Down on the Farm

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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