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For family farmers, it's time to choose: 'Don't whine, organize!'

by A.V. Krebs
Editor of the Agribusiness Examiner

(Monday, June 23, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- With each passing day it becomes more apparent that our nation's family farmers are going to have to rapidly remove the shackles of the recent past, face political and economic reality and collectively organize for the future if they are to survive.

The choice is clear and stark !!!

Either family farmers must revive and adhere to their proud agrarian populist tradition or find themselves amongst the growing number of corporate agribusiness's "excess human resources."

As Populist historian Norman Pollack stresses, citizens must now, as they did in the 19th century Populist movement, challenge the strident materialism of our day and "work to achieve a democratized industrial system of humane working conditions and production of human needs." It was the 19th-century populists who sought to build a society, in sum, where individuals fulfilled themselves "not at the expense of others but as social beings, and in so doing attain a higher form of individuality."

Thus, the type of society family farmers and their rural neighbors should be striving for in the 21st century is one to be judged not at its apex, but at its base; that the quality of life of the masses should be the index by which we measure social improvement. Like their agrarian Populist predecessors, 21st-century populism must undertake to remain a radical social force within a present day political system that provides little or no opportunity for the expression of radicalism.

They should not wed themselves to a modern politically expedient populism characterized by racist and xenophobic attitudes. The 21st-century populists’ critique of existing arrangements must go beyond economic conditions to embrace individuals’ plight. They must address the dehumanization and loss of autonomy in a society that rapidly reduces the individual to being dependent on someone else’s decision, laws, machinery and land.

Integral to this 21st-century approach is the conviction that individuals can consciously make their future. There is nothing inevitable about misery or squalor, or the concentration of wealth, or the legitimization of corporate power; nothing is sacred about the status quo, or about the institutions that safeguard that status quo.

Laura B. DeLind, a specialist in the Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University, has argued that the long-standing duplicity on the part of corporate agribusiness makes family farmers readily susceptible to (and firm believers in) agricultural programs, services, technologies and research that promote "efficient," business-like farm management and production.

"In turn, such strategies of commercial `self-improvement' serve an economic and political system dominated by corporate capital. The family farm, like the ‘emperor’s new clothes,’ does not exist, at least not in any analytically or programmatically useful way," Delind continues. "It is a torturous twisting of reality, under the guise of ‘conventional wisdom,’ and it obscures far more than it reveals."

Efforts in recent years by many new, well-mean allies of family farm agriculture, who unfortunately are ill-informed regarding the economics and history of agricultural policy, have been primarily focusing on such issues as genetic engineered crops, mad cow disease, animal rights, environmental issues, etc.

This, however, has only tended to muddle public perception when it comes to the plight of the vanishing numbers of "the modern-day independent, yeoman family farmers." It has in a very significant way tended to draw public attention away from the larger question of corporate concentration and the economic policies and political power relationships that such concentration exacerbates in agriculture. As DeLind concludes:

"The category family farm must be pried apart. It must be opened up so that its internal contradictions can be seen, not hidden, and used as a basis for identifying and comparing the relative class positions of producers. This would provide a keener awareness of the structure of agriculture (why and how policies do and do not work and for whom). In addition, any long term action to reform the system --- to bring about a more equitable distribution of power and income --- must rest on class-based alliances which cut across the ‘family farm’ category and which are not coincidental with it."

By renewing their agrarian populist heritage family farmers also have the opportunity to emulate that progressive revolt that Ralph Nader has termed "still the country's most fundamental political and economic reform."

Populism, as noted historian Lawrence Goodwin reminds us, was characterized by an evolving democratic culture in which people could "see themselves" and therefore aspire to a society conducive to mass human dignity. In stark contrast to their efforts was the direction they saw being taken by the corporate state in the existing society."

Populism clearly recognized that condition and thus believed that it was imperative to bring the corporate state under democratic control. "Agrarian reformers," Goodwin points out, "attempted to overcome a concentrating system of finance capitalism that was rooted in Eastern commercial banks and which radiated outward through trunk-line railroad networks to link in a number of common purposes much of America's consolidating corporate community. Their aim was structural reform of the American economic system."

In an effort to bring about such "structural reform of the American economic system" and save family farm agriculture at the same time, this editor would like to offer a possible agenda.

1) Rather than confront the consuming public with a myriad of seemingly disconnected issues that family farmers confront today in growing and harvesting our food supply, concentrate on the root cause of their chronic economic depression --- the lack of a fair price for what they produce.

As has been recounted here before after Jim Hightower, former Texas Agricultural Commissioner and chair of the Democratic National Committee's Agricultural Council, held a 1984 series of eight nationwide farm policy forums. In his final report he concluded:

"When all was said and done, it came down to one word: Price. Other important issues were discussed at the forums sponsored by the DNCAC during the past six months, but the overwhelming consensus among participating farmers was that the other concerns --- overproduction, soil and water conservation, high interest rates, lack of credit, entry by young farmers, the depressed farm service industry, and the farm program's high cost, to name a few --- could and would be solved when farmers received a fair price for their products."

In this regard family farmers must reach out to their professed allies who find issues like genetic engineering, animal health, the environment, etc. so appealing and educate them on agriculture history and the importance of price and how they are intimately interrelated to those popular issues these "allies" espouse.

In doing so family farmers, will not only be acting in their own self-interest, but they will, keeping in mind their goal of generating a truly significant "democratic culture," hold fast to the truism that Fred Ross Sr., the Saul Alinksy-founded Community Service Organization organizer, often espoused: "we educate to organize, not organize to educate!!!"

2) It serves no good purpose for family farmers on one hand to denounce corporate concentration and on the other tacitly associate and promote those same corporate interests. As American economist Thorstein Veblen noted in his 1923 essay, "The Independent Farmer," "farmers are surrounded by bankers, railroad magnates and food processors who profit from their effective collusive control of the market while the foolish farmer does little more than identify with the very people who are most adept at exploiting him."

One small example of that "identity crisis" was once noted by the Land Institute's Wes Jackson when he wryly observed that he wished farmers would start using their heads for more than simply billboards for corporate agribusiness!!! Likewise, for another example, it always strikes this editor as ludicrous seeing outspoken opponents of corporate concentration eating snacks, fast food, popping soft-drink cans and drinking other "beverage" products while sitting around discussing how to thwart the power of those very corporations whose food and drink they are consuming.

Clearly, it is time that family farmers as well as their public interest food allies recognize that eating has become not only a moral, but also a political statement.

3) Concurrent with this detaching themselves from the corporate agribusiness economic teat, it has become apparent that family farmers must, despite in so doing risk breaking with family tradition, remove themselves from the political teat that has so poorly served them throughout the 20th century. In an age when policy no longer dictates politics, but rather politics directing a policy that masquerades behind "compassionate conservatism." it behooves farmers to again listen to Veblen.

"Some day he, too, will share in the prosperity of the system, at least he so believes. The poor farmer turns a deaf ear to the warning that it is certain that all cannot become rich in this way. All cannot be shavers --- some must be fleeced."

Unfortunately, we are in an era when there is little choice between our once two major political parties, thus it is time for family farmers and their rural neighbors to take a leadership role in forming a new political alignment and agenda.

Such an initial step could be taken by the drafting of a national populist platform, similar to the agrarian populists' "Omaha Platform of 1892," outlining and declaring "A Declaration of Independence From Corporate Rule."

While grassroots citizen groups continue to educate and organize on the local and state level such as is being currently undertaken by the Green Party, populists in the hope of fomenting in the near future a viable and active national second party, could circulate an aforementioned Declaration to the various candidates running for political office in upcoming elections for their endorsement.

By the candidate and/or incumbent affirming those principles annunciated in the Declaration they would earn the endorsement of a fledgling grassroots populist movement, much in the same manner that the agrarian populists were able to garner widespread political support in the national elections of 1892 and 1896. At the same time it would also serve notice on the governing plutocracy that their days of self-serving rule were numbered.

Recently, a number of worldwide polls and surveys have revealed that the United States is not the beloved country many have believed it once was, but the caveat is always appended that it is our leaders that are the ones disliked, not the people of our country who have recently earned world-wide contempt.

It is well to remind ourselves, however, within a democratic republic it is the people that are the ones responsible for the caliber of the people that they choose as their leaders. Unfortunately for the past 23 years the American public, often with the nation's heartland leading the way, has been guilty of making some terribly unwise choices when it comes to national leadership.

It has become a political truism that while family farmers acknowledge the that it is government policy --- not a free and competitive market --- that dictates a fair price for what they receive every two years they repeatedly turn around and elect the very same politicians and party which enact those very same policies. The fact that it is precisely such policies that not only deprives them of economic and social justice, but also favors the very corporate power that is destroying their communities and their lives makes no logical sense.

4) It is time that the self-ordained "voice of American agriculture" --- the American Farm Bureau Federation--- be made accountable for its actions while being exposed before Congress and state legislatures as an organization more interested in feathering its leadership's nests than serving its members. When the nation has some 1.9 million farmers and the AFBF boasts of a membership of over five million --- largely FB insurance holders --- one has to seriously question such a Federation's true purpose.

5) Likewise, family farmers must put aside the self-destructive concepts of "regionalism" and "commodityism " for they have been traditionally used by various associations, counsels and marketing order boards acting in behalf of their corporate paymasters as a means of dividing the family farm community and sowing unnecessary rivalries and struggles within while wasting its precious financial resources.

In the grand scheme of history the 20th and 21st centuries may well be remembered as a point in the evolution of humanity when those corporations that trade, process, manufacturer, pack, ship and sell the world's food successfully removed the culture from agriculture and in the name of "efficiency" and the industrial "globalization" of the world's food supply reshaped agri-culture into an agri-business.

Yet as corporate agribusiness seeks to meta-morphize agriculture from a culture based upon the traditional family farm system of agriculture into a business where capital is substituted for genuine economic, social and environmental efficiency, where expensive technology is substituted for labor and where our food becomes standardized through an assembly  line process and the creation of synthetic foods, such as is now taking place via genetic engineering, it is imperative that such an undemocratic food supply system be countermanded.

Considering those characteristics by which corporate agribusiness has become identified with and contrasting them with the historical characteristics of family farm agriculture we can see how corporate agribusiness is the very antithesis of family farm agriculture and how incompatible the two systems are in a democratically structured society.

Whereas family farm agriculture has traditionally sought to nurture and care for the land, corporate agribusiness, exclusive by nature, seeks to "mine" the land, solely interested in monetizing its natural wealth and thus measure efficiency by its profits and pointing with pride to its "bottom line." Family farmers, meanwhile, see efficiency in terms of respecting, caring and contributing to the overall health and well-being of the land, the environment, the communities and the nations in which they live.

While corporate agribusiness stresses institutionalized organization, hierarchical decision making, volume, speed, and standardization, extracting as much resources from the land as rapidly and impersonally as possible, family farmers strive through order, hard labor, pride in the quality of their work, and a notable strength of character and true sense of community to take from the land only what it is willing to give lest they damage its dependability or diminish its sustainability.

It is imperative, for the common good, that family farm agri-culture and the men, women and children who till and work the land survive and flourish. Initiating a five-point program like the one suggested above would, in this editor's opinion be a significant step in renewing the value of family farmers in a society based on the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy. It would also reawaken those same agrarian populist instincts so necessary today if our society is to prevent the merchants of greed from depriving us and the rest of the world of economic justice.

In his book The Myth of the Family Farm: Agribusiness Dominance of U.S. Agriculture, Ingolf Voegler, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, points out that corporate agribusiness has managed to create its own self-serving "family farm" myth which it has supported collaterally by four other myths, namely, the work ethic myth, the free enterprise myth, the efficiency myth and the equal-opportunity myth. Belief in such myths has been the basis of the "conventional wisdom" that has not only exacerbated a wholesale exodus of family farmers from farming, but has reduced the role of those remaining in our food delivery system to being chattels, merely raw material providers for a giant profit-driven food manufacturing system.

It is time family farmers put aside such "conventional wisdom" that for so long has enslaved them, speak truth to corporate power and begin to act collectively in their own and in the general public's self interest. Clearly, the time has come !!!

"Don't Whine, Organize !!!