South Carolina FSC/LAF State Director
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/ Land Assistance Fund strives toward the development of self-supporting communities with programs that increase income and enhance other opportunities; and we strive to assist in land retention and development, particularly for African Americans, but essentially for all family farmers. We do this with an active and democratic involvement in poor areas across the South, through education and outreach strategies which support low-income people in molding their communities to become more humane and livable. We assist in the development of cooperatives and credit unions as a collective strategy to create economic self- sufficiency.
Look at the recent farmers lawsuit. When small farmers are not part of discussions and policy-making once again, we are just an afterthought trying to fit in. If you think you are not a small farmer when you own or operate 1,000 acres, think again, you are. Corporations, agribusiness industries, and politicians are making decisions that you are not a part of.
More than a year has passed since we helped prepare claims in the farmers lawsuit, yet the road to victory is filled with potholes and detours. Some situations like farmers not being awarded loans and essentially losing their livelihood and land have not fully been addressed. We are determined that deserving farmers should reap success. Initially, the denial rate was 35-40 percent. The lawyers filed a motion to stay until the qualifications of the Consent Decree could be addressed by the Court and the monitor.
Several months ago, the lawyers met with the monitor and USDA lawyers to address concerns. Rejections based on the following were discussed in detail:
By not being part of this process, farmers are constantly forced to frantically react to situations. For example, when prices drop below production costs and there is a sudden rise in fuel prices, the farmers seek additional high interest revenues or fail to apply all the needed input to their crops.
When the policy makers are at the table in those smoke filled back rooms, just look around and see if the group of participants are diverse and inclusive. It has been my experience that this has not been so. Most of the times farmers are not a part of the discussion. If they are present they tend to identify with the corporations or agribusinesses.
Prior to the Clinton Administration minorities were virtually nonexistent in policy or decision making positions. With the appointment of Mike Espy and Dan Glickman some of these situations started to change. However there is still a lot of work to be done along these lines.
Have you ever been treated unfairly? Have you ever had to go in the back door or drink from a different water fountain, or walk pass schools you weren't allow to attend, and use second hand books? No, because, these things don't happen anymore. However in reality it does happen everyday when you have to pay a higher interest rate for the things you have to buy or when you cannot get a price for crops that equal the cost of production, especially when companies can grow crops in other countries.
Fifty years ago, wheat sold for $3.00 per bushel and bread was $.10 a loaf. Now wheat is sold for less than $3.00 a bushel, and bread costs between $1.00 - $2.00 a loaf. A bale of straw from wheat can sell for $3.50 a bale. The straw would therefore be worth more than the grain itself.
One day I was standing in a wheat field with an old farmer. He said "A farmer can only farm for about 20 years because he won't be able to refinance his debts, and it doesn't matter how great a producer he is." The farmer was echoing the frustrations of many farmers who are unable to make a profit, pay their bills, or feed and educate their family without off-farm income. Farmers should be able to make a decent living from the income generated from their family farm. Ladies and gentlemen something is wrong with this story. Some experts believe it will be 2 or 3 years before farmers make a profit from row crops. The question is what do we do now?
The question of public policies facilitating or impeding structural changes in agriculture and agribusiness industries can't be addressed in a yes or no format. Nor will individuals have or be able to perceive beforehand all of the answers on what those public policies should be. One thing is becoming more certain with each round of agricultural comments and analyses leading to the development of the more recent farm bills. Decoupling of the federal government from systematic sustained agricultural production is not nearly as easy to do as it is to plan.
The recent history of this nation has usually linked prosperity in agriculture to the general prosperity of the nation. A quick review of farm issues to livestock producers being bankrupted by the economy of scale would suggest that the farm economy is in a crisis. The U.S. economy is booming with very few areas outside rural America unaffected by the wave of prosperity. Why doesn't this rising tide of prosperity float the sinking ship of agriculture?
My guess would be that agricultural revenues are growing at a pace parallel with the rest of the economy. There is certainly no connection between the price received by farmers and the price paid by consumers to access the farmer's products in raw or refined form. Where then, does the additional revenue go? Agribusiness is the beneficiary of farm labor and management because it essentially controls the farmers product from seed to sale. Agribusiness is also the beneficiary of U.S. farm policy initiatives because it has the economic clout to hire full time high paid lobbyists to conduct the new age form of bribery required to extract any benefits from our over-mature political system. I consider campaign and ethics reform to be two of the important changes which have to be made on the national legislative level to give family farmers a chance for survival. If that can be accomplished the opportunity for addressing other issues such as price supports connected to the real cost of production; supporting the development of local produce marketing schemes; easing the transfer of farm real estate from one generation to another by more progressive inheritance tax structuring; completing and clarifying the national organic standards; and repeating the Freedom to Farm Act would be steps in the right direction.
The most disturbing of all issues to me is that Congress and USDA create and implement policies which imply that the family farmer is no longer an entity of significance in the U.S. agricultural economy. I worry that this happens because for the most part our legislators' and policy makers' familiarity with agricultural issues are centered around the name printed on the campaign donation check. Over the years I've learned that activism and protest can get some attention and lip service for any issue, but real policy is usually influenced by the ability to donate to the policy makers welfare.
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