Conference addresses small-farm concerns

Max Rust

To reverse the present downward course of the American farmer, a common solution purported by agriculture experts is to create new policies — or at least modify current policies — to protect small-sized agronomists from being eaten by giant agribusinesses.
But an important question arises: Whose policies will best ensure that the food supply is not dominated by a few large agriculture firms?
About 100 people examined that question Wednesday morning at a conference on the St. Paul campus.
Speakers presented policy models from two fields of agriculture. From the academic field, former University applied economics professor Willard Cochrane offered a 15-point plan based heavily on subsidizing smaller farms.
And from the fields on which crops are grown, two Minnesota farmers presented policy ideas from the Farmer Summit Platform, an 18-month- old, farmer-driven project initiated to provide information and perspective on the farm crisis from those most directly impacted.
Though the farm policy models differed in their solutions to the problem, two common themes permeated the discussion: agriculture profits need to be distributed more evenly, and, for this to happen, there needs to be more support from non-farming sectors of society.
Recently, farm commodity prices have dropped significantly. Adjusted for inflation, farmers’ income has decreased by nearly half for most major commodities since 1975. At that time, a corn grower earned $562 per acre of corn. Today, that price is $290, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Many believe this is because of large agriculture firms suppressing crop prices.
In his presentation, Cochrane, who once advised President John F. Kennedy on agriculture policy, said the past decade has been especially dire for small farmers. In the past 10 years, he explained, farmers have been “sandwiched” by increasingly concentrated corporate agribusinesses. On one side are the input suppliers, companies providing things like seeds and fertilizers, and on the other side are distribution companies.
“If the trends of the last 10 years continue in the next 10 years, almost every farmer is going to be tied to a large (agricultural) corporation through some kind of contract,” he said.
Cochrane’s 15-point plan to deal with the farm crisis touched on everything from increasing the Food and Drug Administration’s power over inspecting food to creating a special unit within the Justice Department to observe agricultural trade.
One of his most controversial plans, Cochrane said, is to make cash subsidies of $20,000 to family farmers, whom he defined as having a gross income of no more than $300,000.
While Cochrane’s policy ideas tended toward government intervention, the Farmer Summit Platform boasts a more grass-roots method, focusing on gathering strength in numbers from labor, environmental and consumer groups.
Carmen Fernholz, a farmer from Madison, Minn., said farmers need to become more active in organizing themselves and others to create collective bargaining power, giving them more clout when dealing with distributors. But this cannot happen without the help of nonfarming communities, who bring clout in the form of buying and voting power.
“When push comes to shove, will the buyers go across the water to lock us out? They could if we don’t have the broad-based support from other sectors of society,” Fernholz said.
He also said collective bargaining power is needed to give farmers clout to influence the Justice Department to examine potential antitrust law violations among some of the world’s largest agriculture companies.
Jon Lauck, a graduate law student studying agriculture law, said a company such as grain distribution giant Cargill, who is finalizing its merger with Continental Grain, giving the company nearly 50 percent of the world grain market, is similar to the recently lawsuit-addled Microsoft. The difference, he said, is that agriculture is not a priority for most legislators.
“If we had more vigorous and more active antitrust enforcement in this country, we would not see this continual drift toward higher and higher levels of concentration in the agricultural markets, particularly in the processing sector,” Lauck said. “The long-term impact of that local concentration is that these large processors look for large farmers to buy from, because there are certain economies associated with large lots of commodities.”
Another large question discussed Wednesday was the difference in farming methods and how farmers can shift to multifunctional farming, a method emphasizing the diverse uses of farmland.
“We’re seeing a lot of the ramifications of industrial agriculture, because we’ve taken a very narrow view of what agriculture is, when, in fact, sustainable agriculture can provide a multitude of things for society as a whole. And it does, from biodiversity, to carbon sequestration, to recreational areas … food production is among that,” said Gabriela Flora from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

To view the Cochrane and Farmer Summit Platform policy plans in their entirety, go to: www.misa.umn.edu/.

Max Rust covers community and agriculture and welcomes comments at [email protected]