The Last Farm Crisis

The Last Farm Crisis

In the final triumph of free-market capitalism, farmers will become serfs.


The New Politics of Food

The contemporary triumph of free-market capitalism has revealed to farmers, if not to other Americans, the bitter last act in this drama. Farmers can see themselves being reduced from their mythological status as independent producers to a subservient and vulnerable role as sharecroppers or franchisees. The control of food production, both livestock and crops, is being consolidated not by the government but by a handful of giant corporations. While farmers and ranchers suffered three years of severely depressed prices at the close of the 1990s, the corporations enjoyed soaring profits from the same line of goods. Growers are surrounded now on both sides–facing concentrated market power not only from the companies that buy their crops and animals but also from the firms that sell them essential inputs like seeds and fertilizer. In the final act of unfettered capitalism, the free market itself is destroyed.

In farm country these developments are often described, with irony, as America’s top-down version of collectivization. “It’s interesting,” said James Horne, who leads an Oklahoma center for sustainable agriculture. “Our system of support payments for the farmers survived about as long as the Soviet system did, around seventy years. Now, here in the United States we’re doing exactly what the Russians are undoing in their agriculture. They’re decentralizing and we’re centralizing.”

Farmers tend to express the point more pungently. “We’re in a death struggle out here, and we’re getting our butts kicked,” said Fred Stokes, a former career Army officer who retired to raise cattle in his home state of Mississippi. Stokes calls himself a Reagan Republican, but frequently begins a statement by saying, “Now, I’m not a socialist but…”

“The thing that bothers me most is the Big Brother aspect of this deal,” he said. “It’s clear the government is more concerned with mining big profits for these corporations than it is with food security or family farmers. It’s all about more money for a handful of guys who will be the elites. The rest of us wind up swinging machetes. You talk about feudalism. This thing makes farmers indentured on their own land; they’re going to be the new serfs.”

The media’s usual take on this new farm crisis is a tearjerk feature story that begins with a worried farm couple poring over bills at the kitchen table, children crying in the background; and it closes with a romantic elegy for Jefferson’s doomed yeomanry. Too bad, but that’s the price of progress, end of story. I intend to skip over the pathos of farm families, widespread though it is, and focus instead on the intricate economics of monopoly power and why collectivized agriculture promises ruinous social consequences for the rest of us. Farming, as an industry, is inescapably different from other sectors–since weather is always a big wild card in production–but the patterns of concentration and control in food production provide a visible primer for what’s also been under way in the larger economy. The same great shifts in structure and market domination are fast forming in finance and banking, telecommunications, media and other sectors. The much-celebrated entrepreneurial spirit is steadily neutered–“rationalized,” the players would say–by the same rush of mergers, acquisitions and “strategic alliances” among supposed rivals. (See Adam Smith on how businessmen always yearn to escape from price competition through collusion.)

Some farmers and ranchers are mobilizing for a last stand–those at least who haven’t been thoroughly demoralized by recurring crises during the past twenty years. But this time, they recognize that farm rebellion is bound to fail unless they can persuade city folks–consumers, environmentalists, church activists and humanists, even animal rights advocates–that this political struggle involves much more than saving the family farm. Its purpose is also restoring the promise of safe and wholesome food, protecting consumers from monopoly pricing and stopping techno-agriculture’s harsh new methods for abusing the environment as well as animals. “To win this thing–and we’re way behind–we’ve got to connect with the general public and let them know they’ve got a dog in this fight,” Stokes explained.

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 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.

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 (, 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.”

The Vanishing Market

Let’s name some names. The dominating leaders in grain trade and processing: Cargill (which swallowed Continental, the second-largest grain trader), Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), ConAgra. Beefpacking: IBP, ConAgra, Cargill (as owner of Excel). Cattle feedlots: Cargill, Cactus Feeders, ConAgra. Pork processing: Smithfield, IBP, ConAgra, Cargill. Hog growers: Smithfield (the largest pork processor has bought the largest and second-largest hog producers, Murphy Family Farms and Carroll’s Foods), Cargill, Seaboard. Biotech and seeds: Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer, Novartis, Aventis. Supermarkets: Kroger, Albertson’s, Safeway, AHOLD (Giant), Winn-Dixie, Wal-Mart.

As the repeated names suggest, a few far-flung firms are positioned on many sides of the market at once and, indeed, are incestuously connected through a dizzying galaxy of “strategic alliances” and cross-ownership. Smithfield, the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor, recently bought a 6.3 percent stake in its putative rival, IBP, the second-largest pork processor. ADM already owned a 12.2 percent share of IBP. This cross-ownership will continue, as IBP itself is to be acquired in a friendly takeover by the Wall Street brokerage firm Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (which was recently bought by Credit Suisse First Boston). Some analysts are watching to see if Smithfield makes a rival bid for the meatpacking giant. Cargill and Monsanto have fashioned a labyrinth of joint ventures that runs from fertilizer and seeds to grain and raising cattle, hogs, turkeys and chickens, then on to the slaughterhouses.

Sector by sector, four firms control 82 percent of beefpacking, 75 percent of hogs and sheep, and half of chickens. Major supermarket chains are now concentrated regionally, though not nationally. Four firms hold 74 percent of market control in ninety-four large cities; experts anticipate a new merger wave that could swiftly increase that percentage while doubling the four firms’ overall national concentration up to 60 percent. And so on. As antitrust theory would predict, this kind of market leverage ought to give companies a pricing advantage over farmers and ranchers, and it has, according to Wisconsin law professor Peter Carstensen. The spread between prices paid for livestock and the wholesale price of meat has widened in the past few years by 52 percent for pork and 24 percent for beef, he reported.

Yet these extraordinary levels of concentration unfolded without government opposition. The consolidation quickened after Ronald Reagan’s antitrust division at the Justice Department swept away the old rules and thresholds for opposing mergers and takeovers. Reagan’s lawyers effectively gutted the theory with a narrow laissez-faire interpretation that declared bigness no longer a problem if it could not be proven, in advance, to distort consumer prices. Cheap food was consecrated as the only issue that matters to the public. The Clinton Administration, notwithstanding its activism against Microsoft, has been generally passive on big mergers of all kinds and nearly as pliant as the Reaganites were (among leading seed companies, sixty-eight acquisitions occurred between 1995 and 1998). Consumers may judge for themselves whether they have benefited at the checkout counter.

The disadvantage for farmers was compounded greatly as the companies moved aggressively into vertical integration–acquiring top-to-bottom elements in the chain of production. Owning feedlots or signing output contracts with individual farmers for poultry, hogs, cattle and, in some instances, grain and soybeans has given the processing companies their own “captive supplies.” Their privately held stores of livestock mean giants like IBP no longer have to rely on auction-price purchases in the open market for most of their supply. In fact, according to farmers, the companies regularly deploy this leverage to depress market prices for the independent producers.

Such practices are ostensibly illegal, and the Agriculture Department has belatedly promised to look into them. Mike Callicrate, a feedlot owner in St. Francis, Kansas, has filed a class-action damage suit against IBP on behalf of cattlemen, one of a number of promising legal challenges under way. “Captive supplies are just devastating to the cash market,” Callicrate explained. “IBP would come to your feedyard and bid you a very low price–a bid not to buy, we call it–because they are just searching around for the weakest cattleman. Who needs to sell today? Of course, they intimidate him too, by saying, ‘If you don’t take this price today, we’re not going to buy your cattle three weeks from now.’ When he does take the low price, the word goes out instantly and everyone else gets nervous. Then IBP takes the price down further because they don’t need the cattle right now; they’ve already got their own supply [in feedlots or under contract]. What’s their motivation? They just want cattle to be available at lower prices when they do want to buy. You’ve got a very well organized buyer dealing with very disorganized sellers.”

The final blow to small producers came in 1996, with enactment of the Freedom to Farm Act, the law intended to phase out the federal government’s price-support payments and production-restraint mechanisms (better known among farmers now as the “Freedom to Fail” Act). The Clinton Administration, much as it did in welfare reform, made common cause with Republican ideologues to repeal a New Deal landmark. The premise was that market forces, once liberated from the Feds, would gradually reconcile supply and demand in farm output, mainly by persuading many marginal farmers to get out of the business, thereby insuring decent prices for those who survive. The law failed utterly to do either. As surpluses and collapsing prices engulfed farm states, politicians from both parties blinked. Instead of gradually reducing the federal support payments (supposedly to zero after seven years), the public’s subsidy for farmers has doubled and tripled in size–$16 billion in 1998, $23 billion last year–as Congress repeatedly enacted “emergency” relief measures. With that great trauma, the last act for agriculture began to unfold [see Dave Hage, “Bitter Harvest,” October 11, 1999].

Among the consequences, the capital-intensive treadmill for farmers sped up, and they became even more eager to embrace whatever innovation promised to boost returns. Just as farm prices were cratering, Monsanto and others began promoting genetically altered seeds for corn and soybeans with cost-cutting promises, and this new technology swept the landscape. “These farmers are so desperate for profitability,” Fred Stokes said, “they grab whatever is offered to them. Offering GM seeds is like selling them a bag of cocaine.” His grain-growing colleagues in the Organization for Competitive Markets affirm that they have seen no bottom-line benefits from GM seeds. As agricultural experience has long demonstrated, the first farmers to adopt new production technologies will enjoy higher returns, but the effect soon wears off when everyone is using the same stuff. The result is still higher yields and greater productive capacity–more surpluses than the market can absorb.

Exports, as many farmers have figured out, are not going to save them. The logic promoted by agribusiness and the Agriculture Department–not to mention global-trade boosters in and out of government–was that greater efficiency would allow lower prices on US crop exports and thus give US farmers the edge to grab market share from other grain-growing nations. Roughly the opposite has occurred during the past thirty years, despite the inflated promises that accompany each new trade agreement (most recently with China). Agricultural economist Daryll Ray of the University of Tennessee has documented a stair-step decline in the US share of global trade in corn, soybeans and wheat, starting in the 1970s. “What the past fifteen years have taught us is that lower crop prices do not cause competing exporters, including Canada, the European Union, Brazil, Argentina and Australia, to fold up shop and give the United States their market share,” Ray explained. “When US prices drop, our competitors quickly lower their export prices as well.” Importing countries, he added, do not increase their food purchases significantly when supplies are plentiful and prices lower. Nations, like people, buy what they need, but they do not eat twice as much just because the food is cheap.

The more momentous consequence of the price collapse is that in the past few years it drove many more farmers into accepting the status of contract producers–growing crops or livestock under fixed-price contracts with the corporations. Richard Levins, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota, said these production contracts covered about $60 billion by 1997, almost one-third of farm-level crop and livestock sales, and have expanded greatly since. Mainstream authorities regard supply contracting as the future. “Old MacDonald’s farm is being absorbed into what might be called New McDonald’s Farms,” Levins observed. In other words, farming begins to resemble a fast-food franchise to run a burger joint or an auto dealership. The operator buys the supplies and equipment from the brand-name company and produces to its uniform specifications. “They are going to put cattle in buildings, too,” Levins predicted. “It’s not there yet, but cattle will be raised indoors eventually.”

While contract status will effectively end the entrepreneurial culture in farming, it also ostensibly frees small producers from the harrowing instabilities of market prices. Or does it? Farmers foresee that the supposed stability of contract farming will actually leave them utterly dependent on the handful of agribusiness firms and without alternatives. Neil Harl, a veteran agricultural economist from Iowa State University, explained: “Let’s say we’re down to two huge hog-slaughtering firms, and each is 90 percent vertically integrated. The new contract [offered to a hog-factory operator] is considerably less attractive than the expiring contract. The producer is told, Take or leave it. If the closest competitive option for hogs is 900 miles away–and is also heavily integrated–clearly a producer in that situation is likely to be squeezed.”

Agriculture’s emerging pattern of organization begins to resemble what is under way in other major sectors, including globalized manufacturing. The model is no longer the huge industrial behemoth but the “virtual corporation” that owns very little in hard capital assets itself–that is, factories–but organizes a complex, floating network of affiliated producers and subcontractors who adhere to its brand standards–think of Nike. One can predict that the consolidated food industry will likely respond to periods of slack demand in the same way the auto industry or shoe manufacturers do–dropping subcontractors, closing factories, discarding workers.

The deeper implications are about power, as Jeremy Rifkin explains in The Age of Access. If there is no other place for smaller producers to sell, then access to the network becomes the crucial privilege. And who exactly controls the access? Or has the power to expel and punish weaker partners? This is among the veils that a strong new antitrust doctrine must look behind.

Farmers at long last will find themselves in the very same predicament that confronted industrial workers in other sectors 100 years ago. Harl believes that, unthinkable as it sounds, farmers must sooner or later pursue labor’s remedy–collective action–by organizing unions that restore their bargaining power and by creating producer cooperatives large enough to compete with the big guys. “There was stability in Russia,” Harl mused. “Russian agriculture was stable because the center told everyone what to do. And we will get stability if Cargill tells us what to do. But is that what Americans want?”

Maybe they do. Most consumers have seemed at least indifferent. Why cry for small farmers, a New York Times feature asked, when modern consolidations are wiping out so many other local enterprises, from independent bookstores to neighborhood groceries? But aside from the questions of food quality and safety or social equity, there is another threat that consumers might ponder: If this nexus of collaborating corporations acquires the market power to control total farm output and stabilize prices, then it will also have the power to inflate food prices on behalf of greater profit. In the last act, cheap food disappears right along with the free market.

Who Pays for Fast Food?

The short answer is nearly everyone, one way or another, even those who have never encountered a Big Mac or extra-crispy KFC. The economies of scale gained from bigness do matter, but only up to a point. The real source of efficiency in consolidated agribusiness is a long-familiar operating principle of capitalist enterprise–push the true costs of production off the company’s balance sheet and onto someone else. “They maintain their profitability by shifting costs off on the community,” said William Weida, an economist at Colorado College who counsels many grassroots groups opposing hog factories. “You don’t put in a proper lagoon. The costs of dealing with animal waste are avoided by the owners and shifted to the surrounding population as health problems, traffic, social problems and pollution–odors, chemicals and pathogens in air or water. You don’t pay the worker more than you absolutely have to. You do take advantage of every public subsidy available. But the biggest cost issue is that hogs are a lot like humans and are sensitive to disease. That means the life of these projects is only about twelve years because the buildings become so contaminated they can’t use them any longer. Too many hogs die. Then they pick up and leave, and the community is stuck with the damage.”

Oddly enough, one of the government’s most vigorous champions of supply-contract farming and the hog-factory system is the Federal Reserve, which is supposed to regulate money and credit, not agriculture. Its Center for the Study of Rural America at the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank last spring sponsored a conference on rural economic development titled “Beyond Agriculture.” Mark Drabenstott, the center’s director, has relentlessly promoted the factory concept as the inevitable wave of the future and argues that corporate consolidation allows rural communities to put aside farm issues so they can pursue brighter prospects for development.

One speaker at the Fed conference, an Italian official from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, suggested that small farmers may still be needed on the land, if only to protect the lovely landscape. “It is true in Tuscany,” Mario Pezzini allowed, “that, if you remove all the olive trees, the beauty of the region will be destroyed.”

A much grimmer portrait of the future was described by Professor Thomas Johnson, an agricultural economist from Missouri. Johnson warned the Fed conference of the emerging specter of “isolated rural communities” where most of the large factory farms and packinghouses are located. The food factories will operate with the most advanced technologies, yet local public services, especially education, will be minimal. Incomes will be significantly lower, populations stable or declining, the tax base weak and eroding. “These communities will rival inner cities as the primary destination of international immigrants,” Johnson said. “These immigrants will largely work at close to minimum wages for value-added agricultural processing or other manufacturing firms.” The pattern is already visible in rural backwaters and on Indian reservations–sites chosen by agribusiness on the assumption that very poor people will not object to anything that promises a little income.

In other words, this very sophisticated corporate system for food production is in the process of creating new pockets of poverty across prosperous America–places where people without much income or influence dwell in an environment that is ruined both physically and socially. If you think about history, this is what coal and steel and other emerging manufacturing industries did a century ago, when immigrant workers and others were clustered in coal camps and mill towns. Government is still dealing with the messes those industries left behind, and taxpayers will someday pay for the new ones that agribusiness is generating. In a variety of ways, cheap food assigns its true costs to many unwitting victims.

First, consider the situation of workers. The consolidating packinghouse industry first boosted its “efficiency” by breaking unions and busting down wages, next by drawing hapless immigrant workers into slaughterhouse jobs that were already dirty and dangerous. Then the companies sped up the assembly lines–and the Agriculture Department accommodated high-speed production by “modernizing” its own inspection system. Professor Ronald Cotterill, an antitrust authority at the University of Connecticut’s Food Marketing Policy Center, described current working conditions as “now clearly more dangerous and debilitating than at any time since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle,” in 1906. Some brave workers are rebelling. In Omaha, a joint organizing campaign led by the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Industrial Areas Foundation’s church-based community organization, Omaha Together One Community, has signed up a majority of the workers at the ConAgra beef packinghouse. The workers are demanding union recognition.

Then there is public health. Salmonella poisoning has staged a comeback, thanks to the greater efficiencies in slaughterhouses and meat inspection. Just as the assembly line was sped up for workers, factory farms also speed up the birth-to-slaughter cycle of animals with heavy injections of growth-accelerating antibiotics and hormones. Europeans, fearful of the chemical residues in food, prohibit these practices, and the US government responds by denouncing such concerns as barriers to free trade. No one really knows what the consequences will be for human health. The Organization for Competitive Markets warns: “It is likely that the rapid buildup of pathogens and chemicals in our surface water–much of which is due to the improper handling of animal wastes–will lead to some kind of major disease outbreak or health problems in the next few years.” Health issues include overuse of antibiotics; the emergence of new, antibiotics-resistant pathogens; the effects on children of bovine growth hormone in milk products; and the risk of unintended genetic migrations from biotech seeds. The monarch butterfly, we are informed, may pay the price for GM corn. Government regulators often prove to be unreliable guardians of safe food. In Britain the threat of mad-cow disease was actively kept from the public until people started dying. In the United States, Aventis won EPA approval to sell its GM corn seeds by promising to keep the corn segregated from human consumption, but it went into taco shells.

There’s also the issue of food security. Given the usual abundance of food, it’s unsettling to hear agricultural experts explain how a sudden crisis could occur in the US food supply. According to William Heffernan of Missouri, “Biotechnology eliminates diversity, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what results from the homogenization of breeds, the entropy of the gene pool, the concentration of production that generates new pathogens.” He adds, “The control of the animal genetics pool is concentrating, and the genetic base for domestic animals is narrowing. For example, more than 90 percent of all commercially produced turkeys in the world come from three breeding flocks. The system is ripe for the evolution of a new strain of avian flu for which these birds have no resistance. Similar concerns exist in hogs, chickens and dairy-cattle genetics.” Food security may also be threatened by the fragile economic condition of producers and extreme price swings. “If we had two droughts in a row like 1988,” Daryll Ray of Tennessee warned, “we would see the farmers slaughtering their animals and we would have food shortages.”

And finally there is the cruel treatment of animals. In slaughterhouses, Missouri hog farmer Keith Mudd told me, the line moves so fast that on occasion workers are sawing the legs off an animal that is not yet dead (anyone who doubts this should read Gail Eisnitz’s exposé, Slaughterhouse). The Humane Farming Association, based in San Rafael, California, circulates a film on hog factories that provides stomach-turning glimpses inside the production system–sows dead or dying, chewing frantically on the bars and metal flooring because they have been made psychotic by close confinement, where they cannot root or even turn around. Their piglets are removed soon after birth and the sows are swiftly reimpregnated–high-speed birthing that continues until, sore and exhausted, the animal drops. The film also shows hog production in Sweden, where growth-accelerating antibiotics are forbidden by law and the animals are raised and fattened in natural settings and normal routines. Animal-rights advocates remind us of this admonition: The ways in which people treat animals will be reflected in how people relate to one another.

Tractors and Tree-Huggers Unite!

State Senator Paul Muegge from Tonkawa, Oklahoma, a grain and livestock farmer who chairs the State Senate’s agriculture committee, joked about his odd reputation in Oklahoma politics. “I’m known as a wacko tree-hugger myself,” he admitted. “Me and a friend figured out awhile back we can’t beat these tree-huggers; they’re everywhere. So we started talking to them, and within a year we got some things worked out. We had alliances with family farmers and environmentalists on the hog-waste issue, and that coalition simply swept over the state.” The white-haired Muegge is among those who encouraged the Organization for Competitive Markets to initiate the broader conversation on food.

The OCM vision statement doesn’t attempt to strategize on the politics, but it lays out the big picture in persuasive detail and proposes some ambitious goals. Some of them are:

§ Reinvigorating antitrust enforcement. If the Justice Department remains passive, state governments and private lawsuits can lead the way. Litigation should not only explore the breakup of existing consolidations but also develop a broader antitrust doctrine that encompasses producer prices and the antisocial consequences of monopoly power.

§ Stabilizing the production system. OCM proposes a global food reserve, coordinated with other major grain-producing nations, that can reduce the highs and lows of price swings without re-establishing the old price-support system. Food reserves would also serve as the nation’s “rainy-day fund,” protecting against food-supply risks from weather or genetic catastrophes.

§ A whole-food system. By involving consumers, rich and poor, in agriculture policy, the government would change directions fundamentally. Instead of subsidizing the industrialized system, public funds would go to farmers who are making the difficult transition to alternative farming, which is both sustainable and humane but which has lower yields. Agricultural research, including at some land-grant universities now corrupted by corporate sponsors, would refocus on social objectives. Campaigns to require honest food labeling and to eliminate dangerous working conditions and antibiotics would also be obvious priorities.

No one should have any illusions about how difficult it will be to reform our current food system–or how hard it is for country folks and city folks to put aside their usual differences and learn to do politics on the same page. Still, as Tom Linzey says, the food system has to change for our own good and for the future’s. The farmers, like Fred Stokes and Paul Muegge, who have started the conversation are opening a door to new politics, brushing aside old stereotypes that divide the millions of Americans who ought to be allies. If kindred spirits will return the favor, something important–maybe even powerful–could unfold.

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