Besides grain and pork, dairy prices are the latest to fall creating enormous financial strain on many family farms. As the Administration and Congress wrestle with another disaster relief bill (some of the money will go to farmers), many family farm advocates are pushing for market and credit reforms and other measures to ensure some income stability.
But the historic farm income safety net is gone due to the 1996 Farm Bill. Farmers are no longer guaranteed a floor price for their crops. The fixed payments under the Freedom to Farm Act have proven not to be adequate to meet many farmers' needs when prices are this low.
In the midst of this crisis, some hopeful signs are on the horizon. A House delegation traveled to the Delmarva (Chesapeake Bay) region to hear about concerns of farmers who contract with the many poultry companies there. The Senate held hearings in late January in response to concerns about concentration in agriculture and the proposed merger of two of the largest grain companies.
Besides the emergency efforts, the Clinton administration is proposing reforms of the crop insurance program in its 2000 budget. These reforms would encourage farmers to purchase crop, income protection and multi-year insurance policies to better guarantee farm income. The good news is that the proposal offers livestock and whole farm insurance programs not previously available. The bad news is that the total package—even after paid premiums—could cost the federal government one to two billion dollars. USDA does not offer any source for these funds: a non-starter under pay-as-you-go budget rules.
The immediate crisis has been compounded by a system of agriculture which continues to embrace the needs of larger producers—through lending practices, research dollars and marketing mechanisms— over smaller and moderate-sized family farms and a broad-based ownership of productive land. The production of food will always demand special attention by governments. It is not simply another economic sector: food is a requirement of life itself.
In February of 1996, Bishop Skylstad, then Chairman of the bishops' Domestic Policy Committee wrote to Congress opposing the provisions in the Freedom to Farm Act which would not take into account the broad fluctuations in market and weather conditions. Such fixed payments do not guarantee income to the family farmer when times are hard.
The principles of Catholic social teaching such as stewardship of the land and the common good as well as moral principles governing economics such as a fair wage for work, are unfortunately not heard in a system that rewards larger producers over smaller ones and places rural communities and the land in serious jeopardy.
What You Can Do:
One comprehensive bill covering everything from market transparency to poultry contracts has been introduced by Senator Daschle (D-SD). If passed, the bill could go a long way in exposing some of the problems with our highly concentrated and vertically integrated agriculture system. However, hopes for a hearing by Senate leadership are slim. We will be watching to see if some of its provisions could be added to other agriculture bills. Other bills specifically address certain aspects of the crisis such as market transparency or hog prices. Still others express a desire for stricter enforcement of the packers and stockyards act.
Regardless of the legislative vehicles, none of them will address the immediate crisis and few analysts see market prices rising for this coming growing season.
But you can make a difference in the long term: Write or call your Senators and Representative (and particularly if he or she is a member of the Agriculture Committees (below) and let them know that the current system of agriculture—one that does not allow farmers to meet the cost of production—is unacceptable. Hearing from family farmers and their supporters will be key. Urge efforts that would:
- Enforce existing anti-trust laws as outlined in the Grain Inspectors, Packers and Stockyards Act.
- Expand price reporting tools which would enable producers to better gauge the market.
- Offer additional income assistance to the hardest-hit family farmers.
- Encourage positive crop insurance reform as a step towards more income stability in the farm sector.
House Agriculture Committee
Larry Combest, TX, Chairman
Charles W. Stenholm, TX; Ranking Member
Senate Agriculture Committee
Richard Lugar, IN, Chairman
Tom Harkin, IA, Ranking Member
AT THE LOCAL LEVEL: Many of the actions seen today at the federal level began through pressure from the local level. Hearings and referenda in farm states such as Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota are having an impact in Washington. Get involved in efforts in your local community and your state to call into question the direction of agriculture and the lack of support for family farms.
For Further Information Contact:
Dan Misleh: Office of Domestic Social Development, USCCB, 202-541-3190; fax: 541-3339; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Andrews: NCRLC, 515-270-2634; fax 515-270-9447; E-mail: email@example.com