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Embattled farmers: 1776 and 2003

by Jody Aliesan

(Saturday, Dec. 20, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- American farmers in the English colonies were expected to produce for the colonizers. They endured low prices, inadequate credit, high taxes, large debts, and the dumping of excess English foodstuffs on their local market.

Agrarian insurrections began in 1676 and culminated in the "Great Rebellion" in New York in 1766. British troops routed the insurgent farmers. Landlords evicted them and destroyed their property.

By April 1775 many colonial farmers were furious that while they lived on American soil, planted it and built on it, the wealth produced was going to enrich England particularly the aristocracy and mercantile speculators.

Emerson's stanza honors the moment when the people who worked the land in seed and harvest stood up to the most powerful political, economic and military power in the world.

The new colonizers

Two centuries later, a handful of agriculture conglomerates work to drive small farmers off their land by paying them less for their produce than it costs to grow, moving them into a cycle of loans, mortgages, foreclosures, repossessions and the sale of land to corporate-controlled agribusiness.

In 1962, a committee of the most powerful corporate executives in the United States issued "An Adaptive Program for Agriculture," a plan to eliminate farmers and farms. Called the Committee for Economic Development, this group represented oil and gas, insurance, investment and retail concerns as well as the food industry. Industry giants such as Campbell Soup, General Foods, Pillsbury and Swift lobbied Congress with the message that the biggest problem in agriculture was too many farmers. The U.S. government encouraged farmers to move off their farms and retrain, allowing their land to be consolidated in the ownership of fewer and fewer corporations.

In the 1970s, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz called on farmers to "Plant fence row to fence row." Giant grain companies were selling U.S.-grown food to Europe, the former U.S.S.R. and the Third World. Prices were up; farmers experienced their most profitable years in history.

But Secretary Butz also said, "Get big or get out." There was no reason not to trust him. Farmers began to buy all the available land they could find. To pay the rapidly rising prices, they mortgaged their farms and equipment. Inflation was driving up land values faster than interest rates were rising; loan experts claimed that those who didn't take advantage of that were fools.

But those who made their fortunes on interest were losing ground. Inflation was eroding their wealth, and they blamed the Federal Reserve. The Fed's only recourse was to apply the brakes, pull money out of the system, drive up interest rates and push the economy into a deep recession.

"Severe injustice"

On October 8, 1979, Paul Volcker, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, gave the banks and financiers what they wanted. The nation's wealthy were the winners; the nation's middle and lower classes particularly those in rural America watched themselves lose.

Farmland values fell sharply while interest rates on farm loans shot through the roof. Diminished land value left mortgages under-collateralized and loans were called in. Interest rates as high as 15 percent pushed farm families into foreclosure. After denying them refinancing, the banks resold their farms with lower-interest loans.

At that point the Reagan Administration moved to practice its economic theories on rural America. The 1985 Farm Bill decreased government subsidies. Prices for crops fell almost overnight by as much as 46 percent. Processors and international exporters experienced a financial boom. The farmers' money went into the pockets of the multinationals.

To secure their gains, these corporations lobbied hard to have the changes written into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). As a result, 600,000 family farms failed before the end of the decade, their land consolidated into corporate mega-operations hundreds of thousands of acres in size.

In 1990, George Washington University reported in its Intergovernmental Health Policy Project that this social engineering had taken a heavy human toll: collapse of farm-related businesses and rural communities, unemployment and underemployment, substandard housing, hunger, mental illness, child abuse, substance abuse, anxiety disorders and depression. By 1989 suicide was the leading cause of death on family farms, three times the rate of the general population. And that didn't include the "accidents."

Buy local, buy often

Those in positions of power consider the collapse of rural America as a necessary and inevitable result of a global economy. From their point of view it would be counterproductive to reduce the suffering or mitigate the effects, let alone reverse the policies.

Multinational corporations assume that we won't make the effort to buy food directly from local producers or look for retailers who do so. Without competition, the corporations can pay farmers as little as they choose and charge us whatever they want. By the time we decide prices are too high and start looking for the farmers, they may be gone.

Jody Aliesan is the Director of the Farmland Fund