Joe Zschetzsche is not a farmer. But as a construction worker in Evan, Minn., who works for farmers, he is experiencing the ripple effect agriculture consolidation has on rural communities.
“(Farmers) can’t pay me, and I can’t pay the next guy, and on and on,” Zschetzsche said. “Everything’s just kind of going to hell in a hand basket out in rural America. Main streets are dying; there’s nothing left of our small towns anymore.”
Zschetzsche was one of 1,000 demonstrators at the state Capitol Wednesday in a rally organized by local church leaders from the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Minnesota Council of Churches.
Several political leaders were on hand for the event. State Senate leader Roger Moe asked the crowd if farmers were better off than four years ago, to which the crowd resounded an echoing “no.”
Like many activists, Zschetzsche came to St. Paul to protest what he sees as large corporate agribusinesses killing off rural communities by keeping crop prices down.
“The small farmers are not being treated justly by the producers in terms of the prices they’re being paid,” said the Rev. David McCauley, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.
McCauley and other church leaders came up with five questions dealing with state agriculture legislation that they asked legislators.
Their first question asked the lawmakers if they would oppose legislation that allows limited liability companies to be established in Minnesota. Such companies decrease the potential liability for cleaning up environmental messes and increase the opportunity for off-farm companies to invest in agriculture.
Other questions asked were about supporting decentralization in agricultural industries and placing a moratorium on large business mergers and acquisitions.
Rallyists also asked if lawmakers would support mandatory labelling for food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
While some politicians such as Moe were applauded for saying “yes” to some questions, others, such as house leader Steve Sviggum, were jeered for answering “no” to questions about slowing down agribusiness conglomeration.
The growing opposition to genetically modified crops was illustrated by activists wearing gas masks and holding signs which said: “Abolish Biotechnology.”
University senior Jeannnie Zanetti was holding a sign that read “GE = Ecocide,” and handing out flyers for local support demonstrations of “Rally for Rural America,” a major agriculture activist protest set for March 21 in Washington, D.C.
Zanetti is a member of Agriculture Action Network, a recently formed local group that opposes biotechnology through direct actions and through public education.
Zanetti’s calls for education on GMOs were echoed by Chris Wong, a junior in the College of Food and Environmental Science who, unlike Zanetti, said he supports the science and use of GMOs. Wong is currently researching the GMO debate.
“Education is the issue. I think the people protesting are doing a good job of waking people up to the issue,” he said. However, Wong disagrees with some of the ways GMO activists go about opposing biotechnology, specifically destroying GMO research.
“I feel that a lot of people who are against (GMO research) lack some education in it,” he said.
While some demonstrators were organizing and educating with signs, bells and even cow costumes, Scott Anderson, an organic farmer from Litchfield, Minn., was using modern technology — gathering e-mail addresses of Minnesota farmers to distribute information.
“One of the answers to helping agriculture is to get connected with other farm groups,” Anderson explained. “(The Internet) is a way to connect with each other if something needs to be petitioned, or if there are some important meetings coming up, and to explain issues that are coming up.”
Sticking together is the most important thing small farmers can do right now, said the Rev. McCauley, who suggested farmers form co-ops and coalitions.
“If they continue to remain separate, they’ll go under,” he said. “They have to come together.”
Max Rust covers agriculture and communities and welcomes comments at [email protected]