Tag Archives: Agriculture policy

Unlearning the narrative of Minnesota’s rural heritage

In the past 40 years, the United States lost more than a million farmers and ranchers. Many of our farmers are aging. Today, only nine percent of family farm income comes from farming, and more and more of our farmers are looking elsewhere for their primary source of income. ~~ Tom Vilsack 

Though I didn’t grow up on a family farm my life was enriched by weeklong stays and Sunday dinners with relatives who tilled the legacy acres. As a kid, I marveled at how the family worked as a collaborative – if occasionally reluctant – team. Rising before dawn the members of the team managed to cope with the weather, rotating crops, fluctuating markets, neighbors’ disasters, Koolaid deliveries to field workers, egg picking and the insatiable appetites of the threshing crew – not to mention the fragile finances of the operation.

In spite of the fact that I knew or cared nothing about agricultural or political forces – much less global economics – I did realize that it was not an easy lifestyle – early mornings, a non-negotiable milking routine, pumping water, de-tasseling in the summer heat, all with one ear cocked to Maynard Speece. Still, from my limited perspective as a city kid it seemed that my cousins enjoyed significant benefits – corn on the cob, real fried chicken, vast space for running free, tractor rides and a haymow with endless possibilities.

Somewhere in the back of my aging head the utopian dream lived on. Though I regretted country school and rural library closings and lamented the death of main streets, nostalgia blinded me to deep reality. I didn’t see that foreclosures, auctions, collapsed barns and outhouses were but symptoms of a fundamental – and intentional – reordering of society.

Reality insinuated its ugly head into my dream world when I inherited the “food and ag beat” at OpenTheGovernment.org, the DC-based advocacy group where I recently did a stint as outreach coordinator. That was when I learned that the USDA doesn’t even collect rural statistics at a level that would reflect a small family-owned farm. While working inside the Beltway I saw the power wielded by the well-heeled agribusiness lobbyists who strut and sip on K Street.

At the same time, I observed the indefatigable work of those who speak for small, minority, women and immigrant farmers and for land stewardship and the imperative of sustainability.

In this open government advocacy role I had the good fortune to meet the visionary folks at the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy, the Minnesota-based think-tank that monitors national and global policy. IATP opened my eyes to the interconnectedness of the forces of trade and agriculture, ongoing now as global trade deals are negotiated behind a veil of secrecy.

And yet, reality struck like a bolt of lightening just last week when I realized that there was just one farmer representing the Democratic Farmer Labor Party at the recent Democratic National Convention. (http://www.startribune.com/meet-the-onemer-in-the-dfl-delegation-to-the-democratic-nationalconvention/388273921/)

My knee-jerk thought was that the metro politicos – more likely to be “labor” than “farmer” representatives, had simply outnumbered rural delegates – to which there may be some truth. The fact that Debra Hogenson, family farmer from Nobles County was standing alone to represent the interests of rural Minnesotans within the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party blew any fallacies still stagnating in my mind.

Who does have a voice in the political arena? Who is calling the political shots? Why? Who is reaping the financial rewards of land ownership and food production?

The deep reality of rural Minnesota circa 2016 dawned — the mega-farms that don’t just “dot the landscape” but control and benefit from the land. I began to perceive what lies behind the mansions, the driverless tractors, the ubiquitous GPS systems, the PETA proofed hatcheries that light up the night.

A cryptic quote from rural sociologist Linda Loboa came to mind: “Land makes power. And power often doesn’t want change.” T

As I considered the Big Picture, the implications surfaced. I read the Rural Blog with new understanding:

The farms that once generated wealth for entire communities are now creating a new class of super-farmers who rely on machinery and don’t hire many new farmhands…the big farmers’ wealth is usually not highly visible, except to those who know who owns the land, the oldest class divide in rural America….Much money probably goes into intangible investments, no tangible goods that testify to wealth. But money continues to buy power….”

Correspondent Patrik Jonsson, writing in The Christian Science Monitor Jonsson underscores that “as this wealth accumulates, it is being spread to fewer and fewer people. The midsize to very large operations represent less than 8 percent of the 2.1 million farm households in the U.S., most of which rely on income outside agriculture for their livelihood.”

Jonsson goes on to quote Jonathan Bryant, a history Professor at Georgia Southern University: “A typical (large) farmer is not going to admit that they’re making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, in part because nowadays…those who have traditionally performed jobs on the farm are left out of any sort of share in the wealth that’s being produced.”

Quoting Iowa State rural sociologist David Peter, Jonsson adds: “It’s not just concentration of wealth, but it’s also what happens at the bottom. The upshot (of this concentration of wealth at the top) is that the trend of the withering middle class has occurred in rural areas much further and quicker than in urban and metro communities in general.”

Clearly it falls to those of us who depend on a robust supply of nutritious food – not to mention a healthy economy –to care mightily about the fragile chain that links urban consumers with the sources of food,

As consumers we boast of our wise decisions about what’s immediate — food safety, GMO’s, pesticides, additives, what’s on the school lunch menu.

And yet we are not as quick to open our minds to the Big Picture – the economic and agricultural policies and administrative forces that determine reality. As individuals and as a society we face the awesome challenge to wake up – to take time to learn even a bit about the complexities of the rural economy, land ownership, the influence of agribusiness, humane treatment of animals, sustainability, the role of federal government, the welfare of farm workers upon whom the entire system depends.

We must make the effort to be more aware that the voices of all Minnesotans are heard in the political arena. DNC delegate Debra Hogenson can’t do it alone.


What Do Trade, Investment & Regulation Have To Do With Dinner?

The answer is:  Lots!

With all of the news and comment devoted to what’s happening in Washington we may tend to forget that today, October 16, is also World Food Day.  We probably didn’t forget to eat though….

Though World Food Day is truly global in reach, one prism through which to view the what’s happening on the global sphere is to focus on at the second session of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the all-important trade negotiations between the EU and the US.  Actually the negotiators are on hold in Brussels – the US negotiators are stalled by the furlough of government employees.

While the Deciders cool their heels and gird their loins it gives armchair observers a chance to catch up on what’s happening across The Pond.

The intent of TTIP, nee TAFTA, talks is to fashion a trade agreement that removes trade barriers that inhibit trade between the EU and the US.  The trade relationship between the US and the US is by far the biggest in the world, together accounting for about half the entire world GDP and for nearly a third of world trade.  As such, EU and US investments are the real driver of the transatlantic relationship, contributing to growth and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.  An estimated third of the trade across the Atlantic consists of intra-company transfers.

Topping the agenda for TTIP talks is the issue of differences in technical regulations, standards and procedures.  Commissioner Karel De Gucht, member of the EC in charge of trade, outlines the agenda for the TTIP negotiations in a talk presented October 10 at the annual Aspen Institute Conference in Prague; the theme of the Aspen Institute conference was “Overcoming barriers to growth:  The full video is online http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I082387.

The term “regulatory convergence” as used by TTIP observers and participants refers to a range of considerations that critics maintain would lower or remove “the rules and standards that govern what kind of food is being produced and how.”  Critics see “regulatory convergence” as a pell-mell descent to the lower common denominator – a potential outright threat to our food supply and safety.

For their part the agribusiness industry has “been very vocal about the special objectives.”  Biotech companies want the EU to relax the restrictions on on-authorized GM crop imports, speed up GM authorizations, weaken safety tests for GM crops, and replace mandatory labeling of GM food and feed with voluntary rules.”

This and other goals supported by the agribusiness block are anathema to many critics, academics, environmentalists, and a host of public interest groups.  The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) at the University of Minnesota and Friends of the Earth Europe have published a major paper outlining those organizations’ severe objections to the overt goal of U.S. agribusiness interests.  An excerpt from the conclusions gives the flavor of the report:

Friends of the Earth Europe and IATP call on the European Commission, the European Parliament, the EU’s member states and the US government to prioritise the interests of people and the environment.  To this end they should not pursue transatlantic trade negotiations that compromise democracy, safety, or environmental well-being.

Full text of the position paper, “EU-US trade deal: A bumper crop for ‘big food’? is available at (http://www.iatp.org/documents/eu-us-trade-deal-a-bumper-crop-for-big-food)

The negotiators in Brussels will soon be back at the table.  The forces with an ax to grind will be close at hand.  The reason: Because the TTIP talks do make a difference.  The talks will not garner much media coverage.  Nor will the impact be dramatic or immediate.  The ramifications can be truly catastrophic for those of us who naively assume that the food we eat is safe.

Keeping informed about what’s happening at TTIP — the players, the forces, the issues and potential impact – may require some armchair surfing.  There’s no better starting point than IATP (www.iatp.org) and no clearer goal than that enunciated by Friends of the Earth Europe and IATP who “call for a real trade deal that builds a better future for people and the planet through supporting local food economics agro-ecological farming and vibrant rural communities.”

Such a deal, the partnering organizations say, should aim at the following:

  • Building new economies and improving lives
  • Improving life for future generations
  • Promoting trading conditions in favour of people and environment
  • Bringing transparency and accountability

John Parker, IATP intern, is a bit more blunt when he writes, “We need to begin the work of reclaiming authentic participation in democratic decision-making.  Otherwise we will continue to watch agribusiness steal the game and tell us all to shut up”  (http://civileats.com/2013/10/09/food-democracy-rule-of-the-people-or-corporations/)