It is no secret that those of us who live and work in the field of farm and food production are highly political. That’s partially because government programs, incentives and services touch every aspect of daily life in agriculture. Whether through subsidy payments, crop insurance, conservation programs or price and production reporting that helps to propel livestock grain and feed markets, government is an ever-present backdrop in the world of farming. Perhaps this is why an occupation made up of two million people (less than 1% of all Americans)--most of whom have off-farm incomes in addition to their farming work--can wield such important power and influence in national politics. When speaking with one voice, agriculture is a political force to be reckoned with.
But there is certainly more to the story than that. Within the farming community, there are clear political power struggles and controversies that cause this theoretically unified Farm Block to break down. Agriculture is not one big happy family. Unfortunately the power of strong rhetoric and confusing principles often lead the Big Ag Elite and the rural anti-government crowd to dominate the airways in Farm Country.
One example resides in their attack of the Department of Labor over proposed child labor laws in agriculture. Should we really be spending our time, effort and political energy spreading misinformation about the supposed “end of agriculture?" Should we be (inaccurately) debating the shut-down of 4H, FFA and other Vocational Agriculture Programs? We don’t think so. Honestly, we think it’s a no brainer to embrace a little bit of the modern worldview and provide safe working conditions for children. Yes, we’re talking about children here, children employed in one of the most dangerous occupations where they are still allowed to work.
But find another couple of farmers willing to tell that side of the story. Where are they? We can’t find them. Instead, we in agriculture are stuck inside a Conservative framing machine that says “government is bad; regulations are bad; taxing in order to spend is evil.* Barack Obama and the Democrats are trying to take away your farm and have declared war on agriculture.”
(*Special Note: The Big Ag Elite does reserve the right to violate their principles when it comes to receiving crop subsidy payments and various government-funded crop insurance programs).
The current methods to control the debate in agriculture are taking the form of this weird quasi-astroturf effort to “tell agriculture’s story,” again attempting to paint the picture of one big happy agricultural scene without controversy or questions of legitimacy. Whether we’re talking about the U. S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (a conglomeration of the commodity groups and various industrial ag supporters that has likely shown up on your Facebook ad banner) or these Food Dialogue panels that attempt to quell questions of industrial agriculture production, this whole sham is little more than a PR strategy in an age of social media and constant communication. It’s there to preserve the myth that industrial agriculture is the only way to feed the world; that local food and organics are simply niches available to those farmers willing to take advantage of a few rich liberals.
One of the reasons why the local food response to Big Agriculture holds so much promise is the very different way it approaches these questions. Farmers serving up fair for local foodies tend to agree that Big Agriculture has failed us and that a cleaner, greener production system is better for our bodies and for society in general. Farmers markets are growing in numbers. Community Supported Agriculture programs are a shining star of direct relationships between farmers and consumers. Even grocers and Institutions like universities and hospitals are starting to carry local food. We’ve come a long way. Now, within the local food world, we’re talking about capitalization strategies and scaling up and infrastructure. Much of this local food scene as been funded in part due to government assistance along the way (granted less than we would have liked).
With this in mind, we want to express our disagreement with those in the farm and food scene that poo-poo government’s role in generating funding, support programs, regulations, rules and other means of service for the growing local food world. Would we change things about agricultural policy? Yes, starting with reforming things like subsidies to big agribusiness. However, we believe that democratic federal, state and local governments are one of the most powerful and effective tools our community has to address the failures of Industrial Agriculture while nurturing the opportunity available to local farmers and food entrepreneurs.
So that’s why we’re here to say that we support the updated child labor laws impacting agriculture. We say this as farmers who grew up on multigenerational family farms with big livestock and big tractors and small children. Under these proposed rules, children will still be able to feed the baby goats, work cattle, drive the 4-wheeler around and sit in the truckbed while kicking out some flakes of hay to the hungry animals. Our rural way of life is not threatened and we’re not scared of Barack Obama for hatching a conspiracy to round us up and drive us out of agriculture once and for all.
The real issue, at the end of the day, boils down to politics. The Farm Bureau, the Cattlemen’s Association, the American Meat Institute and others in the Conservative Big Agriculture frame all benefit from the fairy tale that the Democrats are in a war on Rural America and our “way of life.” They need this narrative full of misleading sentiment because they have no factual basis for their claims. And, to their credit (if deception can be a credit), these folks are in the drivers’ seat when it comes to setting the agenda for farm and food policy.
It’s time for a new narrative in farm country. Let’s stop looking to lynch Barack Obama (ouch-racial metaphor) and the Democrats as the lynchpin in a grand conspiracy of ending agriculture in America. Hell, let’s stop lynching government itself while we’re at it. That story might serve Republican politicians and corporate agribusiness very well, but it’s a big fat lie. Here we are wasting our time talking about false idols when we could be doing something effective like breaking up monopolies, banning corporate meatpackers from owning livestock and investing in local food entrepreneurs as a new engine of economic growth throughout our nation.
Of course, those actions would take rules, regulations, government spending and maybe even a little bit of “red tape.” And we can’t have that, now, can we?
This 3-part blog post on the issues related to the Department of Labor’s proposed child labor rules in agriculture is co-authored by Jake Davis and Bryce Oates. Jake and Bryce are both farmers and are co-owners of the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia, MO. They are also co-founders of the Missouri Bounty Box, a weekly produce subscription program that links Missouri farmers with local folks seeking good food. More information is available at www.missouribountybox.com.