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To Pollan: Farm Bills Were Never Quaint, Antidrama

by: Brad Wilson

Sun Jan 10, 2010 at 14:43:33 PM PST

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Michael Pollan (as quoted and cited below) has argued that passing a farm bill has long been some sort of a dull, number crunching task with little drama.  Then suddenly along came (the food movement?) environmentalists, the public health community,  and the development community, and suddenly it's highly contentious, high drama.

As a result, Pollan predicted, like many others, that the 2008 farm bill process might well be different, as a result of these important new players becoming involved, along with that very important group, "eaters."  (He leaves out that "quaint" group, farmers.)  Pollan's statement reminds me of the North Carolina "Water Keeper" who came into Iowa some years back predicting that some how shot lawyers were going to get rid of hog factories in short order.

Well, it didn't turn out that way (in either case), which certainly didn't surprise me, because Pollan's views of both the farm bill and the movements were way off the mark.  That's how it looks from where I stand.

Brad Wilson :: To Pollan: Farm Bills Were Never Quaint, Antidrama
Here's a quote from Pollan:  

"If the quintennial antidrama of the "farm bill debate" holds true to form this year, a handful of farm-state legislators will thrash out the mind-numbing details behind closed doors, with virtually nobody else, either in Congress or in the media, paying much attention. Why? Because most of us assume that, true to its name, the farm bill is about "farming," an increasingly quaint activity that involves no one we know and in which few of us think we have a stake."

Michael Pollan, "The Way We LIVE Now:  You Are What You Grow" New York Times Magazine, 4/22/7,

I translate that quotation to mean that for Michael Pollan himself, the farm bills of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were far off the radar screen.  That was never true for us out her in the heartland.  The National Farmers Organization raged forth in militant protests from the 1950s through the 1960s, and was widely covered in the media.  I was there when we dumped milk because the price was below costs.  Read Willis Rowell's Mad as Hell, as he described these events, including reactions to the report representing more than 100 corporations, the CED report of 1962.  A representative of Sears was leading the committee, so farmers brought in their Sears catalogs by the thousands and slammed them down into a huge pile with disgust.  They hammered congress.  

During the 1970s the American Agriculture Movement tractorcade to Washington resulted in a camp on the Mall in Washington for months.  Take that Earl Butz.

Then came the 1980s farm crisis.  One of the Dakotas took it's whole state legislature to Washington to lobby.  In Iowa and other states minimum price legislation was passed to override Congress.  All kinds of coalitions and alliances were formed and were very active inside of the beltway.  Labor groups, consumer groups, environmental groups and church groups joined in and accurately supported legislation that would really make a difference.  Iowa farm groups put the presidential candidates up on a platform and hammered them on the farm bill.  For one election I was known for asking "the farm question" to every presidential candidate that came through the University of Northern Iowa.  On one particularly raucous occasion that had a students for Gephardt leader shouting, a fellow student said to me, another voice in the fray: "You destroyed [Pete] DuPont," a chemical heir and a pure free trade (no subsidies) Republican who didn't fare well in the Iowa caucuses.  Then the Farm Aid concerts started, again bringing national media attention, as Neil Young took out a full page add in USA Today in favor of price floors.  For the first concert,  a Farm Aid train moved through Iowa filled with national and international press, headed for the concert in Illinois.  Phil Donahue brought his whole show to Cedar Rapids where he taped two days worth.  We had the Farm Bureau up front beside Tom Harkin, (then the leading advocate for price floors, supply management, price ceilings and reserves).  Farm women screamed out that "We don't want your damned subsidies!  We want a price in the marketplace!" Apparently Michael Pollan missed that.

(I choke up as I write this last line, because I was there, back in 1985, along with my family and neighbors, fighting for air time on Donahue, and speaking out about corporate influence in putting up the subsidy issue as a smokescreen, as a false issue, much like I'm doing today, a quarter century later.)

Then came Freedom to Farm in the 1990s and the final destruction of the parity farm programs of the New Deal, followed by it's dramatic failure, and four emergency farm bills in succession from 1998 to 2002.  Pollan thinks that too happened without drama, without a fight?

"Oh my wasn't that quaint?"  Gee, look at all of the "mind-numbing "antidrama?"

No Michael.  Not if you were there.  Not if you read a newspaper and followed issues.  Pollan may have been asleep, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen.

Of course, this was all before the internet.  It's not easily accessible by current first choice research methods. But see George Naylor here here, and Mark Ritchie here  Clearly Pollan hasn't yet grasped this "legacy of crisis," this "crisis by design," and he certainly isn't qualified to represent our history.

Pollan:  "But there are signs this year will be different. The public-health community .... The environmental community .... The development community . They got a boost from a 2004 ruling by the World Trade Organization that U.S. cotton subsidies are illegal." (Ibid.)

It must have been the spring of 2007 when I was told, by a minister here, (much as Pollan here told us,) that Tom Harkin and George Bush were on the same page for the farm bill, so there was real chance for real reform.  He was working with Bread for the World and involving his church to fight hunger.  

The huge problem for that is that both Harkin and Bush were solidly on the wrong side on the biggest issue, as was and is Bread for the World.  They both supported no price floors with supply management and no price ceilings with reserves.  The minister and his church, therefore, inadvertently supported corporate agribusiness against the starving masses of the world that were at the forefront of their concern.  So too did Bread and Oxfam.  So too did Church World Service, representing many denominations and originally part of the National Council of Churches.  And on and on, the same applies to the vast bulk of Pollan's identified movements.  Very symbolically, as Pollan omitted farmers from his list, they became divorced from the family farm movement that was leading the charge, and that had done so for fifty very dramatic years.  The mainline churches, which were all on board during the 1980s, were all now on the wrong side of the biggest, the core, the multi trillion dollar issue of the commodity title.

To return to Pollan's quite about WTO, they were all taken in by the subsidy "scapegoat,"and ended up, in direct violation of the facts as presented by Daryll Ray, as advocates of WTO style free trade (which gives some mileage to those subsidies that do not affect/distort trade (while no subsidies distort trade to meaningful degrees, it's the lack of price floors that really cause the problems).

Farm bills and farm bill history CAN be understood.  Much, perhaps most of what people in these various new farm bill related movements believe, however, is simply not true.

In conclusion, three quotes for context for those of you who weren't here, one of which (abbreviated) I'll attach to my future comments here.

"The subsidy program is a scapegoat for failed agriculture and development policies that are bolstered by the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that force the governments of developing countries out of agriculture. This enables corporations to control the global agriculture system." Jerry Pennick and Heather Gray, Federation of Southern Land Cooperatives:  Land Assistance Fund (African American Farmers, a member of NFFC), "Ensure that Farmers have Fair Living Wage,"

"Do we want corporations completely in charge of our food system?"  Richard  Houser, representing the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, which included no "food" groups, 1985,  Cedar Rapids Iowa rebuttal to Phil Donahue's complaint that consumers and eaters weren't paying much attention, as, I must admit to qualify my thesis, Michael Pollan has correctly argued (and demonstrated).

"But do you want food*?  ... The farm crisis now may turn into a food crisis in the 1990s."  (And do the World's hungry want out of poverty to be able to buy food.  B.W.)  Carolyn Houser family farm activist, a pleading rebuttal to Phil Donahue's repeated assertions that farmers still probably weren't going to be heard by consumers, Cedar Rapids Iowa, 1985."

Ok one more, for context for Carolyn Houser's prophesy, above:  Pollan on the Daily Show, one overarching food rule:  "Eat food*."

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Jon Tester (4.00 / 1)
Where do you think Jon Tester might go on these issues in future? I'm not sure how much of a role he will eventually play. When he first arrived in D.C. in 2007 and was a media favorite because of his cute haircut, he specifically said he did not support free trade for agriculture, and he did support fair trade. (No reporters asked him what he meant by "fair trade," or if they did, their questions and his answers didn't make it to air or into print.) Perhaps because of this (perhaps not), his committee assignments keep him far away from agricultural affairs even though he calls himself a third generation family farmer. He can vote, offer amendments, and speechify. I don't know what he said or did during the 2008 farm bill process. His Senate website is not illuminating.

My question about Tester is a specific example from a general question: Does anyone now in the Senate give a damn? How about the House of Representatives? How many of the 535 congresscritters go to the podium in their respective chambers and vigorously support your point of view?

re Tester (4.00 / 1)
I see that he's a new Senator from Montana and an organic farmer.  He's not on the Ag Committee.  He wasn't in Washington back when we had price floors, but he was on the farm during the 1980s farm crisis.  On the other hand, Organic farmers are often bad on commodity title issues.

I see he's said that "Federal farm subsidies are a necessary evil."  That may not be a quote from him.

Since he's in Montana I would go to the Northern Plains Resource Council, generally one of the best organizations on these issues in the country and a member of the National Family Farm Coalition.  I don't know if he's ever been involved with them.  Of course their nonpartisan (but perhaps WORC is encorporated differently,) but they surely know and are working on it  Perhaps Helen Waller is still around.  She'd tell you.

The Senate will always "give a damn" if people force it to.  I turn the question the other way around:  Do people in the food movement really give a damn?  Are they willing to change course when they are shown to be wrong by focusing on subsidy tinkering instead of price floors and supply management.  That's really the place to start at this point.  Get the movement together, then go to Tester.  Don't go to him and say, I'm for this and there's a huge movement that shares my values.  They don't help on this issue at all, but will you go it alone anyway.  At least I'll back you.  NPRC very much needs the help of a food movement that understands the Commodity Title.

"We're trying to warn this nation of a tidal wave ..., and it's coming your way, whether you want to know it or not...!"  female family farm activist in Iowa warning against agribusiness, Donahue Show, 1985

[ Parent ]
congresscritters (0.00 / 0)
Do you know of any Senators or Representatives who already approach farm issues from your point of view? You seem to be saying you do not.

[ Parent ]
Critters for Price Floors (4.00 / 1)
Actually Iowa Senator and Ag committee member Charles Grassley voted for such a proposal (adequate price floors so no commodity subsidies) a while back, well, Ok, 1985, along with voting for the Reagan farm bill when it came up (huge subsidy increases and even larger price floor drops).  Grassley could support it again, under the right conditions.

When I called the white house and told them how this was a Republican issue right down the line (no subsidies, more fiscally conservative than Reagan, farmers vote Republican, traditional Christian values, etc.) the lady on the other end seemed to take me vary seriously.  She said I needed to come to Washington and talk to some of the higher ups, to which I replied that at the moment I was speaking to the office of the President "How much higher up can you get than that?"

Clearly, given that both parties have supported the totally absurd subsidy policies of today, they could support about anything.  These policies clearly are easier to support ideologically, except for that one little catch:  Duane Andreas, well ADM and Cargill won't allow them to do that.  It was Duane that was called to get the final OK in 1985, according to a Reagan Staff member (Under Sec. Block) who was in the room, and who later worked for the American Corn Growers Association, one of the leading good groups.

Ok, more seriously, that was the Harkin-Gephardt farm bill proposal which got quite a few votes back then.  All of the main progressive Democrats supported it past the 1996 farm bill.  Harkin proclaimed that he couldn't support a farm bill like that (1996 "Freedom to Farm") since it would reduce farm income.  But that changed when he became chairman.  That was the key.  He wanted to propose something that would surely win, and he brought all of the Democrats along with him.  I suppose it was a party/farm caucus decision.

Of course, back then there wasn't this huge movement on the consumer side.  Unfortunately, they supported the new Harkin, the Harkin Compromise, not the old Harkin.  But note that Harkin is no longer ag chairman.

I explore Harkin's change online here and here  

Ok, the answer is Dennis Kucinich, who knows the issue well and fully supports it.  Well privately he does.  He just won't lead on in in a political environment in which most of his fans who care about food and farming mistakenly believe that it's all about farm subsidies.  Check out Kucinich here:

Bottom line:  subsidy tinkering translates into strong support for all the worst corporations, up to multibillions per year, way beyond the so called largest farm subsidies (which merely compensate and cover up for up to millions in losses to the output complex yearly).

"We're trying to warn this nation of a tidal wave ..., and it's coming your way, whether you want to know it or not...!"  female family farm activist in Iowa warning against agribusiness, Donahue Show, 1985

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