The Common Good
January 2012

Grassroots on the Farm

by Richard Oswald | January 2012

Populism sprouts again among many family farmers.

DESPITE DECLINING populations, rural America still has plenty of opinions. They’re out there, plentiful and ripe as new potatoes—all it takes is some digging.

In the old days, agrarians held the pot and populists stirred. Rural populations made up the nation’s majority. But we’ve lost ground: Today’s grassroots minority are seen by corporations as one cook too many, spoiling the company stew.

Farm subsidies encompass five major crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton. In the 1930s, populist farmers supported subsidies in FDR’s New Deal because they kept farmers on the farm. It was the easiest fix. But farm bills of old were aimed at average farmers: a husband and wife raising a family on the land. It was about average incomes, average acreages. Average farmers grew both crops and livestock. When grains were cheap, average farmers converted them to meat, milk, and eggs. If prices for those dropped, family farmers cut back.

Everything was about supply and demand—life and survival. Nothing was about making a killing on food.

All that began to change as corporate agriculture promoted grain exports, and companies such as Continental Grain began to raise their own livestock—a precursor to packer-owned livestock, contract production, and packer-controlled livestock markets.

In the 1970s, populists farmers came to be viewed as radicals when they protested anti-family-farm policy by driving tractors to Washington, D.C. They lost the public opinion battle as tractors rutted the National Mall when the government blocked them in with garbage trucks and buses. Some farmers camped there all winter. News coverage failed to note that, come spring, the farmers smoothed and reseeded the Mall before they left.

With succeeding generations more removed from their rural roots, U.S. farm policies began rewarding large farms and corporate America. The anti-populist 1996 Farm Bill is responsible for higher land costs and the consolidation of farms because it allowed practically unlimited subsidized profits: A few big farmers could make a killing. That’s what corporations want most, because it gives them a plentiful supply of cheap raw commodities they can refine into food.

In contrast, new rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) would stop meatpacker monopolies from shifting fair markets for livestock—markets in which it is possible for family farmers to compete—to corporate-dominated contract production. Thousands of grassroots populists commented in favor of such rules during hearings in 2010. Now the Obama administration has delayed implementing GIPSA rules, even though it had said they were a priority.

Family farm success is measured in terms of growing seasons and succeeding generations. As corporations increase their domination over the worldwide food supply, their success is measured by consolidation and control, and their tactics are making things more difficult for small farmers, especially those just starting out. Today’s average U.S. farmer is 57 years old. Young beginning farmers are scarce as hen’s teeth.

With food-borne illness on the rise, do corporate ends, focused on maximizing profits, justify the means? What’s at issue isn’t only the cost of corporate monopolies in terms of price and profits, but also transparency and food ethics. Corporations are winning.

That’s why America’s ethical family farm populists are struggling not to die on the vine.

Richard Oswald is president of the Missouri Farmers Union and blogs for

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