Save Rural America

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Thu Apr 6 12:59:42 PDT 2000

D.C. rally call: 'Save Rural America'

By Terrie Albano and Erwin Marquit

"No farms, no food" is a demand that farmers, rural Americans and the labor movement are bringing to Congress this week as thousands converge on Washington, D.C. for the Rally for Rural America.

The demonstration Tuesday, March 21 at 1:30 p.m. on the west (Mall) side of the Capitol will climax two days of lobbying and town meetings.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) and the AFL-CIO are calling on Congress to save family farms and ranches. Cosponsoring the rally are the American Corn Growers Association, National Family Farm Coalition, Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, the National Farmers Organization, the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy, and the Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Mennonite and Catholic churches.

Dave Fredrickson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU), said that the rally is aimed at people "inside the DC beltway" who are not aware of what is going on in the countryside. The MFU will bring some 500 people to Washington. Minnesota labor unions are sending 50 to 60 members.

The North Dakota Farmers Union has chartered seven buses. Mark Froemke, vice president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO and a leader of the Fargo, N.D. local of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco, and Grainmillers union, told the World that 34 members of his union are coming to the rally "to let everybody know about the crisis in rural America and the urgency of saving our small farms, jobs, and rural businesses."

If things don't change, Froemke said, "rural America will be completely destroyed. The corporate conglomerates control 80 percent of the markets and now want to control all of the land."

Abandoned farms mean "some family lost a home, a town lost a piece of its economy," he said. "When you drive through rural towns and see 90 percent of businesses and schools boarded up, it's not nostalgic."

Froemke, who led a delegation of his union to the "Battle in Seattle" in December, which forced cancellation of a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), said farmers have found new strength in unity with their allies, especially organized labor.

"We as a group - workers, farmers, environmentalists, regular people - are getting our butts kicked. If we unite, we can kick some butts ourselves. Doors opened in Seattle and they aren't going to close," he said.

When the farm economy sags, Froemke said, "so does Racine, Wisc. or Moline, Illinois," referring to two farm equipment manufacturing centers whose workers are mostly represented by the United Auto Workers.

"We came out of the 'Battle in Seattle' fight against the WTO, witnessing the birth of a great new anti-monopoly, anti-corporate coalition on a world scale," said Scott Marshall, Communist Party USA Labor Commission chair.

"The natural alliance between labor, family farmers and agricultural workers, once again, has begun to take a central role in this fight. We all have to eat, work and prosper. The giant agribusiness monoplies are ruining farm land, driving family farmers off the land, and using working people as test animals in potentially dangerous experiments with genetic engineering."

"We've been lucky in Minnesota," Pete Takesh, Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU) public affairs director, told the World. "There is the history of the Farmer-Labor Party. There has always been a strong tie between farmers and labor. From the farm perspective, labor is a key tie to consumers. Farmers asking for a fair price is the same as workers asking for a living wage."

The MFU has been organizing rallies around the state to address the crisis conditions. "In Seattle, you had farmers and labor. That's not that new of a coalition - that's how farmers' coops started," Takesh said. "The new thing is environmental groups, the consumer groups, small businesses, the schools and churches. We had a local rally about the rural crisis, last summer and 2,000 migrant workers were a part of that as well as Tribal Councils."

The 1996 so-called "Freedom to Farm" act will terminate over seven years the last remaining New Deal farm price support programs that have sustained family farmers. Repeal of that bill is one of the main demands of the rally.

"This bill has driven thousands of families off the farms they have farmed for generations," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) at the National Farmers Union (NFU) Convention Feb. 25 in Salt Lake City. He said this failed farm policy has forced Congress to resort to emergency legislation and made farmers "dependent on the whim and caprice of Congress."

Andrea Clark, education and membership director of the Rocky Mountain Farmers' Union, told the World she grew up on a ranch in New Mexico. "Beef, sheep, pork producers face the same issues of price as grain farmers. When you have three companies processing 90 percent of the beef, they pretty much control the prices. It makes a producer a slave to the purchaser," she said, referring to agribusiness giants like Iowa Beef and Hormel.

An alliance of the Colorado Farmers Union and the Environmental Defense Fund is working to place on the ballot an intiative banning huge industrial hog farms such as one in Yuma County with 400,000 hogs on five square miles, certain to contaminate the ground water with hog manure.

"It doesn't mean we agree on all issues, but family ranchers and farmers are good stewards of the land and align themselves with environmental issues," Clark said. "Farmers are community-minded. Corporate agribusiness doesn't have a good track record in that regard."

The NFU convention demanded that Congress return to the goal of ensuring parity prices. The resolution stressed the importance of restoring the family farm safety net by improving price support levels, indexed to reflect changes in the cost of production, improvement of loan programs, expansion of crop insurance, and expansion of the commodity reserve program, demands that will also resound at the March 21 rally.

The NFU convention denounced the wave of agribusiness mergers among the corporate giants and called for a moratorium on acquisitions until a study on the impact on family farm income is completed.

It also demanded antitrust legislation to combat merger-mania such as the pending Cargill merger with Continental grain. Concerned about the long-term safety and market uncertainties of genetically modified crops, the NFU delegates urged Congress to "to support a moratorium on the patenting and licensing of new transgenic animals and plants developed through genetic engineering until the broader legal, ethical, and economic questions are thoroughly explored."

Controversy arose over the normalization of trade relations with China. With 25 percent of the world's population but only 12 percent of the world's arable land, China is a major importer of agricultural products. The convention, nevertheless, adopted, by a narrow vote of 64 to 60, a resolution against normalization as the delegates sought to avoid taking a stand contrary to that of the AFL-CIO and thereby weakening the growing farmer-labor alliance. Differing views on trade policy with China have not deflected the struggle against the transnational corporations, including agribusiness.

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