Grassroots on the Farm

DESPITE DECLINING populations, rural America still has plenty of opinions. They’re out there, plentiful and ripe as new potatoes—all it takes is some digging.

In the old days, agrarians held the pot and populists stirred. Rural populations made up the nation’s majority. But we’ve lost ground: Today’s grassroots minority are seen by corporations as one cook too many, spoiling the company stew.

Farm subsidies encompass five major crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton. In the 1930s, populist farmers supported subsidies in FDR’s New Deal because they kept farmers on the farm. It was the easiest fix. But farm bills of old were aimed at average farmers: a husband and wife raising a family on the land. It was about average incomes, average acreages. Average farmers grew both crops and livestock. When grains were cheap, average farmers converted them to meat, milk, and eggs. If prices for those dropped, family farmers cut back.

Everything was about supply and demand—life and survival. Nothing was about making a killing on food.

All that began to change as corporate agriculture promoted grain exports, and companies such as Continental Grain began to raise their own livestock—a precursor to packer-owned livestock, contract production, and packer-controlled livestock markets.

In the 1970s, populists farmers came to be viewed as radicals when they protested anti-family-farm policy by driving tractors to Washington, D.C. They lost the public opinion battle as tractors rutted the National Mall when the government blocked them in with garbage trucks and buses. Some farmers camped there all winter. News coverage failed to note that, come spring, the farmers smoothed and reseeded the Mall before they left.

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