Foodies vs Farmies: A Look at Farm Politics

(For those not familiar with how farm politics is debated in the mainstream agricultural press in the U.S., David Kruse’s article, critiqued here, offers a classic example.  The original article, [Obama’s selection for Secretary of Agriculture, Tom] “Vilsack is not a ‘Foodie,’” is cited below, with a web link.  You may want to read that first.  Basically I work to bring both “foodies” and “farmies” on board for just farm policy.  Here I go after the latter group.)


I propose a new term for farm politics, “farmie,” to balance out “foodie,” from CARD’s Bruce Babcock and now David Kruse (Farm News, 12/26/08).   “Foodies” and “farmies” are equivalent opposites.


There’s some truth in attacks on “foodies.”  “Foodies” don’t understand the value of livestock in sustainable agriculture, in diversifying crop rotations and helping keep more erodible lands in pastures and hay.  They miss how ethanol helps raise commodity prices, which then stimulate economic multipliers in “least developed countries” which are 73% rural.


Last fall agricultural economist John Ikerd wrote:  “Virtually every study done … in the past 20 years has confirmed the inevitable negative community impacts of CAFOs.”  Still, “farmies” support CAFOs against rural community, ecology and economy.  Tom Vilsack, writing the nuisance lawsuit protection provisions of Iowa’s notorious HF519, is a true “farmie,” not a “foodie.”   


USDA’s Economic Research Service found that corn, wheat, cotton, rice, soybeans, grain sorghum, barley and oats lost money in the market versus full costs almost always 1981-2006.  Multiply losses per acre by acres and only 1996 was above zero for the sum of these crops.  We’ve poured billions of U.S. farm dollars out to foreign competitors (processors, livestock) nearly every year for decades.  “Farmies” idolized it ideologically as “competitive” and “market oriented.”  Agricultural economists know that farm commodities lack price responsiveness on both supply and demand sides, but “farmies” (and “foodies”) pushed for welfare “safety nets” instead of price floors with supply management, price ceilings with strategic commodity reserves.  “Farmie” farmers selling wholesale voted to pay for retail advertising (via checkoffs) for industries favoring the anti-farm policies I’ve named.  They’ve have built concentration in CAFOs and processing, here and in foreign countries, on the basis of below cost raw materials.


“Farmies,” you’re no better than a bunch of “foodies.”



Further reflections on Kruse’s article


There’s no pragmatism in exporting farm commodities at a loss for decades.  There is no evidence yet that Obama is pragmatic on farm policy.


Kruse is correct that Vilsack doesn’t know federal farm policy.  Yes, Vilsack may be “vanilla without the flavor.”


Kruse does not give a fair and accurate critique of the “food secretary issue.  He approaches it as a “farmie” would.  He surely doesn’t understand that small farms produce more food per acre with less fossil fuel and that organic can better feed the world.  Such ideas are beyond the question of factuality.  They’re outside of his paradigm, gadfly anomalies.


Kruse repeatedly imagines “liberal” beliefs about Obama in absolute terms, and does so with gusto.  In fact, however, politically informed progressives and the left never “expected” to name one of their own to either post, nor did Sierra Club have the confidence Kruse claims.


Kruse is, of course, quite wrong about Obama naming pragmatists.  Sure, politically being  oriented to what’s been politically winnable, is a kind of pragmatism, but it’s also been disastrous foreign and farm policy, for two examples.  Of course, Kruse has a point.  The current standard for pragmatism, on many minds, is the recent Republican administration, and the role of ideology there, is very high.  


Kruse is correct that we should “not rush to judgment on what kind of an ag secretary” Vilsack will be.  Surely the appointment was much more about who was NOT appointed, rather than Vilsack, who must have been the least worst choice being considered, according to the standards being used.  In many ways Vilsack is moldable, an unknown.  Senate Ag Chair, Iowa’s Tom Harkin will surely have influence.  But Vilsack’s background, in contrast to Kruse’s claim, still has almost “nothing to do with the job at hand.”


As to who should “fly their airplane,” Kruse wants someone who has competence to negotiate with the air traffic controllers, even if he will need a co pilot to somehow fly the plane, Kruse’s own claims notwithstanding.  But note Kruse’s insight that Republican ideologues “let [Bush] crash the plane anyway.”


On the Beef daily definition of a “foodie:”  “obesity…, diabetes, greenhouse gasses, an end to small town traditions, … grain for livestock, antibiotic resistant infections” are complex issues and it’s agribusiness, not agriculture that is playing the role everyone is talking about.  For example, farmer (“commodity grower”) subsidies don’t have the effects claimed, but the lack of price floors, supply management, reserves and price ceilings do play a role.  So Kruse could have a point here, but he fails to make it in any seriously credible way.  He’s also weak against the well established downside of ethanol.  


To say Vilsack is pro-trade is to suggest that, certainly like Kruse himself, Vilsack is a “farmie” who favors losing billions of U.S. farm dollars on farm exports every year.  To call him “pro-conservation” is another unsubstantiated “farmie” illusion.


Kruse’s charge that “Neil Hamilton’s idea is to revert to peasant farming, putting 500,000 new economically unviable farmers on the land as wards of the state to grow organic tofu and bean sprouts. That seems to be matching the concept of what didn’t work in communist China and Russia” is pure “farmie” ideology.  Hamilton’s idea is based upon a legitimate, well researched concern.  It does not involve any peasants, and would upgrade economic viability of farming, not the other way around, but not with tofu (which is processed, not grown by farmers, and milk jugs in a ditch isn’t a cows nest to be harvested by farmers, Mr. Kruse,) and bean sprouts.  Corporate agribusiness’ replacement of farming with purchased inputs in a box and corporate livestock:  that’s really more like what didn’t work in communism, as we thought of it in the Cold War.


Here Kruse, steeped in the “farmie” paradigm, seems to see no diminishing returns in current trends.  He sees only disaster in any alternative.  But in fact, the exact reverse is obviously true.  It is inevitable that current dominant trends won’t project on into the future.  The burgeoning organic market is one anomaly to his paradigm.  The shrinking of the farm share of the food dollar to zero by 2020 is another.  That organic farmers, who use much less fossil fuel, can grow corn cheaper, even without price premiums, is another.  “Farmie” days of illusion are numbered.  They’ll soon be clearly obsolete.


“Ethanol opponents believe the Obama energy team will be less friendly to ethanol subsidies.”  But of course that’s the direct opposite of recent politics.  But that was before giving away trillions to the economic crisis.  Losing billions on farm exports via zero price floors and supply management, covered up with billions in commodity subsidies (a major ethanol subsidy track) is absurd in this context.  Don’t bet the farm on getting those welfare checks from here on out, especially given the fact that both “foodies” and “farmies” misunderstand the issue.  Beyond that, the real gain/loss ratios from ethanol will solve the ethanol question on their own.


Ok, in conclusion, Kruse exhorts, we have “left wing goofy ‘foodies’” on one side, and “centrist pragmatists” on the other, you know, Obama appointees.  And that proves he’s not an ideologue, of course.  But when Ag Chair Tom Harkin with Daschle, Wellstone, Gephardt and others, abandoned making a profit on exports (Harkin-Gephardt Farm Bill of 80s and 90s) and turned to a greened up version of Newt Gingrich’s Contract on America,  (“Freedom to Farm”) they moved far to the right of Reagan/Block and Nixon/Butz.  Obama has, indeed talked that way, though he also admitted that “a price in the marketplace” is “what we really need.”  Farm price floors, charging fair trade, living wage prices, may be our very best possible economic stimulus, as we learned from the New Deal and the Steagall Amendment.  To reverse our multibillion dollar, or actually, historically, multi-trillion dollar losses from the lowering and elimination of price floors and associated policies:  now that would be pragmatism!  Here Kruse offers something like imitation tofu made from transfats and high fructose corn syrup that then calls itself real, family farm, humane, organic, grassfed beefsteak.  Yes, he’s a right “wing goofy” “farmie.”  


I think that pretty well completes my rebuttal of the macho, farm politics, the “foodie” arguments, of David Kruse.




David Kruse – “Vilsack’s no ‘foodie,’” Farm News, 12/26/08, http://www.farm-news.com/columns/articles.asp?articleID=6332


Phillip Brasher, Vilsack not likely to take USDA in radical direction, Des Moines Register, 12/17/08, http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20081217/BUSINESS03/812170368

“‘He is not a foodie but represents mainstream production ag,’ said Bruce Babcock, director of Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development.”


John Ikerd, “CAFOs vs Rural Communities” http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/ra08/ikerd_cafo08.html



“Data Sets: Commodity Costs and Returns: U.S. and Regional Cost and Return Data,” USDA Economic Research Service, http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/CostsAndReturns/testpick.htm

Acreage figures in “Crop Production Historical Track Records, USDA, NASS, April 2008, https://usda.library.cornell.edu/catalog?utf8=✓&search_field=all_fields&q=track+record, 


Daryl E. Ray, “It’s Price Responsiveness! It’s Price Responsiveness!! IT’S PRICE RESPONSIVENESS!!!,” APAC, University of Tennessee, May 6, 2005, http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/248.html .


For Further Reading:


Neil Hamilton, Guest column: “Obama should launch a New Farmer Corps”


NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, “Obama’s ‘Secretary of Food’? “New York Times, 12/10/08, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/11/opinion/11kristof.html?_r=2&ref=opinion


“Introducing the Sustainable Dozen!” http://www.fooddemocracynow.org/


On Beef Daily, Amanda Nolz, “Obama’s Secretary of Food?” December 18th, 2008, http://blog.beefmagazine.com/beef_daily/2008/12/18/obamas-secretary-of-food/#more-84


On farm share, Stewart Smith, Sustainable agriculture and public policy,” Maine Policy Review (1993). Volume 2, Number 1, search https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1476&context=mpr.


On the New Deal and Steagall Amendment, see Willie Nelson,  “It’s About America,” Common Dreams, 9/24/08, http://www.commondreams.org/view/2008/09/24-5. For further reading, Al Krebs, The Corporate Reapers.  Generally on this point see also Mark Ritchie, “Crisis by Design,” League of Rural Voters, 1987, pdf at http://www.iatp.org/iatp/publications.cfm?accountID=258&refID=48644; George Naylor, A Legacy of Crisis, North American Farm Alliance, 1986, http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/ra07/crisis_86.html.

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