Farm Horizons, May 2001

The changing menu from field to fork

By Beth E. Waterhouse

"A quiet revolution is going on virtually unnoticed by the vast majority of American citizens. America's food production system is literally being captured by the corporate capital of multi-national companies."

These words begin the letter of invitation to an early April event in Watertown, and were penned by Robert Arndt, president of Minnesota chapter of the National Farmers Organization

About 200 people farmers and concerned citizens attended the meeting, plus Sen. Mark Dayton and his ag representative.

"People know something is wrong, but then they go to the grocery store and there's food enough for everybody," Arndt said.

He said key questions abound:

Who gets the wealth from production agriculture?

Who gets the food?

Who pays the taxes?

And what happens to land values?

Arndt suggested the U.S. needs a strategic food reserve policy. He showed the figures stating that the world uses over 99 percent of its corn and more than 100 percent of its wheat, demonstrating that food reserves are not at the level of public understanding.

The program also featured presentations by Dr. Richard Levins, economist at the University of Minnesota, and Dr. Bill Heffernan of University of Missouri.

Levins pointed out that Wal-Mart has become the number-two Fortune 500 company, and he spoke of dairy concentration, how management is leaving the farm, and how 25 percent of the hogs raised in Minnesota are already owned off the farm.

"If farmers are not making management decisions, who is?" asked Levins. And he went on to say that two out of three acres in Minnesota are owned by someone not in farming.

He expressed that leveling the playing field is not enough.

"We must re-evaluate acting together, learn from the unions," he said; when economic power is concentrated, others must work together.

Heffernan spoke about the global system of corporate food production: a handful of companies monopolize the grain trade, and four firms control 50 percent of beef processing.

Livestock farming is quickly becoming a system of "production contracts" beginning with poultry. Seed stock is in danger of being controlled by the biotech companies. And the top five grocery retailers in the US control 42 percent of the market.

This is production agriculture, from the genetic material to the table.

Heffernan outlined both "vertical integration" where the ownership of a product from genetic material to the table is in the hands of one entity and "horizontal integration" which is the Wal-Mart story.

Milk was another difficult scenario, with fewer than than 80,000 dairy farmers remaining in the U.S., and a system reflecting the same story of concentrated globalized production and marketing.

The consumer can no longer tell who's who by the brand names.

Phillip Morris owns Kraft Foods, Nestle owns Carnation, Suiza just bought Bordens, and things change fast in the corporate ownership of entities in the food system or in the creation of subsidiary companies.

"We are moving the charge of providing food for the people over to corporations that consider profit and shareholder dividends as their bottom line," Heffernan said.

One particularly strong overhead displayed on the screen by Heffernan asked, "Do we need U.S. farmers?"

By that time he had the attention of those in the gymnasium. He unraveled the issues of the ethics of land use and young people coming into farming.

"Food," said Heffernan, "is going to be a lightning rod issue when we speak of alternatives to globalization."

He reminded us that food and farming was a coalescing issue in Seattle at the World Trade Organization meetings.

Is all this an inevitable swing to corporate ownership?

Most agreed that, no, the system was put in place by humans and can be changed by humans.

It is a major social movement challenging all of this.

Bernard Brommer, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said farmers need to "make sure your neighbors succeed also.

"Farmers seem to be under the delusion that they are a tough John Wayne type and don't need to organize. Just tough it out," he said.

"Where is the rage?" he asked.

Brommer welcomed the opportunity for labor to work more closely with the family farmer, calling solidarity a fundamental value. He reminded that the market takes care of everything, but ignores the people.

Brommer encouraged the group to support the political system and organize.

Individuals from the group then spoke under the facilitation of Carmen Fernholz, organic farmer and hog farmer from Madison, Minn.

He proposed creating a National Food Day like Earth Day, 1970. Then he facilitated an open discussion of many sides of the issues.

Farm bailouts, export markets, defining progress or affluence, and living people's values all were discussed with honesty and care.

Dave Frederickson, head of the Minnesota Farmers Union, called for a coalition with the faith community as well as education and progressive legislative work.

When all was said and done, a small group volunteered to go the next step to create materials that would help educate farmers, citizens, consumers, politicians, and institutions about these issues.

It was suggested that a vision be clarified, naming the real value of farmers on the land. Folks stood up to volunteer to take this to the next step. The NFO will facilitate this happening.

If you are interested in getting involved you may contact Carmen Fernholz at (320) 598-3010 or e-mail at

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