By John Ikerd
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book Small Farms are Real Farms, by John Ikerd. Copyright 2008, softcover, 249 pages. Regular price: $20.00.
After decades of betrayal by the agricultural establishment, farmers are finally beginning to fight back. For decades, so-called producers’ associations have been promoting the industrialization of agriculture, which has contributed directly to the demise of the producers who have been paying for their programs.
Over the past decade, for example, the Missouri Pork Producers Association has been promoting large-scale corporate hog operation through their support of industrial research and market development programs. During this same time, the number of hogs produced in Missouri has risen dramatically with the influx of large corporate operations, but the number of Missouri hog farmers has dropped to less than a third of previous levels. But, the nation’s hog farmers have voted to abolish the national pork check-off program, which supports the Missouri and National Pork Producers Councils. Farmers are finally beginning to fight back.
The check-offs are based on a percentage of the total sales value of hogs. Thus, the so-called producers’ organizations are concerned about the total number of hogs sold, not about the number of hog producers. They cater to the large-scale corporate operations and support their takeover of the hog/pork sector because those operations sell more hogs and generate more check-off dollars. So, smaller family hog farmers end up subsidizing the same corporate operations that are driving them out of business. But farmers have begun to fight back. Cattlemen are following the hog farmers’ lead, and are petitioning USDA for a vote on the beef check-off program as well. Hopefully, farmers won’t stop fighting back until they have eliminated all subsidies for these corporate operations that are destroying family farms and rural communities as they foul the natural environment.
I heard the results of the pork check-off vote while attending a meeting of farmers and rural activists who have been opposing corporate takeover of hog production. More than 500 people from all across the country attended a “Sustainable Hog Farming Summit” in New Bern, NC. The Water Keepers Alliance was one of the sponsors. Under the leadership of Robert Kennedy, Jr., the Alliance has assembled a team of powerful law firms that are committed to forcing large-scale corporate hog operations to comply with the Federal Clean Water Act, and other federal laws protecting the natural environment. These are the same law firms that have successfully sued the asbestos industry, the tobacco industry, and the pharmaceutical industry for knowingly destroying the health of millions of people. These firms are now ready to take on the corporate hog industry for knowingly degrading the natural environment and threatening the health of millions of people who live “downstream or downwind” from factory hog operations.
Up to now, the grassroots family farm and rural advocacy groups had been no match for large agribusiness corporations, either in the courts or in the halls of Congress. Now, however, advocates for sustainable family farms and rural communities will be supported by a group of well-financed, committed advocates for a clean rural environment. The farmers who fight back now have a good change of winning.
Many farmers, however, are still unwittingly supporting corporate agriculture when they oppose enforcement of environmental and health regulations. Farmers need to realize that these large-scale corporate operations would lose much, if not all, of their cost advantage over family farms if they were forced to protect the environment by properly disposing of their wastes. It’s far easier and less costly to handle wastes properly and to protect the environment in a smaller-scale, diversified hog operation. Perhaps some specific rules and regulations need to be changed to reflect the smaller environmental risks from smaller, less concentrated animal production, but farmers who oppose enforcement of environmental protection laws in general are helping the corporations put family farmers out of business. The Water Keepers group is not just anti-corporate agriculture; they are pro-family farming because they believe that family farmers want to be good stewards of the environment. The family farmers fighting corporate hog operations need help, rather than opposition, from their neighbors.
Farmers also are beginning to fight back on a number of other fronts. Many farmers are beginning to realize that the so-called farmers’ cooperatives have become virtually identical to the corporations against which they were supposed to protect farmers. These cooperatives no longer support farmers but instead support the industrialization process that is forcing farmers out of business. A true farmers’ cooperative helps farmers make profits, instead of making profits for the cooperative that rarely find their way back to farmers. The giant national dairy cooperatives, for example, have driven thousands of family dairy farmers out of business by using the same business tactics as agribusiness corporations. Farm supply and marketing cooperatives, such as Missouri Farmers Association, have abandoned the cause of family farmers and now openly promote and support agricultural industrialization. Too often, the new “closed membership cooperatives” turn out to be nothing more than ways for wealthy farmers to invest venture capital. But more and more farmers are abandoning “farmers’ cooperatives” that don’t support farmers and are searching for ways to fight back.
Farmers are also beginning to fight back against general farm organizations, such as the Farm Bureau Federation, that support the industrialization of agriculture to the detriment of farmers. A farm organization cannot have millions of dollars invested in agribusiness corporations, such as Continental Grain, IBP, and Premium Standard Farms, and effectively represent the farmers who are routinely squeezed out of business by these same corporations. The policy agenda supported by such farm organizations in Washington, D.C. is not an agenda designed to maintain family farms, but instead is an agenda to maximize agricultural production. Maxi- mum agricultural production keeps farm-level prices depressed, weakens bargaining power of farmers, and maximizes profits of marketing and processing firms. Policies that have driven farmers out of business have been supported by so-called farm organizations that claim to speak for farmers.
However, farmers have begun to fight back. The National Farmers Union, an organization with a long history of advocacy of family farms, has begun to openly oppose the industrial agriculture policies of the Farm Bureau and the various farm commodity groups. The President of the National Farmers Union announced the defeat of the national pork check-off at the Hog Summit in North Carolina and openly proclaimed it as a victory for family hog farmers. The Farmers Union is an old organization nation- ally, but has organized in Missouri only within the past few years.
Their membership is growing as more and more farmers fight back.
Farmers are also are fighting back against the U.S. Department of Agriculture — against their support to industrial agriculture. A group of African-American farmers recently won a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the USDA for discriminatory practices in implementation of government programs — specifically, in administration of government farm loans. The Organization of Competitive Markets is a newly formed group organized by commercial farmers and livestock feeders who are challenging USDA and the Department of Justice for failing to enforce antitrust regulations against corporate monopolization of agricultural markets. Organic farmers’ groups from all across the country forced USDA to withdraw and re- write proposed standards for organic production that would have favored large-scale, corporate producers. Farmers of all kinds all across the country are beginning to fight back against government programs that support agricultural industrialization.
Farmers have not yet begun to fight back against their Land Grant Universities — at least not effectively. One after another, the major Land Grant Universities have sold out family farmers to agricultural industrialization. Publicly funded research and extension programs have supported and promoted specialization, standardization, and consolidation of decision making as a means of making agriculture more efficient. As farms have become more specialized and standardized, management has been consolidated among fewer decision makers, meaning that farming operations become larger in size and fewer in numbers. Industrialization, by its very nature, forces family farmers out of business and promotes the eventual corporate control of agriculture. In recent years, however, universities have begun to even brag about the “partnerships” they are forming with the giant agribusiness corporations that are forcing family farmers out of business. Yet most farmers continue to support their universities, perhaps out of blind loyalty, or maybe in disbelief that “their university” could possibly betray them.
JOHN IKERD was raised on a small dairy farm in the southwest Missouri and received his B.S., Ph.D. degrees in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri. He worked in various professional positions at North Carolina State University, Oklahoma State University, University of Georgia and University of Missouri before retiring in early 2000. Since retiring, he spends most of his time writing and speaking on issues related to the sustainability of agriculture.
Ikerd is author of Sustainable Capitalism, A Return to Common Sense, and Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture.