Politics, farmers, and change: The end of rural America
This week, President Obama returned to Iowa, where he launched his successful bid to the White House, to speak about “jobs and economic security” in rural America. According to the White House, his bus tour is not a campaign trip, but veteran political observers would disagree. For farmers and rural advocates, this tour is really about something much larger than electioneering or a new jobs program: It’s about the survival of rural America.
While the plight of urban decay has been widely publicized in the mainstream press, similar issues facing our country cousins (myself included) — lack of well-paying jobs, rural brain drain, food deserts, poverty, and lack of access to quality health care — have either been ignored or largely misunderstood by policy-makers and the press. Today, more rural Americans are on food stamps and face bleaker economic prospects than their urban counterparts, despite the romantic image of small-town life often portrayed in the media.
For the past 50 years, rural America has seen its best, brightest, and most mobile flee the countryside in search of jobs as federal farm, economic, and trade policies have slowly bled family farmers off the land. Since 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected, America has lost over 1.7 million family farms — the backbone of rural economies — with farmers in the U.S. today now outnumbered by prisoners.
Despite increases in farm productivity and improved planting and harvesting equipment, more insidious economic factors, like increased industry consolidation, poorly designed subsidy programs, and overspecialization in industrial livestock production, with poor contract protections, have hollowed out the countryside. Instead of prosperity, industrial agriculture has created vast profits for corporations at the top of the food chain, but left a growing number of rural America’s Main Streets to resemble ghost towns, and its residents poorly prepared to meet the nation’s important challenges of the 21st century.
While, despite a growing national awareness of food and agriculture issues, many people in urban areas have never met a farmer or someone who produced the food that appears on their plate each day, most Main Street businesses in rural America realize that their livelihood and very survival are tied to the economic well-being of the local farm economy.
And if you want to save rural America, you have to save the family farmer.
Obama’s rural agenda, circa 2007
Since the president’s Iowa tour is about creating jobs and economic opportunity for rural America, it might help to start out with a refresher of what President Obama promised the first time he toured the state, which helped him on his road to unexpected victory during the Iowa caucus.
When Obama first ran for president in Iowa, he cultivated a serious grassroots reform platform in agriculture that included:
- Caps on subsidy payments
- Regulating CAFOs (factory farms)
- Encouraging local and organic agriculture
- “Preventing anticompetitive behavior against family farms”
That last one was important. I remember receiving an advanced copy of Obama’s rural agenda before it was released in October 2007, reading those words, and thinking, “We finally have a candidate who understands rural issues and is willing to do something about it.”
In the past 30 years, since Ronald Reagan took office, the U.S. government has stopped enforcing antitrust laws, while recklessly encouraging an orgy of corporate mergers. During this time, food and agriculture production has become one of the most concentrated sectors in the U.S. economy. General economic theory states that when four or fewer companies control more than 40 percent of market share, that industry is no longer competitive — competition being the lifeblood of capitalism, innovation, and democracies.
Today just four companies control 84 percent of the beef packing industry and 66 percent of the pork packing industry, and just one company, Monsanto, controls genetically engineered seeds for corn, cotton, soybeans, and canola on more than 90 percent of the acres that are planted with GMO seeds. Such excessive market concentration has given corporations an increased stranglehold on supply, shrinking both profits and markets for family farmers. Since 1952, farmers have seen their share of the food dollar that they receive shrink from 47 cents on every dollar spent on food to barely 20 cents.
Antitrust investigation to nowhere?
To his credit, President Obama and his staff listened to the plight of family farmers when he caucused in Iowa. As a result, last year, the Obama administration launched a series of workshops to investigate anti-competitive practices in food and agriculture. These workshops were potentially so historic that I felt compelled to travel across the country to all five of them in hopes of witnessing the dawn of a new era in agriculture, when our government would finally stand up for family farmers instead of promoting agribusiness profits.
Regretfully, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has so far refused to issue a report or take any meaningful actions against the largest violators.
Even worse for farmers was the news last month that DOJ antitrust chief Christine Varney was leaving the administration without finishing the job to join a white-glove law firm in New York. For many farmers, who have endured the corrupt practices of agribusiness for decades, Varney was seen as the last best hope to free farmers from an unfair system that has driven hundreds of thousands livestock farmers out of business and shackled them with abusive contracts.
In December of last year, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to deliver more than 200,000 comments from farmers, citizens, and Food Democracy Now! members in a private meeting with Chr
istine Varney and other DOJ and USDA staff, to explain the urgent need for antitrust enforcement. As always, Varney was committed in her personal statements, but did let it slip that others who were part of the investigations were potentially in opposition. With Varney leaving, family farmers and rural America may never get the justice they deserve.
Hope for rural America?
Even now, an important decision waits on the president’s desk that will have more to do with creating jobs and economic security for rural America than any bus tour or another White House briefing paper on jobs.
During the drafting of the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress required the USDA to write rules that addressed problems of market manipulation and unfair contracts to protect livestock farmers. Known as GISPA, for the USDA agency that overseas their enforcement — Grain Inspectors, Packers and Stockyard Administration (GIPSA) — the new rules would create a fair marketplace for farmers to sell their livestock without fear of retaliation, require packers to maintain written records over price deviations, and prevent undue preferences.
More than anything, the completion of the DOJ/USDA antitrust investigations, with significant enforcement actions, and the finalizing of strong GISPA rules, will determine the fate of the family farmer and rural America for the century to come.
If President Obama truly wants to create jobs and economic security for rural economies and see farmers thrive, he’ll follow through on the promises he already made to Iowans and make sure that farmers have the access to fair markets that they deserve.
In reality, the best way to create jobs is by saving the ones that you already have. The same is true about keeping farmers on the land. The equation for success in rural America has never changed: Make sure farmers receive a fair price in the marketplace, and the wealth will spread, our communities will prosper, and our nation will flourish. After a century of listening to false promises by D.C. politicians, rural America is paying closer attention to what these folks do once they’re elected, versus what they say on the campaign trail. And it’s time that Washington got down to the business of putting farmers first — after all, their jobs just might depend on it.
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