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Tag: agriculture

On Thanksgiving, Celebrate Agriculture — Not Agribusiness

In December 1972, I was part of a nationwide campaign that came tantalizingly close to getting the U.S. Senate to reject Earl Butz, then-President Richard Nixon's choice for secretary of agriculture.

A coalition of grassroots farmers, consumers and scrappy public interest organizations (such as the Agribusiness Accountability Project that Susan DeMarco and I then headed) teamed up with some gutsy, unabashedly progressive senators to undertake the almost-impossible challenge of defeating the Cabinet nominee of a president who'd just been elected in a landslide.

The 51-44 Senate vote was so close because we were able to expose Butz as ... well, as butt-ugly — a shameless flack for big food corporations that gouge farmers and consumers alike. We brought the abusive power of corporate agribusiness into the public consciousness for the first time, but we had won only a moral victory, since there he was, ensconced in the seat of power. It horrified us that Nixon had been able to squeeze Butz into that seat, yet it turned out to be a blessing.

An arrogant, brusque, narrow-minded and dogmatic agricultural economist, Butz had risen to prominence in the small — but politically powerful — world of agriculture by devoting himself to the corporate takeover of the global food economy. He was dean of agriculture at Purdue University but also a paid board member of Ralston Purina and other agribusiness giants. In these roles, he openly promoted the preeminence of middleman food manufacturers over family farmers, whom he disdained.

"Agriculture is no longer a way of life," he infamously barked at them. "It's a business." He callously instructed farmers to "get big or get out" — and he then proceeded to shove tens of thousands of them out by promoting an export-based, conglomerated, industrialized, globalized, heavily subsidized, corporate-run food economy. "Adapt," he warned farmers, "or die." The ruination of farms and rural communities, Butz added, "releases people to do something useful in our society."

The whirling horror of Butz, however, spun off a blessing, which is that innovative, freethinking, populist-minded and rebellious small farmers and food artisans practically threw up at the resulting Twinkieization of America's food. They were sickened that nature's own rich contribution to human culture was being turned into just another plasticized product of corporate profiteers. "The central problem with modern industrial agriculture ... (is) not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste, and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all. More fundamentally, it has no soul," said Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist and former farm boy from Yamhill, Oregon. Rather than accept that, they threw themselves into creating and sustaining a viable, democratic alternative. The "good food" rebellion has since sprouted, spread and blossomed from coast to coast.

This transformative grassroots movement rebuts old Earl's insistence that agriculture is nothing but a business. It most certainly is a business, but it's a good business — literally producing goodness — because it's "a way of life" for enterprising, very hardworking people who practice the art and science of cooperating with Mother Nature, rather than always trying to overwhelm her. These farmers don't want to be massive or make a killing; they want to farm and make delicious, healthy food products that help enrich the whole community.

This spirit was summed up in one simple word by a sustainable farmer in Ohio, who was asked what he'd be if he wasn't a farmer. He replied, "Disappointed." To farmers like these, food embodies our full "culture" — a word that is, after all, sculpted right into "agriculture" and is essential to its organic meaning.

Although agriculture has forestalled the total takeover of our food by crass agribusiness, the corporate powers and their political hirelings continue to press for the elimination of the food rebels and, ultimately, to impose the Butzian vision of complete corporatization. This is one of the most important populist struggles occurring in our society. It's literally a fight for control of our dinner, and it certainly deserves a major focus as you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner this year.

To find small-scale farmers, artisans, farmers markets and other resources in your area for everything from organic tomatoes to pastured turkey, visit the LocalHarvest website.

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

Trump’s Trade War Cost Wisconsin 800 Dairy Farms

The state of Wisconsin, famous for its cheese, lost 10 percent of its dairy farms in 2019, Dairy Herd Management reported on Thursday. The loss of 818 dairies was the largest decline in Wisconsin history.

Trouble for dairy farmers started in 2018, when Donald Trump engaged in a protracted trade war with China. In retaliation for increased tariffs from the United States, China placed tariffs on a number of U.S. agricultural exports.

As a result, exports of U.S. dairy to China dropped by more than 50 percent in 2019, according to CNBC.

The Trump administration rolled out a multibillion dollar bailout for farmers as the trade war dragged on, promising to make up for the financial damage caused by Trump’s policies.

However, milk producers say the aid is not enough.

Paul Bleiberg, vice president of government relations at the National Milk Producers Federation, told CNBC that the bailout “fell short of where the damages were.” The comments mirrored a statement made in late 2018 by Jim Malhern, president of the National Milk Producers Federation.

“This [bailout] was supposed to make sure farmers were not the victims of this trade policy,” Malhern told the New York Times. “I think most agriculture producers feel that the payments have not come close to making up for the damage for the tariffs.”

According to Dairy Herd Management, the rate of dairy farmer loss in Wisconsin “has more than doubled in the last few years.”

Democratic leaders were quick to call out Trump’s role in exacerbating problems in the dairy industry.

“We have a genuine dairy farm crisis, and Trump is making it worse,” Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, wrote on social media on Friday.

“These family farms are the lifeblood of so many of Wisconsin’s local economies who are now suffering because of Trump’s broken promises to have their backs,” Philip Shulman, spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said in an emailed statement. “Instead of trying to buy them off with bailouts, he should wake up to the reality thousands of other farmers across our state are facing.”

More broadly than dairy farmers, the rate of farm bankruptcies has dramatically increased during Trump’s tenure. An August 2019 analysis showed farm bankruptcies in the midwest have increased by 45 percent since Trump started his trade war with China.

“Trump has repeatedly broken his promise to look out for the dairy industry,” Maddie McComb, spokesperson for the DNC, said in a statement. “Now farmers are paying the price as over 800 farms closed last year in Wisconsin and thousands more struggle to make ends meet under Trump’s watch. It’s clear that the crisis facing American farmers is escalating and the best solution is to defeat Trump in November.”

Trump narrowly carried Wisconsin in the 2016 election, edging out Hillary Clinton by less than 25,000 votes out of a total of 2.8 million votes cast.

Democrats are hoping to win the state in 2020, and will host the party’s July national nominating convention in Milwaukee.

This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Philip Shulman’s name. A previous version of this story referred to him as Phillip Shulman.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

IMAGE: Photo by Elvis Kennedy

Purdue Attacks Low-Income Families On Tax-Funded Podcast

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and guest Newt Gingrich painted a disparaging picture of welfare recipients during the latest episode of the USDA’s taxpayer-funded podcast, The Sonnyside of the Farm. Perdue’s comments came as the USDA effectuated a rule change that will kick nearly 700,000 people off of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and cut the number of children who can receive free lunch at school. 

While Perdue advocates for limiting government assistance for people struggling to eat, he has used his positions in government to benefit himself, his friends, business associates, and family members throughout his political career

Launched in October, Perdue’s monthly podcast purports to discuss “the issues facing America’s farmers, ranchers, producers and foresters today.” The third installment of The Sonnyside of the Farm, released on December 5, focused on low-income Americans who receive government assistance. Perdue opened the show by saying, “Today, we’re going to talk about the transformational power of work” before claiming that “sometimes the helping hand can become an indefinitely giving hand, creating government dependency on programs like the food stamp program, which we administer here at USDA.” 

Perdue was joined by Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich, who, as Perdue noted, was a driving force in Congress behind the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The law, which was enacted by President Bill Clinton, is credited with contributing to the increase in Americans who live in extreme poverty. Like the 1996 law, USDA’s SNAP rule change limits the ability of people who are not working to receive benefits. 

During his appearance, Gingrich offered several negative characterizations of low-income Americans who receive assistance from the government. According to Gingrich, without strict work requirements, “you begin to reshape the mind of the welfare worker because they begin looking for the loopholes that enable you to stay dependent on the government.” He added that without a work requirement, government assistance recipients are dependent, passive, and “waiting for the next government check.” He also said, “A generation that watches their parents do nothing learns that it’s OK to do nothing.”

Perdue suggested that people on food stamps don’t contribute to society and have no self-worth, saying to Gingrich, “You’ve done a great job articulating how working and contributing to society increases personal self-esteem [and] self-worth. Sadly, what do you see today? We still have 36 million people [on food stamps], up from 17 [million] prior to the recession.” Gingrich responded, “I think there is a subculture of people who think they are really clever if they avoid work.”

During the podcast’s discussion of government assistance, Perdue did not mention USDA payments to farmers. In July, the USDA announced that an additional $16 billion would be paid to farmers impacted by Trump’s disastrous trade war with China. As The Washington Post reported, an analysis conducted by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group “found that the top one-tenth of recipients received 54 percent of all payments” from the $8.4 billion that had been distributed as of July from a previous 2018 subsidy and noted, “The top 1 percent of recipients of trade relief received, on average, $183,331. The bottom 80 percent received, on average, less than $5,000.” 

Perdue, who was the governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011, often used his position to benefit himself and his associates. A 2017 investigation published by Politico “found more than a dozen instances when he gave positions to business associates and campaign donors, and other occasions when he rewarded his state staff with opportunities in his agriculture and shipping empire after he left office.” As governor, Perdue gave himself a $100,000 tax break by signing into law a bill that “gave land buyers temporary relief on capital gains tax in Georgia if they sold land in Georgia and purchased land in another state.” While the bill was being considered, a state legislator — who was also Perdue’s lawyer — successfully amended it to apply the tax break retroactively, meaning it would cover a Florida land purchase Perdue had made within the last year. 

Perdue has also personally financially benefited from federal government rule changes. In 2017, while he was under consideration for the USDA secretary position, Perdue was one of the beneficiaries of an executive action taken by President Donald Trump that eliminated an Obama-era environmental regulation. Perdue was personally involved in litigation challenging the regulation through his grain company AGrowStar. 

While The Sonnyside of the Farm bills itself as a podcast about farming issues, the inaugural episode of the podcast instead largely consisted of Perdue and his guest, Fox News contributor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, lavishly praising Trump.

Which Food Future Will We Choose?

It’s time to talk turkey!

No, not the Butterball sitting in the Oval Office. I’m talking about the real thing, the big bird, 46 million of which we Americans will devour on this Thanksgiving Day.

It was the Aztecs who first domesticated the gallopavo , but leave it to the Spanish explorers to “foul up” the bird’s origins. They declared it to be related to the peacock — wrong! They also thought the peacock originated in Turkey — wrong! And, they thought Turkey was located in Africa — well, you can see the Spanish were pretty confused.

Actually, the origin of Thanksgiving is confused. The popular assumption is that it was first celebrated by the Mayflower immigrants and the Wampanoag natives in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. They feasted on venison, furkees (Wampanoag for gobblers), eels, mussels, corn and beer. But wait, say Virginians, the first precursor to our annual November Food-a-Palooza was not in Massachusetts; the Thanksgiving feast originated down here in the Jamestown colony back in 1608.

Whoa there. Hold your horses, Pilgrims. Folks in El Paso, Texas, say it all began way out there in 1598, when Spanish settlers sat down with people of the Piro and Manso tribes, gave thanks and then feasted on roasted duck, geese, and fish.

“Ha!” says a Florida group, asserting that the very, very first Thanksgiving happened in 1565 when the Spanish settlers of St. Augustine and friends from the Timucuan tribe chowed down on “cocido” — a stew of salt pork, garbanzo beans and garlic — washing it all down with red wine.

Wherever it began, and whatever the purists claim is “official,” Thanksgiving today is as multicultural as America. So let’s enjoy! Kick back; give thanks that we’re in a country with such ethnic richness; and dive into your turkey rellenos, Moo Shu Turkey, turkey falafel, barbecued turkey …

America certainly has an abundance of food (even though many Americans do not), yet we face a momentous choice of whether to pursue a food future rooted in the ethic of sustainable agriCULTURE — or one based on the exploitative ethic of agriINDUSTRY.

What better symbol of agri-industry’s vision of “food” than that ubiquitous Thanksgiving bird, the Butterball turkey? The Butterball has been hoisted onto our tables by huge advertising budgets and regular promotion payments to supermarkets. The birds themselves have been grotesquely deformed by industrial geneticists, who created breasts so ponderous that the turkeys can’t walk, stand up or even reproduce on their own (thus earning the nickname “dead-end birds”). Adding torture to this intentional deformity, the industry sentences these once-majestic fowl to dismal lives in tiny confinement cages inside the sprawling steel-and-concrete animal factories that scar America’s rural landscape — monuments to greed-based corporate “husbandry.”

As the eminent farmer-poet-activist Wendell Berry tells us, eating is a profound political act. It lets you and me vote for the Butterball industrial model or choose to go back to the future of agriculture, which is the art and science of cooperating with, rather than trying to overwhelm, nature. That cooperative ethic is the choice of the remarkable Good Food Uprising that has spread across the country in the past 30 years. Now the fastest-growing segment of the food economy, it is creating the alternative model of a local, sustainable, small-scale, community-based, organic, humane, healthy, democratic — and tasty! — food system for all.

To take part in the good-food movement and find small-scale farmers, artisans, farmers markets and other resources in your area, visit the LocalHarvest website.

Populist author, public speaker and radio commentator Jim Hightower writes “The Hightower Lowdown,” a monthly newsletter chronicling the ongoing fights by America’s ordinary people against rule by plutocratic elites.

How Trump’s Trade Bailout Greased Fatcats And Screwed Small Farmers

Donald Trump loooooves farmers. We know this because he says so. “Farmers, I LOVE YOU!” he declared in December. And we’ve learned that whenever The Donald says something, it’s true — even when it’s not.

These days, he’s loving farmers to death. Trump has ignored the obvious need to get monopolistic price-fixing bankers, suppliers and commodity buyers off their backs. And he’s ineptly playing tariff games with China and other buyers of U.S. farm products, causing exports and farm prices to tumble. The result is that our ag economy is tumbling into a deep ditch, slamming farm families and rural America with a rising tsunami of bankruptcies.

Adding crude insult to economic injury, Trump’s doofus of an ag secretary, Sonny Perdue, laughed at farmers, branding them “whiners” for opposing his majesty’s disastrous policies.

So, needing a political “I love you” gesture, Trump has been sending big bouquets of money to some of his beloved farmers. Our money. Lots of it — $28 billion so far, in what he cynically (and comically) calls the Market Facilitation Program, otherwise known as a taxpayer bailout.

But TrumpLove turns out to be highly selective, with more than half of the government payments going to the biggest farm owners. The Department of Agriculture initially announced a $125,000 limit on the amount any one farm could get, but every Trump deal seems to have a gimmick in it to give a special break to the slickest operators. The slickum in this deal is that assorted members of a family can claim to be owners of the same farm and be eligible for bailout money, even if they do no actual farming and live in New York City! Thus, one Missouri farm family got $2.8 million worth of subsidy love from Trump, and more than 80 families topped half a million in payments.

Meanwhile, the great majority of farmers — 80 percent of eligible grain farmers — got zilch from Donald the Dealmaker. The smaller producers who are most endangered by his export collapse got less than $5,000. So Trump’s “Market Facilitation” is squeezing the many who are most in need while helping a few of the largest get even bigger.

While the Trumpistas are presently trying to plow a multibillion-dollar subsidy into big grain farms, they’re shockingly stingy when it comes to our society’s moral responsibility to make sure the least-wealthy among us get an adequate level of food. Their latest effort in the practice of mass minginess is to try literally taking food off poor children’s plates. Using a tangle of federal red tape, Trump ideologues and bureaucratic minions are intervening to prevent states from providing food stamp assistance to millions of their people.

According to federal rules, to qualify for food aid, a family of three should have an income under $27,000 a year. But with rents, utilities, health care and even food prices constantly rising, millions of Americans can’t make ends meet on such a low income. Thus, 40 states have stepped in to loosen that income restriction so families at least get the minimum nutrition humans need. Far from being welfare moochers (as far-right-wing extremists screech), these recipients overwhelmingly are working families, children, the elderly and Americans with disabilities. The benefit is hardly lavish; it averages only $127 a month, but even this modest outlay has proven enormously successful in mitigating poverty.

Congress actually authorized states to make such pragmatic income adjustments in a 1996 revamp of the law. But look out! Here comes Sonny Perdue again, rising up on his hind legs to proclaim that naughty state officials are using that authority as a “loophole” to circumvent Trump’s federal authority. So Sonny and Donnie are demanding that a whole new bureaucracy of food stamp “eligibility police” be set up to monitor the assets of hard-hit people who’re just trying to get adequate food on their tables. This nonsense will cost tens of millions of our dollars to harass the poor in an autocratic hope of nabbing a couple of hungry families who have a dime more in assets than miserly Trumpistas claim they should have.

What we have here is government by plutocratic authoritarians who’ll gleefully dole out millions to a wealthy family and then just as gleefully go out of their way to deny food to millions of poor families.

In Speech To Farmers, Trump Takes 30 Minutes To Rant About His ‘Wall’

Reprinted with permission from Shareblue.

 

Trump used a speech to farmers to complain — at length — about America rejecting both his government shutdown and his obsession with building a border wall.

Despite delivering his speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation, it took well over 30 minutes of monologuing about the wall before Trump even got around to mentioning issues relevant to farmers.

And when he did get around to discussing trade issues, he failed to address the serious harms that his unnecessary trade war has caused many farmers.

Trump arranged unpopular payoffs to temporarily help farmers affected by the trade war — but even those paltry measures have been disrupted because of his shutdown.

Farmers have slammed the shutdown as its effects have rippled across the country.

John Boyd of Baskerville, Virginia told the Washington Post, “I don’t need a damn wall. … I need my money, so I can plant my crop.”

North Carolina farmer Kent Revels told a local station, “They’re playing a game of basically Russian Roulette, and it affects the people out here.”

John Myer, a farmer in New York, told the New York Times that the shutdown was a “personal power stance” by Trump “because he doesn’t really care about anything, I don’t think, besides himself.”

All Trump seems to care about is his wall, and Democrats’ refusal to give in to his unreasonable demands that have disrupted the lives of millions of Americans.

But Americans don’t want Trump’s wall, and they also don’t want Trump to shut down the government to try to make it happen.

A newly released Quinnipiac poll emphasizes how out of touch with the country Trump is. By a margin of 63 to 32 percent, the public opposes shutting down the government for the pointless wall, and 56 percent of the public blames Trump for the impasse.

Trump and his fellow Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), are clearly losing the fight over the shutdown.

The most Trump can muster is more whining and complaining. And the farmers, who likely wanted to hear what Trump will actually do to help them, were stuck being nothing more than a captive audience for his latest public meltdown.

Published with permission of The American Independent.

 

Why Paul Ryan Lied About Food Stamps To GOP Colleagues

Reprinted with permission from Shareblue.

Speaker Paul Ryan will go down in history as one of the weakest and most inconsequential House speakers ever to wield the gavel.

So it seems fitting that in what is likely the final piece of significant legislation to pass the House under Ryan’s leadership, Ryan himself stooped to lying about the content of the bill in order to beg his fellow Republicans to support it.

In an attempt to gin up support for a compromise farm bill, Ryan told Republican colleagues that the bill included his long-desired goal of imposing stricter work requirements on people who receive food stamps.

“There is just one catch,” Politico noted. “It does no such thing.”

The final compromise bill, which passed both the House and the Senate with broad support, was “stripped of every controversial proposal the House GOP wanted on food stamps,” Politico reported.

The only conservative tweak Ryan successfully included in the bill was “so minimal it doesn’t register as saving any money, according to the CBO.”

Ryan’s leadership on the farm bill was so ineffective that House conservatives reportedly complained at being “steamrolled.”

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the head Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, told Politico he has received standing ovations in Democratic caucus meetings because he “stared [Republicans] down” on this issue.

Under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi, Democrats unanimously opposed the House version of the farm bill over the summer, leading to its initial defeat — and one of Ryan’s many embarrassments as Speaker. A subsequent version eventually passed by just two votes.

But this time around, Peterson told Politico he expected most Democrats to support the compromise version because Ryan’s agenda was so thoroughly crushed.

That turned out to be true, and Pelosi turned out to be much better at keeping her caucus unified than Ryan did.

In the end, the bill passed 369-47, with only three of the “no” votes coming from Democrats. The remaining 44 came from Ryan’s Republican caucus.

In one of his final acts as Speaker, Ryan tried to use pathetic lies to corral members of his own party. And even that didn’t work too well.

In the end, Ryan was forced to rely on Pelosi, Peterson, and almost every House Democrat to pass a key piece of legislation — and he was forced to give up on his yearslong dream of making life worse for people who need help with their grocery bills.

It’s a fitting way to cement Ryan’s embarrassingly ineffective legacy as Speaker.

Published with permission of The American Independent.