Radical media, politics and culture.

Daybreak, "Who Killed the Family Farm?"

Daybreak! writes:

"The Death of Independent Family Farms"

by Peligro

The family farm has been a sustaining myth in America. It's been seen as proof that if someone was willing to work then they’d be able to have a little land to live on, at least enough to take care of themselves and their family. As if we needed more proof that the American Dream has become little more than a twisted corpse, a story politicians tell us to put our dreams to sleep, we need look no further then the situation of the family farm in the Midwest today. Vast rural areas have become depopulated, the flat landscape broken only by the occasional empty barn or shiny corporate tractor rolling through trim endless fields owned by some soulless corporation. Desolate dusty towns empty of children seem to sprout up between sad looking Dairy Queens. The cafes and porches are full of people who can’t find work (since Dairy Queen can only hire so many people), desperate angry people who, pressured from all sides, don’t know who to blame or what to make of their world disintegrating around them.

Like many people here in the Midwest, I’m only the second generation to have grown up in the city. In fact, I still have relatives working farms in Northern Minnesota. Urbanites tend not to take farmers seriously, the 'progressives' would much rather talk about colorful exotic groups in rain forests then the culture being destroyed in their backyard. It's easy to ignore the fact that in the last 2 generations family and community farming, the way that most Minnesotans made their living less then a century ago, has been almost completely destroyed.

Who To Blame?

The main antagonist is, as usual, corporations. Studies by the National Farmers Union show the agricultural industry has been consolidating into a handful of "food chain clusters." A very few corporations control all stages of production, from manipulating the genetics of the seed until the foods arrive at the supermarket. Corporations use their size and monopolies to out-price small farmers and drive them out of business, after which they raise prices to almost unbearable levels for the consumer. Corporations manufacture and use expensive chemicals and biotechnology in order to make it economically unviable for farms to remain small or competitive. Prices for agricultural products are at the lowest level in fifty years at the same time as operating costs have continued to rise to an unmanageable point for families who, in a good year, already operate in the red.

The results of this consolidation are ominous; communities are completely disempowered as farmer’s children end up working for agribusiness on the same land their parents once owned, control of our basic resource, food, is put into the hands of greedy insatiable corporations whose only real interest is profit (no matter what the cost in environmental or health damages to normal people). Corporations, who drive farmers deep into debt, forcing them to stretch their resources in a futile attempt to compete with agribusiness, are ravaging the heartland. Many family farmers work from sunrise to sunset and still end up making less then they would on welfare.

The problem has been developing since at least the early 1900’s. The rich and landowners began to apply economic, political, and police pressure in order to force small farmers out of business. With the rise of corporate culture in the last 30 years the trickle of losses turned into a flood, enough that the public had to take notice. Celebrities and musicians in the 80’s turned out the spectacle called Farm Aid, concerts and speeches to make the rich celebrities feel good about themselves as the destruction continued. In the 90’s attention shifted away from the family farm. By then it was generally considered an anachronism, and a lost cause. More then 10,000 farmers have been forced off their land in Minnesota in the last 10 years.

The political system has contributed just as much to the death of the family farm as the economic system. Midwestern politicians sometimes mouth support for farmers by passing ineffective Band-Aid bills or trying to manipulate farmers into voting for them by making big promises they never deliver on. Often, the legislation passed has only benefit the parasitic multinational corporations who, as is becoming increasingly apparent, control the political system. The most sickening example of this is the recent “Freedom to Farm Act.” It gives lower prices to producers and squeezes out family farmers by rewarding the quantity production practiced by agribusiness. The only tangible result has been to increase the corporate market share. That’s why, for family farmers, the bill has been called the "Freedom to Fail Act”. As usual the legislation was not designed to protect normal people or family farmers but to pay dues to the economic masters of the politicians, the rich. Thanks to government legislation, corporate consolidation has only continued to increase, locking family farms in a desperate struggle for their very existence.

The rural communities that farms are the foundation of have also been drastically affected by corporate consolidation. When farms were shut down, people in rural areas became unemployed and in the harsh economic climate of the small town, unemployable. Others, formerly independent workers, became wage-slaves for the new corporations. The crappy wages they paid help to keep corporate costs low and profits high, thus helping to drive other farmers out of business. As corporations bought up more land they imposed their hierarchal and centralized structure (often called fascism in politics, but by the rich it's called just good business!) over local processing infrastructure like dairies and packing plants resulting in further loss of jobs and the transition of formerly self-sufficient communities into some of the most impoverished in the country. The resulting situation is reminiscent of medieval European relations between farmer and owner, a corporate feudalism.

Hope and Resistance

This seems like a hopeless situation. But hope, in the guise of action, springs eternal. Historically, Midwestern, and especially Minnesotan, farmers have radically defended their lives and livelihoods by any means necessary. In the 1860’s a movement called the National Grange was founded in Minnesota, eventually uniting over 800,000 American farmers in an organization that established buying, grain elevators, and milling cooperatives. The National Grange fought middlemen and robber barons that charged exorbitant prices, and resisted the system of large landowners and corporations that threatened them, saying, “We are opposed to excessive salaries, high rates of interest and exorbitant profits in trade. They greatly increase our burdens."

The radical self-organization of farmers continued to gain popularity until, according to historian Steven J. Keillor, 1919, when Minnesota farmers sold 44 percent of all their production through farmer-owned cooperatives. 60 hard years of farmer organizing had given Minnesota 390 cooperative grain elevators, 711 creameries, more than 400 livestock shipping associations, 110 farmer-owned stores, 900 rural telephone companies, and 150 mutual fire insurance companies.

Again, during the Great Depression farmer’s resisted foreclosures on land with a militancy and solidarity that far outshone traditional political solutions. They created new forms of popular resistance; in thousands of actions throughout the Midwest, they stopped cold the foreclosure of their neighbors' lands. Their activities were illegal, but they saw a law that handed family land into the hands of faceless banks or corporations as illogical and unfair. Radicalism was not simply a theoretical conclusion of midwestern farmers; they were simply fighting in the only ways available to them to save their land and their way of life.

Possibilities for Progress

To bring us to the present day, in 1999 a French dairy farmer named José Bové led an action against a local MacDonald’s. The farmers complained that MacDonald’s was not only making horrible food, but that the industrial and economic techniques they used to do this were unhealthy for consumers, animals, and small farmers. The anti-MacDonald’s action united foreign farmers with the anti-globalization movement that burst out of successful actions against the World Trade Organization by 50,000 people in Seattle of the same year. It’s noticeable that their arguments, while coming from different perspectives and interests, have much in common. Both decry the corporate control of our economic life that results in less control for laborers and expensive, sometimes dangerous, costs for consumers. They see that the same corporate agribusinesses that are currently pillaging the Midwest are doing the same thing in France and even India. In New England Farmers are using directly democratic town councils to pass resolutions against Genetically Modified Organisms. A similar struggle is going on in Oklahoma where Farmers are trying to put legal restrictions directly on Agribusiness monopolies. Midwestern farmers have yet to formally ally themselves with this vibrant new movement, instead often clinging to the same manipulative senators and politics-as-usual as their way of life dies.

However many farmers have shown signs of rising consciousness about the larger causes of the situation. Many have been forming and expanding cooperative associations, uniting with each other for support against corporations like they did back in the 1860’s. Others are taking a further step into direct marketing to consumers in the cities which focuses on producing and distributing food locally in specialty niches like organic and sustainable farming, which is becoming more popular in reaction to increasingly evil corporate schemes like biotechnology and genetically engineered crops as well as the infestation of corporate chain stores that have squeezed all small businesses out of cities.

The possibility of an alliance between urban radicals and rural communities has exciting potential. I’m reminded of the deal set up between the anarchist squatter federation in Amsterdam and local farmers to sell food directly to the squatters rather then waste time and money sending it off to middlemen. That’s just one example of how we could support one another. Urban anarchists, experienced in confrontation with the state, could give support to evicted farmers. We could resist the corporate domination of our lives together- A Food Liberation Front. Increasingly, our survival issues overlap, genetic engineering, corporate consolidation, and a lack of any sort of power over our own lives or the world around us. It becomes clearer that we no longer reside in different worlds, in fact that we share many common interests.

In this desperate but hopeful ending I’m reminded of the words of evicted farmer Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
“I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin' fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin'. And I been wonderin' what if all our folks got together and yelled ...“

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