How to Fix Agriculture

The head of the National Family Farm Coalition on what ails farming and what to do about it.

| Fri Apr. 28, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

George Naylor’s father used to tell him a story about taking corn to the Adaza, Iowa, grain elevator in 1933 only to learn that they weren’t buying—at any price. The price had dropped so low, there was no price.

Naylor, president of the National Family Farm Coalition, began farming in 1976, just before the most devastating decade farmers had seen since the Great Depression. The horrors of his own and his father’s day have informed Naylor’s understanding of what currently ails agriculture. Conservatives think the problem is too much government involvement. Progressives blame mammoth agribusinesses with fat lobbying budgets and subsidy programs that favor factory-scale operations. But Naylor and his coalition take a different view, arguing that government should establish a set minimum price for every commodity if we want domestic farmers to stay in business.

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Naylor's analysis is ultimately a critique of the free market. He argues that destructively low prices keep small farmers in poverty or force them out of business altogether while benefiting the agribusinesses that buy commodities; and they also give farmers perverse incentives to grow more of the oversupplied crops—corn and soybeans—that agribusinesses will always buy. Naylor ought to know: He feels compelled to grow corn and soybeans.

This big-picture approach has led the National Family Farm Coalition, with Naylor at its helm, to take on such diverse issues as genetically modified crops, price-fixing, and the corporate consolidation of agriculture. It scored a huge victory against Monsanto last year, when its grassroots campaign persuaded the agricultural giant not to commercialize genetically engineered wheat. The NFFC was also instrumental in prompting the Department of Justice to launch an anti-trust investigation into the Dairy Farmers of America, a group which claims to be a “vertically-integrated and future-focused co-op” but operates more like a cartel.

Naylor’s ultimate goal is to make farming possible again for average folks who want to farm the land their parents did. He thinks farmers who own their land are the best guardians of its ecological balance. Naylor spoke to Mother Jones from his farm near Churdan, Iowa.

MJ: What is your day-to-day work like, both as a farmer and as the head of the National Family Farm Coalition?

GN: Well, I’m really busy on the farm in the spring and in the fall during planting and harvesting, and in the winter I do have to do research and figure out what kind of varieties I’m going to choose, and how to deal with potential pests that are coming down the road. As far as dealing with the National Family Farm Coalition, it seems like I’m glued to my computer monitor most of the time dealing with emails and reading up on what’s going on.

MJ: So you grow corn and soybeans. Why is that?

GN: Because unless I could figure out some niche market where a consumer would be willing to pay me more for what I’m producing, because I’m doing things the environmentally sound way, there really isn’t anything else to grow. The fact is, a lot of fruits and vegetables are being produced with industrial methods and/or cheap labor. Corn and soybeans just happen to be the two crops here in Iowa and in much of the United States that will produce the most protein, carbohydrates and oil. And those two crops in particular are the feedstock for industrialized livestock production and highly processed food manufacturing.

MJ: So is that your market ultimately?

GN: Yeah, sure it is. It all goes up to my local [grain] elevator, and they’ve got people up in the “war room” with a bunch of phones talking to ADM, IDT, Cargill, and a bunch of feedlots, deciding where the corn’s going to go based on their best bid.

MJ: And how does that make you feel as a farmer to know that your stuff is going to these huge industrial farms?

GN: It’s not a good thing. That’s not what farmers ought to be doing. But as agribusiness has taken over more and more of agriculture, a farmer doesn’t really have that many choices.

MJ: Have you tried to get into a niche market?

GN: I haven’t. But I don’t raise any [gentically modified crops]; I would not go there. I have raised some soybeans for a small Japanese company that was processing soybeans here to be made into tofu and soymilk in Japan. And, in my case, I think I actually lost money doing it. I couldn’t plant the variety I’d planted before, because they couldn’t find enough seed of that kind that wasn’t already contaminated with Round-Up Ready, a genetically modified soybean that makes soybeans resistant to Round-Up herbicide. So I went picked out another variety, which I didn’t know anything about. It turned out it was a disaster.

MJ: Why did you have to get the seeds from them?

GN: Because they wanted to control the quality. They don’t dare have any chance of their supply getting contaminated with Round-Up Ready, or the Japanese customers would reject it.

MJ: If you had to identify a few things that are broken in our agricultural system, what would they be?

GN: Well, the number one thing is farm policy that fails to put a floor under farm prices. A farm bill should act much like a minimum wage. The bottom rung of the whole structure is the production of protein, carbohydrates and oil. If farmers aren’t going to get some sort of minimum price for them, they’re going to be out doing whatever they can to produce more of them, which will only make prices lower. But at the same time, when the prices go very low, purchasers of these products—like Cargill, Tyson, ADM and Smithfield—get to buy them very cheap. And then they can feed industrial livestock very cheaply and basically take over most of the livestock production.

MJ: So you think that corporate consolidation and the failure of farm policy to set a bottom price are very much related?

GN: Absolutely, completely.

MJ: What about the argument that being able to produce livestock cheaply benefits the consumer?

GN: Well, if you look at a graph of what consumers pay and what farmers get, there’s a huge divergence. What consumers pay is on an inexorable upward trend [whereas] farmers’ prices have been flat. The big beneficiaries are the industrial producers and the processors and the retailers. Consumers—if they benefit at all from cheaper stock prices—lose a whole lot in terms of economic opportunity in places other than huge cities, and also environmentally because the way the crops are being produced is so detrimental to the land and the water and the air, and to the type of food that we eat.

MJ: I know another thing that people talk about as being a major problem with our agricultural system is monoculture. And it sounds like you’re making a connection between monoculture and the low prices, too.

GN: Absolutely. Once you get down to the level where the main things the industrial food system needs is just simply carbohydrates, protein and oil, they don’t even really care what crops you raise to produce them. So if you’re in an area where you can raise corn and soybeans, it ends up that’s all that’s raised because those are the two crops that produce the most carbohydrates, protein and oil.

MJ: What about the structure makes it such that the environment doesn’t seem to matter at all?

GN: It’s a system that we knew couldn’t work in the long run and we only had it because agribusiness’s choices for policy always got implemented. Now that the problems are coming home to roost, it’s those same big agribusinesses that are going to say, “Oh, we’ve got the solution to that, here’s a new fungicide; here’s some new chemical pesticides; here’s some genetically modified crops.”

MJ: So it just gets worse and worse?

GN: Yes. Generally, there has been a rotation between corn and soybeans. Inevitably, Mother Nature is saying this is a screwed-up system, raising corn and soybeans every year. You end up with a whole lot of diseases being built up. For a long time, you wouldn’t have to spray anything on soybeans other than to kill the weeds, but now we’re facing many fungi problems and new insects that we never heard of before. One of the research things that farmers do now in the winter is go to meetings to learn how you’re going to spray fungicide that you never, ever had to think about before. It’s all very technical, and it just gets to be a nightmare. Since corn is the most reliable and sturdiest plant imaginable, people are tending to think about planting corn on corn on corn again and just using all the chemicals and the genetically modified traits you need to do that.

MJ: What changes would you like to see at the government level?

GN: You have to have a complete change of policy and commitment to what kind of agriculture you want to have. You have to recognize that the direction we’ve been going in since the early 1950s has been totally wrong. That’s when agribusiness really got to control our agricultural policy, which came at the same time as McCarthyism. They used McCarthyism to destroy the effectiveness of the farmers union, saying that if you were for a farm program, you must be a communist; the thing is to have the market set everything. Freedom to Farm was the title of a book that was written by Ezra Taft Benson, the Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration, who presided over the first farm bill to lower the price floor. As time went on, farmers didn’t have an effective voice in policy. Farm programs have been written to benefit agribusiness, to allow farm prices to go lower and lower and lower.

MJ: Besides a floor under farm prices, what other kinds of changes would you want to see?

GN: That price has three other aspects to it. The first thing is, you have to have a food security reserve to go with it. Let’s say this year we’re blessed with perfect weather and we raise a hell of a big crop. If it’s in a free market, the price will go down. But with a price floor, not all of the grain will get absorbed at that price; some will go into the reserve. And you have to have conservation programs to help farmers so they're not so tempted to just plant more corn and soybeans. Also, every country has to be able to prevent cheap agricultural products from coming in to undermine the price support. You have to have a mechanism to make sure that agribusiness doesn’t go down to the rainforest and produce agricultural products to ship to the United States or Europe. So the four pedestals of basic farm policy are minimum price, food reserves, conservation programs, and an ability to maintain that price support in the face of cheap imports.

MJ: How would a minimum price help family farmers and the environment?

GN: The economic signals will tend to achieve balance again by raising the price of livestock to where it makes sense to raise livestock again on family farms. If you have an ideal family farm where you raise livestock, you produce all the feed right there on the farm, and you recycle the manure for nutrients right there on the farm. That would be ideal, wouldn’t it? Well, that farmer doesn’t care what the hell the price of corn and soybeans is because he’s feeding it to his livestock; he cares about the price of livestock. On the other hand, an industrial livestock producer, who isn’t going to raise any of the feed yourself, and doesn’t have any place to put the manure—it’s just a nuisance—really cares about the price of corn and soybeans. The cheaper, the better. So if you have a program that raises the price of corn and soybeans, you’ll be denying that cheap grain benefit to the enemy of the diversified family farm. So conservation, in a sense, will be built right into the economic incentives if you do that. But even so, it’s good to have conservation programs.

MJ: How do you define a family farm?

GN: The ideal family farm is one where the family owns the land, so they take care of the land with the expectation that they’re going to be able to pass it on to the next generation in as good or better condition than when they got it. And owning it is important because otherwise farmers have to act in accordance with the wishes of some absentee landowner. If they invest in conservation, they could get a phone call the next day saying the landlord in Chicago wants to sell the land. I’d say now the typical corn and soybean farmer in Iowa may only owns a fifth of the land they’re farming.

MJ: How would that change, because it seems like, with the way you’re describing the situation of agriculture, a lot of kids wouldn’t be interested in continuing their fathers farms.

GN: Well, that’s right. The economics is just not there, and the freedom, the romantic aspect of farming is almost gone.

MJ: Is there any way to fix that?

GN: There needs to be a commitment to have farmers on their land. All this money that the taxpayer is spending to keep the farm economy going through these direct payments, a lot of that could be used to help farmers own their own land.

MJ: And you think that would be a more productive use of the money?

GN: Absolutely. You’ve got to have a goal of destroying factory farms and replacing them with diversified family farms. You can only do that by making Tyson, Smithfield, ADM and Cargill pay what it really costs to produce livestock in the first place.

MJ: What barriers are there specifically facing local producers who sell in farmers’ markets, or other local settings?

GN: Ideally, the family farmer should own the land, and the management decisions and the majority of the labor should be performed by the family. In the history of our country, the family farm was held out as the antithesis of the situation where human beings were being exploited for the benefit of the landowners. Everybody better take their hat off to those people and thank them for having that romantic vision of farming and really challenging the system. But there’s a lot of challenges. You not only have to be good at being a farmer, you have to be good at doing it in generally ecological ways, and then you have to be a marketer too. And then of course there are the regulatory problems that are involved, especially for livestock marketing.

MJ: Do you think if we moved to ideal small family farms with local distribution, would that solve all the problems, or are there other things that have to happen too?

GN: Well, that sort of thing has to be your ideal, but it’s going to take public policy to do it. And it’s not going to happen simply by people making better choices when they go buy their food. I mean, that’s going to help a lot, but it’s not going to be the whole thing because the cards are stacked against it so much.

MJ: How is it that agribusinesses are so powerful?

GN: They’re part of the military-industrial complex. They’re multinational corporations, and in the United States, the process of moving farmers and rural people out of the rural communities to become cheap labor, has been the status quo. And now the WTO and NAFTA have insured that farmers all around the world get lower prices for their products, so when they leave their communities, they go to big cities or across borders to become cheap labor. Another one of the problems with small farmers and marketing locally is the access to land. The closer you get to a big city where your market is, the higher price the land is.

MJ: Well, you’re painting a pretty bleak picture, really—

GN: Boy, I sure as hell am.

MJ: —really of the whole market, but specifically of the whole agricultural policy. Do you think there are any positive trends?

GN: I think people are starting to get the picture here. I think there’s a growing awareness of the importance of good food and how it’s produced. The other important trend is that farmers around the world are seeing that neo-liberal policies, pushed by multinational corporations through the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF, and implemented by their own local governments, are killing off family farm agriculture and making everybody move to cities. Via Campesina—an international coalition of farmers, peasants, farm workers and fishermen—has been to the WTO and FAO meetings. Recently, they were down in Brazil at a biodiversity meeting, trying to stop the corporate agenda on GMOs. Farmers around the world are raising hell and organizing and connecting.