AS THE 1990 farm bill takes shape, family farmers are again being buffeted by the winds of colliding political fronts. In the collision between the hot rhetoric of the Bush administration ("free market, free trade, environmental terrorist") and the cooler goals of a renewed conservation movement ("sustainable agriculture, clean water and land"), economic justice for farmers can be swept away like straw in the prevailing wind.
The widespread assumption that the new farm bill will be driven by environmental concerns--primarily around the use of farm chemicals--is one that has enabled all sides in the debate to ignore the grim realities of continuing economic deterioration in the American countryside. The 1985 farm bill, resulting in the loss of more than 484,000 farms between 1985 and 1988 alone, is said to be "working" and in need of only "minor adjustments."
But the so-called economic recovery in farming, heralded by politicians and the media, is built largely on massive government transfer payments, higher crop prices due to the 1988 drought, and spiraling increases in off-farm income by farm families forced to get additional jobs in order to survive. By the end of 1988, 47 percent of all farms were in a "marginal position" and an additional 6.8 percent were in a "vulnerable position as viable business operations," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).