Farm Bill failure and the Washington bubble

Barb Kalbach: “Congress panders to corporate ag at the expense of family farms, rural communities, and our food supply.” -promoted by Laura Belin

“This is an evolutionary, not revolutionary Farm Bill,” is the refrain from the Congressional crafters of the recently passed legislation. But this out-of-touch bill locks in a factory farm system that for decades has pushed independent family farmers off their land and left rural residents and our environment worse off.

As our democracy in Washington fails us, important fights at the local and state level are taking on corporate agriculture interests and building a new future for family farmers and rural communities.

There is no avoiding it: farmers are in a dire situation. According to a December report to the Farm Credit Administration, USDA forecasts an 8 percent drop in net cash farm income for 2018. Bankers are asking farmers to put up more collateral (equipment, homes) for farm loans. The overproduction of commodity crops to feed livestock on corporate factory farms is driving independent family farm livestock producers out of business.

The 2018 Farm Bill continues the use of public taxpayer dollars to prop up this system, characterized by thousands (often tens of thousands) of animals packed indoors, producing many millions of gallons of liquid manure that is over-applied to farmland and pollutes our water.

These factory farms are part of a highly consolidated market of global meat giants. Four corporations control more than 70 percent of the hog slaughter, 50 percent of which is controlled by two foreign corporations (China’s Smithfield and Brazil’s JBS). Four corporations control more than 80 percent of the cattle slaughter, and three seed companies control almost all seeds and inputs.

The 2018 Farm Bill isn’t working for family farmers and rural communities, but it is working for somebody. While we lose out here in rural America, corporate interests are winning, extracting wealth and moving it into their coffers while farm families are put out of business and pushed off the land. We see businesses on our Main Streets shutter their doors and people move to find opportunity elsewhere. Our kids leave, not because they don’t want to live here, but because opportunity has been taken from us.

The divide between the Beltway bubble and what is happening on the ground in rural America has never been wider. As farmer-member organizations working every day for policies that benefit farm families, rural communities, consumers and our environment, we are taking the fight to corporate factory farms at the local and state level, because we refuse to let our communities be exploited by corporate greed.

In just the last few months, rural leaders in southeast Minnesota successfully stopped a giant hog expansion that would have devastated groundwater in the state’s vulnerable karst region. In South Dakota, a rural county instituted a moratorium on new factory farms after independent farmers and rural residents opposed a proposed 8,000-head hog operation. This proposal was meant to feed an expanding Smithfield slaughterhouse that was recently cited for water pollution violations. In Missouri, rural residents have organized to pass 20 county health ordinances designed to protect their communities against pollution from factory farms.

In Iowa, rural residents are calling for a statewide moratorium on new factory farms until associated water quality issues are addressed. These on-the-ground fights and wins are about more than farmers or rural residents; they are fundamentally about fixing a broken system of democracy emanating from Washington. In writing the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress never got the message that rural people don’t like factory farms and that our public dollars shouldn’t keep propping up the industry. Our nation’s farmers and rural communities deserve “revolutionary,” not status quo, pro-corporate “evolutionary” policies.

The Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment (CFFE) consists of four Midwest state-based membership organizations and two national organizations (Dakota Rural Action, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Land Stewardship Project, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Food & Water Watch, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy). CFFE works to support independent family farm livestock producers and an open, fair and competitive market, while combating the corporate take-over of our livestock industry and democratic process.

Barb Kalbach is an Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement member, fourth-generation family farmer, and nurse in Dexter (Dallas County).

Jeff Jones, James Kanne, and John Harter also contributed to this piece. Jones is a Missouri Rural Crisis Center member, a 4th generation cattle and grain farmer from Callaway County, MO. Kanne is a Land Stewardship Project member and dairy farmer from Frankin, MN. Harter is the Chair of Dakota Rural Action, and a rancher from Colome, SD.

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  • :But what IS the Farm Bill Solution, and WHO has it?

    Evolutionary? As Harwood Schaffer and Daryll Ray have said, for this farm bill, “incremental change would be an overstatement.” It needs to be said that, like the 2014 farm bill, it’s about the worst in history, and as Schaffer and Ray also say, even without the Trump trade war reductions, an emergency farm bill may be needed by this year. (So subsidies don’t much “prop up the system.”) Or last Year, as there were no regular corn and soybean subsidies for most farmers in Iowa and far beyond. While there are some great generalizations about it here, there’s nothing concrete about what’s actually been happening, (for 60 years). The core issue, how CAFOs and the other US and foreign buyers are subsidized (“implicitly” by cheap grain, [by multitrillions taken from farmers and given to agbiz over more than 6 decades,] not taxpayers,) us like minimum wage. The original Democratic New Deal farm bill had minimum farm price floors set at “living wage” levels (called “parity”). It made agbiz pay farmers something like 55% more on an ongoing basis. These programs were reduced, (1953-1995) and ended (1996-2023), with the US losing money on major farm exports for decades. 30 years ago the major Democratic proposal was the Harkin-Gephardt farm bill. Today the proposals come from the National Family Farm Coalition, (Food from Family Farms Act,) Texas Farmers Union, and National Farmers Union (Market Driven Inventory System). These are the only proposals that make CAFOs pay farmers fairly, that bring livestock back, to re-diversify farms, to restore permanent pastures on fragile land, and sustainable crop rotations. They all eliminate the need for farm subsidies, and so are much cheaper than Republican farm bills. Fixing anti-trust problems is important, but only these farm bill programs can end CAFO subsidies (farmer-paid subsidies). Subsidies TO corn and soybean farmers didn’t cause the cheap prices. They aren’t what “prop up” CAFOs. Subsidies FROM corn and soybean farmers do the propping up. These state organizations have been focusing on state policy, and not teaching/acting about the MEGA CAFO subsidies of the farm bill, though they did so in the past.

  • Here are the current proposals

    Here’s a link to sources for the current proposals to end CAFO, junk food, export dumping subsidies that farmers pay (due to free market failure and the lack of minimum price floors).

  • The Hot Air Industry

    Big Ag in the Upper Midwest has a massive PR machine running 24/7. It includes everything from noble-farmer ads on TV to farm-wife-mommy-bloggers online reaching out to non-farming parents to explain why CAFOs are wonderful, using entries complete with photos of adorable children petting baby pigs. Just about every Big Ag meeting or conference includes at least one workshop on how to “tell our story.”

    Then there’s the endless campaign to persuade the general public that farmers are all great conservationists, that lots and lots of patience is all that’s needed to have clean water someday, and that all is fundamentally well with Iowa farming. Carefully-selected numbers are juggled to imply far more soil and water progress than there actually is, while the big picture (like a paltry Iowa state average of only about three percent of rowcropped acres having cover crops) is downplayed or ignored.

    Big Ag is also increasing its presence in schools, providing free propaganda to use in STEM classes (just one example). And it all seems to be working. An Iowa Poll earlier this month indicated that only 30 percent of Iowans think water pollution is a serious problem in this state(!!!) Until we can change the public conversation, the battle will continue to be uphill.

    Even language is being co-opted. The prez of the Iowa Farm Bureau announced at a recent public hearing that “modern agriculture is environmentally sustainable.” The poor S-word has been so misused by Big Ag in recent years that some of us are reluctantly starting to give up on it.

    • It's Farmers Vs Agribusiness, not Farmers With Agribusiness

      The term “Big Ag,” in many uses, lumps together a million or two farmers averaging a little over 400 acres with a handful of giant agribusiness firms. But really they’re opposites, with agribusiness opposing farmers, including Iowa’s corn and soybean farmers. In the issue here, almost all of these farms had a variety of livestock/poultry enterprises, but now, after decades of them increasingly subsidizing CAFOs, almost all have lost all value-added livestock and poultry, to go along with the cheap grain prices. (i.e. Iowa lost: 86% of it’s farms with cattle, 99.7% of hog farms 98% of farms with dairy farms, ) Then we have also lost 82% of farms with hay, 96% of farms with pasture on cropland, 99% of farms with oats. Finally, we’ve then lost the infrastructure for diversity on farms, (even fences!) in towns, (i.e. elevators that buy oats or grind feed,) and across the state. So then, here, PrairieFan want’s to blame farmers, as if they’re agribusinesses, (i.e. even 300-1,000 or many more times bigger, as with the CAFO corporations,) or like Cargill and ADM, (which are probably equivalent to 10,000 times bigger than even a 5,000 acre Iowa farm). In contrast, the way to criticize Farm Bureau is that it’s been anti-farmer, supporting agribusiness/CAFOs with cheaper and cheaper prices, (low/no price floor programs,) supporting the removal of almost all farms with value added livestock and poultry, to give all of that to these giant corporations. In trying to claim that Farm Bureau and the rest are pro-farmer, it’s basically agreeing with them on this, the core issue, and agreeing that farmers and rural people who prioritize economic issues should vote Republican. But it’s fake news. The opposite is true. Anyone caring about Iowa’s environment should never pretend that Farm Bureau and the Republicans support farmers on the core issues of the farm economy.