In Democratic Promise, Larry Goodwyn’s definitive history of America’s 19th century Populist Movement, he describes the migration of hundreds of thousands of abjectly poor Southern farmers into Texas in the 1870s and ’80s. They were escaping the scurrilous “company-store” system of crop lending that predatory financiers had imposed on the rural South, trapping farmers in perpetual peonage. The people’s only way out of oppressive debt was literally to abandon their farms and flee the state. Family after family loaded their meager belongings onto horse-drawn wagons, nailed a “Gone to Texas” note to their cabin doors, and headed west, seeking land and some sort of positive future.
But the rich blackland prairie of East Texas was out of their financial reach, so their caravans pushed into the sparsely populated west-central region, ending up on the thin dirt of the Edwards Plateau. Soil was not their most trying challenge, however, for this region was also west of the meridian line of reliable 30-inch annual rainfall, crucial to producing consistent, good crops.
“Farm families unhitched their wagons, dug in on the rim of the Great Plains, and scratched for survival,” Goodwyn wrote. “They were desperate years, more desperate than outsiders could know. It was here that the organizational base was created for what historians would later call ‘the agrarian revolt.’ ”
I’ve been to the geographical flash point of that rebellion. About 70 miles northwest of Austin, in rural, hardscrabble Lampasas County, in a nondescript spot named Pleasant Valley, a small roadside plaque quietly commemorates “FARMERS’ ALLIANCE NO.1.” Here, in 1877, a handful of the area’s destitute cotton growers convened at John R. Allen’s farm to confront their common plight. From this beginning, a powerful nationwide network of more than 3,000 Alliance chapters arose in just a few years, providing an economic, political, and social structure that empowered common people to battle moneyed elites. The farmers’ hard struggle for survival ignited the Populist Movement, which became a historic mass effort to align the realities of American society with our egalitarian ideals and to construct, as one Pleasant Valley founder proudly put it, “a grand social and political palace where liberty may dwell and justice be safely domiciled.”
For some 20 years, this Populist Moment was phenomenally successful, producing radical democratic change–until the bankers, monopolists, and a two-party duopoly rose as one to twist America’s financial, marketing, and political systems into a noose to hang the upstarts. By 1900, the Alliance and its People’s Party had expired. But the farmers’ rebelliousness and bright progressive agenda lived on, resurfacing in the Progressive Era reforms of leaders like “Fighting Bob” LaFollett, the penny auctions of the Great Depression, the New Deal’s safety-net programs, the mass tractorcades of the 1970s and 80s … and on into the farm crisis of 2019.
Yes, a farm crisis. A massive depression has been building for years across our vast rural expanse, but don’t feel alone if you didn’t know, for most of our media and political establishments have failed to notice, much less inform the general public. In America’s power centers, farming is almost entirely ignored as something arcane and “out there”–and out of mind. In 1960 John F. Kennedy lightly summed up this attitude: “I don’t want to hear about agriculture from anyone but you,” the urbane president reputedly told Orville Freeman when appointing him of Agriculture head. “Come to think of it, I don’t want to hear about it from you either.”
But hear about it we must–and do something we must. Today’s crisis promises not only to devastate our country’s rural economy and culture, but also to enter our kitchens and bite us on the butt. As was true of the 1870s’ crisis Goodwyn documented, today’s catastrophe is far more desperate than outsiders know–and is caused by another perfect storm of corporate monopolization, financial manipulation, and rigged ag policies. How severe is the storm? Start with one eye-popping indicator: The 2018 median farm income for US farm households was minus $1,553! (“Net farm income” is the money left over after a farm family subtracts the cost of producing their crops from the amount they get paid for them.) You can’t pay for groceries, rent, medical bills, kids’ clothing, a trip to Disneyland, etc. on negative income. And $1,553 in debt is the “median,” meaning that half of America’s farm families went even deeper into the hole.
Such hard times are not a one-time blip. For six straight years, more than half of America’s ag producers have lost money on their crops and herds, and this year promises more of the same. Thus, to keep the farm afloat and make ends meet, farmers commonly work a part-time side job and have a spouse who commutes to a full-time city job. With typical dark humor, they refer to these off-farm jobs as the cost of supporting their “farming habit.” Indeed, today’s ag economy is so bleak that about 70% of the total income of US farm families comes from their “secondary jobs.”
Are these farmers inept, outmoded, lazy? Au contraire, as we say in Texas: They’re industrious, efficient, productive, innovative … and broke. Indeed, the most worrisome thing for our society is that the operations being eliminated are the mid-sized family farms–the essential backbone of both an economically healthy food system and vibrant rural communities.
But if they’re good farmers, why are they going broke? Because corporate middlemen, commodity speculators, and government policy have intentionally perverted the structure of the US ag economy to leave producers with practically no say over the price of their cotton, wheat, milk, chickens, etc. Pious right-wing ideology aside, farmers don’t become financial “winners” just by working hard and smart, outfoxing the pests, lucking out on the weather, and producing an abundant, top-quality harvest. When they take their crops to market, even blue-ribbon producers face a take-it-or-leave-it price set by profiteering players they never see.
For the past several years, prices have crashed. Dairy farmers, for example, are in the fourth consecutive year of incomes below their production costs: In 2018, they got $1.35 for a gallon of milk that cost them $1.90 to produce. This financial bomb has been exploding throughout dairy country. From 2007 to today, the number of American dairy farms dwindled from 70,000 to only 40,000, and most of them are imperiled. For example, last year in Wisconsin, where milk and cheese have long been economic and cultural mainstays, dairy farms shut down at the rate of nearly two a day.
Up against monopoly
Farm Aid, the top-notch group of researchers and advocates who’ve tracked family farm issues for nearly 34 years, reports that just two giants now control 60% of all raw milk processed nationwide–a concentration that works to suppress the farm price of milk. But the processor monopoly is more severe than that number suggests. Because of rigged marketing rules and the perishable nature of milk, farmers sell regionally–and these markets are even more locked down by the Big Two. The largest–Dean Foods, an $8-billion behemoth–controls 90% of dairy markets in Wisconsin and Michigan, 70% in New England, and 70-90% in several other states.
Little-known Absurdity: The prices that these monopolists pay farmers for their milk is based not on supply and demand, but on a convoluted formula for–get this–the price of block cheddar traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange! Thousands of milk producers are getting clobbered by that block, for the Exchange and the processors in it are notorious for colluding to manipulate the price of cheese to lower their payments for bulk milk. Yet, Republicans and Democratic officials meekly refuse to scold (much less stop) the gougers who openly mock US anti-trust laws.
Most of today’s crops are sold into non-competitive markets controlled by fewer and fewer multinational corporations. For example, the Big Four processing/marketing giants control production of 55% of all turkeys, 59% of chickens, 66% of hogs, 70% of soybeans, 80% of corn, and 84% of beef. Again, the real level of price-busting concentration is greater than these percentages indicate, for most of the regional markets where farmers actually sell are controlled by only one or two buyers.
Notice, though, that the same corporate powers holding down farm prices are holding up consumer prices. Every year, less and less of each food dollar we spend goes to the people who produce, and more and more to enrich monopolist middlemen. The USDA reports startling and growing income inequality between farmers and corporate interests: Less than 15 cents of your food dollar now goes to farmers.
Being at the mercy of monopolistic commodity buyers is only part the farmers’ plight. For farming supplies, they also must deal with a handful of non-competitive sellers for such expensive essentials as seed, tractors, fertilizers, and crop loans. For instance, just two corporations (John Deere and CNH Industrial) control nearly half the US farm machinery market. Aside from price, these manufacturers gouge farmers with such devious ploys as prohibiting them or local shops from repairing their own machines. Instead the companies mandate expensive, time-wasting reliance on often distant dealerships.
For diabolical manipulation of market power, though, few can match the raw greed of seed monopolists. Until recently, these kernels of new life were sold in a vigorously competitive market, but the seed industry has rapidly devolved into a rigidly controlled global cartel run by a handful of biotech giants. In 1996, farmers (and gardeners) could buy from some 600 independent seed companies in the US. By 2009, only 100 remained. By 2016, just ten corporations controlled 75% of the global seed market and, in the short time since, a series of mega-mergers has essentially eliminated the competition: Dow Chemical took over DuPont; ChemChina swallowed the Swiss biotech conglomerate, Syngenta; Germany’s BASF bought out multiple seed producers; and the voracious German colossus, Bayer, has been allowed to consume Monsanto.
Today, two-thirds of the world’s crop seed supply is controlled by only four private entities–with Bayer controlling a quarter to a third of the global seed market. In just two decades, US farmers have seen the price of seeds for major row crops nearly quadruple, even as the price they receive for raising those crops has plummeted.
Even worse than the monopolists’ pricing is their use of their financial and political clout to establish a legal fiction that allows them to own patents on seeds, the most fundamental resource in agriculture. They’ve genetically tampered with seeds to make corn, soybeans, and other crops withstand heavy applications of toxic, weed-killing chemicals. And who are the biggest peddlers of these chemicals? The seed monopolists. (Bayer sells $12 billion in ag chemicals, 21-22.9% of the global agrichemical market.) Thus, farmers are now doubly squeezed by higher-priced patented seeds and by the cost of the expensive chemicals they require. Meanwhile, the seed monopolists prohibit farmers from saving seeds from this year’s crop to plant next year’s (a practice as old as agriculture). It’s a deliberate restraint of trade that shackles farmers to abusive corporate masters, nature to ever-more-toxic pesticide regimens, and humanity to monocultures vulnerable to pandemic crop disease and climate change.
Facing The Fates
Talk to farm families today and you’ll feel their anxiety and anger that The Fates are conspiring against them. Not only are they endangered by unrestrained monopolists, but also by such external bedevilments as Trump’s trade war tantrums, the ravages of climate change, and a cabal of Wall Street and Silicon Valley profiteers intent on roboticizing food production. Each and all threaten to eliminate the next generation of family farms.
Yet in conversations with farmers, what comes across most powerfully is a combination of sadness, bewilderment, and a sense of abandonment. Farmers and their family farms, which have served our society so well in so many essential ways, no longer seem to matter to much of the country, and rural America is hollowing out: Banks refuse to invest in new businesses, major stores are pulling out, clinics (much less hospitals) are now often more than an hour away, broadband internet is unavailable, schools are consolidated, and even ag extension services are absconding to the suburbs.
Yet, those families’ desperation goes unheeded by our political, media, and business leaders. No one in power, for example, even seems aware that extreme stress disorders and suicides are epidemic among farmers today. (That crisis is so alarming that Agri-Mark, a major Massachusetts-based dairy marketer, includes suicide- hotline fliers with the meager paychecks it sends milk producers.) Some progressives are also piling on, carelessly dismissing farm and small-town residents and vilifying them as the clods who elected Trump. It’s true that the Trumpster’s farm program is Hee Haw, but Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s programs effectively sacrificed farmers to Wall Street, Monsanto, oligarchic middlemen, and factory farms. Did those political geniuses think farmers wouldn’t notice? And what was Hillary Clinton’s 2016 program? Somewhere between meek and nothing. Hello? Years of ignoring and/or siding against family farmers will eventually take a toll on their enthusiasm for a political party.
So here we go into 2020 … and beyond. Progressives of all stripes and in all of our diverse groups need to correct course–as the People’s Party did some 140 years ago. We must go directly into rural communities with an honest willingness to hear what farm families are saying, join them in developing a comprehensive overhaul of the exploitative corporate ag system, and welcome them as full partners in our overall struggle for populist justice.