Down on the Farm

Squeezed into virtual serfdom by a free-market economy gone mad, America's farmers are fighting back

| March/April 2001

Fred Stokes is a retired army officer and self-proclaimed 'Reagan Republican' who raises cattle in Mississippi. He is not much given to whining about the rigors of the free-market system. But ask him about his chances for survival in an agricultural economy increasingly dominated by a few giant megacorporations and he’ll tell you that it’s time government started looking out for the little guys: 'We’re in a death struggle out here, and we’re getting our butts kicked.'

Stokes is part of an ongoing grassroots uprising that aims to bust the monopolies controlling the nation’s food production. Their goal is nothing less than to reshape industrial agriculture into a 'whole food system' that respects the land and the people who work it. 'It’s clear the government is more concerned with mining big profits for these corporations than it is with food security or family farmers,' he tells William Greider in The Nation (Nov. 20, 2000). 'It’s all about more money for a handful of guys who will be the elites. The rest of us wind up swinging machetes. You talk about feudalism. This thing makes farmers indentured on their own land; they’re going to be the new serfs.'

While America’s farm crisis has long been linked to low prices on grains and livestock, Greider argues that the tragedy is inextricably tethered to monopoly capitalism and the 'top-down collectivization' of the agricultural sector. As fewer and fewer companies consolidate more and more control over the various sectors of the agricultural economy, farmers have less and less power over their operations—in some cases becoming nothing more than modern-day sharecroppers, employees of the industrial farm. 'Growers are surrounded now on both sides—facing concentrated market power not only from the companies that buy their crops and animals but also from the firms that sell them essential inputs like seeds and fertilizer,' Greider writes. 'In the final act of unfettered capitalism, the free market itself is destroyed.' For example, four companies—Cargill, ConAgra, IBP, and Farmland National—now control 82 percent of the beef-packing industry in America, he notes.

The government, unfortunately, has been a willing partner in this massive consolidation effort. Anti-trust action largely disappeared during the Reagan administration, and the Clinton Justice Department has done little in eight years to curb agricultural monopolies. Greider notes, in fact, that the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, which sought to phase out price supports, was enacted with Clinton’s blessing. The legislation, designed to let market forces weed out marginal farmers and raise prices for the survivors, succeeded only in forcing Congress to patch the suddenly wounded farm economy with a series of emergency relief measures that eventually tripled the public subsidy to farmers. Worse, it triggered a biotech spending spree, as desperate growers embraced the cost-cutting promises of genetically altered corn and soybeans. 'These farmers are so desperate for profitability they grab whatever is offered to them,' says Stokes. 'Offering genetically modified seeds is like selling them a bag of cocaine.' The result: higher yields, but more surplus than the market can absorb. And a growing dependence on the giants of industrial agriculture.

'The deeper implications are about power,' Greider writes. 'Farmers at long last will find themselves in the very same predicament that confronted industrial workers in other sectors 100 years ago.' And while that may eventually spark efforts at unionization or the creation or reinvigoration of farmer cooperatives, Stokes and others are pursuing broader organizing strategies. His group, the Organization for Competitive Markets, brings together farmers, ranchers, political leaders, economists, lawyers, and environmentalists in an effort to reshape American agriculture. The vision statement that emerged from a recent conference describes an ambitious agenda that includes:

Welcome to the Free Market

The leading players in grain trade and processing: Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), ConAgra

Beef packing: IBP, ConAgra, Cargill

Cattle feedlots: Cargill, Cactus Feeders, ConAgra

Pork processing: Smithfield, IBP, ConAgra, Cargill

Hog growers: Smithfield, Cargill, Seaboard

Biotech and seeds: Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer, Novartis, Aventis

Supermarkets: Kroger, Albertson’s, Safeway, AHOLD (Giant), Winn-Dixie, Wal-Mart

o Reinvigorating government anti-trust enforcement at both the federal and the state level, also using private lawsuits to combat the consolidation trend.

o Stabilizing the food production system to reduce supply fluctuations and thus stabilize prices.

o Creating a whole-food system, emphasizing alternative farming practices, honest food labeling, and the social implications of industrial agriculture.

Stokes and his compatriots are not alone in this struggle. As Greider points out, similar efforts are under- way in the West, where six state councils uniting ranchers and environmentalists have banded together to form the Western Organization of Resource Councils and push anti–corporate farming legislation. In North Carolina, rural activists are fighting to banish giant hog farms that pollute local rivers. Pennsylvanians for Responsible Agriculture is lobbying local governments throughout the state to limit corporate farming. And all over the country, consumers and small farmers are working together to develop direct marketing strategies to boost farm income while farmers respond to a burgeoning demand for organic food and free-range meats.

The thread that links these disparate interests, of course, is a fundamental belief in the free-market system, an ideology many liberal-minded activists have trouble swallowing. But Greider argues that the issues are essentially the same as those that propelled the populist and progressive movements of a century ago. '[They] understood the centrality of free exchange of goods, honest pricing, and markets free of collusion to the vitality of democracy and individual freedom,' he writes. 'This generation has to relearn the economics. Then it must invent a robust new vision that challenges the present circumstances of globalizing market power.'

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