Herald and Journal, March 13, 2000

Farm forum delves into agricultural crisis

By Luis Puga

Farmers spent three hours discussing many facets of the farm crisis with a panel made up of a congressman, a National Farmers Organization (NFO) director, a Farm Service Agency (FSA) director, and a local organic farmer March 4 in Waverly.

The forum, presented by the Social Justice Committee from St. Mary's Catholic Church, Waverly saw the KC Hall full of farmers and others who wanted to express their concerns.

Each panelist was given an opportunity for a brief introduction. Congressman David Minge called the Freedom to Farm Bill a tragic failure because the safety net for producers was removed and now prices are very low.

He noted the only support for farmers are crop insurance and dairy price supports, and the latter is mitigated by dairy prices that are too low to be of any help.

Minge mentioned 1999's bumper crop and emergency legislation passed to provide assistance to farmers as factors which kept many producers alive last year. He said that if such legislation is needed in 2000, he would like to see that money invested in programs instead of, in part, given to producers who may not need assistance, referring to larger farms.

Of the Farm Bill, he said it was not likely that it would be rewritten in 2000. He said that he hoped it would be, but that the politics of the situation would make it a "long shot."

Kevin Berquist, executive director of FSA in Wright County, discussed the number of dollars his office, which is in charge of administering a number of farmer's programs, has doled out to producers.

He noted that over a one year period beginning Oct. 1, 1998, about $9.2 million was paid directly to farmers in Wright County. On top of that, $8 million was given in commodity loans by the federal government to the county.

"That tells you where the prices are, and how poorly the farms are doing," said Berquist.

He also took a moment to thank the producers for their patience throughout the crisis.

Organic farmer Greg Reynolds, who farms 80 acres near Delano, said he worked 20 years to afford a farm. He also joked that had he grown up on a farm, he would have known better than to start one.

Reynolds noted that his expertise is in marketing and sales, and it was those two areas that made his operation possible. Reynolds, who mostly grows organic vegetables, said the solution for farmers is not going to come from the government, but from themselves.

He suggested direct marketing to the consumer, as he does to Twin Cities' co-op grocery stores and restaurants.

In his mind, the days of growing one large crop, such as corn, that all producers are growing, is over. He suggested smaller crops aimed at consumer demands.

Of all the speakers, Joe Neaton, NFO Director, took the strongest line by issuing a statement from a 1960 report, "An Adaptive Program for Agriculture."

The report indicated that a possible strategy for agriculture in the United States was to minimize the number of producers, which Neaton implied is a practice still used today.

Later, Minge pointed out that the report was not a government publication, but rather a report from a private committee.

Still, Neaton encouraged farmers to take the issue into their own hands and be the solution to their own problem. Of large agri-businesses, he said that they cannot be blamed for their profit motive and desire to give a farmer the cheapest price.

Of the notion that farmers are overproducing, he said that if corn production was halted, there would only be 52 days of corn left for the nation. For wheat, it would be only 150 days, he said.

He said that neither was an adequate inventory. He also noted that there is hunger around the world, and, therefore a market for farmers' products.

Neaton also discussed dairy farming. He noted that shortly before the meeting, he had heard that the price of milk had dropped another 50 cents to $9.54 per hundred weight. He noted that had that price kept up with inflation, it would be $17.

Of pork and beef, he said the country uses more than it actually produces, relying on imports to make up the difference. He said that farmers often see how much is produced, but should look at figures that show how much product is consumed.

Neaton said, "The power is in your production," encouraging farmers to organize to find the best price.

He said that, essentially, farmers are not getting their fair share of the food dollar, despite the fact that consumers are paying more for food. He noted with all the agri-business mergers, farmers can't hope to win against large companies unless they work together.

Neaton finished with strong words, noting that banding together would not be easy. He added that conditions today are worse than during the Great Depression and that, today, "economic slavery is a fact of life."

His comments drew applause from the audience.

Questions

The first question came from Dick Borrell, chair of the Wright County Soil and Water Conservation District, who asked Minge to defend farm programs which Borrell believed aided large corporate farmers and were "killing" family farmers.

Minge said he didn't know if farmers would or would not have been better off without federal farm programs.

He did say that at the turn of the century, there were no federal farm programs, prices were volatile and the nation was going through an agricultural depression. He also felt the current situation has not reached the conditions of the Great Depression.

Minge felt that Minnesota is unique with its large percentage of small farms, which means the majority of the country is orientated to large operations, and legislation has reflected that. He said that such large operations have "a direct pipeline to the federal treasury."

Later, on the same subject, he noted that his own efforts to propose anti-trust legislation had failed in congress 2 to 1.

"It went down in flames," he said.

Neaton reiterated his point that farmers must look to themselves, not the federal government. He noted that the nation is losing three farms a day, and that the agriculture has an inherent duality: agri-business and production. It is the production that is going through the crisis.

One audience member questioned why a surplus in agriculture is a minus for producers, when a surplus at a car dealership was considered an inventory and a plus.

Minge said it was the nature of the market system, and added that products, such as milk, are perishable and costly to keep as an inventory. He also pointed to the growth of co-ops in the dairy sector, saying that farmers are not reaping the benefits of that movement.

Neaton noted that co-ops are examples of agri-business and production differences. He said that co-ops have a business and a farm side, and ensuring that the business side makes money may conflict with the producers' best interest.

Of his own organization, NFO, he said it was not involved in processing and that ownership of the product remained with the producer.

Reynolds interjected that he does his own processing and said, "You don't have to put it on a truck."

One question concerned organic and GMO (genetically modified organism) labeling and whether any legislation would be made on either issue. Minge said that the last labeling proposed received 250,000 comments, and hoped that new efforts would represent consumers' and producers' desires.

Since the forum, Agricultural Secretary Dan Glickman has announced that a new labeling standard had been proposed, with stricter guidelines for what is and is not considered organic. The labeling excludes products which use GMO as organic, including animals fed with genetically modified feed.

Reynolds said that part of the problem is not just labeling, but the consumer orientation to "fast food." He stated simply, "People don't cook any more."

He noted that beyond just organic labeling, there is also a movement to create a sustainable labeling, that indicates environmental safety in production. Overall, he said, there is a real need for good food.

Later, a day care operator noted that she would like to feed her kids better food, but there are no programs available to help her afford such food. She also wondered how consumers in general, despite wanting good food, could afford the expense if gas prices were so high.

Another audience member suggested a tax credit for consumers who buy organic food.

Minge responded positively to the idea of a credit for those who buy organic food. He noted the idea would still have to be worked on, worrying that without some sort of limit, it would only benefit those with a higher income.

Of gas prices, he suggested that farmers do something similar to that which the world's oil producers have done. He said the direction of such a "food cartel" would not be to gouge people with high prices, but to stabilize prices.

A number of other issues were also covered at the forum. Included in the discussion were concerns over new feedlot regulations, a need for mandatory price reporting, cross pollination of crops, and more.

The most telling discussion came at the end of the meeting as a young would-be farmer approached the panelist with his desire to get into agriculture.

He said that he cannot afford any land and asked whether programs are available to help him get started. However, mixed in with the young man's comments on how he would "love" to be a farmer, was a recognition that he had been discouraged from entering into production. That discouragement came from other farmers.


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