Farmers Worldwide Need Negotiating Power, Fair Prices:
Minneapolis, Minn. -- "The rural crisis is again in the media and is again being addressed by church groups," according to the Rev. Eva Jensen, director of agricultural missions for the National Council of Churches (NCC), whose board met in the Twin Cities April 24-27 at its annual study session: "Agriculture, Food Security and Globalization: the Impact on Rural Sustainability."
At the session, 70 participants and resource people explored alternatives to the systems that are driving the loss of family farms all over the world.
Although the farm crisis is in the news, "the way the issue is covered in the media does not address the problem of the concentration of agriculture," Ms. Jensen said. She hopes for more careful analysis of the problem, "analysis that takes into consideration the varied experiences of rural people and communities and looks for positive alternatives and strategies." The event here brought to light some of that variety and explored options for farmers worldwide.
The goals of the session were to study the impact of globalization on local production and access to food, small farmers, markets and livelihood; to identify strategies toward sustainable local production and food security; and to seek ways to bring U.S. churches and their members into the issue.
"The industrialization of agriculture is not a solution but part of the problem, together with trade policies," Jensen said. "Churches are extremely concerned. They want to accompany people and communities in the grief and pain that comes in the loss of a farm, sometimes even in the loss of life through suicide."
Farmers Throughout the World Share Same Problems
An opening overview provided participants with the big picture: "Globalization and the International Industrial Food System." Presenters from the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy, Minneapolis, summarized economic and demographic data. Ana de Ita, from the Center of Studies for Rural Change, Mexico, outlined the agriculture system in Mexico and pointed to the tension in developing countries between the needs of larger export farmers and small farmers.
Farmers from Mexico are in dialogue with farmers in the United States, according to de Ita. "They share the same problems, the same enemy - multi-national corporations," she said.
The challenge for de Ita's agency is "to inform peasant organizations of public policy and its impact on the economy and their communities," she said. Demonstrations and resistance are important means of getting a point of view into the public consciousness in Mexico. "We must support those efforts with informed arguments," she said. The Center provides education on international agriculture. "We try to help Mexicans know that they are not alone in the struggle," she said.
U.S. Agriculture Policy Akin to "Science Fiction"
Steven Suppan, director of research for the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy. said he respects the work of church study groups, social statements and advocacy efforts around agriculture policies. In spite of these activities, members of U.S. congregations, such as Suppans' Lutheran church, reflect Americans' general lack of understanding of the implications of agriculture policy.
"The economy of the Bible is fundamentally a rural economy," Suppan said. He pointed to a metaphor from Saint Paul: "The husbandman that laboreth must be the first partaker of the fruits." This passage is engraved in the portico over the central entrance to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said.
According to Suppan, 20 percent of the U.S. population is somehow involved "in the work of husbandry, whether you interpret `husbandman' to mean `farmer,' `rancher,' `farm worker,' `chicken deboner' or any of the myriad workers" involved in food systems. "The question is, who is receiving the first fruits of that work?" he said.
"Farmers need negotiating power," Suppan said. Farm input costs increase but farmers do not receive compensation for their product or come close to their expenses without government subsidies, he said. "Taxpayers are underwriting a policy that is designed to alienate urban constituents from rural communities and farmers. The need for subsidies is presented by the government and agribusiness as a bail-out for farmers, at same time they'd have you believe U.S. food is cheaper than anywhere in the world. And that policy looks to farmers like a subsidy to agribusiness," Suppan said. A study in Wisconsin indicated that 56 percent of the state's dairy farmers are eligible for food stamps, he said.
Five to six percent of farm owners possess 80% of American farm land, Suppan said. Resources for smaller farmers are not sufficient: "A staff of two at U.S. Small Farms Commission represents about 1.8 million farmers," he said.
"U.S. food policy options sound like science fiction, " Suppan said. "Developing countries are encouraged to play the futures market, the kind of risky speculation normally advised for only the most secure investors."
"One thing to think about is building alliances among organizations, unions and communities of faith to recuperate democracy from a condition in which you have to pay to play," Suppan said.
Alternative Models Shared and Visited
Small-farm agriculture around the world is hindered by government policies that undercut its markets and favor larger farms producing export goods. The United States' habit of dumping grain and soy products into the economies of developing countries destroys small farmers' chances of earning any price at all for their harvests. International participants shared some alternative models of farming and marketing, plus organizing methods, that help support small farmers.
Genevieve McDaniel-Vickers of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Montego Bay, Jamaica, said, "We encourage people to eat local foods, to buy local products, to grow their own produce and share with neighbors, to plant fruit trees," she said. "Providing moral support for farmers is important. We assist with networking and lobby for the ownership of land by farmers and fair prices for export products," she said.
Hewa Pathiranage Piyadasa Subasinghe of the Christian Workers Fellowship, Sri Lanka, stressed the value of marketing cooperatives to achieve fair prices for small farmers. Ben Burkett, a vegetable farmer and member of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, Jackson, Miss., also encouraged organizing co-ops.
Burkett cited the lack of relationship "between rural farmers, consumers and the five supermarket companies that control purchasing and even dictate the breed we have to grow." The association has turned to developing relations in New Orleans where niche marketing is paying off.
Mozart Adevu works with Ho Farms Project, related to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Ho, Ghana. "World powers dictate the agricultural policy for Ghana," he said. The population is 70 percent rural and in need of home-grown food, "yet our government promotes large scale production for export."
"Since 1972, dangerous chemicals have been used for deforestation in order to grow cereal crops for which there is now no market," Adevu said. "Our task now is to help people learn integrated agriculture principles. We are training 19 farmers at a field school to change their growing practices and improve their product."
Participants got a look at sustainable alternatives to large commodity farming when they visited two farms west of the Twin Cities. Riverbend Farm at Delano, Minn., is a certified organic farm operated by Greg and Mary Reynolds. The Reynolds grow about 50 different vegetables and herbs and sell them to co-ops and restaurants as well as to a subscription group. Gary Schmieg owns Sweet Meadow Farm at Howard Lake, Minn. His dairy operation is grass-based grazing and organic.
Anne Kanten, a farmer from Hawick, Minn., called the Riverbend effort "impressive." Reynolds has technical expertise, she said, "and he is learning as he goes along." The transition to organic farming "takes time, patience and deep pockets," Kanten said. "For most young farmers, that transition is not easy - they have families to raise, kids to put through college and so on." She pointed out that demand for organic vegetables is up among urban consumers, "who are beginning to care what they put in the bodies."
Schmieg is working on his grandfather's farm. The family has never used chemicals or pesticides of any kind. He milks 40 cows on 360 acres. "He has a passion for what he's doing, all without biotechnology or chemicals, Kanten said.
"The ground is alive and I'm not going to poison it," the Schmieg told the group. He sends his milk to Wisconsin for processing, and on the market his milk is worth twice the price of regular milk. "Without the organic option, my son could never be brought into the operation," Schmieg said.
"His farm shows us another piece of agriculture. An educated consumer has increased the demand," Kanten said. She pointed out that these farms are relatively close to the urban area. "The Kanten farm is two hours west, on the plains. It's a lot harder," she said.
"The focus of this session is organic, sustainable - these farmers prove it can work. These are the premiere vegetable and dairy operations," Kanten said. "The organic world is exciting. In 1972 our neighbors said we would fail if we tried to go sustainable - now I see them failing, and I can turn our operation over to my son," she said.
In urban areas like the Twin Cities, non-profit agencies dedicated to making food available to the poor have gone right to the source, making small, specialty farming possible, providing markets, organizing cooperatives and teaching the essentials of farming.
Melissa MacKimm of the Minnesota Food Association, described the organization's work as a bridge providing access to food for low-income people. "The low-income population has few food choices in the city," she said, and small farmers need markets." MacKimm described the success of efforts to match "special cultural food interests, such as black-footed chicken and goat meat" with efforts by members of the city's immigrant groups to begin farming.
Perdita Butler explained the work of the Youth Farm and Market Project, teaching gardening skills to inner city teens in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The project is five years old and has achieved important partnerships, such as the city park boards that make possible some of the garden locations, and a successful restaurant that serves organic foods. The young people also learn the value of cooperatives and staff their own market stand, selling produce grown in the organization's urban garden plots.
Theological Reflections Emphasize "Common Good"
Throughout the conference, policies and models were placed in biblical and theological context to encourage and inspire church-based organizers to bring this kind of reflection to their churches.
A theological reflection presented by Brother David Andrews, Esc., of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, Des Moines, Iowa, traced the history of public order of Egypt, the social innovation of Moses, the covenant of David and the challenges of the prophets in the Bible's Old Testament. The stories of Israel's heritage as a rural people were gathered together in what is called the Jubilee tradition, he said.
"The Jubilee tradition expresses the notion of the Sabbath in the ecological, social, political, and religious organization of Israelite society. The Jubilee tradition was the extension of the Sabbath - the rest of the seventh day in praise of God - to the total life of the Hebrew community," Andrews said. He called the Jubilee tradition "an idea form for an agrarian people" and "a model for all people's renewal in striving to live with care for creation and care for community."
The National Catholic Rural Life Conference employs a series of principles to flesh out the Jubilee tradition in a framework for rural life. One principle is "the common good," Andrews explained. "The common good encourages individuals and communities to act on behalf of the good of all. Individual goods include health, food, shelter, clothing, land, water, air. Where the common good is ignored, social, economic, personal, and ecological disharmonies grow," he said.
The group discussed the role of the NCC's Agricultural Missions work and their comments were gathered for consideration by the Agricultural Missions Board of Directors and its program ministry at a meeting immediately following the study session.
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