Farm Justice and Neoliberalism: Feedback to Julie Guthman

Authors Note:  This is an open letter of feedback to Julie Guthman, who is an academic who writes on food issues in terms of neoliberalism, food justice, race, and more.  I address a number of these themes, including the role of food and farm academics generally.

Most recently she’s been quoted for the introductions to (and cited in) a listing of 24 commentaries on food and race (“Special Reprint of Commentaries on Race and Ethnicity in Food Systems Work,”) in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development (http://www.agdevjournal.com/component/content/article/584.html).


Julie Guthman intends to be a “friendly scribe,” but she misses some of the biggest issues, issues that the dominant paradigms of Mainstream Media, the Food Movement (including the Race and Food Sector,) the Food Sovereignty Movement, the Sustainable Agriculture Movement, and other sectors miss.  It’s understandable, but it needs to be fixed.  I discuss this, in light of Julie Guthman’s work, under the following headings.












I’m a farmer from Iowa. I’ve been reviewing a masters thesis recently, in which five examples of your work were cited. (It’s part of a discussion on the COMFOOD list, Shannon Olivia Jones, Critical Rhetorical Analysis of Joel Salatin: The Alternative Farming Minister of Terroir.) Your name was very familiar, so I looked you up online.

I review a lot of online materials, including those of academics, plus food books and films from a Family Farm Movement perspective, or what I call Farm Justice. I also write about the politics of academic “help” for various Farm and Food Movement sectors, and about the new food courses. These materials rarely demonstrate any significant knowledge of our massive movement over the past 60 years, (and we see this recent farm-side phase in connection with earlier farm-side phases). Most commonly, I just search for someones name and “farm subsidies,” which I just did for you. I then ran across an interview, (Politics and Culture, 2009 Issue 2, Scott Stoneman, “Julie Guthman, On globalization, neoliberalism, obesity, local food and education.” http://politicsandculture.org/2010/10/27/an-interview-with-julie-guthman/)


FYI, here’s some feedback on some of what you said there. First, I think you miss some of the neoliberalism of the farm programs in ways that are common in the new food paradigm. You stated that,

“in fact, neoliberalism has been applied to food and agricultural sectors in highly uneven ways. On the one hand, agriculture and food sectors have been subject to some of the most intense attempts at neoliberalization…. On the other hand, neoliberalization has been limited in this sphere…. Domestic food sectors [meaning farm sectors?] remain economically protected through, for example, subsidy programs….”

I find that when people talk of this subsidy “protection” they often word it along the lines of: it prevents US (EU) farms from falling below costs. In fact, however, a large majority U.S. farmers have gone out of business over farmbill changes since 1953, (of course, it’s not all because of the farm bill, some of it is technological change). That’s even WITH commodity subsidies (which started in 1961 for wheat, corn and other feedgrains, 1964 for cotton[again], 1977 for rice and 1998 for soybeans). (Yea, FYI, subsidies didn’t start with the farm bill, as in the new Food Paradigm’s myth-gone viral.) So this is an anomaly to the “protectionism” paradigm.

The farm bill has been devastating to farmers over the past 60 years, (but was a godsend from the 1930s through 1952). In fact, running farmers out of business has been an important (neoliberal) purpose of the farm bill over the past 60 years, both for corporate special interests, and for land grant academics. So, for example, in “An Adaptive Program for Agriculture,” the Committee for Economic Development called for running 1/3 of U.S. farmers out of business within five years, and Congress then implemented that. The congressional changes took place over a somewhat longer time span, but went far deeper. They didn’t stop at the 1/3 (2 million farmers and farm laborers) standard. This was immediately reinforced academically, (Geoffrey Shepherd, Iowa State University Experiment Station,) and support has continued over time (ISU, 1980s, 1990s). (cf. Wenonah Hauter, Foodopoly, ch. 1)

You also said that “These subsidies benefit some of the wealthiest farmers and clearly work against ecological farming practices.” The part is another category of myth, and it usually refers to the finding of the Environmental Working Group, (from the Farm Subsidy Database,) that a large majority (75%?) of farm subsidies are given to the top 10% of “recipients,” and a very small amount to the bottom 80%. What they don’t tell you is that most of the top 10% are family-sized farms, or similar but smaller, or similar but somewhat larger. In contrast, the bottom 80% are, at most, but a tiny fraction of a very minimal full-time family-sized farm, the bottom 50% are, at most about 4% of that standard, and the bottom third are at most about 1% of that standard. (This is based upon my analysis of the data, which uses operational definitions.) That then radically changes the interpretation. My views are easily understood to those of us who live in one of these farming zip codes, as we see who the biggest recipients are and who is included at the low end (i.e. small acreages).

So while I don’t question either category of data that’s commonly used, (that farmers have received a ton of money in subsidies, or that most of it has gone to the top 10%,) it’s not being validly interpreted in either case.

Ok, for the first part, prior to getting any subsidies, farm prices were lowered, (by lowering Price Floors). This continued as farm subsidies were added, with the result that farmers got less with subsidies than what they had prior to receiving subsidies, and over time, very much less. For example, the 1985 Farm Bill (Reagan, and then also the 1990 farm bill,) more than doubled farm subsidies, but at the same time Price Floors were lowered by an even greater amount, for a significant net reduction. Iowa State University’s Neil Harl called it “pumping a lot of money into the rural economy,” meaning only the subsidy part, but of course, the opposite was true for the net result. And then ditto for the 1996 Farm Bill, (as supplemented by 4 emergency Farm Bills prior to 2002, and then as continued in the 2002 Farm Bill). This has continued through the more recent farm bills, (2008 and 2014) each of which has been worse for farmers. And in each case, the real results have not been reported, but have remained unknown, except to the Family Farm Movement.

Very simply, my interpretation of why things have happened this way includes the following. Our massive farm-side movement over 4-5 decades (1950s-90s) with virtually no food-side support had almost no impact on Price Floor reversal, (back up). They gave us subsidies instead, so that the freer and freer market (lower and lower Price Floors) would continue to give greater and greater and then maximum neoliberal ‘free’ market benefits (neoliberal entitlements) to agribusiness, but in secret, with the farmer victims getting the blame, as we have from the Food Movement and from mainstream media (i.e. in the hundreds of editorials on this topic collected by EWG, hundreds of which I’ve read and others of which I’ve done content searches using “find”). The protection, then, was to run us out of business a little slower. There are a wide range of major economic indicators that support this view of how bad things have been for farmers, (including some I’ve developed utilizing USDA data). For example, we had 8 of the 9 lowest corn and soybean prices in history following the 1996 farm bill (1995-2005), and similar for other major crops.

Subsidies don’t cause cheap prices (another myth-gone-viral,) as a a variety of kinds of evidence show. So giving them doesn’t affect markets in any practically significant way. For example, in the number crunching work of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, (& Tim Wise, Tufts,) dumping levels in during the 1995-2005 period were often 20% to 30% or more on up to the 60% range for cotton. Meanwhile, major econometric studies have often found tiny percents for subsidy impacts (i.e. less than 5%). Cotton (60+% dumping) has been found to have somewhat higher subsidy impacts, but it’s planted on many fewer acres than corn, which, in Daryll Ray’s study, would go down (not up) in price under subsidy elimination). (i.e. resulting from less cotton planting relative to more corn planting)

For analysis of neoliberal impacts and analysis, then, Price Floors are the key, not subsidies. And major Price Floors were ended in 1996, (after being lowered drastically over 42 years,) with the few remaining Price Floors (sugarbeets, sugarcane, milk which was just ended,) being set at extremely low levels by that time.


So secondly, in my interpretation, subsidies have been given to farmers to hide the failure of the ‘free’ market, to hide the fact that neoliberalism fails massively for agriculture, especially for the storable crops. So since the Food Movement doesn’t understand that they’re soft on neoliberalism.

By the way, if you look at how food subsidies are treated in the paradigm, you don’t find the same anomalies. They get the most money by far, but people understand, as we farmers also do, that their net results are poor.

The food movement then advocates for “subsidy reforms,” as you do. But the (secret, hidden, unknown) evidence shows that that’s bogus. So what you’re all advocating for is neoliberalism. Only a few of you come out and state that, however, such as EWG’s Ken Cook.

Ok, so technically, to advocate for “subsidy reforms” is to advocate for the cheapest of cheap ingredients for junk food, feed for CAFOs, and export dumping, which again, violates all of your values and general goals, (which I and we share). In the case of export dumping, while subsidies are unfair, getting rid of them doesn’t help those dumped upon (in any practically significant way). (The major U.S. farm activists have always called for Price Floor programs to address the real problems, rather than any subsidies.) So if you take a case to WTO and win, it doesn’t fix anything, because you don’t get any improvement in prices. WTO is based upon neoliberal myths. It’s subsidy paradigm has no valid evidence to support it. Spokespersons representing the third world typically speak out of this false WTO paradigm in their (misguided) criticisms of U.S. and E.U. farm policy. It’s primarily U.S. Family Farm Movement advocates who get it right, and who have, and know about the existence of, the correct alternative proposals that are out there today. The Food Movement has had no correct alternative proposals of its own.

Now, you demonstrate some better understanding of some of this than many others. You state in this interview that “In fact, rationales for farm policy are much more complex and historically dynamic….” Like Michael Pollan, (I’ve often criticized him on these points,) you can be quoted against yourself.


You also raise the point about sustainability and subsidies. While there’s some clear truth in that, there’s another, even more important part of the story, that’s become much more visible only recently. Only fairly recently (to us, in our longer time span,) have large corporations taken over the livestock industry at such incredible levels. Well, poultry came much earlier. The long term trend has been accelerated, (as well as just getting worse and worse,) as seen in the massive exodus of hog farmers in the 1990s, (hog farmers who themselves voted down the checkoff, against the National Pork Producers Council’s big money, but then that was conceded away by “our” USDA lawyers [and hidden from our Farmers Legal Action Group co-lawyers,] behind closed doors when Bush came into office). Today it’s something like 2/3 of U.S. hogs that are owned by the top 4 corporations (1 Chinese). That’s an incredible change, far beyond what we used to try to dramatically anticipate (i.e. concentration in the hands of just 50 enterprises!).

This massive removal of livestock, (plus the further placing of so much of even the remaining livestock into CAFOs,) has devastated the economic possibility for having crop rotations (alfalfa, clover, feedgrains as nurse crops). A further point (that also might be relevant to your work on organic farming,) is the massive destruction of the infrastructure and infostructure for diversity, as a result of neoliberalism.

This point is missed by the Sustainable Agriculture Movement, (which, technically, supports cheap feeds for unsustainable CAFOs). They call for mere (i.e. neoliberal) subsidy reforms, such as taking subsidies from one huge set of farmers and then turning them green. We’ve seen this, in the new programs like EQIP organic transition and the Conservation Stewardship Program, which have been given mostly to a tiny few of the most sustainable farmers (not to count the gross misuses of some EQIP money). The glaring flaw in that argument is that, by not addressing the big farm justice issues for all farmers, they and their Food Movement allies are allowing for, (at the same time as the green subsidies for a few,) a massive destruction of the infrastructure and infostructure of diversity for all. And they may not be able to survive with all of that destroyed. The neoliberal economy may not serve them at all, at least in some crucial, “necessary” ways, if it’s ONLY serving a tiny few.


You may want to check out some of my work on this. A key thesis I’m emphasizing is that the new young Food Movement (various sectors, and some older sectors, like the US and global Hunger Movement sectors,) is making the mistakes of essentialism, (a term I learned from academics). Even my explanations here are an oversimplification. I have quite a bit of more detailed explanation of these sorts of things online.

For example, I’ve done a quite large amount of number crunching, primarily with USDA data. At one point I had a dozen series of data charts online, but it was removed in a site update. I’m slowly putting it back up at slide share. My slides show people some major things about these issues that probably aren’t shown anywhere else. For example, I show subsidies in context. Likewise, few people in our Movement have probably ever seen pictures of price floors, (also, for example, in context with subsidies). Another kind of example is the comparisons between the major subsidized crops and major fruits and vegetables, (another kind of myth-gone-viral). (The subsidized crops have performed more poorly, even with subsidies, than fruits and vegetables. And the long time nonsubsidy Farm Bill programs for fruits and vegetables, like those for sugar, are unknown or misunderstood.)


Another point I’ve been emphasizing is that “farm”is a bigger category than “food,” and “food” (i.e. “food system”) isn’t a big enough unit of study or advocacy to get at the biggest issues. You can’t even deal with food from a food-only perspective, as it wouldn’t work to do food-only supply management. Likewise “food” Movement work is rooted a relatively uninformed and misinformed point of view held by newcomers with little experience in farm-side issues, and with a short time span of work. They often don’t know of the larger body of source materials, (even those available online,) as seen in the footnotes, bibliographies, courses and online links. On our “farm-side,” we have 6 decades of recent experience in working on these issues, (rooted in many earlier decades back to the 1800s, etc.).


FYI, farmers are business persons, and they have a different corporate culture from what we find among food progressives (of food libertarians). We are are more conservative, but I think our dominant (Family Farm, Farm Justice) Movement, honed out of long years of hard fights against agribusiness dominators, should be understood as radical center. The dominant narrative is economic, and we’re much stronger at that than food progressives are, (and we’re much stronger intellectually than agribusiness is, if only they’d let us into mainstream media, if only they’d dare to debate us). The Food Movement is inclined to brag that they’re “for people, not for profit.” That goes a long way toward conceding the big economic issues to neoliberal conservatives. How about some of the wealth we create to be shared fairly with the people. Let’s “Pay the World,” the world’s farmers, instead of trying to “Feed the World” with overproduction. (This idea proved to be very surprising to an expert on Africa at a food conference I attended at Harvard Law School last spring.)


FYI, a common misunderstanding of local food, (which I see as great, but very limited in potential, both in the U.S., especially in farming regions, and globally,) is that, it’s more or less nothing but a kind of privileged strategy for the well off. My view is that it needs to be understood in the following context. What I see are two general kinds of strategy, which, (borrowing from theology,) I call the “Jubilee Strategy,” of reforming the dominant system, (as in the farm bill work that is my central focus,) and the “Exodus Strategy” of “withdrawal” from the dominant system, which is what local food can be, on both the farm and the nonfarm sides, both inside the U.S. and in L.D.C.s. The Exodus Strategy can be the more radical of the two. It’s what you can do when the Jubilee Strategy is unavailable for political reasons. Today, however, our bigger Movement problem is that, in misunderstanding the Jubilee Strategy that I’ve discussed above, the new advocates have allowed themselves to be divided and conquered by agribusiness, (by it’s subsidy myth). Then, as only half a movement, (incompetently blaming farmer victims instead of agribusiness, thus driving desperate farmers away and toward agribusiness strategy lures,) they all too quickly give up on things like the Farm Bill. It seems too unwinnable, and it is with their (half-movement, divided & conquered,) strategy. The strategy that might win has yet to be tried at all, but rather they’ve (unknowingly) sided with agribusiness against farmers, (technically, but not in rhetoric).


Given the nature of your work on issues of food, farming and neoliberalism, you should pay close attention to the work of Daryll E. Ray, until recently of APAC at the University of Tennessee, (if you don’t already, of course). He has a number of columns on free markets and free trade, and I could easily past my list of them into an email. Perhaps the most important online farm bill and trade document of any kind that students in the new “food” courses should be exposed to is his (et al) “Rethinking US Agricultural Policy: Changing Course to Secure Farmer Livelihoods Worldwide.” (http://agpolicy.org/blueprint.html) In the appendix he discusses various economic schools of thought related to these issues. Cf. His presentation, “Developing an Alternative to the Chicago School.” On neoliberalism, two great introductory columns for students are these: “It’s Price Responsiveness! It’s Price Responsiveness!! IT’S PRICE RESPONSIVENESS!!!,” (http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/248.html) and “Are the five oft-cited reasons for farm programs actually symptoms of a more basic reason,” (http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/325.html). And there are many others. Cf. “…Freedom To Farm: An Agricultural Price Response Experiment – What Have We Learned In Four Years?” (http://agpolicy.org/archive/policy/May2000.pdf).

There are many other important myths and issues. (There wasn’t really a global “food price crisis,” meaning a crisis of a few years of much higher farm prices. There was a crisis of decades of ever lower farm prices, fostering massive rural poverty, followed by a few years of price levels closer to fair trade standards.) (Food Sovereignty isn’t just local self control. It’s also macro market management of price and supply, as La Via Campesina and the National Family Farm Coalition have emphasized. [https://zcomm.org/zblogs/via-campesina-with-nffc-support-for-fair-farm-prices-by-brad-wilson/ ])

This is all just FYI. (Perhaps you’re working on another book.) (I don’t recall if I’ve emailed you previously over the past 8 years.)


Farm Bill Videos: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA1E706EFA90D1767

Regarding what I’ve said above, you might want to see these data pictures:

[A] (4 minutes): “Defining the Farm Bill is a Political Act,” https://vimeo.com/115986303

[B] (19 minute my best Food Movement rebuttal): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQkeDza3bM0&list=PLA1E706EFA90D1767&index=2

[C] “Michael Pollan Rebuttal” (2 earlier videos on subsidies and neoliberalism, starting here, with part 1):


[D] 2 SlideShare presentations: http://www.slideshare.net/bradwilson581525/presentations

(The 2 slide show presentations are:  “The Hidden Farm Bill, [How Agribusiness Hides Behind the Myth of Subsidies,” and “Farm Bill Net Impacts: Which State is the Biggest Loser?”)



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