the American Prospect’s website, but it wasn’t groundshaking or breathtaking in its originality, so we just kind of let it slide. Thankfully, our man on the scene Jon Bailey paid attention to the comments section, which included the following:

I would like to know what kind of a debate this topic generates in small farm towns across the Midwest. Do small, non-corporate farmers realize that they are used as cover to enable massive corporate welfare? Do the real farmers benefit a little bit, so they don't complain? Do they hardly benefit at all, but are tricked anyway?

Can TAP get the voice of real farmers into this important discussion?

These are interesting questions, ones that I receive quite often from other activists, family, and friends. There are many farm groups that weigh in on policy, but very few are willing to publicly answer the questions above. Most farm groups would question their premise.

But, like anything, it depends on who you ask. If you ask farm lobbyists in DC- even one supposedly representing a farm group- you’re going to get a very different answer than if you ask an actual farmer. And from personal experience, I can tell you that their answers are all over the map. But when I talk to farmers, there are some common themes that I hear again and again. And when I say farmers, for the purposes of this blog post I’ll be referring to farmers who receive farm program payments. There are many, many farmers who do not.

First, most farmers recognize the need for farm programs, but they also know that farming would continue if farm programs up and disappeared. People have to eat, and farmers understand this. The question of where their food is going to come from is another matter entirely. Many farmers, large and small, are very proud of the role they play in the nation’s economy (and history); and they feel that if farm programs are what is needed to maintain that role, so be it.

That does not mean, however, that farmers are unaware of the impact of farm programs. Many will tell you that they would be growing a broader array of crops if farm programs were structured differently (or didn’t exist); others will tell you that farm programs have encouraged the demise small-scale livestock production. And yes, farmers that receive farm program payments do benefit from them- though the extent of that benefit is debatable- but they also know that their larger neighbors benefit more.

For the farmers I talk to, that is the main problem. No limits on farm programs mean that the big guy will always benefit more. So while small and mid-sized farms realize benefits from farm programs, bigger farms always get more benefit; thus, the small and mid-size farm takes a relative step backward in many respects. The big farm has more money to spend on expansion, and an unlimited incentive to do so. At no point does the mega-farm feel the need to put its profits (or farm program checks) into anything other than buying more machinery or buying out their neighbors to farm even more land, because the federal government will always be there to ensure at least some measure of profitability.

They do see that farm programs are partly a cover for corporate welfare. Farmers are quick to say that they don’t see much of the benefit from farm programs- those who buy farmers’ products do. Which would be large, corporate agri-business. Many politicians (and farmers) take this a step further and say that the consumer ends up benefiting, but it seems to me that the agribusiness keeps most of money that it makes as a result of buying below-the-cost of production inputs. The price the farmer receives for corn has doubled in the past year, and food prices have increased about 1% because of that. That tells me that the price the farmer receives and the price consumers pay for food have little correlation.

But the underlying theme in the comment on American Prospect is this: Why aren’t more farmers standing up and fighting for a more just farm program, one that helps small and mid-sized farms while not disadvantaging foreign producers? Why is it that the loudest voices in this debate are not farmers, but volunteers and paid advocates? Are farmers ignorant, or lazy, or indifferent?

I can’t lie- these thoughts have all run through my head at some point. I personally have met dozens, if not hundreds, of farmers who do care, who are fighting every day for a just farm bill. But I have also met many farmers who understand the farm bill, understand how it works today, understand the negative effects of unlimited farm program payments- but simply choose not to put any effort into advocating for reform. And that is enormously frustrating.

But you have to look at history. The fights over how best to ensure family farm agriculture in America have been occurring for decades. In the 1980s, the farm crisis spawned enormous activism, including many farm and rural organizations that survive to this day. Other farm organizations hark all the way back to the very beginning of the 20th century. Long before the Michael Pollans of the world came along, battles were fought over the future of agriculture and rural America.

The sad truth is that many of those battles were lost, and many farmers now feel there is little they can do to positively impact farm policy. They don’t see much in the way of an alternative, and they feel we are too far down the path of mega-farms and corporate agriculture to turn around. I don’t how many times I’ve been told, “I love what you guys are doing and I support you, but we lost this battle a long time ago. I fought for a long time, but it’s over now.”

But they’re wrong. There is an alternative, and now more than ever the time is right for reform. More than ever before, the rest of America is aware of the plight of family farms and rural communities- and the importance of our food. In so many ways, rural America is the canary in the coal mine. As soulless corporate control and inequitable globalization march across America, we see increased concentration of wealth and oligopolies dominating our daily lives. And that goes far beyond agriculture. Rural America doesn’t see many of the positives of these trends, and is thus far more in tune to the negatives. And that both encourages and discourages activism. And I hope The American Prospect finds a few farmers who will weigh in, because what they have to say needs to be heard.

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