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by Richard R. Oswald
Missouri farmer

(Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- It's becoming more and more difficult to find people who fully understand the way I make my living. Today, many people just don't grasp what it means to be independent.

I am part of a dwindling group in the United States. We are the self employed, independent farmers and ranchers who produce American food. We are in decline because the leaders of the nation seem to fear us over the short term more than they need us over the long term.

Ag producers learn independence and self-reliance at an early age. We become skilled at standing up to weather, markets, profiteers, and the government. We learn to be skeptical of promises that can never be kept and we know that political realities are seldom tied to real life experience except when governments choose to exert undue influence.

Over two hundred years ago, King George III of England and his armies learned to respect the resolve of a group of farmers who had been given the slightest of hopes for self-determination. Even the rebel leaders themselves were shocked by the power of a group of former peasants. Together, they forever changed the way men think about freedom.

Modern day leaders have learned the lesson royalty failed to grasp during the era when our nation was born.

The red states in the presidential election proved again what national leaders have always known. The heartland votes for family values. Family farms are at the core of those values. A farm bill that professes to support those at the center of American values cannot be anything but good. Or can it?

Some I've spoken to bemoan the indifference of landowners who rent to the highest bidder with no regard for who that bidder is. A sense of history is not nearly so important as a present day bank balance. One man in particular comes to mind. The heart of his farm was cut out when a large farmer offered the landlord in question just $10 more per acre than my friend had paid. After spending years and dollars clearing old fence rows, mowing weeds, cutting brush, and addressing fertility needs, it all came down to $10. The big farmer who displaced my friend will truck his machinery over 60 miles to farm his new acquisition.

Farm operators are becoming middlemen who collect subsidies with the left hand while passing them with the right to cash renting landowners. Large farms, squeezing margins ever thinner for small farms, can declare themselves to be not one entity but three, and collect 10 times the subsidy that most true family farmers claim. The saddest aspect of it all is that we family farmers are the camouflage that Congress and others utilize to make this transfer of wealth seem good and just. Government subsidies that assure our temporary personal success serve also to ensure our demise by offering unlimited support for a few. Large farms exist for the enrichment of a limited number. They do not happen as a result of the love of livestock, plants, the outdoors or, heaven forbid, hard work that is rooted in agricultural tradition. Rather, they exist for the money and power that can be gleaned from playing the subsidy game while helping those in control to carry out their plan.

What better way is there to conquer an independent people than by removing their independence? Today, if we are to feed our families and pay our bills we farmers must be dependent on the largesse of government. Our business cannot exist without federal support. At the same time, our government encourages exportable food production from third world countries that can barely feed themselves. It is said that our markets must be open to foreign supplies produced without the oversight of our own health conscious regulators. Borders must be open we're told, but all the while we labor under a separate set of rules. Their products are said to be no different than ours. The problem is that no one checks to see if that is true.

Regardless of health or cleanliness issues; American products can only be produced by Americans.

What a bitter pill it is to realize that even something so basic as food can be manipulated and made to seem worthless. We are being convinced that what we produce has no value of it's own without the blessing of a government that does nothing to encourage domestic competition among middlemen who make the most from our products. The companies we rely on to buy our produce, refine it, and market it to the nation and the world have been given a green light to treat our contribution as a value-less by-product of government programs. Those companies have consolidated to the point that no one, save a handful of Federal agencies, seriously thinks that any competition exists at all. Packers, processors, and retailers maintain that merchandising and packaging comprise 95% of value. Never mind that what they do takes place in hours while our job can take months or years to complete.

Producers of American food must realize, before it is too late, that independent thought and independent actions are the products of independent men and women. Today that independence is threatened by a blind policy of privilege.