By Celia Wexler, Blue Tent, 3/17/2021
Tucked into the massive American Rescue Plan law is a provision that will deliver $5 billion to Black farmers, for decades the victims of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That addition to the bill may have surprised some progressive nonprofits inside the Beltway. But John Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders, knew all about it. After all, he was part of a large rural coalition lobbying for the assistance.
“We pushed hard” for that reform, Peck says. He referred to a letter signed by 181 rural groups and their support for the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act. “We were having conference calls about this,” Peck says.
He credits House Agriculture Committee chair David Scott (D-Ga.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) for leading the effort to get many of the major elements of the bill included in the final pandemic rescue package.
“It’s a drop in the bucket… compared to all the handouts corporate agribusiness got from all the previous COVID relief,” he says. Nevertheless, the provision was “definitely something,” and in part, the result of effective rural organizing.
Part of a global movement
Founded in 1994, FFD has 3,500 members across the country and an annual budget of between $50,000 and $60,000. Peck is the only staffer, and he works part-time. Peck grows flowers and many types of vegetables on his 1.5-acre farm. He also holds a doctorate and teaches economics and environmental studies at a local technical college. Based in Madison, Wisconsin, he may be miles away from Washington, D.C. and other world capitals, but his understanding of the issues confronting family farmers is far from parochial.
His group is part of a global movement of farmers who are united in their opposition to the growing power of a few agribusiness corporations that threaten their livelihoods and the future of the planet.
FFD wants to enforce antitrust laws to oppose those monopolies. It also wants trade policies that don’t allow big corporations to impose U.S. trade policies on other countries. And it endorses laws to restrict how much land foreign investors can own in the U.S.
FFD has an international reach. The group strongly supports Indian farmers, who are protesting new policies that would benefit large agribusiness operations at the expense of small farmers. “Food sovereignty is an important principle, and all farmers and workers have the right to be paid a just and living wage,” Joel Greeno, FFD president, told Indian rural reformers during a global webinar in February.
Peck said FFD and other rural reform and trade groups are contacting members of Congress to make their case. “We want the U.S. to stop imposing free trade on India. That’s why [Indian Prime Minister Narenda] Modi is doing that stuff. That’s U.S.-driven. That’s U.S. foreign policy and trade policy encouraging Modi to rip the rug out from under his farmers. Modi’s changes will allow U.S. corporations “to move in… Walmart wants to get in there, Amazon’s already in there.”
Global trade demonstrations are nothing new for FFD. In 1999, an FFD contingent joined massive protests disrupting a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.
Solidarity with workers
Closer to home, FFD organized a farm tractorcade in 2011, opposing Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to strip collective bargaining rights from state and local government workers. Fifty-three tractors showed up at the state capitol, part of the state’s “largest demonstration” against Walker’s proposals. Those rights are something Wisconsin farmers understand. Most dairy farmers in Wisconsin belong to co-ops, which try to use the collective power of their members to negotiate the best price for their milk.
FFD used grassroots organizing and social media to launch the event. “Grassroots people power did that,” Peck says. But many reporters assumed the group must have used a D.C.-based consultant or spent millions of dollars to achieve the result, Peck says.
The fact that FFD’s membership is so active and engaged is also something that foundations find difficult to believe, he says. When the group applies for grants, program officers often doubt that such a small group and small staff can do what it proposes to do.
“A lot of work is being done by very small grassroots groups that don’t even qualify for big money from donors,” Peck says.
Most of its financial support comes from its grassroots fundraising, and donations from members and other small donors, he says. But FFD also has received steady support from Farm Aid, and recently received its first grant from the Bea Fund.
Unsure about Vilsack
FFD represents farmers who actually do the work—growing crops or raising livestock, either on land they own or rent. While the election of President Joe Biden as heartened many progressives, Peck worries that the problems farmers face may go unaddressed by Democrats.
Those problems are longstanding. In 1952, for every food product consumers purchased, farmers got about 50 cents on the dollar. Now, their earnings have been reduced to about 15 cents.
The demise of family farms has changed the agricultural landscape, Peck says. Wisconsin license plates depict a “little red barn with some cows outside. But that’s not what these corporate agribusiness operations look like… You don’t see any cows outside. It’s just giant barns. All the cows are locked inside, you see giant manure lagoons. And it looks like a factory… And then you have, next door, a bunch of trailer houses full of undocumented immigrants who are basically working at this farm and living in rather squalid conditions, in many cases.”
Peck is hoping that Sens. Booker and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) will reintroduce their proposal to impose an immediate indefinite moratorium on agriculture mergers and that Congress will pass it. “Three or four corporations control almost every major commodity in the food system. So that needs to stop,” he says.
But he doesn’t have much faith in Tom Vilsack, whom Biden selected to head the Department of Agriculture, a position he held during the Obama years. Vilsack is returning to the job after serving as the head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which primarily represents the interests of big dairy producers.
Hearings and then “nothing”
Peck recalls that early in his tenure in the Obama administration, Vilsack appeared at a Wisconsin county fair where FFD was protesting “dairy price-fixing.” He and his FFD colleagues “crashed” his press conference and asked him to enforce antitrust laws to prevent a few agribusinesses from determining how much farmers receive for their products.
Vilsack pledged to hold antitrust hearings on the issue, Peck says. FFD and other farm reform groups turned out small farmers to testify. The 2010 hearings were “the biggest thing happening for farmers ever,” Peck says.
At the Madison, Wisconsin, hearing, “hundreds of dairy farmers came to testify about how these corporations are ripping them off,” he says.
At hearings in other states, farmers complained about corporate monopolies dominating the market for seeds and controlling the prices they received for the poultry and livestock they raised. At a hearing on retail issues, “all these consumer groups showed up” angry about Walmart “controlling 25% of our groceries and setting prices,” Peck says.
“Tons of testimony” was taken, he adds. Justice Department lawyers took copious notes. “All these politicians showed up,” says Peck. In the end, he says, “nothing came of it. He surmises that “somebody got to the White House and said, ‘Can it. No anti-trust in ag.’”
Indeed, under Obama’s watch, food giants got even bigger. In 2015, H.J. Heinz was allowed to merge with Kraft Foods, creating a company valued at $80 billion. That same year, Brazilian-based JBS bought Cargill’s U.S. pork business, concentrating power in that market in even fewer companies.
If Vilsack and Biden wanted to, they have the hearing record to “dust off” and get serious about curbing monopoly power, Peck says. But he is concerned that history will repeat itself. “So that’s what we’re worried about. I mean, we’re just going to have a similar nothingness.”
Lessons of pandemic
Nevertheless, Peck does believe that the pandemic has brought home problems with a food system that results in Americans relying on food grown abroad, and the instability of global food chains.
“That exposed how brutal the whole corporate industrial globalized food system is,” he says. “Supply shortages at the store, farmers dumping milk, or killing their pigs because they had no market anymore, meatpacking plants shut down.” Peck says he saw people “desperately going to the farmers market” to seek the food they could no longer find at their “big box” store. They were welcomed. “We grew it here. We’re not dependent on that supply chain.”
The threat of climate change also demonstrates the problems of consumer dependence on food from around the globe, Peck says. “There’s sort of this misperception that farmers are benefiting from food trade. That’s just not true,” Peck says. “Farmers don’t export food. Corporations export food.”
Agribusiness giant Cargill may be based in Minneapolis, Peck contends, but it’s a “global business. They’ll dump corn on anybody, wherever they can get the most money for it.”
As a consequence, the global footprint of food exports can be enormous, he says. He notes that local supermarkets in the Madison area are now selling asparagus. It’s not locally grown, he says. “It is coming from Chile,” making an energy-intensive trek to the Midwest. “People are ready for spring. But do you really need to invest in a food system that does that?… Can’t you just wait and enjoy something in season?”
Gobbling up farmland
Another consequence of globalization is the rising price of American farmland, as global hedge funds and investment firms increase their land holdings in the U.S. In 2010, TIAA-CREF, the global firm that manages pension funds for public employees and those in the nonprofit and education sector, pronounced land “like gold” and embarked on a buying spree, driving up the price of farmland. That’s made it more difficult for farmers who rent their land, and made it far less possible for young farmers starting out to buy land, Peck says, adding that states must retain laws that restrict foreign and corporate ownership of farmland.
The recognition of global trade’s downsides seems to have made the media more receptive to rural problems. FFD members are getting their views published in beltway publications such as The Hill and Politico. Recently, even the vaunted New Yorker magazine has been interested in FFD, and interviewed Peck.
Peck praised an op-ed written by FFD member Bill Hogseth, which ran late last year in Politico Magazine. Hogseth, who also chairs the local Democratic party in rural Dunn County, Wisconsin, faulted Democrats for decades of neglect of rural voters.
Bring back COOL
Peck hasn’t given up entirely on the Biden administration. If the White House stood up to the WTO and permitted country of origin labeling (COOL), that would help change his mind, he says. In 2016, the trade body ruled against a U.S. law requiring meat and poultry producers to disclose on their labels where animals were born, raised and slaughtered. The WTO’s judgement threatened the U.S. with $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs if it did not back down. Congress repealed the labeling law.
But if Peck is waiting for this validation from the White House, he may be disappointed. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Vilsack said he was open to trying to reinstate the labeling mandate. “Consumers want to know where their food comes from,” he told senators. But he added a note of caution: “We can ignore the WTO, but then we’ve got the retaliation, and then, you know, that’s just not a good thing.”