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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Tag: family farms

In This Season Of Feasting, Let's Celebrate Agriculture, Not Agribusines

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

A coalition of grassroots farmers, consumers, and scrappy public interest organizations (like 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 re-elected in a landslide.

The 51 to 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 ag 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, conglomeratized, industrialized, globalized and 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, free-thinking, 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 holiday dinners 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 www.LocalHarvest.org.

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

Trump’s Racist Immigration Policy May Leave Food To ‘Rot In The Fields’

Reprinted with permission from DCReport

Early signs show that the systems that get fresh fruit and vegetables to American homes is strained and may experience major failures. The Trump administration is only making matters worse, allowing his racism against Mexicans to inflict damage on American farms that depend on legal labor from south of the border.

In Florida, winter crops are rotting in the fields because the prime products like blemish-free squash, spinach and lettuce—sold to restaurants—lack buyers, according to the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. It offers members extensive advice on how to stay in business during the pandemic. 

U.S. farmers depend on more than  200,000 Mexicans who get visas each year to pick apples, pears and other crops. 

“Nearly all of our fruits and vegetables are not automated and you need a strong labor force to handpick those crops,” John Walt Boatright of the Florida Farm Bureau Federation told the Palm Beach Post.  “We are hearing a lot of concerns from the blueberry industry and other labor-intensive crops, and working to find a solution.”

U.S. farmers depend on more than  200,000 Mexicans who get visas each year to pick apples, pears and other crops. 

Yet Mother Jones magazine reports that the American consulate in Monterrey, Mexico’s third-largest city, and other consulates have closed. That means most Mexican farmworkers have no way to get annual work visas. Unless the visas are issued much of this year’s American fruit and vegetable crops will not be harvested, barring some other unexpected development.

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Each year as president, Donald Trump has gotten such visas for Mar-a-Lago while assiduously avoiding the many qualified workers in Palm Beach County, many of whom are African American. Federal law allows such visas for chambermaids, cooks and waitstaff only when no Americans are available.

Truckers Affected

So far the trucking networks that move perishable foods from farm to supermarket have not been affected, though some truckers say that they are finding it more difficult to buy food on the road. Most big rig trucks come with small built-in refrigerators or space where a portable one can be placed, electricity obtained through a cigarette-lighter type plug.

Representative Austin Scott (R-GA) says that delays in issuing visas to farm laborers are a serious threat to vegetable and fruit growers who, unlike grain farmers, don’t have federal crop insurance. “If delays continue” in issuing visas to Mexican farmworkers “we’re going to see crops rotting in the field,” Scott said.

The number of these Mexican farm labor visas has grown more than six-fold since 2000, a revealing indicator of how much America depends on Mexican labor to supply fresh fruits and vegetables in grocery stores. 

Not Issuing Visas

Of course, Trump is hostile to all Mexicans and his administration has shown no signs it wants to resume the issuance of visas for Mexican farm laborers who take most of their money home with them. Trump thinks like a 16th Century mercantilist, believing any dollar that leaves us makes America worse off. It’s discredited and downright crazy economic thinking that hurts America more than Mexico, not that Trump understands this.

A lack of imported farm labor means not just the loss of those foodstuffs, but of income for farmers and those in the related packing, processing and shopping businesses, worsening the cascade of economic damage.

Labor intensive crops such as strawberries and crops that require placing beehives for pollination will be most affected by a shortage of labor.

Tree fruits require intensive labor not just to harvest, but also to cut away diseased limbs and plant replacement trees. Not minding the trees each year means reduced production in future years.

Other Countries Affected

This shortage of farm labor isn’t limited to America in this global pandemic. 

In Britain, the National Farmers Union says that without government intervention, “Growers who rely on seasonal workers to pick, pack and grade our fruit and vegetables are extremely concerned about their ability to recruit workers this year.”

The British government is working on a “Pick for Britain” campaign to get thousands of unemployed to work the fields, British newspapers report.

A similar approach is taking place in France. That government urged those who have been laid off to join “France’s great agricultural army” so unpicked crops don’t rot.

In Germany, a government spokesman said “Seasonal and harvest workers will no longer be allowed to enter Germany.” The ban includes workers from other European Union countries. 

So far, Trumpian policy is more Germanic than Francophile or British. Trump’s de facto policy: Crops be dammed, just keep Mexicans out.

Corporate Profiteers Are Killing America’s Family Farms

A massive depression has been building for years across our vast rural expanse, but don’t feel alone if you didn’t know, for most of our media and political establishments have failed to notice, much less inform the general public. In America’s power centers, farming is almost entirely ignored as something arcane and “out there” — and out of mind. In 1960, John F. Kennedy lightly summed up this attitude: “I don’t want to hear about agriculture from anyone but you,” the urbane president reputedly told Orville Freeman when appointing him Secretary of Agriculture. “Come to think of it, I don’t want to hear about it from you, either.”

But hear about it we must, and do something we must. Today’s crisis promises not only to devastate our country’s rural economy and culture but also to enter our kitchens and bite us on the butt. Today’s catastrophe is far more desperate than outsiders know — and is caused by another perfect storm of corporate monopolization, financial manipulation, and rigged ag policies. How severe is the storm? Start with one eye-popping indicator: The 2018 median farm income for U.S. farm households was minus $1,553! (“Net farm income” is the money left over after a farm family subtracts the cost of producing their crops from the amount they get paid for them.) You can’t pay for groceries, rent, medical bills, kids’ clothing, a trip to Disneyland, etc. on negative income. And $1,553 in debt is the “median,” meaning that half of America’s farm families went even deeper into the hole.

Such hardship is not a one-time blip. For six straight years, more than half of America’s ag producers have lost money on their crops and herds, and this year promises more of the same. Thus, to keep the farm afloat and make ends meet, farmers commonly work a part-time side job and have a spouse who commutes to a full-time city job. With typical dark humor, they refer to these off-farm jobs as the cost of supporting their “farming habit.” Indeed, today’s ag economy is so bleak that about 70 percent of the total income of U.S. farm families comes from their “secondary jobs.”

Are these farmers inept, outmoded, lazy? Au contraire, as we say in Texas: They’re industrious, efficient, productive, innovative … and broke. Indeed, the most worrisome thing for our society is that the operations being eliminated are the mid-sized family farms — the essential backbone of both an economically healthy food system and vibrant rural communities.

But if they’re good farmers, why are they going broke? Because corporate middlemen, commodity speculators, and government policy have intentionally perverted the structure of the U.S. ag economy to leave producers with practically no say over the price of their cotton, wheat, milk, and chickens. Pious right-wing ideology aside, farmers don’t become financial “winners” just by working hard and smart, outfoxing the pests, lucking out on the weather and producing an abundant, top-quality harvest. When they take their crops to market, even blue-ribbon producers face a take-it-or-leave-it price set by profiteering players they never see.

For the past several years, prices have crashed. Dairy farmers, for example, are in the fourth consecutive year of incomes below their production costs: In 2018, they got $1.35 for a gallon of milk that cost them $1.90 to produce. This financial bomb has been exploding throughout dairy country. From 2007 to today, the number of American dairy farms dwindled from 70,000 to only 40,000, and most of them are imperiled. For example, last year in Wisconsin, where milk and cheese have long been economic and cultural mainstays, dairy farms shut down at the rate of nearly two a day.

And it’s not just our nation’s dairy farmers that are hurting. Small farmers and ranchers across the country are facing demise of their livelihoods. Fortunately, there are groups across the country fighting for family farms. The National Farmers Union — serving family farmers and ranchers — recently released its detailed recommendations for much-needed farm policy reforms. Farm Aid has a hotline for farmers in crisis: 800-FARM-AID. And People’s Action has started a rural strategy to help family farmers.

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. Sign up at HightowerLowdown.org.

IMAGE: Photo of a New England farm by Joel Dinda via Flickr.