If a Farm Bill Crashes in Congress, Does Anybody Hear It?

George Naylor | 05.29.2018

The US Farm Bill failed to pass in the House last week. This is good news—but for all the wrong reasons.

The Republicans wanted to cut the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) that makes up 80% of the $489 billion bill, and condition benefits to proof of employment or job training. This put them in conflict with the members of the far-right Republican “Freedom Caucus” who refused to sign the bill unless sweeping immigration “reforms” were enacted (essentially the deportation of millions of immigrant workers), and unless further cuts and more onerous conditions were placed on SNAP. Democrats have generally tried to maintain SNAP and make access easier, not harder.

While Democrats and some Republicans defend parts of the Bill like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program, the Conservation title, and the Farm Stress programs, none are concerned about the ways that the Farm Bill acts as a huge subsidy to big monopolies like retailer Walmart, farm suppliers like Monsanto, grain merchants like Cargill, and the entire livestock industry.

The political squabbles over the Farm Bill may or may not be resolved over the next few weeks. What is clear, is that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are willing to address the underlying causes of the growing crisis in US agriculture, or introduce any structural changes that might curtail the power of the monopolies over our food system.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Iowa farm leader George Naylor gives us some background on the crisis, the politics, and the possibilities for a farm justice approach that serves the needs of rural and urban communities, not the greed of corporations.

-Eric Holt-Giménez

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A Farm Crisis is Everybody’s Crisis

The following post has been reprinted with permission from The Sound Consumer, a publication of PCC Community Markets.

After 40 years of family farm activism and being president of the National Family Farm Coalition for almost 5 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that a president and congress paid for by giant multinational corporations and banks will never pass the kind of legislation needed for a family farm system.  After all, international free trade agreements agreed to with bipartisan support destroyed the food sovereignty of every nation, tying its hands for any real farm policy choices that supported a family farm system or protected the environment. For any real progress to occur, we must ignore the siren calls of partisanship or bipartisanship and carry a unifying message of our movement that, in turn, unifies the American voters for real change.

Some of us lived through the farm crisis of the 1980’s and became active in the progressive family farm movement organizing local meetings and tractorcades.   I gave the farm policy/economic presentation at the first public meeting of the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition which was based on the success of New Deal policy to create farm Parity and better labor power to create a balanced economy.  The reason we were having a farm crisis was that farm prices had lagged behind the rate of inflation for years. The concept of Parity—basically a policy to ensure fair incomes to farmers without destroying rural communities or the environment—pegged farm prices and the minimum wage to inflation.

Thanks to the American Agriculture Movement, the North American Farm Alliance, and the National Family Farm Coalition, a national family farm movement was able to popularize this policy resulting in the writing of the Harkin-Gephardt Bill, a federal bill guaranteeing farmers Parity.   The United Farmer and Rancher Congress, funded by Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid, made up of 2600 locally elected farmers from around the country, also supported the same Parity legislation. I edited and contributed to the policy handbook that was sent to these delegates preceding the Congress. It was a thrilling time.  Then, in 1988, Jesse Jackson made a run in presidential primary here in Iowa. Completely surprising the pundits (who thought an African-American candidate didn’t stand a chance in the heartland) he bravely raised the call for Parity, attracted cheering crowds in small towns. Two of his memorable slogans were, “The best urban policy starts with the best rural policy,” and emphasizing the broad appeal of his message, he would say, “You know, it takes both a right wing and a left wing to fly an airplane.”

What’s important for progressive politicians and organizations to realize is that at the time, farmers were offered two other explanations for their plight.  One explanation advanced by the Farm Bureau-agribusiness sector claimed that we couldn’t argue with “supply and demand” and that government had no role in organizing the farm economy differently, because farming was just like any other business. The other explanation offered only fear and prejudice: Jewish international bankers wanted to impose Communism and destroy America.  As unbelievable as these may sound, because agribusiness and the mainstream media had resorted to shameless red-baiting during the Cold War to discredit the New Deal, these two explanations were the only thing offered to rural communities to understand the farm crisis.

Nevertheless, farmers responded to the logic of Parity and, thanks to Frances Moore Lappé’s book, Food First, we recognized that multinational corporations were cashing in on the hard work of many other people around the world as well.  There were many nonviolent rallies and farm foreclosure demonstrations. Some effectively shut down foreclosure auctions. We didn’t alienate the public or jeopardize farmer’s First Amendment rights.  Conservative farmers even quoted Dr. Martin Luther King about the power of non-violence. With today’s president and his alt-right advisors whipping up violence and hate, our choice for non-violence and a message that awakens people to the disastrous course of monopolistic economic policy is as important as ever.  We’re all in this together.

Fast forward to 2018, and we are facing a similar situation as the 1980’s with new farm crisis brewing and national political leadership as clueless and dangerous as ever.  Progressive politicians and organizations face a choice: either recognize that farming and pricing of farm products is not just like any other business, or blame farmers for the many ills of our agriculture system, ignoring that competition gives most farmers the only options of “get big or get out.”  Choosing the latter will create a vacuum by addressing only the symptoms of the current free market system, alienating farmers and expecting workers and taxpayers to pay for piecemeal, inadequate remedies.  We will also be letting the Farm Bureau and agribusiness stand fast to the theory of supply and demand while co-opting the calls for clean water and healthy food. It will further open the door to extremist scapegoating of immigrants and violent solutions.

The better choice is to appeal to better grassroots values and promote progressive policies that correct the imbalances of economic power while uniting ALL the American people in a struggle to create a better State and Nation for all of us.

George Naylor is an Iowa non-GMO and organic farmer.  He is also a contributing author of Land Justice: Re-imagining Land, Food, and the Commons in the United States.

The cover photo by Washington Area Spark / CC BY-NC 2.0, shows tractors arriving in Washington, D.C. February 4, 1979 driven by farmers protesting low crop prices, high farm debt and widespread foreclosures.