Take On Corporate Power in Agriculture.

AuthorPahnke, Anthony Robert

I was eight years old, walking with my grandfather through the cornfields on our family's farm outside of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The crop was in terrible shape; no rain for months had left most of it considerably stunted, with no hope of recovering.

At that time, in the late 1980s, my dad had been talking about taking over the farm. The drought made him reconsider those plans. If the farm could not grow enough feed for its cows, it would have to be purchased on the open market, at inflated prices. And that was pushing the whole operation into debt. I remember his silence at dinnertime. I remember him pacing up and down the driveway at night.

Why would anyone go into a line of work where you regularly spend more than you earn? Where, after working twelve-, fourteen-, or sixteen-hour days, you struggle just to pay the lighting bill or buy groceries? My dad decided against taking over the family farm. My grandfather eventually retired, but only after an aunt willed her house to our family to settle debts. The farm remains in the family to this day.

Most farmers are not so lucky; their farming careers end in foreclosure, or, in the worst cases, suicide. As droughts and floods grow worse while prices stagnate, thousands of farmers are either quitting or being driven out.

Rural America is in crisis and our food system needs reform. The question is whether our politicians have the courage and creativity to make the changes we need. Specifically, we must do three things: strive to ensure that markets are competitive, reform how commodities are priced, and make a principled transition to more sustainable ways of growing food.

If we seriously work on these initiatives, rural America has a prosperous future. If we continue to neglect them, the problems we already face will only get worse.

We need to keep the small-scale and medium-size farms that still exist, while creating paths for more family farms to emerge in the future. The reason is that these farms buy and sell local. Farm families have children who attend local schools. Small-scale farmers care more for their land and livestock than factory-style operations with outside investors and overworked, exploited workforces.

Our food system exists in a state of extreme concentration. According to a March 2019 report by the Open Markets Institute, the four largest poultry processing firms went from controlling 35 percent of the total market in 1986 to 51 percent in 2015. In the beef industry, the...

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