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Monday, September 13, 2010

The end of farming and what Kristi Noem proposes

Someone  named Dan suggests, among an array of the usual interactive, puerile insults,  that my apparent criticism of agricultural subsidies lacks conviction.  He/she is right.  I see  conflicting problems with the elaborate system of government subsidies.  However, my point in the post cited was not my objection to  agricultural welfare, but to people who assail big government spending but are the first in line to get their share of handouts.  Whether you call it farm welfare or subsidy, the semantic message is the same:  it's a handout.

For some time, I was the farm editor for a newspaper, the editor of a newsletter for agricultural journalists, and I have been reporting on agriculture ever since.  When I was a member of the working press and covered agriculture, most newspapers and broadcast stations had reporters assigned to the farm beat.  Hardly any do anymore, and that is because the audience for that kind of reporting is so small.  There is not enough interest for the general news media to cover agriculture, except on an occasional basis.  The journalism is left to media that serves the industry, and does not inform the general public.  The percentage of the population involved in farming is not large enough to warrant the coverage.

In 1930, 25 percent of the U.S. population lived on six million family farms, but today less than two percent of the population lives on 2 million farms.   However, the really significant statistic is that eight percent of farms account for 72 percent of farm product sales.  Ten percent of the farmers receive 74 percent of the subsidies. 

The raising of food and fiber is no longer farming;  it's agri-business.  For years we justified farm bills to keep family farms in business.  But very few families own farms, and those that do are mostly large family corporations.  Most of the agricultural subsidies bankroll big agricultural businesses, not independent family farmers, as the figures cited show.

Over the years, the rationale for farm programs has changed.  In the 1930s, the goal was to help out farms hit by the dust bowl years to insure that there was a food supply for the country.  Then the focus shifted to food as a wartime commodity.  During World War II, a diverse, stable supply of food and fiber was needed to sustain the war effort.  After the war, farm programs were geared to helping the international community recover from the war and to provide food assistance as part of the resistance to the spread of communism.  Then the focus of the programs was to help smaller farms from being integrated as components of corporate agri-business.  Today, the focus is very fuzzy.  The fact is that food production is under the control of a few large corporations, and small farms and farmers have been made all but irrelevant.

In a state like South Dakota, whose dominant industry is agriculture, it is difficult to see and understand how the system of agriculture has moved into corporate hands.  The state has collected $4.26 billion in subsidies during the last 15 years, with ten percent of the farmers getting 61 percent of the payouts.  The state ranks 10th in the amount of money  paid  as farm subsidies.

However, the statistics do not show the forces that are forming in opposition to this system of subsidization.  We are currently struggling to come out of a recession that has dumped millions of people out of the economic middle class.  In the 1980s, the same kind of economic catastrophe hit the farming segment.  It came from the same sources as the current recession, except that it was triggered not by Wall Street banks but by regional banks that made recoverable investments in agricultural enterprises.  When the farm economy faltered, the  banks foreclosed on the farmers with overextended loans and they were driven off the land.    It made a big surge in eliminating small, independent farmers and consolidating agriculture under corporate control.  

An image comes to mind.  A congressman, a Republican from a Midwest farm state, was trying to come up with a position on a farm bill.  He remarked that Ronald Reagan had raised the image of the welfare queen who drives to the welfare office in her black Cadillac to pick up her welfare check.  The congressman said the person who troubled him was the big-hatted dude in cowboy boots who drove to the bank in his white Town Car to deposit his agricultural welfare check.    In South Dakota, it is hard to assess how that big-hat-no-cattle image is set in the minds of many and how many people of both political parties regard farm subsidies as the most abject corporate welfare.  That congressman has long since left office, but his idea still circulates.  He said, you want to dismantle big government?  Start with the farm programs.  

There are complicating factors that have developed in agriculture that get scant attention.  The shrinking land base devoted to agriculture is one of them.  Again, in South Dakota, it does not seem much of a problem that land is taken out of production and covered with concrete to accommodate urban expansion.  Nor does much of the country--and the world--pay attention to the fact that water is being diverted from agricultural areas for urban usage, and that the flooding we have experienced in the country diverts attention away from shrinking aquifers.  Nor do many people recognize that what they think of as a free agricultural market is actually under the control of a few corporations.  For example, four companies, Swift, Cargill, National Beef, and Tyson, control 80 percent of the meat market in the U.S.  The problems with salmonella and e coli recalls in our food system are just surface symptoms of health problems in food production.  The use of genetically modified, factory-produced food raises questions about nutrition and health issues that many people in agri-business are afraid to address.   Government intervention in checking the safety and quality of food is regarded as intrusive socialism, just as it is in finance and manufacturing.  We really have some evidence, and very strong suspicions, of the degree to which corporations have gained total control of agriculture.

In the 1960s, Agricultural economists were predicting that American farmers could get free of subsidies because they held the world bread basket and would be feeding the world.  What they did not take into account was that Norman Borlaug was leading the green revolution which would produce plant species and agricultural methods that would help developing countries feed themselves.  The big boom in American agricultural exports never came.  Instead what has kept American agriculture going is bigger, more elaborate, and more extensive and expensive farm programs.  

Part of the public's ignorance stems from the fact that there is no general coverage of agriculture in our media.  The Internet is continuing to reduce what the legacy media does, and The New York Times publisher announced recently that the newspaper plans to end the print edition in the near future.  That leaves the Internet, which portends ill for information journalism.  Further staff reductions are in the offing, and some areas of public interest will receive no coverage whatsoever.  It's already happened with farming.  People generally do not know where their food comes from. Or who controls its production.

I am one of those who was excited about the prospects of the Internet to make information more abundant, more accessible, and more immediate.  But the journalistic world did not anticipate how the medium would be overtaken by blogs and commentators that do little research, no fact-checking, and resolve largely into bickering and false accusations.   Conservatives have complained of a media bias and think that anything that does not constant vilify Obama or any other liberal is being unbalanced and unfair.  The country in general has not confronted what happens when people make stuff up, then believe in it, and then make or influence political decisions on the basis of hate information,  That is why I give democracy a likely chance to utterly fail in this country.  And it is why I see little chance for the agrarian democracy on which the country was formed to survive as a model for a farm economy or a principle of democracy. What we know about the production of food and fiber is presented to us on cable news, talk radio, internet blogs, and the political hacks who operate on those media.  These sources  are devoted to keeping the populace yammering, not looking at the facts of our essential economy.

An established ecological principle is that stable and functional communities are built on a large base of producers of diverse varieties.   That base of primary producers sustains all the derivative and specialized life forms.  A sound economy is based upon basic producers and builders of goods that are essential for life.  America has seen drastic reductions in agricultural units and in manufacturing and production jobs. In our economy, the ecological pyramid has been turned upside down so that the farmers and production workers are a minority, while those who depend on production and derive their livings from the producers are the majority.  Hence, we have all the banking schemes like the overextended agricultural loans of the 1980s and the subprime mortgages and shaky derivatives of the 21st century.  An economy driven  by schemes instead of production just can't work.

We are in an economic crisis for which viable solutions are excluded by political partisanship.  For example, one can mount arguments against the measures taken by George W. Bush and Barack Obama to salvage the economy from total disaster.  Like many people, I think the bailouts of the financial and automobile industries rescued people who deserved to be put out of business.  If the market place worked, the incompetent, conniving, and dishonest would be displaced by the competent, the earnest, and the honest.  But if those major financial organizations were to have been allowed to meet their just ends, there would be no financial infrastructure on which to build a reformed industry.

The government efforts to save industries did not come from a desire to take them over.  They came from the realization that if those industries collapsed, we would have no system of essential industries on which to base a recovery.   That same recognition is the reason for farm programs.  The programs are mounted in a rather desperate attempt to preserve a broad-based production agriculture composed of yeoman farmers, as opposed to a system of serfs whose destiny is dictated to them from on high.  It makes no difference whether farms are collectivized under the Kremlin or the Monsanto corporate headquarters,  it is controlled by power-hungry bureaucracy, not by stewards of the land who attach their well-being and their future to a vital connection with the land.  

That gets us to the post which sparked the comments about my apprehension of farm subsidies.  It was a post about congressional candidate Kristi Noem.  I made fun of her driving record and the fact that the ranch in which she has an interest is one of the top ten collectors of agricultural handouts in South Dakota.  One respondent at Decorum Forum said that if traffic tickets was  all you had to contribute to a campaign, you have to go with them.  And he took exception to the fact that I used the name Snooki Scofflaw in reference to Noem.  Begin with what the traffic tickets really denote.  If a person who gets 20 tickets for driving offenses and then six more services because she blows off the tickets is not a scofflaw, I'd like to know just what the term means.  What is significant is not the multiple driving infractions (other candidates have them, too); the significance is the attitude and character displayed.    Other legislators and members of the press have encountered this characteristic in their daily work where Noem is involved.  

But a more revealing issue has been Noem's performance in debates, particularly on farm issues. I attended the debate at the Corn Palace in Mitchell.  I read Corey Heidelberger's debate coach summaries at Madville Times in which he assesses the responses of each candidate  on each of the eight questions asked at the State Fair.  At Mitchell, I noted that Noem was not prepared to answer the questions.  Instead, she tried to use the tactic of avoiding the question by bringing up spending issues or Nancy Pelosi.  Kristi Noem did not prepare for the debate.  She apparently thought preparation was something she could blow off and, instead, depend upon an evasive attack.  In my lifetime, journalists who did not prepare for assignments got fired.  Students got failed.  Noem did not prepare.  But that was not a one-time lapse.  By the time she  got to the State Fair, one would assume that she'd get a little information.   Instead, she resorted to the same ploy of evading and not answering the question.  Independent candidate Marking at least had the honesty to state that he could not answer the agricultural questions because he was not fully informed.  

The Republican tactic of performing an Orwellian portrayal of Nancy Pelosi as an enemy and then mounting an entire congressional campaign on their cheap ad hominem attempt to hide the real issues under a smear is put to work by Noem in South Dakota.

It is not a question of whose ideas are better for agriculture.  It is a matter of who has informed themselves about what the issues are and how they affect the state.  As she did with the traffic tickets, Noem has chosen to blow those issues off, too.  She does not present herself as one who knows what is taking place in agriculture or who really cares.  

When it comes to conscientious effort, Noem has methodically disqualified herself from consideration.


larry kurtz said...

Great piece.

Every year that my East River parents would visit during the chapter in Spearfish, '82-'95, my dad would say, "All of this fertile ag ground (lower Spearfish and Valley) going to housing; that will destroy this valley."

Of course, now GFP regularly notes unparalleled spikes in driveway runoff and residual pharmaceuticals being introduced to Spearfish Creek that joins the other waterways contributing exponentially when it reaches the Missouri River and then on to the Gulf of Mexico.

Thad Wasson said...

Good blog and I would humbly submit two additions.

There is never any talk of investment in foreign countries with dollars backed by the federal government. When independent producers complain about dumping of ag products in America, they fail to realize these countries need to pay back the loans, and the only way is selling their commodities. Brazil with ethanol, Argentina with beef.

Why do our elected officials push ethanol? It is because we have to much food and we have to burn it to break even.

larry kurtz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
larry kurtz said...

Bad link. Let me try again. This interview will scare the spit out of you.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States