RURAL FARM JUSTICE WORK: NEEDED AGAIN NOW
In light of the election and the rural vote for Donald Trump: the Family Farm Movement has not been doing it’s job of leadership on Farm Justice, leading to hopelessness, and abandoning rural people to the wrong kind of organizations and leaders. In the past, we in (‘white’) Iowa, for example, fought hard for economic and social justice at the national and global levels, as well as the state level.
Iowa CCI brought inner city minorities (Des Moines, Chicago and beyond) together with ‘white’ Iowa farmers on common issues of economic and racial justice, such as urban and rural redlining by banks, (activism around the Community Reinvestment Act,) and, via National Peoples’ Action, helping to mobilize national inner city groups to confront Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, (George Bush Jr.,) over the Pork Checkoff, a tax on independent hog farmers that works against independent family farmers. And visa versa, with farmers coming to understand and support inner city minority activists and hispanic packing plant workers.
Iowa CCI farm and urban activists joined with urban activists from Chicago to confront rural banker Alan Tubbs in Maquoketa Iowa, then president of the American Bankers Association, 1990s.
PrairieFire Rural Action mobilized churches to fight for a Farm Bill with adequate minimum price floors instead of any subsidies, plus fairness for black farmers, plus confrontation of ‘Christian’ ‘hate’ groups like the ‘Christian Identity Movement. All of this was supported by National Catholic Rural Life and it’s regional directors around Iowa, and by the North American Farm Alliance. Today these concerns continue to be addressed by the National Family Farm Coalition.
See these historical examples of PrairieFire’s work with churches: major church resolutions for a “farm justice” farm bill, protections for black farmers, and opposition to racist rural hate groups. https://www.facebook.com/notes/brad-wilson/faith-statements-on-farm-justice/1122548247782922
THE ECONOMIC/POLITICAL NARRATIVE OF FARM JUSTICE WAS MISSING
The problem is that farm groups have felt too weak to do the national work for economic justice, as they’ve seen no significant urban-side support on issues like fighting against cheap corn, (but see below,) and funding has dried up for a broad range of farm justice work. PrairieFire, for example, went out of business during the 1990s for lack of funds, as did the North American Farm Alliance. Other organizations have had to find other strategies in order to survive.
This has significantly reduced leadership out of the Family Farm Movement’s “radical center” economic narrative with which they have long won debates against the dominant narrative, which is primarily economic. First, a “farm justice” farm bill, is needed because free markets have chronically failed for agriculture, (http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/268.html ; http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/008.html ) for 150 years and on into the 21st century. These markets “lack price responsiveness” (http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/248.html ) “on both the supply and the demand side for aggregate agriculture” (http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/325.html ).
The farm bill fixed this with minimum Price Floors, like Minimum Wage, and these were set for “living wage” results, (at 90% of “parity,”) as a private sector economic stimulus during and after World War II.
This leads to the Family Farm Movement’s “radical center” political strategies, which has many advantages over plain progressivism. All too often, progressives are inclined to advocate “For People, Not for Profit,” conceding the core issues of the dominant narrative to conservatives, even though conservatives are weak on those issues, even though they lose on these issues in farm country, as highlighted above. It’s like saying to Republicans and the Farm Bureau and the big commodity groups: we win caring, but you win income, wealth creation, jobs, and support for farmers. No they don’t! They side with agribusiness against authentic farm interests, https://zcomm.org/zblogs/farmer-front-groups-and-the-agribusiness-bribe/ , against profit, (see charts here,) against wealth creation. (John Ikerd, http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/ra08/ikerd_low_res.pdf )
There are two current farm justice farm bill proposals, (plus one for dairy). One is the Market Driven Inventory System, (MDIS) of the National Farmers Union. (http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/608.html ; http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/583.html ) Note the title. It’s not very catchy. It’s designed for a conservative audience, against the dominant narrative, as a no-nonsense business approach, to run the farm programs like a business. That’s how to talk about it to conservatives. It calls for “inventory management” for US agriculture, (the dominant global player and global price setter). Other businesses do it, why not farmers? (http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/316.html )
Another current proposal is the Food from Family Farms Act (FFFA) of the National Family Farm Coalition. Like MDIS, and the earlier Harkin-Gephardt proposals, it eliminates the need for any farm subsidies, thus freeing up a large amount of farm bill money for other uses. Conservative rural Republicans like Iowa Senator Charles Grassley and the Farm Bureau have supported the farm bills of the past 40 years. Basically, these, and their immediate predecessors have turned the farm bill away from the business approach and turned it into a massive welfare program, where free market failures are allowed to continue massively. The conservative solution has been to then write a government check to everyone in the marketplace. It’s as if they ended the minimum wage, and wages dropped by $3.00 per hour, and then they wrote all of those people a government check for $1.85! That’s what a Republican Farm Bill is.
In various econometric studies, government spending is much lower with the proposals that the Family Farm Movement has proposed than with those that conservatives have proposed.
This all then leads to the United States losing money on farm exports to “foreigners,” (again, I’m writing for a conservative audience). So as OPEC has managed it’s supply and increased it’s profits, the US, with even greater export market share in major farm exports (than OPEC in oil exports,) has chosen to make less money, has chosen, in fact, to export at less than full costs of production for all of the major crops for decades (USDA-Economic Research Service, http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/commodity-costs-and-returns.aspx ), with few exceptions.
From econometric research comparing the Democratic Harkin-Gephardt Farm Bill with the Republican Farm Bill that Ronald Reagan signed.
All of these huge government costs and reductions in income from farm exports has been repeatedly confirmed by major econometric studies, from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Clearly, family farmers quite easily win debates on these issues against conservative Republicans and those who vote for them. But that only happens when there are Family Farm (Farm Justice) organizations doing this work. (See above and below!)
LOSS OF RESOURCES TO ADDRESS RURAL SOCIAL TRAUMA
Another key issue, (with the huge reductions in the funding of Family Farm (Farm Justice) organizations since the 1980s,) is the taking away of resources for addressing rural social trauma, which has become historical trauma, including hotlines to address everything from suicide, to foreclosure, to hopeful activism. This was lost on a massive scale as Family Farm organizations lost the resources to do farm justice work. While in earlier decades, they led the day against racism and hate, these leadership organizations and staff and projects have been lost.
Related to this is the whole history of farmer bashing by urban society, but especially by agribusiness and it’s front groups decades, (i.e. 60s, 70s, 80s,) then sometimes by progressive social scientists, (90s) and more recently by the new Food Movement and mainstream media, (2000s,) based on it’s misunderstanding of the farm subsidy issue. While I initially hoped that the Farm Subsidy Database would help expose the absurdity of reducing (1953-1995) and ending (1996-2018) fair price programs, that absurdity remains almost totally unknown in some of the most important ways, (i.e. re. the alternative farm bill proposals described above). The Database has become primarily a format for Puritan shaming of farmers, (the victims,) instead of mega-agribusiness, (the hidden exploiters). Think “Scarlet Letter.”
THE FAILURE OF THE FOOD MOVEMENT TO LISTEN TO FARM JUSTICE
I’ve been working for 30 years to bring the message of Farm Justice to urban food consumers and taxpayers. Finally in the 21st century we have a huge Food side Movement that opposes “cheap corn,” “cheap food.” Unfortunately they don’t know how to do that in technically correct ways. Mostly they call for merely continuing subsidies, without addressing the underlying problems, or for merely ending farm subsidies. Either way the conservative free market approach is preserved. So though they value farmers in rhetoric, they oppose Farm Justice where it really counts, in Farm Bill advocacy. Additionally, they have neglected to listen to the farmers of farm justice, to hear our story, and to support us in our fight against rural economic and social injustices. By not listening, they own a piece of the Trump victory, which, I think, will lead to a Farm Bill disaster, (given the strengthened Republican leadership against farmers on one side, and the misunderstandings and increased negative views of rural voters, on the urban side.
Urban progressives have called for erasing the yellow subsidy line for crops like rice, wheat cotton, corn and soybeans, but that does nothing about the lack of any minimum price floor, (red line,) or the record low farm prices, (blue line). Prices are projected to stay low for 10 more years, with reduced subsidies.
For 8 years I’ve written more than 100 blogs on these issues, posted dozens of responses to food and food sovereignty lists, (including contact with major food academics,) and made thousands of online comments, (not counting thousands of tweets,) on these issues, but there hasn’t been much listening. I’ve attended food conferences in Milwaukee, Oakland, New York City, Boston (Harvard,) and other cities, (including urban race and food conferences and workshops,) bringing out these concerns, and at the results weren’t much better, (though urban racial minorities have been among the best listeners). The major food op-ed site, Civil Eats, has blocked me, and others, (there and on twitter,) without ever engaging in communication with us about their concerns, or ours.
One of the key issues is farm subsidies, as here. https://zcomm.org/zblogs/subsidy-narratives-how-foodies-unknowingly-bash-family-farmers/
Behind this is not knowing ‘what’ a Farm Bill is. https://www.lexiconoffood.com/post/whats-farm-bill
Family farmers and Farm Justice organizations need the support of the urban Food Movement and related sectors to survive and restore the work I’ve described above. This movement is a blessing to farmers with an enormous potential. That potential has not yet been realized, and without that, our farm side potentials have deteriorated. This all can and must be fixed in order to reverse the Trump phenomenon in it’s rural components.
I hope that now is a teachable moment on both sides of these questions.
Siena Chrisman, “Want to Understand Trump’s Rise? Head to the Farm,” Civil Eats, 10/27/16 http://civileats.com/2016/10/27/want-to-understand-trumps-rise-head-to-the-farm/
Iowa Farm Activist, (Brad Wilson,) “Siena Chrisman on Trump and Agriculture,” Daily Kos, 10/31/16, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/10/31/1589034/-Siena-Chrisman-on-Trump-and-Agriculture .
Brad Wilson, “Rural Trump Vote: Who’s Behind the Trauma?” Brad Wilson on Facebook, Photo Album, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1160645510656537&set=a.1149482558439499.1073741841.100001332982534&type=3&theater .
“Faith Statements on Farm Justice,” (from PrairieFire Rural Action for National Council of Churches of Christ,) (FaceBook, public,) https://www.facebook.com/notes/brad-wilson/faith-statements-on-farm-justice/1122548247782922 . These show responses to address issues ranging from economic trauma to racist victim blaming.
Brad Wilson, “The Election as Moby Dick: The Failure of Starbucks against Captain Ahab,” Facebook, Brad Wilson, Notes, 11/23/16, https://www.facebook.com/notes/brad-wilson/the-election-as-moby-dick-the-failure-of-starbucks-against-captain-ahab/1147218288649251 .
Joel Dyer, “The New Harvest of Rage,” Boulder Weekly, 10/27/16, http://www.boulderweekly.com/news/the-new-harvest-of-rage/ .
Osha Gray Davidson, Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural Ghetto, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990.
K. Schmidt, ed., Renew the Spirit of My People: A Handbook for Ministry in Times of Rural Crisis, Des Moines, PrairieFire Rural Action, 1987. This addresses the full range of issues, from economic trauma and the big Farm Bill issues, to psycho-social trauma, (including the “far-right,” appeals to racist approaches), to prophetic responses for churches.
I have an extensive collection of online materials documenting the ways that the new Food Movement’s failure to adequately listen to and understand the voices of farm justice. I’ll post additional summary material that makes those resources more accessible, and link that here.
(Note: This was originally published on LinkedIn in my group Farm Justice for Family Farmers, and has been further edited and expanded.)