Don’t Fall for the Hype of Free Trade Agreements

NAFTA 2.0 is not about feeding people or doing right by American farmers or Canadian farmers or Mexican farmers—it is about furthering corporate profit.

With the current push to enact the Administrations USMCA (NAFTA 2.0) industry front groups are again passing themselves off as grassroots organizations pushing the best interests of farmers, working people and the environment. Don’t be fooled. (Photo: PeoplesWorld/cc/flickr)

With the current push to enact the Administrations USMCA (NAFTA 2.0) industry front groups are again passing themselves off as grassroots organizations pushing the best interests of farmers, working people and the environment. Don’t be fooled.

Approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA 2.0 also known USMCA) will do little to reverse the problems of the NAFTA trade agreement of 1994. Nothing in the proposed replacement agreement will prevent job outsourcing, nor is there any part of the agreement that would reverse our current agricultural trade deficit. So what’s the deal with the “Motorcade for Trade” tour?

The 2018 Census of Agriculture documents the occurrence of a clear shift in farm size. Small and medium sized farms are exiting production while the number and overall size of larger farms continues to increase. We are told growth is inevitable in any business if they wish to succeed, because growth goes hand in hand with efficiency and profit.

Farmers are told they must become more efficient and adopt economies of scale and that rationale is often accepted since farm prices are seemingly always on the decline and less income per unit of production means more units of production are required if one wants to survive. This same logic is applied to most jobs: factory workers must produce more, teachers must teach larger classes, etc.—all for the same low wage.

Farmers are also told salvation from the low prices resulting from overproduction will come from expanding export markets. Sounds logical, sell the excess overseas, but farmers everywhere are being sold the same story—increase exports. But everyone can’t increase production and expect it to find a willing buyer. Time to accept the fact that too much production is just too much.

Free trade agreements allow movement of goods across international borders without tariffs and theoretically, everyone benefits. In reality most farmers do not directly export goods, their produce is sold increasingly to multi-national corporations who buy at the lowest price possible, add a processing component, drastically increase the price of the finished product and sell, world-wide, with the benefit of trade agreements that insure they pay no import duties.

With the current push to enact the Administrations USMCA (NAFTA 2.0) industry front groups are again passing themselves off as grassroots organizations pushing the best interests of farmers, working people and the environment. Don’t be fooled.

Trade Works for America, a front group started by two Republican operatives, aims to spend more than $10 million to encourage members of Congress to support the USMAC.

Farmers For Free Trade, an industry front group—arguably has members who are actually farmers—but the vast majority of funding comes from members of the Big Ag lobby, like Croplife America, WalMart, American Farm Bureau Federation and Tyson Foods—hardly a friend of the farmer.

While farmers do sell to the vertically integrated (from egg, to chicken nugget) giant that is Tyson Foods, their interest is in corporate profit, not profitability for farmers. As Arkansas farmer Karen Crutchfield told Farm Aid in 2015, “I’d like to see the farmers treated equally, where they can make a living instead of the big man getting everything and the growers getting just enough to get by.”

As noted on the Tyson website, “We now have production facilities in China and India, with poultry production for their own consumers and rising export industry. Tyson produces 1 of every 5 pounds of meat consumed in the U.S. 122,000 employees annually process and sell $15 billion worth of beef, $11 billion of chicken, and $5 billion of pork. They also formulate, package, and sell $8 billion in prepared foods under a brand roster that includes Hillshire Farm, Jimmy Dean, Ball Park Franks, Original Philly Cheesesteak, and Aidells Sausage. Half of the products are distributed by retail grocers; most of the rest go to McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, and other food-service outlets.”Tyson is also invested in Memphis Meats Inc., a company developing lab-grown beef, poultry and fish. How do you square that with the “Farmers” For Free Trade?

Clearly, one of the long term intentions is to break Canada’s supply management system for dairy, poultry and eggs, and the US hopes NAFTA 2.0 will cause the first cracks in that system. Canadian farmers control their production insuring stable, fair farm prices, a consistent supply of locally produced food at a fair market price, all with no government subsidization.

According to a University of Arizona study, if the Canadian supply management system is eventually removed, “herd sizes could expand and increased economies of scale could lead to larger, more efficient herds, with lower costs, which could eventually lead to Canada becoming a net dairy exporter as Canadian dairy becomes more competitive in international markets.”

Help for struggling US dairy farmers? Hardly, but as intended, it will be a boon to multi-national corporations.

NAFTA 2.0 is not about feeding people or helping and doing right by American farmers or Canadian farmers or Mexican farmers—it is about furthering corporate profit. With continued over production for international markets, the need for more tax payer subsidies to prop up sagging farm prices will continue.

As the Farmers For Free Trade launch their “Motorcade For Trade” RV tour with stops from New York to Montana to hype NAFTA 2.0, the people and the politicians the tour is targeting need to remember that farmers need fair prices, fair trade agreements and production control—not another business-as-usual traded deal that fattens corporate profit at the expense of farmers, families, the environment and our economic security.

Accept no imitations, industry front groups are not farmers.

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Got Anti-Trust? Protest outside the CME on Thurs. April 18th against Food Monopoly and for Food Sovereignty!

Join family farmers, food justice activists, and other allies to mark La Via Campesina’s International Day of Peasant Struggle with a protest to demand anti-trust action against the food giants outside the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME)!

11:30 am – 12:30 pm, Rally & Leaflet outside the CME (141 W Jackson Blvd.)

Followed from 12:30 pm – 1:30 pm by a march to the IL State Attorney General’s Office (100 W Randolph St) to deliver a letter in defense of family farmers and to call for national anti-trust enforcement!

Then from 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm join us for a community food sovereignty forum at the Steans Center of DePaul University – Lincoln Park Campus (2233 N. Kenmore)

In solidarity with this speak-out, people across the U.S. are being urged to contact their own state attorney general’s office in support of stronger anti-trust enforcement against the agribusiness giants that now dominate our country’s food system to the detriment of farmers and consumers alike.  Even if the federal Department of Justice (DoJ) is currently unwilling to enforce the law, there is still power granted to state elected officials to take action in the public interest.  Just such grassroots political pressure back in the mid 1990s helped shut down the corrupt Green Bay Cheese Exchange in WI.  Unfortunately, speculators just consolidated their activities at the CME, which has now become the world’s largest commodity market – with even less government oversight.
We especially encourage anti-trust supporters in some key states to call their attorney general’s office on Thurs. April 18th (all of these offices will have received our demand letter on this issue by then):
California:  Xavier Becerra  #(916) 445-9555
Florida:  Ashley Moody  #(850) 414-3300
Illinois:  Kwame Raoul  #(312) 814-3000
Indiana:  Curtis T. Hill Jr.  #(317) 232-6201
Michigan:  Dana Nessel  #(517) 373-1110
Minnesota:  Keith Ellison  #(651) 296-3353
New York:  Letitia A. James  #(518) 474-7330
Ohio:  Dave Yost  #(614) 466-4320
Pennsylvania:  Josh Shapiro  #717-787-3391
Texas:  Ken Paxton  #(512) 463-2100
Vermont:  TJ Donovan  #(802) 828-3173
Washington:  Bob Ferguson #(360) 753-6200
Wisconsin:  Josh Kaul  #(608) 266-1221
If your attorney general is not listed above, you can easily find their contact info via this website:

You can also spread the word by sharing the Facebook event:

If your organization would like to sign onto the anti-trust letter being delivered to State Attorney Generals across the country on Thurs. April 18th, please let FFD know!  You can read the full letter here:   Anti-Trust Letter to Attorney General 2019

And for more on what is so wrong with monopoly power over our food/farm system, here is the flyer we will be distributing outside the CME to share:   CMEFactsheet

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FFD Annual Meeting and 8th Annual John Kinsman Beginning Farmer Food Sovereignty Prize Award Dinner! Sun. March 24th, Round Barn Lodge, Spring Green WI

Join us for the 2019 Family Farm Defenders’ Annual Meeting (all members and allies are welcome!) from 9:00 am – 12:00 Noon, followed at 1:00 pm by the 8th Annual John Kinsman Beginning Farmer Food Sovereignty Prize Award Dinner & Ceremony with a Keynote Address: Farmers and Consumers Working Together for Food Sovereignty – by Patty Lovera, food and water policy director for the Washington DC-based Food and Water Watch. Named in honor of FFD’s founder and longtime president, the John Kinsman Beginning Farmer Food Sovereignty Prize will then be awarded to this year’s winners. who will share their inspirational beginning farmer stories. Dinner tickets are $50 per person (kids under 12 free) and can be purchased in advance by credit card at:  Otherwise, you can also mail a check to FFD, P.O. Box 1772, Madison, WI  53701 or pay at the door (though, please RSVP so we can be sure to have enough food for everyone!) FFD is also seeking additional sponsors for this year’s John Kinsman prize – all sponsors will be mentioned in publicity and any sponsor of $200 or more receives two complimentary award dinner tickets!  The Round Barn Lodge has set aside a block of rooms for the weekend, so if you are attending and wish to make a booking be sure to mention you are with FFD:  We look forward to celebrating beginning farmers and food sovereignty with you in Spring Green on Sun. March 24th!

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Why We All Should Join the Grand Alliance for a Stronger Better U.S. Postal Service!

By: John E. Peck, executive director, Family Farm Defenders

Published in the Winter 2019 Issue Defenders Newsletter

Having grown up in rural area the U.S. Post Office was almost a magical institution in my childhood memory. I would wait in anticipation for the oranges my grandma would often order from Florida that would arrive through the blizzard right to our farm in Minnesota just in time for the holidays. As an avid stamp collector, I also loved it when our friendly small town postal clerk would be sure to point out the newest commemorative issues to me. Having made many friends from travels around the world, the USPS was also a key link for me to the rest of the globe even in the age of the internet.

Many other people in the U.S. feel the same. In fact, the USPS has one of the highest favorability ratings (90+%) of all government agencies – certainly much higher than the FDA, USDA, or IRS… Since 1775 when Benjamin Franklin became the very first Postmaster General, the USPS has faithfully fulfilled the many goals that one can now find inscribed outside the entrance of the U.S. Postal Museum in Washington DC: “Bond of the Scattered Family; Enlarger of the Common Life; Carrier of News and Knowledge; Instrument of Trade and Commerce.”

Yet, today the USPS is under relentless privatization attack by those who clearly don’t appreciate the value of such a long standing public service that provides affordable universal reliable communication for all U.S. citizens. Under the pretense that the USPS is “bankrupt,” Pres. Trump and other neoliberal free marketeers are now hellbent to impose an austerity program that has already shuttered half of the country’s mail processing centers and led to longer delivery times. Any letter mailed in Madison must now go all the way to Milwaukee and then come back, adding 2-3 days on a typical delivery. One out of ten USPS offices have been put on the auction block, and over a third of those remaining have seen their hours of operation curtailed dramatically – this decision having the worst impact on rural areas.

To give but one example, when the USPS office was shut down in Prairie City, SD – saving the federal government a “whopping” $19,000 – the true costs were much higher for the folks living there. Like my post office in Rockville, MN (which – thankfully – survived), the post office in Prairie City, SD was part of the quilt that held that community together, but is now torn apart. As Daniel Beckman, a widowed farmer, told the Wall Street Journal for a Jan. 24, 2011 article, “that was the gathering place for people to come in the mornings, have a cup of coffee or can of pop, and visit – but we don’t have that any more.” Those who rely upon postal delivery of medical prescriptions must now wait several more days for the package, coming across state lines from Hettinger, ND nearly 40 miles away…

How did this quite preventable (and orchestrated) disaster come about? Well, one needs to go back to the late 1970s and early 1980s when the government greased the skids for private entities to undermine the viability of the USPS by granting special exemptions to UPS and FedEx to compete. In Canada the Canada Post at least has the mandate and authority to insure it remains economically viable – not so in the U.S. where the Postal Regulatory Commission – whose members are appointed by the president – can veto any price changes the USPS might propose to actually cover delivery costs. At just 50 cents to deliver a first class letter, USPS rates are among the lowest in the industrialized world, which is why its supposed competitors still rely upon the USPS to deliver so many of their own packages. Up to 30% of Fedex packages are actually delivered by USPS, and Amazon sends 40% of its packages through USPS saving itself up to 75% in shipping costs. Yet, when Pres. Trump tweets about Amazon “scamming” the USPS he somehow fails to mention the fact that it is his own political appointees who prevent the postal service from charging competitive market rates!

In addition to this stranglehold on pricing autonomy, the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act severely restricts the USPS from expanding its services. Many other national postal services have become much more viable through innovation. For instance, Germany’s Deutsche Poste in 2010 began to offer hybrid mail services that give customers a choice between electronic or physical letters. The USPS now provides money orders, but many other countries – like Japan, New Zealand, and India – offer a much wider range of services such as public checking/savings accounts and low interest loans, through their post offices. One recent study suggested that the USPS could earn an extra $8.9 billion per year just by providing basic banking options to the 68 million Americans who now subsist on the fringes of the financial system. Since the 2007 – 2008 financial meltdown over a third of the zipcodes in the U.S. don’t have a functioning private banking option anymore…

VT Sen. Bernie Sanders has been a strong proponent of this new USPS role, stating “If you are a low-income person, it is, depending upon where you live, very difficult to find normal banking. Banks don’t want you. And what people are forced to do is go to payday lenders who charge outrageously high interest rates. You go to check-cashing places, which rip you off. And, yes, I think that the postal service, in fact, can play an important role in providing modest types of banking service to folks who need it.” Other Senators such as Kristen Gillibrand (NY) and Elizabeth Warren (MA) support such efforts to expand postal services into banking – as well as notarization and early voting!

The mass media often parrots the claim of privatization pundits that the USPS is in some deficit death spiral, but that is simply not true. Even former Postal Regulation Commission Chair, Ruth Goldway, admitted that: “The Postal Service has been a kind of cash cow for the federal government for the last 40 years.” The current fiscal crisis is artificially contrived in that the USPS is the only government entity that is now required to pay upfront for 75 years worth of projected retiree’s benefits. This is all due to an error discovered in 2002 that the USPS had overpaid up to $70 billion into one of its pension funds, and the federal government in 2006 mandated the USPS make payments of $5.4 billion for ten years straight out of its current revenue into a Retiree Health Benefits Fund (RHBF) to offset this surplus. As the USPS Office of Inspector General once explained, this is like a credit card company saying, “you will charge a million dollars on your credit card during your life; please include the million dollars in your next payment.”

The cumulative impact of this punitive campaign has been the loss of over 200,000 good paying civil service jobs. In response in Feb. 2015 a Grand Alliance was formed to save the USPS, bringing together 90+ organizations – labor unions, religious groups, consumer advocates, and farm organizations including Family Farm Defenders, Farm Aid, and the National Farmers Union. One of the latest tactics has been to outsource USPS functions to non-union “big box” retail chains like Staples, leading in 2017 to a nationwide series of coordinated protests in 50+ cities The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) on July 12th endorsed the Grand Alliance boycott against Staples – school supplies are a key market for Staples, accounting for up to one-third of its sales. Given this massive grassroots pressure, by Jan. 2018 the USPS terminated its deal with Staples, closing down the 540 “mini-post offices” already inside stores and nixing plans to expand them to all 1,600 locations.

In early Oct. 2018 there was another wave of pre-election solidarity rallies outside post offices in 100+ cities, proclaiming that the “US. Mail is Not for Sale.” When asked what her reaction was to the White House of Office Management and Budget (OMB)’s continued push to sell off the postal service, Janice Kelble, Legislative Grassroots Coordinator for the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) simply stated: “We won’t let the postal eagle be replaced by the vulture.” House Resolution 993 opposing USPS privatization has been cosponsored by 230+ Congressional representatives (both Democrats and Republicans) – and will no doubt gain more support among new incoming members. A viable robust postal service is not only critical to our nation’s economic health but also serves an important role in insuring equality and underpinning democracy. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” – such is Herodotus’ description of the ancient Persian mail service from 500 BC that has become the unofficial creed of the USPS today. This holiday season we should all take a moment to thank those tireless public servants who help tie our community together and resolve to protect and support their vital work into the future.

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Dairy Farming is Dying. After 40 Years I’m Done.

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

Originally published in the Washington Post, Dec. 21, 2018

After 40 years of dairy farming, I sold my herd of cows this summer. The herd had been in my family since 1904; I know all 45 cows by name. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to take over our farm — who would? Dairy farming is little more than hard work and possible economic suicide.

A grass-based organic dairy farm bought my cows. I couldn’t watch them go. In June, I milked them for the last time, left the barn and let the truckers load them. A cop-out on my part? Perhaps, but being able to remember them as I last saw them, in my barn, chewing their cuds and waiting for pasture, is all I have left.

My retirement was mostly voluntary. Premature, but there is some solace in having a choice. Unlike many dairy farmers, I didn’t retire bankrupt. But for my wife and me, having to sell our herd was a sign — of the economic death not just of rural America but also of a way of life. It is nothing short of heartbreaking to walk through our barn and know that those stalls will remain empty. Knowing that our losses reflect the greater damage inflicted on entire regions is worse.

When I started farming in 1979, the milk from 45 cows could pay the bills, cover new machinery and buildings, and allow us to live a decent life and start a family. My father had farmed through the Great Depression, and his advice — “don’t borrow any more than you have to” — stuck with me and probably saved the farm many times over.

We survived the 1980s, when debt loads became impossible for many farmers and merely incredibly onerous for the lucky ones. Interest rates went up, export markets plummeted after a wheat embargo against the Soviet Union, oil prices soared, inflation skyrocketed and land prices began to collapse. More than 250,000 farms died that decade, and more than 900 farmers committed suicide in the upper Midwest alone.

Farmers felt the impact most directly, but there were few in rural communities who were untouched. All the businesses that depended on farm dollars watched as their incomes dried up and the tax base shrank. Farm foreclosures meant fewer families and fewer kids, so schools were forced to close . The Main Street cafes and coffee shops — where farmers talked prices, the weather and politics — shut down as well.

As devastating as the 1980s were for farmers, today’s crisis is worse. Ineffective government subsidies and insurance programs are worthless in the face of plummeting prices and oversupply (and tariffs certainly aren’t helping). The current glut of organic milk has caused a 30 percent decrease in the price I was paid for my milk over the past two years. The new farm bill, signed by President Trump on Thursday, provides modest relief for larger dairy farmers (it expands some subsidies, and farmers will be able to pay lower premiums to participate in a federal program that offers compensation when milk prices drop below a certain level), but farmers don’t want subsidies; all we ever asked for were fair prices. So for many, this is little more than another PR stunt, and the loss of family farms will continue. This year, Wisconsin, where I live, had lost 382 dairy farms by August; last year, the number at the same point was 283. The despair is palpable; suicide is a fact of life, though many farm suicides are listed as accidents.

A farmer I knew for many years came home from town, folded his good clothes for the last time and killed himself. I saw no warning, though maybe others did.

When family farms go under, the people leave and the buildings are often abandoned, but the land remains, often sold to the nearest land baron. Hillsides and meadows that were once grasslands for pasturing cattle become acre upon acre of corn-soybean agriculture. Farming becomes a business where it used to be a way of life. With acreages so large, owners use pesticides and chemical fertilizers to ensure that the soil can hold an unsustainable rotation of plants upright, rather than caring for the soil as a living biotic community.

Those dairy farms that remain milk hundreds or thousands of cows, keeping them in huge barns and on concrete lots. The animals seldom, if ever, get the chance to set their hooves on what little grass is there. Pigs are raised indoors for their entire lives, never feeling the sun or rain or what it’s like to roll in mud.

All the machinery has become bigger, noisier, and some days it runs around the clock. Manure from the mega-farms is hauled for miles in huge tanker trucks or pumped through irrigation lines onto crop fields. The smell, the flies and the airborne pathogens that go with it have effectively done away with much of the peaceful countryside I used to know.

What kind of determination does it take for someone young and hopeful to begin a life of farming in times like these? Getting credit as a small farmer is more difficult today. As prices continue to fall, increasing production and farm size is often the only way to survive. But there is just too much — too much milk, too much grain, too much livestock — thanks to tightening export markets and declining domestic demand for dairy products. The situation is great for the processors who buy from the farmers, but it will never give the farmers a fair price.

With fewer farms, there are fewer foreclosures than in the 1980s. But watching your neighbor’s farm and possessions being auctioned off is no more pleasant today than it was 30 years ago. Seeing a farm family look on as their life’s work is sold off piece by piece; the cattle run through a corral, parading for the highest bid; tools, household goods and toys piled as “boxes of junk” and sold for a few dollars while the kids hide in the haymow crying — auctions are still too painful for me.

As I end my career as a farmer, I feel fortunate it lasted as long as it did. Some choices made long ago did keep me ahead of the curve, at least for a while. I always told people that 45 cows were enough for me, and being able to give them names rather than numbers and appreciate each one’s unique nature was important. I remember Adel, who always found her way across the pasture for a good head scratch, and Lara, whose sandpaper tongue always found my face as I milked her.

Cows like these didn’t fit into the “get big or get out ” theory of farming that took over during the 1980s, so over the years, we needed to get better ideas or get out. By switching to organic production and direct marketing, we managed to make a decent living. We also found that this method of farming required good environmental stewardship and direct involvement with our rural community. And, for almost 20 years, it worked.

But organic dairying has become a victim of its own success. It was profitable and thus fell victim to the “get big” model. Now, our business is dominated by large organic operations that are more factory than farm. It seems obvious that they simply cannot be following the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s strict organic production standards (like pasturing cattle), rules that we smaller farmers see as common sense.

Although small organic farms pioneered the concept, organic certification has become something not meant for us — and a label that mega-farms co-opted and used to break us. When six dairy farms in Texas feed their thousands of cows a diet of organic grain and stored forage, with no discernible access to a blade of grass, they end up producing more milk than all 453 organic dairy farms in Wisconsin combined. Then they ship it north, undercutting our price. We can’t make ends meet and are forced out of the business. We played by the rules, but we no longer have a level playing field.

Despite this, I hung on, but I couldn’t continue milking cows indefinitely. Perhaps it’s for the best. A few years before we sold our herd, we had to install huge fans in our barn — the summers were getting too hot for the cows to be out during the heat of the day. Climate change would have made our future in farming that much harder. We could have adapted, I think, but we ran out of time.

They say a farmer gets 40 chances. For 40 years, each spring brings another shot at getting it right, at succeeding or failing or something in between. If that were ever true, it isn’t now. That’s why, after my 40 chances, I’m done.

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