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To Pollan: Farm Bills Were Never Quaint, Antidrama


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.

“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, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/22/magazine/22wwlnlede.t.html?_r=0

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 et al here (http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/ra07/crisis_86.html ) and here, (http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/ra07/farmbill_86.html ) and Mark Ritchie here (http://www.iatp.org/search/node/%22Crisis%20by%20Design%22%20%22A%20Brief%20review%20of%20US%20Farm%20Policy%22 ). 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.

“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,” https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/ensure-that-farmers-receive-a-fair-living-wage-by-jerry-pennick-heather-gray/

“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.  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2UY2jXvYfM&index=14&list=PLA1E706EFA90D1767 ) This is, (I must admit to qualify my thesis,) as 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.)   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.” (Same link as previous.)

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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