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The Last Farm Crisis | The Nation

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The Last Farm Crisis

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Toward that end, the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), an interstate group of farmers, ranchers, political leaders and professionals that Stokes heads, assembled an unusual cross-section of kindred spirits at a church retreat center in Parkville, Missouri, a few months ago. Around the conference table for three days, sharing expertise and background papers, were agricultural economists from major land-grant universities in the Midwest and South, antitrust experts from law school faculties, rural sociologists and community advocates, environmentalists and leading critics of such notorious practices and products as hog factories and genetically manipulated seeds. They produced a comprehensive "vision statement" on how Americans might seek to replace industrialized agriculture with a "whole-food system" that incorporates humane values and quality, that moves farm economics away from high-tech, capital-intensive bigness and toward the diversity that is possible if smaller farms survive. Their report and papers (available at www.competitivemarkets.com) provide an intellectual starting point for serious conversation about food between city and countryside--the threads that might become fabric for a political alliance that could have far more strength than embattled farmers alone. The warm, serious spirit of the Parkville gathering reminded one of Seattle, where the turtles and Teamsters discovered their mutual self-interest.

About the Author

William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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This political initiative, however, raises an ironic banner for left-liberal social reformers because it calls them to rally on behalf of "competitive markets." That may seem a wrenching twist for many who have devoted their political energies in recent decades to holding back the market ideology's relentless encroachment on public space and public values, and to fighting the many battles over deregulation and privatization. Nevertheless, if people's social values are to prevail in this fight, it has to begin by defending the marketplace against the collusive power of emerging monopolies. Aroused citizens must likewise reawaken government and push it to confront this new landscape of concentrated economic power. The legal doctrine called antitrust got its name from oil, banking and many other "trusts" 100 years ago--combines that pursued the same brazen impulse to strangle free markets and control prices to the injury of smaller competitors and the public. A century ago, the Populists and Progressive reformers understood the centrality of free exchange of goods, honest pricing and markets free of collusion to the vitality of democracy and individual freedom. This generation has to relearn the economics. Then it must invent a robust new vision that challenges the present circumstances of globalizing market power.

In fact, a feisty new politics is already bubbling up around the nation, based on this same understanding. In Wyoming and the northern plains, citizen activists are forcing passage of laws to control the megafarms. The Western Organization of Resource Councils includes six state councils, from Idaho to the Dakotas, that unite independent ranchers with environmentalists against the big guys. In North Carolina angry citizens were already confronting the hog factories that pollute coastal rivers and estuaries before Hurricane Floyd came along and unleashed ruinous tides of manure overflowing from the hog-farm lagoons. In dozens of states the activists are also organizing direct-marketing devices that will sustain smaller farmers: open-air produce markets, cattle ranchers selling grass-fed beef to consumers by subscription orders and other conduits that boost farm incomes by cutting out agribusiness. These efforts seem frail alongside the corporations, but the big guys are no longer dismissing organic-food marketing, as they did a generation ago.

Rita Wilhelm, a graphic designer and mother of three from Annville, Pennsylvania, seems typical of the grassroots action. She was alarmed when a hog factory was built down the road--9,200 animals clustered in barns on 120 acres, with manure lagoons and an overpowering stench. "I grew up in the country," Wilhelm said, "but this is far beyond making a living--this is making a killing." She and neighbors--after discovering that Republican Governor Tom Ridge was already on the other side, weakening environmental regulation to attract these strange new factories--organized Pennsylvanians for Responsible Agriculture, which now connects similar activists in thirty-nine groups across seventeen counties. Her local colleagues include farmers, an environmental engineer, even two township supervisors.

Their primary issues are not only the destruction of water supplies and clean air but also unsafe food. "If you're going to eat synthetically produced food with all the chemicals and everything, you're going to get that out of it, and now that's showing up in health problems," Wilhelm said. The group's new website (www.pfra.org), she hopes, will help local farmers to find direct customers for their free-range beef, pork and poultry. With help from a young environmental lawyer, Thomas Linzey from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, the group has lobbied county and township boards to enact an anti-corporate farming ordinance--legislation Linzey borrowed from nine states in the West and Midwest. As president of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, he has promised to defend, for free, the first corporate challenge to these legal barriers that local governments are erecting.

This same story pops up regularly across the nation. The home-grown activists have come to this realization: If there is any hope of liberating the food system from corporate control, they must first help rescue smaller producers from their fate, so they can endure to develop the alternative modes of farming (actually, old farming methods, in many instances) that will deliver food in ways that are both nature-friendly and humane. "I think the conversation changed when we started talking about markets," Linzey observed. "Then you could bring together a much larger group of interests." He added, "We are literally in a war with the agricultural extension offices, because their regulatory system is set up simply to support large, concentrated production."

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