Missing Food Movement History: Highlights of Family Farm Justice: 1950-2000


The following brief highlights, excerpted from my personal contacts with the history of the Family Farm Justice Movement, illustrate the magnitude of the story farm justice that has been mostly left out of books, films and articles about the foundations of the new “young” food movement. On the other hand, throughout the five decades of history that is briefly illustrated here, family farmers repeatedly spoke out passionately on the need for a large, committed consumer side food movement to actively join them in preserving and developing a healthy farm and food system.

I’ve been reviewing articles that interpret the development and role of various food movement sectors, and in which this five decades of family farm justice history has been largely left out.1  This blog is an expansion of that work.  Part of my general conclusion is that, in not understanding the history of farm justice, the food movement has also failed to properly understand how to advocate on the basis of their own core values, and has ended up unknowingly siding with agribusiness on the biggest issues.


After more than a decade of “parity,” (fair trade, living wage farm prices,) during the Eisenhower administration, Congress caved in to corporate pressure and started lowering Price Floors to covertly subsidize farm commodity buyers with cheaper prices. This led to the restarting of a huge activist movement, led first by the National Farmers Organization.


By the 1960s NFO was mobilizing farmers from all across the country. They directly confronted corporate agribusiness through a series of holding actions to raise farm prices. 35,000 farmers attended a rally in Des Moines Iowa in the late 60s. Even bigger, during a 6 month period, more than 1,000,000 people showed up at NFO meetings in 19 states. In 1962, the Committee for Economic Development, a corporate think tank, had called for drastically further lowering Price Floors for corn, wheat, cotton, rice and other crops. Their stated goal was to run farmers out of business, “one third in a period of not less than five years.”

The report was led by a man representing Sears Roebuck & Co. At the aforementioned NFO rally farmers brought along Sears catalogs, and slammed them to the ground disgustedly, making a pile”14 or 15 feet high” with “a diameter of 40 or 50 feet at ground level.”2


NFO activities continued strongly into the 1970s.

The Agribusiness Accountability Project, a new organization in Washington D.C. framed the movement in new ways as a fight for justice. Among their reports was “Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times,” which directly confronted the Land Grant (agricultural) University Complex, which served as an ideological mouthpiece for agribusiness. This report was followed by a series of further reports on individual land Grant institutions, some of which (ie. Cornell University,) were written partly through pseudonyms, to protect Land Grant staff who authored the reports. Other key farm and food projects related to AAP from the 1970s included “The Great American Grain Robbery” (about the secret Russian grain deal), “Hamburger USA,” and “Eat Your Heart Out: How Food Profiteers Victimize the Consumer.”

During this decade the movement held a series of tractorcades in Washington DC, lobbying Congress. In the 1983 video Dairy Queens, farm justice movement leader Anne Kanten, of Minnesota, told of her experience when she “came around the corner of the Capitol, … and saw 40,000 farmers.” Later farmers camped out on the mall with their tractors for months.

A new organization, the American Agriculture Movement was formed during the 1970s and was a leader in many of these actions.


During the 1980s “farm unity” and “farmers alliance” coalitions sprang up all across North America. From one of the Dakota’s, the whole state legislature went to Washington to lobby the federal legislature. To stop “cheap corn,” and other commodity prices, in Iowa and other states activists won passage of state level Commodity Title legislation, minimum price bills, which were dependent upon a certain number of other states passing similar legislation. During campaigning for the Iowa, family farm justice advocates held farm debates, featuring almost all Democratic presidential candidates. They were forced to come before farm activist leaders and debate the issues on the farmers’ terms, with farmers as moderators, asking the questions. In 1985, 10,000 farmers attended the National Farm Crisis Action Rally.

Nationally, farmers wrote their own farm bill, the Farm Policy Reform Act, and got a lot of votes in the US Senate during the Reagan Administration! Like the New Deal Farm Programs of the Great Depression, the bill called for running farm programs like a business, balancing supply and demand, and setting a floor under and a ceiling over a fair standard (range) for market prices. Like the New Deal Programs, it called for no farm commodity subsidies. Several econometric studies showed that the bill would have greatly increased farm income and US export income, while greatly lowering government costs.2

Later in the decade, many thousands of farmers from all across America voted in forums on platform planks, and selected delegates that were taken by 2,400 movement leaders to the United Farmer and Rancher Congress, (sponsored by Farm Aid,) where a national platform was voted in. After years of fighting against farm credit abuses, major federal farm credit legislation was passed into law in 1987.

Another development starting in the 1980s was the rise of alternative farm commodity organizations, starting with the American Corn Growers Association, which has advocated for higher corn prices and an end to export dumping (the US losing money on farm exports,) on poor countries.  ACGA’s views contrast sharply with those of the National Corn Growers Association, which brings farmers to support cheap corn prices, (zero Price Floors,) to subsidize agribusiness buyers, with government welfare checks (framed in business management terms as “risk management,”) to hugely subsidize farmers for the massive reductions and losses.


By the 1990s fighting factory farms at the state level was a major part of movement activity. One major action was conducted at the National headquarters of the National Pork Producers Council in Des Moines, Iowa, where, in an act of civil disobedience, activists pounded a sign in front of their offices, renaming them the “National Factory Farms Council.” This was part of a major fight was against the “pork tax” or pork checkoff, and other major checkoff’s where family farmers are forced to pay, for example, a thousand dollars per year into a fund that is then used against them, for example to support packer ownership of farms. This was a national fight against big money. One strategy of the corporate elites was to use check-off money to spy on the opposition, including environmental organizations and, many believe, farmers themselves.  NPPC hired a private firm to spy on farm organizations such as Iowa CCI, the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, the Center for Rural Affairs, and the Land Stewardship Project.

Those opposing the pork checkoff were said by NPPC to be “meat haters,” but in fact, hog farmers themselves voted it down nationally, and by 60.2% to 39.8% in Iowa, for example.

By the 1990s the work of the family farm justice movement was also brought significantly into the fair trade movement and spread globally, under the  leadership of groups like the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. This then played a role in helping the poor farming countries of the world to join with US family farm justice advocates in confronting GATT/WTO, and NAFTA issues.

The Africa Group at WTO later took strong stands supporting supply management and Price Floors for their long term, chronic problem of export dumping, low farm prices. The Africa Group is made up of farming countries, and mostly Least Developed Countries.

The US Family Farm Justice Movement became a crucial ally inside the US for the international peasant organization, La Via Campesina. In important ways, these groups and others in Europe and elsewhere with whom the US Family Farm Justice Movement allied, were helped to accurately understand the US Farm Bill’s impact on global export dumping, an understanding that has been significantly eroded by the US and EU food movement’s misunderstanding of farm subsidies.


I must ask: To what extent has the new young US “Food Movement” demonstrated similar accomplishments? Have they mobilized any 10,000-person rallies? Have they held presidential candidates accountable in debates they ran? Have they presented the major farm bill alternative (to a Republican farm bill that was the worst in history up to that point) in a house of Congress? Have they won any major votes of farmers themselves against agribusiness interests?

Clearly the food movement is huge and is charging into the issues. That’s great. Unfortunately they misunderstand the biggest farm justice issue, (the Price Floor issue that directly opposes the exploitative wealth of agribusiness,) as I’ve described extensively elsewhere. That’s surely related to their lack of knowledge of what came before. The history I’ve described above is largely pre-internet, and is not covered in any adequate way in any food movement book, film, footnoted report, blog or short video I’ve seen (and I’ve seen hundreds of such items). Our history is vital to our motivation and mobilization today. We in this movement, which is properly labeled as a “Farm and Food Movement,” must do better.


1. Brad Wilson, “Forgetting Farm Justice: Revisionist Food Movement History and Strategy,” zspace, 1/19/12, https://zcomm.org/zblogs/forgetting-farm-justice-revisionist-food-movement-history-and-strategy-by-brad-wilson/ .

2. Willis Rowell, “Mad as Hell: An Inside Story of the NFO,” 1984

3. See, for example, FAPRI, “Analysis of Farm Bill Options,” February 1985.  (I plan to add charts to show this at SlideShare, http://www.slideshare.net/bradwilson581525/presentations .)  See charts of some of the results of these studies here, at about 7:15 and 8:15:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=feTeT45iWnc&index=18&list=PLA1E706EFA90D1767 .


Ken Meter, Green Isle:  Feeding the World, Farming the Banker, Crossroads Resource Center and Farmer Labor Education Committee, 1983,  http://www.crcworks.org/gi.pdf .

Brad Wilson, “Farm Justice PRIMER: A Farm Bill Primer,”  ZSpace, 8/3/14, see especially “Some History,” https://zcomm.org/zblogs/farm-justice-primer-a-farm-bill-primer/ .

Interview with Rhonda Perry of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center Grassroots Missouri Organizing Since 1985: A Variety of Tactics, Consistent Strategies,” http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/ra06/rperry_int05.html .

A Legacy of Crisis: Farmer Solutions, Corporate Resistance,” by George Naylor and Bert Henningson, Jr., Ames, Iowa, North American Farm Alliance, 1986, http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/ra07/crisis_86.html .

Al Krebs, “The Corporate Reapers:” What the Food Movement Doesn’t Know About Food Policy, Brad Wilson, zspace, https://zcomm.org/zblogs/al-krebs-the-corporate-reapers-what-the-food-movement-doesn-t-know-about-food-policy-by-brad-wilson/ .

For Generations to Come: The Cost of America’s Farm Crisis,” An Interview with David Ostendorf, by David Ostendorf and Danny Collum, Sojourners Magazine, October 1986 (Vol. 15, No. 9, pp. 18-21), https://sojo.net/magazine/october-1986/generations-come-cost-americas-farm-crisis .

Mark Ritchie and Kevin Ristau, “Political History of U.S. Farm Policy,” League of Rural Voters, 1986 – See more at: http://www.iatp.org/documents/political-history-of-us-farm-policy#sthash.Og4vXvJJ.dpuf

Brad Wilson, “The Women of Farm Justice: Forgotten by Women Today?” ZSpace, August 1, 2014, https://zcomm.org/zblogs/the-women-of-farm-justice-forgotten-by-women-today/ .

Brad Wilson, “Flawed Food History: Farm Justice Missing from Timeline ,” ZSpace, 8/18/12, https://zcomm.org/zblogs/flawed-food-history-farm-justice-missing-from-timeline-by-brad-wilson/ .


1979 Tractorcade to D.C. – Part 1,” YouTube, KinsleyLibrary, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vu826as2LUU&index=53&list=PL6A69251AD0413A0D .

Beverly Snyder Anderson Remembers 1979 Tractorcade to Washington, D.C.,” YouTube, KinsleyLibrary, 11/5/12, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXb9PMJn7rY&list=PL6A69251AD0413A0D&index=54 .

1979 Tractorcade to D.C. – Part 2,” YouTube, KinsleyLibrary, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3K4YMzrlFQ&index=55&list=PL6A69251AD0413A0D .

Hamburger U.S.A.” YouTube, FireweedFarm, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTu91MhVTVc&list=PL80BDEB0F29C939EB&index=3 .

Brad Wilson, “Food Movement 1985: Were You There? We Were.” YouTube, 9/28/10, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2UY2jXvYfM&index=6&list=PLA1E706EFA90D1767 .

America’s Stake in the 1985 Farm Bill,” “Farm Bill 1:  Agribusiness Against Fair Prices,” YouTube, Fireweed Farm, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfgZqgfkxXk&index=11&list=PLA1E706EFA90D1767 . “Farm Bill 2:  The Farm Crisis,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VdFNHWLGxM&list=PLA1E706EFA90D1767&index=12 .  “Farm Bill 3:  Fair Prices & No Subsidies,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VoWNTsd927g&index=13&list=PLA1E706EFA90D1767 .

1988 Presidential forum on Agriculture and Rural Life,” YouTube, IATP, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4P_u_3tvGyM&list=PLA1E706EFA90D1767&index=26

American Agriculture Movement Protests, Chicago, 1985,” YouTube, MediaBurnArchive, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDsWs0wka2E&index=46&list=PL6A69251AD0413A0D

Trading Our Future? Defining Agricultural Trade Rules for the Next Century,” League of Rural Voters, (IATP,) YouTube, IATP, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjSGgTXauUo&index=4&list=PLFC72A86C908D808F .




2 thoughts on “Missing Food Movement History: Highlights of Family Farm Justice: 1950-2000

  1. Pingback: Missing Food Movement History: Highlights of Family Farm Justice: 1950-2000 | familyfarmjustice

  2. Pingback: Subsidies vs Price Floors in Farm Bill History, Revised | familyfarmjustice

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