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No Justice, No Peace - reflections on organic farming, CSA and domestic fair trade.
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From the Greenhorns’ 2020 Almanac: Root Solutions to Crisis for Family Farms

Sat, 02/06/2021 - 14:42

Agricultural choices must be made by these inescapable standards: the ecological health of the farm and the economic health of the farmer.” Wendell Berry, Right Kind of Farming

By Elizabeth Henderson


For as long as I can remember (and I started farming in 1980), most of the farmers I know have supported their farms by someone’s off-farm job. Either the farmer or someone in the family has an off farm job as a teacher or health worker that provides health insurance and other benefits. Under relentless and steadily increasing financial pressures, dairy farmers sell their cows and turn to field crops, raising cattle for beef, or selling hay. Anything to keep the farm alive. Talented young farmers give it their all for five, even ten years—and then quit. Experienced farmers, including organic farmers, go out of business. They give up the struggle, sell what they can, and find “real” jobs. Development gobbles up farmland which has grown too expensive for a farmer to buy with farm earnings. The price farmers receive for crops does not cover the costs of keeping farms viable, much less the extra costs of developing and sustaining ecological or regenerative farming systems. As has become very clear during the Covid-19 pandemic, the farm crisis is not over.

Just as in the 1980’s, a brief period of high commodity prices and cheap credit in the 2010’s resulted in a debt and asset bubble. Then prices collapsed. Meanwhile, ever larger corporations have consolidated their dominance in the food sector resulting in shoppers paying more, and a shrinking portion of what they pay going to farmers. At first this mainly hit conventional farms, but in 2017, processors started limiting the amount of milk they purchased from organic dairies and cut the price paid below the cost of production. With the Covid-19 Crisis, organic dairies have not had to dump milk since their milk goes to retail sales, nevertheless due to five years of low prices, family-scale farms of all kinds are going out of business. Despite the shortage of farm workers, their wages remain below the poverty line.  People of color and women are often trapped in the lowest paying food system jobs and many are forced to survive on SNAP payments. Being recognized as “essential” has not yet resulted in higher pay or better working conditions. The tariff game of #45 has only made things worse: the billions paid out to compensate for trade losses made the big farms even bigger. The farm consolidation that has taken place has grave consequences for the environment and for climate change as well. The 2018 Farm Bill barely touches the structural and fairness issues that led to this on-going disaster for family-scale farms and the food security of this country.


Can we find solutions?

Let’s turn back to Wendell Berry, who offers a possible path: “The problem that has impoverished and destroyed farmers nearly always is that of low prices resulting from surplus production. That is also, obviously, a land-destroying problem. The only solution to that problem that can sustain the small farmers is the combination of production control and price supports as exemplified by the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association as it was reorganized in my region under the New Deal in 1941.” [i]

Production control plus price supports = parity plus supply management.

What does production control and price supports mean and how did it work under the New Deal?

In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, so many family farms were going bankrupt that the federal government stepped in to help them avoid eviction and to increase prices for their crops. The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) declared an economic emergency “being in part the consequence of a severe and increasing disparity between the prices of agricultural and other commodities,” justifying action as being in “the national public interest”.[ii]  To resolve that disparity, the AAA established the parity system of pricing and supply management to reestablish farmers’ purchasing power, taking the years just before WWI as the base period when the proper balance existed between farm earnings and the prices that farmers had to pay for inputs and equipment. Retail prices to consumers were also pegged at the same proportion of consumer  income as during those pre-war years. To raise prices for farm products, the AAA reduced the oversupply by setting limits in the form of marketing quotas on the acreage farmers could use for basic commodities: wheat, cotton, field corn, hogs, rice, tobacco, rye, flax, barley, grain sorghums, cattle, peanuts, sugarbeets, sugarcane, and potatoes. Conservation practices were required on the land that was taken out of production. The Secretary of Agriculture was also enjoined to let the president know if imports threatened to reduce prices to US farmers. That first year, some crops were even plowed under. There were also marketing agreements that controlled the quantity, quality, and rate of shipment to market, effectively limiting production of some fruit and vegetable crops. Farm income in 1935 was more than 50 percent higher than farm income during 1932, due in part to these farm programs.[iii] Although agribusiness successfully brought suit against the first version of this parity system, the revised approach set up by The Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of February 29, 1936 proved more durable and lasted through the 1960s.

Farmers were free to participate or not, and could disapprove marketing quotas. County committees were established to provide a forum for local referendums by commodity. These county committees still exist and hold elections every year among farmers who are participating in government programs. In some parts of the country, these committees work well; in others, they have been the source of racist decisions such as providing operating loans to white farmers in the spring when farms need start up money, but not paying black farmers till August, or policies that discriminate against farmers who use organic methods, refusing disaster payments because the organic farmers did not use chemical protectants for crops.

In “Crisis by Design: A Brief Review of US Farm Policy,” Mark Ritchie and Kevin Ristau summarize the way the parity system worked.[v]

“The parity program had three central features:

(1) It established the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which made loans to farmers whenever prices offered by the food processors or grain corporations fell below the cost of production. This allowed farmers to hold their crops off the market, eventually forcing prices back up. Once prices returned to fair levels, farmers sold their crops and repaid the CCC with interest. By allowing farmers to control their marketing, the CCC loan program made it possible for them to receive a fair price from the marketplace without relying on subsidies.

 (2) It regulated farm production in order to balance supply with demand, thereby preventing surpluses. 


(3) It created a national grain reserve to prevent consumer prices from skyrocketing in times of drought or other natural disasters. When prices rose above a predetermined level, grain was released from government reserves onto the market, driving prices back down to normal levels. 

From 1933 to 1953 this parity legislation remained in effect and was extremely successful. Farmers received fair prices for their crops, production was controlled to prevent costly surpluses, and consumer prices remained low and stable. At the same time, the number of new farmers increased, soil and water conservation practices expanded dramatically eliminating the dust bowl, and overall farm debt declined. What is even more important is that this parity program was not a burden to the taxpayers. The CCC, by charging interest on its storable commodity loans, made nearly $13 million between 1933 and 1952.”[vi]

 Parity Was Legal and It Worked

“A Short History of Agricultural Adjustment, 1933 – 1975,” summarizes the benefits of parity:  “For over 40 years, price support and adjustment programs have had an important impact upon the farm and national economy. Consumers have consistently had a reliable supply of farm products for a smaller proportion of their income than anywhere else in the world. Farmers have been assured of at least specified minimum prices for their products. The legislation and resulting programs have been modified to meet varying conditions of depression, war, and prosperity, and have sought to give farmers, in general, the opportunity to attain economic equality with other segments of the economy.” [vii]

According to Mark Ritchie in “The Loss of Our Family Farms: Inevitable Results or Conscious Policies?” from 1945 through 1974, a consortium of agribusiness, banking, and university leaders deliberately set out to eliminate parity with policies that cut farm prices to drive excess “resources” (that is farmers and their families) out of the countryside.[viii] By the mid-1970s, farm prices were dropping and farm numbers decreased rapidly. The loss of farms and farmland continues today.


With its combination of subsidy and emergency payments to commodity farmers along with crop insurance, the 2018 Farm Bill enshrines cheap food policy with low farm prices that mainly benefit the biggest ag corporations.[ix]  Until the early 70’s, those corporations had to pay farmers decent prices in the marketplace. Farm earnings today would be very different if parity pricing levels were still in place. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the parity price for 100 pounds of milk in May 2019 would be $52.80, and a bushel of corn would be $13.20. Instead, conventional farmers were getting $18 for a hundredweight of milk and $3.63 for a bushel of corn.[x] Since the 1970s, it is the taxpayer who covers the costs of cheap food while the corporate buyers who purchase most of these crops make out like bandits.  This adds up to a major transfer of wealth from the farmers and the public to the likes of Amazon, Walmart, Tyson and Archer Daniels Midland.

What Could a Green New Deal (GND) Do for Agriculture?

A few farming organizations, in particular the National Family Farm Coalition and the National Farmers Union, have continued to demand a return to parity and supply management. But for twenty years or more this set of policies has been deemed too unlikely to gain any traction in D.C. Then, in a flash of light, the Green New Deal resolution by Senator Ed Markey and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, made it “realistic” once again to consider this set of root solutions to the food and farm crisis.[xi]

Iowa farmer George Naylor explains the inherent logic of parity plus supply management: “When a farmer is given a quota that sets the limit of whichever storable commodity can be marketed or fed to livestock on the farm along with a parity price, the incentive to produce as much as possible with whatever technological inputs and neglect of the land disappears. The new logic would be to produce only the quota, and spend as little as possible on inputs, and engage in as much conservation as possible.”[xii] The higher price on a set amount of production stops farmers from over producing and provides an economic incentive to use the most ecological and efficient practices.

While we can learn a lot from the old New Deal, both its strengths and also its failures (especially in regard to farmers of color), we will have to design a new version. The 21st-century Farmers’ New Deal must include racial justice and equity in the safety net it provides for farms. I can imagine an exciting public process where groups of stakeholders all over the country hammer out the details. On a much smaller scale, that is what we did in the 1990s to launch the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. I helped Alison Clark, founder of the NY Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, organize five regional hearings around NYS where a few hundred farmers and activists brainstormed and formulated recommendations that were then combined with similar reports from meetings in other states.

Here is a rough first draft:  family-scale farms need a system of fair pricing, that is, prices that cover the real costs of living and farming, including conservation practices that regenerate natural resources. Twenty-first century parity should cover the basic commodities – “wheat, cotton, field corn, hogs, rice, tobacco, and milk and its products”[iv] – as described by Ritchie and Ristau, and reestablish farmer held reserves for grains as buffer stocks in case of poor harvests or climate disasters that also protect farmers against price volatility.

For our rural Green New Deal, farmers’ and all food workers’ incomes need to increase. Growing food justly and sustainably is expensive. Instead of driving down the costs of farming to make food cheap enough for urban workers to buy on stagnating wages, all workers must make enough to afford food that’s produced sustainably. Consumers must be able to pay for the knowledge embedded in, and carbon sequestered through, low-input, sophisticated agroecological farming using renewable energy, and farms run by all those who want to work the land. And of course, farmers and farm workers must be paid fairly and appreciated for their work.

Parity pricing and supply management should also be extended to fruit and vegetables, “speciality crops” in Farm Bill language. Since fruit and vegetables are perishable, the GND should invest in value-added enterprises that could be farmer or worker-owned coops in every county where these crops are grown.  If excess supply of fresh produce threatens to lower prices, the fruit and vegetables would be frozen, canned or dried, or made into products that can be stored for use year round.  Investing in local and regional processing would stimulate local economies and provide many jobs. The GND would return livestock onto family farms, in place of large-scale Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that have eliminated the need for diverse crop rotations. Family farm livestock production integrates crops and livestock for a much more flexible and resilient system that reduces the pressure for routine antibiotic use. This system also increases the biodiversity on these farms thus strengthening their economic viability adding opportunities for new farmers while improving the quality of the meat, milk, and eggs.

Next, farmers need contract reform.  Farmers that sell to bigger entities need legislation to protect their rights to freedom of association so that they can form groups or cooperatives to strengthen their bargaining position in negotiating fair contracts without threat of retaliation.  In addition, a limit must be set on the middlemen’s share of the final shopper dollar: if prices go up, middlemen must pay farmers more; if the prices processors pay to farmers go down, the final point of purchase price for shoppers should also go down.  With control by mega-corporations an ever greater threat to family-scale farming, the GND must be linked with anti-trust measures like the Booker bill that calls for a moratorium on mergers (S.3404, The Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2018).

All farmers should be eligible for GND programs whether they own land, rent it with cash payments or through sharecropping.

The GND should include measures that are essential to establishing farm work as a respected and fairly remunerated profession. Ocasio-Cortez wants to guarantee living wages and green jobs – that must include the jobs on farms. Since farm worker advocates and department of labor staff agree that over 50% of farm workers on US crop farms are undocumented, immigration reform based on human rights needs to accompany the GND. Human rights based immigration reform would prevent the separation of families and include a path to legal status.  Farm workers should have the option of a path to citizenship if they want to remain in the US or freedom to come and go across the border to visit their families back home.

Like farmers, farmworkers need freedom of association so that they can form groups or unions to negotiate fair pay and working conditions. If farms are guaranteed prices that cover their costs of production, farm earnings will be high enough to pay farm workers time-and-a-half for overtime over 40 hours a week like workers in almost every other sector.

Just as during the New Deal, we live in a time of incipient fascism, racism, and class divide. The Green New Deal can learn from its antecedent’s successes and failures. Although the dramatic economic shift in rural America that the New Deal created was not as just and egalitarian as it should have been, it did make the case that environmental protection and paying people fairly for their work might go a long way towards limiting the power of corporations and creating a fair society for everyone.

The challenge we face now is to pull together a big enough movement of farmers, farmworkers, labor unions, environmentalists, faith communities, youth, and rural and urban activists of all kinds to transform this climate emergency to which the coronavirus pandemic is linked into an all-out campaign to save human life on this planet.

Footnotes:

[i] “Right Kind of Farming,” Gracy Olmstead – NY Times Opinion Section, Oct. 1, 2018

[ii] [PUBLIC—No. 10—73D CONGRESS] [H.R. 3835] 


[iii] A SHORT HISTORY OF AGRICULTURAL ADJUSTMENT, 1933-75 Wayne D. Rasmussen, Gladys L. Baker, and James S. Ward of Economic Research Service USDA AGRICULTURE INFORMATION BULLETIN NO. 391 p. 5

[iv] Ibid., pp. 4 – 6.

[v] CRISIS BY DESIGN: A BRIEF REVIEW OF U.S. FARM POLICY Mark Ritchie & Kevin Ristau League of Rural Voters Education Project 1987, pp. 2 – 3. 


Also see “Parity and Profits” by Charles Walters. Posted on July 30, 2001 on Weston C. Price website. Remarks of Charles Walters, Executive Editor, Acres USA Given at the Acres USA Conference December 1999, Minneapolis, MN, and “Parity and Farm Justice: Recipe for a Resilient Food System,” by Patti Edwardson Naylor, George Naylor and Ahna Kruzic, Food First Backgrounder, Vol. 24, #2, Summer 2018.

[vi] The US parity system resembled existing dairy supply management which came under attack by Trump during the 2018 – 19 NAFTA negotiations.  For a description of the Canadian system see: “Inside U.S. Trade U.S. singles out supply management in Canada’s WTO trade review,” By Hannah Monicken. https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/us-singles-out-supply-management-canada’s-wto-trade-review. 06/12/2019. 

[vii] A SHORT HISTORY OF AGRICULTURAL ADJUSTMENT, op cit, p. 21.

[viii] “The Loss of Our Family Farms: Inevitable Results or Conscious Policies?” Mark Ritchie, League of Rural Voters, 1979.


[ix] From Iowa farmer Brad Wilson email to Comfood of June 26, 2019: “…farm programs ‘PIT CHEAP PRICES TO BENEFIT AGRIBUSINESS AGAINST CONSERVATION.’ …The major thing the farm programs do today… is that they allow chronic free market failure. And secondarily, they cover it up with inadequate subsidies that would otherwise not be needed at al…”


[x] Agricultural Prices ISSN: 1937-4216 Released June 27, 2019, by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) https://downloads.usda.library.cornell.edu/usda-esmis/files/c821gj76b/r494vw17c/sq87c499d/agpr0619.pdf

[xi] Policy Bridge Securing the Future of US Agriculture: The Case for Investing in New Entry Sustainable Farmers, Liz Carlisle, et al. Elem Sci Anth, 7: 17. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.356

and A Green New Deal for Agriculture, Raj Patel and Jim Goodman. https://jacobinmag.com/2019/04/green-new-deal-agriculture-farm-workers


[xii] In email to author, July 26, 2019.  Naylor writes about parity at greater length in “Without Clarity on Parity All you Get is Charity,” Food Movements Unite! Ed. Eric Holt-Gimenez, 2011.



Categories: A3. Agroecology

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