Stop pretending the estate tax has anything to do with us family farmers

Rolling back the estate tax is the least of our concerns

By:  Jim Goodman, FFD board member and organic dairy farmer, Wonewoc, WI

Washington Post, 11/15/17

Politicians love to invoke the “family farmer” when it’s politically useful. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

The mystique of the family farmer in this country goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s model for democracy. Jefferson centered his vision on the yeoman farmer, who, with family labor, worked a small farm and embodied the virtues of honest and hard work. It was an important idea to a new nation that was supposed to be built on independence and fairness — not aristocracy and privilege.

The idea of the yeoman farmer has evolved into the present-day notion of the family farm, a life few Americans understand but one that they seem to hold dear and want to preserve: The family farmer cares for the land, the animals and the local community because that is their heritage.

It’s no wonder that food packaging depicts that image of the family farm, with little red barns, cows and chickens in the grass and the farm family working together — it sells. This image has nothing to do with how the vast majority of food that fills supermarket shelves is produced, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from invoking the family farm when selling the public on policies that have little to do with those of us who still do the work of family farming.

As Republicans push ahead with their tax reform plan, the small farmer is again invoked. This time it’s about the estate tax. During a speech in North Dakota, President Trump declared, “We’ll also protect small businesses and family farmers here in North Dakota and across the country by ending the death tax.” He added: “Tremendous burden for the family farmer, tremendous burden. We are not going to allow the death tax or the inheritance tax or the whatever-you-want-to-call-it to crush the American Dream.”

But few farmers put the elimination of this tax on the top of their wish lists. Only about 20 farms a year are subject to any inheritance tax, and in almost all cases, those farms have adequate liquid assets to cover the taxes without having to sell any part of the business to do so. After searching for 35 years for one example of a family farm that was lost due to the estate tax Iowa State professor Neil Harl stated simply, “It’s a myth.”

It is a sales pitch, nothing more, again capitalizing on that mystique of the family farm that people hold so dear. Getting rid of the estate tax is a gift to the very rich, not to farmers. As the old saying goes, ask a farmer what they would do if they won a million dollars: Keep farming till it ran out.

While estate taxes are not a threat to the family farm, we face plenty of other challenges. But you’ll never see politicians tackle the greatest threat to the family farmer: unfairly low prices for our products.

Farmers, no matter what they produce, are always encouraged to produce more, with no question how much might be too much. Agricultural research focuses on increased yield, be it milk, corn, soy, poultry or any other agricultural commodity.

Current government policies encourage increased agricultural production as a means of economic growth because a growing gross domestic product supposedly means a healthy economy. The days of government supply management policies that kept supply in balance with demand, thus helping maintain fair farm prices while adequately supplying market needs, ended during the Reagan administration. It’s all about feeding agribusiness and the global economy. Local economies and rural communities? Not so much.

Small farmers, ranchers and fishers are caught in an increasingly consolidated food system. Increasing market concentration through corporate mergers gives us little choice but to buy from a limited group of input suppliers and sell to a limited number of buyers.

And again, small farms are impacted most severely. Often, I can’t find things I need for my farm in the local stores. Small farmers aren’t worth the bother, I guess. Mega-organic dairies have saturated the market and cornered the supermarket trade. My milk price has dropped by 30 percent in the past year, while the average retail price for a gallon of organic milk has gone up 25 percent, according to USDA figures.

If you are marketing hogs by the semi-load, you will have better market access. If you are selling 60,000 pounds of milk a day (I sell 1,500 pounds), you’ll probably get paid a sizable volume premium. Farms got bigger to gain the advantage of economy of scale. They still may be family owned, but there are few red barns or animals on pasture.

Corn and soy are in such oversupply that farmers, even on the largest farms, are lucky to recoup their production costs. So taxpayers are helping prop up low grain commodity prices through the government subsidy programs: Farmers get a government deficiency payment when prices are low. This works well for the international grain companies. They can purchase cheap grain, knowing that next year, farmers will keep planting because subsidies will keep the farms afloat.

While subsidy programs are at best a very poor solution to a very big problem (low farm income), the real beneficiary of the subsidy program has always been the corporate grain buyers and the dairy and livestock processors. Farmers only want a fair price for what they produce, not government programs that encourage overproduction of low-priced commodities.

The U.S. agricultural economy has and always will be designed to ensure corporate agribusiness profits at the expense of farmers and consumers. We, the farmers, will of course, be expected to remain silent, work harder and avoid dissent in a nation ruled by an administration that will not tolerate dissent.

The nostalgia and fascination with the family farm is gratifying for those of us who still run a family farm, but sadly that doesn’t help pay the bills. In time, the family farm will exist only in nostalgic illustrations on milk cartons at the supermarket, and in the false promises of politicians.

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Why Family Farmers Must Stand in Solidarity With Our Immigrant Sisters and Brothers and Oppose AB 190

Statement by:  John E. Peck, Executive Director, Family Farm Defenders

People’s Hearing Against Anti-Immigrant Bill AB 190 – Wisconsin State Capitol

Wed.  9/27/2017

Imagine being dragged from your home by armed men, beaten, and then thrown behind bars to await some horrible fate.   This is exactly what happened to Joshua Glover on the night of March 10th, 1854 in Racine, WI.  Glover was a runaway slave from St. Louis, MO who had escaped two years earlier to live in dignity in the north.  His former master, though, had offered a bounty for his capture and now a slave catcher posse – led by federal marshals – had tracked him down.  Thankfully, his plight was not ignored, and word soon spread about his abduction.  Close to a thousand anti-slavery activists converged on Milwaukee and broke into the jailhouse to free Glover.  Family farmers, many of whom were immigrants who had come to America fleeing violence in Europe, spirited Glover away and provided shelter for several weeks until he was able to stow away aboard a boat heading up Lake Michigan to Canada.  Over 100 other slaves took the Underground Railroad to freedom through WI prior to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

Fast forward to 2017.  Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests of undocumented immigrants have jumped from 9,000 per month at the end of the Obama Administration to over 13,000 today.  Once again, armed agents with state support are hunting down people simply because of their particular status.  Many of those detained end up separated from their families and friends.  Children are left abandoned at their school when parents suddenly “disappear.”   Others are assaulted and brutalized in the dehumanizing process leading to their deportation.  The White House has announced the termination of DACA, meaning thousands of “dreamers” will now confront a fresh nightmare. And now Pres. Trump is even threatening to take away federal funding from sanctuary communities, with the WI State Legislature and Gov. Walker all too eager to jump aboard this xenophobic bandwagon with AB 190.

Here in Wisconsin this is an especially critical issue since so much of our cultural heritage and economic vitality depends upon the strength and diversity found in our proud immigrant history.  Wisconsin’s $43 billion dairy industry could hardly function without 16,000+ immigrant workers, mostly from Mexico and Central America, the vast majority of which are also undocumented.  Many other immigrants from Europe, Canada, Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere can be found working across rural and urban WI in the tourism, agroprocessing, manufacturing, construction, restaurant, and healthcare sectors.

With the golden dream of coming to America left so battered and tarnished, it is no surprise that some farm workers are packing their bags and abandoning WI altogether. And for those who do choose to remain, the climate of fear is making life much more difficult.  If you are worried about being deported, why even bother calling the police?   Even some of Wisconsin’s agribusiness giants – many of which supported Walker and Trump – are now starting to have second thoughts about the fallout from their choice.  Can you imagine where Wisconsin would be today if similar rightwing backlash movements led by the KKK a hundred years ago targeting Scandinavian, German, Polish, Italian and Irish immigrants had been successful?  How impoverished would WI be today?  Would we even have any agriculture without immigrants?

Family Farm Defenders is proud to stand in solidarity with Voces de la Frontera and our other allies in defense of the rights of immigrants to be our friends, colleagues, and neighbors here in Wisconsin.  If AB 190 manages to worm its way through the legislature, it will not only pull the rug out from under the WI dairy industry, but it will tear a huge hole in the rich fabric of our rural communities that depend so much upon immigrants for their very livelihood.  Some Wisconsin abolitionists who aided the escape of slaves prior to the Civil War were charged with felonies and spent years in prison for their moral stance.  Rest assured, some of us are willing to stand up one again for what is right – there is no place for hate in the dairy state.

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We depend on immigrants to feed us — and then blame them

By:  Jim Goodman, dairy farmer, Wonewoc, WI & Family Farm Defenders board member

Jorge, who recently arrived from Mexico and asked that his last name not be used, works in the milking parlor of a dairy farm in northern Buffalo County. Jorge is among the estimated 51 percent of all dairy workers nationwide who are immigrants. (Photo by Coburn Dukehart)

Resentment of immigrants in America probably began in 1492 when European explorers began the process of taming the wilderness in this “newly discovered” land. The Americans who were living here at the time always knew exactly where they were and, I am sure, had a decidedly different view of who needed taming.

Immigrant resentment has progressed ever since, with different ethnic groups targeted in different times for different reasons. Currently, Hispanics are targeted because they supposedly take our jobs and Muslims are targeted because many people cannot accept diversity.

Without a doubt, immigration issues affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The “big, beautiful” border wall, immigrants stealing American jobs, immigrant crime (immigrant crime rates are actually lower than the general population’s rate) — these lies had their intended effect.

Perhaps the current, intense resentment of immigrants began in the late 1980s when, as the U.S. economy faltered, Mexican immigration to the U.S. was increasing. The passage of the North American Free Trade agreement in 1993 and the subsequent dumping of subsidized U.S. corn into Mexico further hastened the migration of Mexican farmers to the U.S.

I remember driving in Phoenix Arizona, in 2006, a time when immigration had again become a hot button issue. I noted the Hispanic workers paving streets, building houses, working on power lines, mowing lawns, working in stores and restaurants — and wondered who would take care of these Arizonians if the immigrants were deported?

During this current wave of immigrant hatred, I again wonder: Who will do the work if immigrants are deported? The dairy industry is built on the shift to fewer and larger farms that depend on low-wage immigrants to produce the cheap food Americans demand.

People ask, “Why don’t farmers just pay more and hire American workers?” Wouldn’t this eliminate the need for immigrant workers?

It’s not that simple.

With the exception of the higher farm-gate milk prices of 2014, dairy farmers are generally paid below the cost of production for the milk they produce. Making a profit depends on keeping costs low — they need cheap feed for their cattle and cheap labor. So, granted, immigrant workers are underpaid with some reason. Fair farm prices might help, but, mostly, immigrants are underpaid because they have no recourse: to whom would they protest?

Then there is the problem that not many “American” workers are willing to do this kind of work. I have milked cows all my life and consider it to be the best job I could have asked for, but you either have to love it or really need the paycheck — and I mean, really need it.

Milking my 45 cows is vastly different than milking cows on today’s “modern” dairy farms with hundreds or thousands of cows. Ten- or 12-hour shifts are not uncommon, and the working environment is constantly wet, noisy and dangerous, cows being big animals that don’t always act in a congenial manner.

These immigrants are not unskilled; they are hardworking and good at their jobs. Most of them were farmers in Mexico and Central America. Without them, without their farming skills, U.S. domestic agricultural production would be in serious trouble.

Immigrants also do a disproportionate share of the work on fruit and vegetable farms nationwide.

I have watched immigrant workers in the tomato fields of Immokalee, Florida, — men, women and children — paid minimum wage at best, few breaks, long hot hours, all stoop labor and constantly exposed to toxic crop chemicals. No one could love these jobs, but this is what immigrants do because no one else will and because immigrants have few options.

In a society like ours, where there is no such thing as a living wage for a good share of the population, we depend on a cheap food supply. It is unconscionable that we have such income disparity, that we have allowed this cycle of poverty to exist. Unconscionable that in a nation with so much, so many must survive on so little. We depend on poorly paid immigrants to feed us, and then point at them as the problem.

Immigrants are vilified when all they want is to be accepted for what they contribute. It is immoral. A Salvadoran immigrant noted: “We only want to live in peace, work, have a home, be a family.” Clearly, in Trump’s mind, they’re bad hombres.

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NAFTA Needs To Be Replaced, Not Renegotiated

By: Jim Goodman, Family Farm Defenders board member, and organic dairy/beef farmer near Wonewoc, WI                                       Published by Common Dreams, 4/25/2017

While the current structure of NAFTA increased trade between Canada, Mexico, and the United States, farm profit margins did not increase. And now, both farmers and consumers are at risk from a trade deal that puts corporate profits above the people who grow and those who consume. (Photo: CBC)

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) must be replaced with a transparent trade agreement that ensures farmers in all three nations—Canada, Mexico, and the United States—receive fair prices for their production, that consumers are guaranteed the right to know the content and origin of their food, and that strong environmental protections are put in place to protect the sustainability of rural communities.

While the current structure of NAFTA increased trade between Canada, Mexico, and the United States, farm profit margins did not increase. Multi-national grain traders made huge profits dumping subsidized US corn on Mexico, crushing much of Mexico’s farm economy to the point that Mexican Catholic Bishops said that NAFTA was leading to the “cultural death” of their nation. Trade agreements should promote fair trade that that supports farmers of all countries, not just the financial interests of multi-national agribusiness corporations.

To give just one recent example of how rural communities suffer from reckless trade policies that promote corporate profit at the farmers expense, on April 1st of this year, Grassland Dairy Products, the nation’s largest butter maker, informed 75 Wisconsin dairy farmers that, as of May 1, their milk would no longer be needed since, due to changes in the Canadian milk pricing system, Canadian buyers had canceled contracts to import the equivalent of one million pounds of milk per day.

Grassland management had been aware of forthcoming changes in the Canadian milk pricing system for at least several months, but Grassland gave their farmers minimal warning and left them with very few market options.

US processors, like Grassland, had been exploiting a loophole in the trade agreement that allowed them to ship ultra-filtered milk to Canadian cheese plants tariff-free since it was classified as an “ingredient” at the border. Once it arrived at the plants its classification was changed to “dairy” to legally meet Canadian cheese production standards.

Canada imposed no new taxes or tariffs on US dairy imports, they simply created a new “class” of milk that is priced at the world market price, just as the US imports were. Given this price equalization, Canadian cheese makers can now buy Canadian milk.

Canadians wants to “buy Canadian” just as Trump says we must “buy American.” Canada currently imports US dairy products worth five times the value of its dairy exports to the US. Meanwhile, US processors and producers assumed NAFTA promised them a never-ending market for their excess production—a reckless trade policy.

As Canadians note, the real problem with the US dairy industry is massive overproduction.

Because dairy US farms continue to expand and push for ever greater production, at some point (aka now) there is no room in market, the market is saturated and farmers will suffer. Processors, like Grassland however will not. They decry Canada canceling their contract, but have no problem doing the same to their farmers.

Ironically enough, Grassland has also been bankrolling the 5,000 cow factory farm expansion of Cranberry Creek Dairy in Dunn County, Wisconsin to further flood the domestic milk market. And as noted by Darin Von Ruden, President of Wisconsin Farmers Union, Grassland was cutting its milk purchases as part of the plan to build this corporate-owned 5,000-cow dairy.

Trade deals like NAFTA thrive on commodity speculation that boosts corporate profits, while bankrupting family farmers, price gouging consumers, and destroying the environment.

NAFTA should be replaced with a new Fair Trade agreement, one that ensures farmers receive prices that, at a minimum, meet their costs of production plus a living wage. Farmers, regardless of which side of the border they live on, should not be pitted against each other in a race to the bottom. They deserve to have access to their own domestic markets and to be protected from imported commodities that are unfairly priced below the cost of production (dumping). Furthermore, people of all participating countries should not be subject to trade rules that restrict their right to reject imports that do not meet their preferences on GM content; regulate pesticide use; mandate food labels; or otherwise protect local food systems.

The basic human rights of farm workers—including fair wages and safe working conditions—must be protected by trade rules that support jobs and rural development in all three countries.

Food is a human right. Food sovereignty cannot be compromised by trade agreements designed by corporate interests. All nations have a right to decide what they will eat, how it will be grown, and who will control it. No one should be forced to accept agricultural products they do not want.

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International Day of Peasant Struggle – Farmers and Allies Converge in Chicago on Mon. April 17th to Demand an End to Price Fixing and Land Grabbing – Food Sovereignty Now!


Contact: John E. Peck, Family Farm Defenders #608-345-3918
12:00 Noon Chicago Mercantile Exchange (141 W. Jackson) Leaflet and Speakout Against Commodity Price Fixing and Demanding Food Sovereignty

2:00 pm TIAA Financial Services (200 N. La Salle Dr.) Leaflet and Speakout Against Land Grabbing by Pension Fund Speculators

5:00 pm DePaul University – Lincoln Park Campus, Rm. 103 McGowan South (1110 W. Belden Ave.) Community Potluck & Seed Swap;  La Via Campesina Video and Report Back on the International Conference on Agrarian Reform, held in Maraba, Brazil in April 2016 – the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Eldorado dos Carajas with Jeff Frank of the Friends of the MST (Landless Workers Movement) of Brazil; Food Sovereignty Forum with speakers: Joel Greeno (Family Farm Defenders), Jessica Fujian (Food and Water Watch) and Amy Mall (Family Farm Defenders), among others followed by audience discussion.  Hosted by the
DePaul University Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning and Community Service Studies.
For over a decade now FFD and its allies have protested outside the front door of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) to mark the International Day of Peasant Struggle in solidarity with La Via Campesina, the largest umbrella organization for family farmers, fishers, herders, hunters, gatherers, foresters, and indigenous peoples in the world.  As the dominant commodity trading platform, the CME determines farmgate prices that ultimately dictate the fate of people across the planet.  Without effective government oversight, this “thin market” is easily manipulated by agribusiness giants, which is why FFD will be holding a speak out against the CME’s complicity in bankrupting family farmers and price gouging consumers.
This year, FFD will also be shining a spotlight on another little known perpetrator of injustice in our food/farm system – namely TIAA, one of the world’s largest pension fund managers.  Given their vast investment clout, TIAA is now the second largest landowner in the U.S. and is pursuing other speculative landgrabbing from Brazil to Australia.  This callous “profit over people” strategy, however, is causing massive deforestation, aggravating climate change, and driving small farmers off their land.   On Thurs. April 20th a coalition of environmental, human rights, labor, and farm organizations will be delivering over 100,000 signatures to the head office of TIAA in New York City, calling on them to adopt a more responsible investment policy that does not entail destroying forests and evicting farmers. 
For more details on the April 20th NYC action, please visit:
“The world can no longer tolerate such unethical mercenary behavior from the likes of the CME or TIAA if we want to guarantee the future livelihood of our family farmers and the basic right of everyone to enjoy nutritious, healthy, and culturally appropriate food,” noted John E. Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders. “The only real solution to the global food crisis is to restore democratic control over our entire agricultural system – and that is why we will be coming to Chicago on April 17th to demand food sovereignty now.”
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