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Missing Food Movement History: Highlights of Family Farm Justice: 1950-2000

by: Brad Wilson

Sun Feb 26, 2012 at 12:53:25 PM PST

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The following brief highlights, excerpted from my personal contacts with the history of the Family Farm Justice Movement, illustrate the magnitude of the story farm justice that has been mostly left out of books, films and articles about the foundations of the new "young" food movement.  On the other hand, throughout the five decades of history that is briefly illustrated here, family farmers repeatedly spoke out passionately on the need for a large, committed consumer side food movement to actively join them in preserving and developing a healthy farm and food system.

I've previously reviewed two pieces by Eric Holt-Gimenez, et al, that interpret the development and role of various food movement sectors, and in which this five decades of family farm justice history has been largely left out.1  This blog is an expansion of a section of that blog.  Part of my conclusion there, and in a number of other blogs reviewing the food movement, is that, in not understanding the history of farm justice, the food movement has also failed to properly understand how to advocate on the basis of their own core values, and has ended up unknowingly siding with agribusiness on the biggest issues.

Brad Wilson :: Missing Food Movement History: Highlights of Family Farm Justice: 1950-2000
After more than a decade of "parity," (fair trade, living wage farm prices,) during the Eisenhower administration, Congress caved in to corporate pressure and started lowering price floors to covertly subsidize farm commodity buyers with cheaper prices.  This led to the restarting of a huge activist movement, led first by the National Farmers Organization.  

By the 1960s NFO was mobilizing farmers from all across the country.  They directly confronted corporate agribusiness through a series of holding actions to raise farm prices. 35,000 farmers attended a rally in Des Moines Iowa in the late 60s.  Even bigger, during a 6 month period, more than 1,000,000 people showed up at NFO meetings in 19 states.  In 1962, the Committee for Economic Development, a corporate think tank, had called for drastically further lowering price floors for corn, wheat, cotton, rice and other crops.  Their stated goal was to run farmers out of business, "one third in a period of not less than five years." The report was led by a man representing Sears Roebuck & Co.  At the aforementioned NFO rally farmers brought along Sears catalogs, and slammed them to the ground disgustedly, making a pile"14 or 15 feet high" with "a diameter of 40 or 50 feet at ground level."1  

NFO activities continued strongly into the 1970s.  The Agribusiness Accountability Project, a new organization in Washington D.C. framed the movement in new ways as a fight for justice.  Among their reports was "Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times," which directly confronted the Land Grant (agricultural) University Complex, which served as an ideological mouthpiece for agribusiness.  This report was followed by a series of further reports on individual land Grant institutions, some of which (ie. Cornell University,) were written partly through pseudonyms, to protect Land Grant staff who authored the reports.  Other key farm and food projects from the 1970s included "The Great American Grain Robbery" (about the secret Russian grain deal), "Hamburger USA,"  and "Eat Your Heart Out:  How Food Profiteers Victimize the Consumer." During this decade the movement held a series of tractorcades in Washington DC, lobbying Congress.  In the 1983 video Dairy Queens, farm justice movement leader Anne Kanten, of Minnesota, told of her experience when she "came around the corner of the Capitol, ... and saw 40,000 farmers."  Later farmers camped out on the mall with their tractors for months.  A new organization, the American Agriculture Movement was formed during the 1970s and was a leader in many of these actions.  

During the 1980s "farm unity" and "farmers alliance" coalitions sprang up all across North America.  From one of the Dakota's, the whole state legislature went to Washington to lobby the federal legislature. To stop "cheap corn," and other commodity prices, in Iowa and other states activists won passage of state level Commodity Title legislation, minimum price bills, which were dependent upon a certain number of other states passing similar legislation.  During campaigning for the Iowa, family farm justice advocates held farm debates, featuring almost all Democratic presidential candidates.  They were forced to come before farm activist leaders and debate the issues on the farmers' terms, with farmers as moderators, asking the questions.  In 1985, 10,000 farmers attended the National Farm Crisis Action Rally.  Nationally, farmers wrote their own farm bill, the Farm Policy Reform Act, and got a lot of votes in the US Senate during the Reagan Administration!  Like the New Deal Farm Programs of the Great Depression, the bill called for running farm programs like a business, balancing supply and demand, and setting a floor under and a ceiling over a fair standard (range) for market prices.  Like the New Deal Programs, it called for no farm commodity subsidies.  Several econometric studies showed that the bill would have greatly increased farm income and US export income, while greatly lowering government costs.2  Later in the decade, many thousands of farmers from all across America voted in forums on platform planks, and selected delegates that were taken by 2,400 movement leaders to the United Farmer and Rancher Congress, (sponsored by Farm Aid,) where a national platform was voted in. After years of fighting against farm credit abuses, major federal farm credit legislation was passed into law in 1987.  Another development starting in the 1980s was the rise of alternative farm commodity organizations, starting with the American Corn Growers Association, which has advocated for higher corn prices and an end to export dumping (the US losing money on farm exports,) on poor countries.  ACGA's views contrast sharply with those of the National Corn Growers Association, which brings farmers to support cheap corn prices, (zero price floors,) to subsidize agribusiness buyers, with government welfare  checks (framed in business management terms as "risk management,") to hugely subsidize farmers for the massive reductions and losses.

By the 1990s fighting factory farms at the state level was a major part of movement activity.  One major action was conducted at the National headquarters of the National Pork Producers Council in Des Moines, Iowa, where, in an act of civil disobedience, activists pounded a sign in front of their offices, renaming them the "National Factory Farms Council."  This was part of a major fight was against the "pork tax" or pork checkoff, and other major checkoff's where family farmers are forced to pay, for example, a thousand dollars per year into a fund that is then used against them, for example to support packer ownership of farms.  This was a national fight against big money.  One strategy of the corporate elites was to use check-off money to spy on the opposition, including environmental organizations and, many believe, farmers themselves.    Those opposing the pork checkoff were said by NPPC to be "meat haters," but in fact, hog farmers themselves voted it down nationally, and by 60.2% to 39.8% in Iowa, for example.

By the 1990s the work of the family farm justice movement was also brought significantly into the fair trade movement and spread globally, under the leadership of groups like the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.  This then played a role in helping the poor farming countries of the world to join with US family farm justice advocates in confronting GATT/WTO, and NAFTA issues.  The Africa Group at WTO later took strong stands supporting supply management and price floors for their long term, chronic problem of export dumping, low farm prices.  The Africa Group is made up of farming countries, and mostly Least Developed Countries.  The US Family Farm Justice Movement became a crucial ally inside the US for the international peasant organization, La Via Campesina. In important ways, these groups and others in Europe and elsewhere with whom the US Family Farm Justice Movement allied, were helped to accurately understand the US Farm Bill's impact on global export dumping, an understanding that has been significantly eroded by the US and EU food movement's misunderstanding of farm subsidies.

I must ask:  To what extent has the new young US "Food Movement" demonstrated similar accomplishments?  Have they mobilized any 10,000-person rallies? Have they held presidential candidates accountable in debates they ran?  Have they presented the major farm bill alternative (to a Republican farm bill that was the worst in history up to that point) in a house of Congress?  Have they won any major votes of farmers themselves against agribusiness interests?  

Clearly the food movement is huge and is charging into the issues.  That's great.  Unfortunately they misunderstand the biggest farm justice issue, (the price floor issue that directly opposes the exploitative wealth of agribusiness,) as I've described extensively elsewhere.  That's surely related to their lack of knowledge of what came before. The history I've described above is largely pre-internet, and is not covered in any adequate way in any food movement book, film, footnoted report, blog or short video I've seen (and I've seen hundreds of such items).  Our history is vital to our motivation and mobilization today. We in this movement, which is properly labeled as a "Farm and Food Movement," must do better.


1. Brad Wilson, "Forgetting Farm Justice: Revisionist Food Movement History and Strategy," zspace, 1/19/12,

2. Willis Rowell, "Mad as Hell:  An Inside Story of the NFO," 1984

3. See, for example, FAPRI, "Analysis of Farm Bill Options," February 1985.  See charts of some of the results of these studies here:  

Further Reading Online

"Farm Bill Primer:  Some History", content box of links, Brad Wilson, zspace,

"Interview with Rhonda Perry of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center
Grassroots Missouri Organizing Since 1985:  A Variety of Tactics, Consistent Strategies,"

"A Legacy of Crisis:  Farmer Solutions, Corporate Resistance," by George Naylor and Bert Henningson, Jr., Ames, Iowa, North American Farm Alliance, 1986

Al Krebs, "The Corporate Reapers:" What the Food Movement Doesn’t Know About Food Policy, Brad Wilson, zspace,

"For Generations to Come: The Cost of America's Farm Crisis," An Interview with David Ostendorf, by David Ostendorf and Danny Collum, Sojourners Magazine, October 1986 (Vol. 15, No. 9, pp. 18-21),

"The Times," "Churches Called on the Help Save Family Farms," Bob Hulteen, Sojourners June 1987,

"A Farm Bill by And for Farmers," Devorah Lanner, The Nation, July 6, 1985,

"Little Cell on the Prairie," Jay Walljasper, The Nation, October 25, 1986,

"The Shaky Farm Credit System," Jim Schwab, The Nation, May 11, 1985,

"Rising Up and Plowing Down: How Can Two Women Make the Land an Arena for Justice?"
Center on Women and Public Policy Case Study Program, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota,

Online Video & Audio:

"Food Movement 1985: Were You There? We Were," FireweedFarm channel on YouTube,

"Farm Bill & Food Bill,"  historic family farm justice videos, FireweedFarm channel on YouTube,

"Mark Ritchie [history of] IATP,"

"Brief history & mission of the Federation," Black Farmers channel at YouTube,

"What's for Dinner" radio show, 01/10/11, (playlist at: Susan Youmans interview of "John Kingsman" (John Kinsman) of Family Farm Defenders (Wisconsin)


Charles Walters, "Holding Action," (1968)
______, "Angry Testament," (1969)
______, "Unforgiven:  The Story of How America Has Exchanged Parity Agriculture for Parity War," (1971)

Willis Rowell, "Mad as Hell:  An Inside Story of the NFO," (1984)
______, National Farmers Organization, a Complete History by Willis Rowell (1993)

Jim Schwab , "Raising Less Corn and More Hell: Midwestern Farmers Speak Out," (1988)

A.V. Krebs, The Corporate Reapers:  The Book of Agribusiness, (1992)

Patrick H. Mooney & Theo J. Majka , "Farmers' and Farm Workers' Movements:  Social Protest in American Agriculture," (1994)

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In the 1983 film on women in the family farm justice (0.00 / 0)
movement, "Dairy Queens," Anne Kanten states:  

"We arrived at Washington early in the morning, found our way to capitol hill, finally found a place to park, walked for blocks, came Around the corner of the Capital of the United States and saw 40,000 farmers.  I cried.  I couldn't believe it."  

This refers to a time during the 1970s, the year prior to the year when the tractors came to Washington and camped on the mall.  So here's another anecdote in this forgotten history.

The film, which features Anne, Alice Tripp and Patti Kakacs, contains some real gems.  

"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

Dairy Queens, Hamburger USAand 2 historical documents (0.00 / 0)
are now online.  Find the "Dairy Queens" video here:

The 1979 "food movement" video, "Hamburger USA" is here:

IATP's great analysis of the history of "de-coupling" in the farm bill, which relates to Direct Payment, for example, the absurd subsidies that you get when you do not need them:  The "De-Coupled" Approach to Agriculture: History and Analysis of "De-Coupling Policy Proposals," September, 1988,
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.  An overview and download link is here:

Full document in pdf:

IATP has also now posted "Impact of GATT on World Hunger," 1988 which shows how Europeans wanted to join us in farm bill justice instead of export dumping (losing money on their and our farm exports), with a summary here:

and the full document in pdf here:

"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

Here's another blog on this topic (4.00 / 1)
Flawed Food History: Farm Justice Missing from Timeline

It's a review of the food movement timeline at the Small Planet Institute.

"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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