Kansas Farmers Union Convention speakers discuss Farm Bill’s impact on family farms

16 01 2012

By Lauren Clary

TOPEKA—Kansas Farmers Union (KFU) held its 104th Annual Convention at the Topeka Ramada on Dec. 2-3, 2011. There Kansas Farmers Union members heard from eight speakers about farm policy and the importance of speaking up for family farms and rural America.

“The first job of a citizen is to keep your mouth open,” Jim Hightower said. “It helps if that mouth is attached to a brain and that is what you bring. Kansas Farmers Union is a grassroots network that can provide information, education, vision, connections to link that brain power to mouth power that then connects to foot power that produces political power.”

“It’s critical that every one of you speak out on these issues and its critical that you reach out to your neighbors to get your neighbors involved,” Chuck Hassebrook said. “It’s critical that Farmers Union speak with clarity on the important issues to say it’s about how we support farming and what kind of an agriculture it causes.”

Herb Bartel

Herb and his wife Pat spent about 10 years on the Northern Slope of Alaska while they worked in economic development. They worked with the Eskimos and experienced their way of life.

“We went away with the ethic that we should try and do no harm in our lives and were still working on that. of all these experiences, I’d say that’s the one thing that we benefited from,” Bartel said.

Also on Friday during lunch, Kansas Democratic Party Chair Joan Wagnon stopped by to talk with Kansas Farmers Union members. “We’re going to be pushing schools and education,” Wagnon said. “We’re going to continue to talk about health care because if we start closing rural hospitals, we’re going to be in a world of hurt.”

Mercedes Taylor-Puckett

Kansas’ rural communities have an opportunity for 1,000 new fruit and vegetable farmers as a result of the local food movement, Taylor-Puckett said.

“Kansans spend $767 million in fruit and vegetables and Kansas farmers sell approximately $32 million in vegetables each year,” Taylor-Puckett said.“As you can see, there’s a huge gap. It’s an opportunity that we have for our rural communities.”

“There are a lot of young people who are very excited about farming, about growing food for people, about that interaction and so there’s a significant opportunities for rural communities for rural communities to attract young young people,” Taylor-Puckett said.

Roger Johnson

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson discussed the 2012 Farm Bill and the cuts of roughly $20 billion. Johnson said the cuts more than likely won’t come out of nutrition programs, which account for 80 percent of the Farm Bill. He sees direct payments being cut and crop insurance being left alone.

The circumstances that we face in agriculture today are not a whole unlike they were in the 96 farm bill debate: high commodity prices, rapidly increasing costs behind those prices. Didn’t have budget concern that we have today, but a lot of attitude in the rest of the country, you know what agriculture’s doing pretty well,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the House and Senate Ag Committees are looking at passing the 2012 Farm Bill very differently. Senate Chairwoman Stabenow said she intends to hold hearing in February, with the goal of passing the Farm BIll by June.

“[House Ag Chairman] Lucas said no, no we’re not going to do anything in the house. We’re going to wait until the new budget scores are out and wait and see what the Senate does. He’s saying that because he doesn’t believe he can pass a farm bill of any sort,” Johnson said. “My personal view is that its going to be a really heavy lift to get it passed in June as well and I think its probably more likely we’re going to be looking at a 2013 Farm Bill.”

Henry Strnad

Longtime KFU member from Republic County Henry Strnad shared his “philosophy.” “What are the difficult things to do?” Strnad said. “Let me tell you it’s difficult to be a responsible citizen. It’s difficult to be a good steward of that which was given to us. It’s difficult to be accountable, and I think we’re failing miserably.”

Mary Hendrickson

Concentration can be found in every aspect of agriculture and food production, Mary Hendrickson, University of Missouri professor, said.

“There’s just a few fertilizers suppliers, just a few seed suppliers, we can count them on one hand, maybe two. There’s just a few folks to sell to, and then there’s just a few food manufactures,” Hendrickson said. “We’re relying on fewer and fewer mammals, birds and crop species to provide our human food supply. Sometime the environment is going to hit us back.”

What makes this problem, concentration in our food, something everyone should be concerned with is that it is taking away consumers’ ability to exercise democratic control our food system.

“I think it’s really important to understand, what’s happened is we’ve shifted the focus of control and decision making about food away from households and communities to corporate boards and we do this because its more efficient, its better for us. That’s the argument,” Hendrickson said. “I know we’re disheartened [about the recent rulings on competition policy, ie GIPSA]. We don’t feel like its going anywhere, but we have to keep our eye on the ball, because competition policy and antitrust is crucial. And we’re going to have to think about it on a global scale.” Hendrickson said.

Hendrickson sited that as Taylor-Puckett said, local food and farmers markets are seeing steady increases. “At the same time we’re getting these global production networks, we’re also reinventing these things at the local level. It makes the food system very exciting and very interesting,” Hendrickson said.

Chuck Hassebrook

“Policy determines what kind of agriculture and what kind of rural communities we’re going to have and what kind of agriculture communities we pass on to the next generation,” Chuck Hassebrook, Executive Director for the Center for Rural Affairs, said.

Hassebrook spoke a lot about the importance of the Farm Bill, not only on agriculture, but also for rural communities. Although, the main point he addressed is how large, corporate farms are succeeding, causing the small, family farms to be squeezed out, which also causing rural communities to dwindle.

“The problem is that as long as we keep up that same kind of public policy, that over subsidizes the big and powerful and under invests in our future, we’re going to keep going the way we’ve been going in rural America,” Hassebrook said. “If we keep up this policy, its going to keep destroying family farming and it’s going to keep driving our communities to their death and we got to do something better.”

Fred Stokes

Fred Stokes, President of the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), stressed the fact that family farmers have “got to come alive.”

“If we’re going to come out of this thing with the family farm and ranch still being alive, we’ve got to move and we’ve got to move soon and we can’t be too passive,” Stokes said. “We’ve simply got to come together and work together on our common mission of promoting the interest of farmers and ranchers and ensuring our national food security and fostering a more livable rural America.”

Stokes also shared some facts on how the Beef Check-off is corrupt. “They can say we don’t use checkoff money to give to campaign contributions and advocate with it, but the fact of the matter, in my opinion, NCBA (National Cattlemen’s Beeff Association) exists because of the checkoff,” Stokes said. “They have gone and become a powerful political force, thanks to the checkoff. We have funded our own opposition. There’s some gross, terrible abuses that have occurred.”  OCM has started a Beef Check-off Reform Task Force which has been successful in having an audit done by the Inspector General for USDA. The audit is expected to be done in February.

Stokes said the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance “scares me to death.” The Alliance is a confederation of about 50 entities, including Farm Bureau, NCBA, and “essentially all the commodity programs,” Stokes said. “They are putting together a massive fund and putting together a big PR (public relations) company and others to spin this thing and convince the public that they ought to institute the industrial model for agriculture rather than the family farm,” Stokes said. “I see it as a terrible thing thats going to be perpetrated on the american people if we don’t move pretty soon.”

Jim Hightower

Former Texas Ag Commissioner and Political Activist Jim Hightower entertained during the Convention Banquet with his political humor and a message about the need to speak up in rural America.

“My message to you is that we can have the kind of farm policy, we can have the kind of democratic economy, we can have the kind of communities, the good food culture, the kind of country that we want, if we do something that is very important in America, and that is to be disobedient,” Hightower said.

Hightower also talked about the importance of Farmers Union and why we need to continue to fight. “You (Farmers Union) have the guts and the gumption to stand up for future generations of family farmers, for the purity of our land. Stand up for rural communities, the culture of agriculture,” Hightower said.

“The great fight that you are making at a grassroots level all across this country is changing the food economy, but its also changing the American perception of what America is and how big we can be,” Hightower said. “Our leaders are small, but our people are not. And that’s the importance of farmers union, to invest in the people, lift up the people, encourage the people themselves, because they are the powers who can make the difference.”

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