Ag Policy and Family Farms

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Illustration by Fotolia/yamamen
These aren't such happy days for family farms, what with federal Ag policy favoring corporate operations.

Although most readers of this column likely are in favor of alternative and small-scale farming, it’s just as true — unfortunately — that in its final months last year the 97th Congress was inclined to support corporate agriculture at the expense of family farms and the public treasury.

Somehow the Organic Farming Act, which would have helped those commercial growers who wanted to make the switch to organic practices, and also provided for further research into such techniques, got lost in the shuffie of 1982’s lame-duck session. We can only hope that the bill will fare better when it comes up before the 98thCongress early this year (a letter to your state’s representatives will help bring this about!).

Yet another example of a trend in ag policy that favors big money interests can be seen in the death of the venerable Reclamation Act of 1902, a law which for decades helped small farmers in the arid West irrigate their land with water they couldn’t otherwise afford. Last fall, Congress changed the statute to provide the life-giving liquid to large company farms at a fraction of its actual worth. Wisconsin Democrat Senator William Proxmire, a lonely opponent of the federal giveaway, described the measure as “welfare for the richest … an unconscionable raid on the treasury.” And in the House, Democrat James Weaver of Oregon called the bill ”a bald-faced anti-family-farm package of direct subsidies to the richest of America’s agribusiness interests.”

Regardless of the pro-big-business mood of our representatives, however, support for family farmers clearly remains strong among many American citizens. In last fall’s election in Nebraska, for instance, voters adopted a constitutional amendment — despite a media blitz opposing the measure conducted by real estate, insurance, and large-scale agricultural concerns — that prohibits the purchase of farmland by non-family-farm companies and limited partnerships. Apparently, a number of voters felt that large corporations, many of which are located outside the state (Prudential Insurance, for example, is headquartered in New Jersey, yet owns over 33,000 acres of Nebraska farmland), have no business farming, particularly when their activities displace family-run enterprises.

Of course, there’s good reason for concern over this issue. Each of the past three decades has seen almost a million family farmers driven out of business. And there are now only one third as many such operations as there were in 1935. Nebraska residents moved to stop the depletion of small farms within their boundaries, and we think that their action may signal similar moves in other states.