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The Dark Side of the American Agricultural Economy

>From The Progressive Populist Feb. 15, 2006
http://www.populist.com/06.3.krebs.html
By Al Krebs

CALAMITY HOWLER/A.V. Krebs
Dark Side of Ag Economy

"That farmers are poor, that they could not survive without government
programs, that food supplies would be inadequate without the programs, that
corporations would take over farming without the programs, that the family
farm has got to be preserved because it's essential for democracy or that
programs are essential to preserve the rural community: All of these things,
all of it is myth. All myth."

Among those agricultural economists who seek to rationalize, defend and
justify the role of corporate agribusiness in America's rural economy, no
single individual is more outspoken than Ohio State's Luther Tweeten, a
professor of agricultural economics.

For Tweeten, destroying the nation's family farm system, enslaved to the
myths of the "dark side of the farm personality," has become a holy and
righteous crusade.

Believing that social scientists must confront those myths that "may have
made life tolerable for many farmers but which also have provided a
psychological and ideological climate where paranoia, scapegoating,
violence, armed confrontation, intimidation and fear" abound, Tweeten sees a
number of "antisocial" roots that have precipitated this "dark side of the
farm personality." They include:

1) Frustration over personal and industry economic problems in recent years;
2) A basic sense of superiority or "essentiality," in part motivated by
"farm fundamentalism";
3) A strong problem-solving orientation; and
4) More intense social and economic ties by families to farming than ties by
others to their industries.

While acknowledging that farmers "have reason to complain" when it comes to
the "quantum failure of fiscal policy" in recent years, Tweeten seeks to lay
the main burden of that failure simply on real interest and exchange rates
and federal deficits, which he suggests are due in large part to
over-generous subsidies to farmers.

Meanwhile, he ignores factors such as increasing economic concentration by
corporations in the farm and food sector, and the failure of the "free
enterprise" system to maintain a fair price for commodities, as having
played any role in our recent ag policy debacles.

"Farm fundamentalism is the belief that farming is not only a superior way
of life but also represents the highest ideals of the nation ... [it] holds
that the nation's political and social system cannot survive without the
type of person the farm way of life produces. In economic philosophy, the
ideal holds new wealth derives only from raw materials and that the farmer
must prosper for the nation to prosper."

Rather than naively sharing Tweeten's negative characterization of "farm
fundamentalism," it is important to recognize it for the truth it contains
and the manner in which it has been subtly used and cleverly manipulated by
corporate agribusiness to subjugate family farmers through myths.
Rather than expressing admiration for the strong problem-solving orientation
that people have come to associate with the farm character, some
commentators like Tweeten contend that this too is also one of the roots of
antisocial behavior which is reflected in the "dark side of the farm
personality."

While acknowledging on one hand that farmers are "impatient with
intellectualizing and bureaucratic procedures" and "are accustomed to
improvising and taking matters into their own hands to create solutions by
expedient means," Tweeten ignores the large role that corporate agribusiness
has played in fostering such distrust by condescendingly declaring that "the
greater economic problems of farmers have roots beyond the farm gate and are
less tractable to individual action and initiative than are problems of a
sick cow or nutrient-deficient crops."

But, as Tuskegee University Professor Emeritus Booker T. Whatley reminds us:
"Farmers must destroy the myth that there is a divine law which states they
must lose title to their commodities at the farm gate. We have reached the
level of sophistication in this country where everybody is making a profit
on agricultural commodities except the farmers who produce them."
Tweeten, however, not surprisingly as a defender of former USDA Secretary
Earl Butz's school of "get big or get out," decries the need for destroying
such a myth.

"I have found widespread support among farm people for two propositions: 1)
Washington and the market perennially have not favored them, and 2) they
need more political and economic bargaining power to serve the needs of
farmers and society. Each point has dubious validity."

The concern among family farmers that commodity markets do not favor them
and that, unless the family farm system of agriculture is preserved, the
nation's food production will fall into the hands of a few large
corporations who would then have the ability to both control and raise food
prices, Tweeten labels as "overblown and inconsistent rhetoric."

The Ohio State economist, however, a longtime advisor to the USDA, betrays
his real fears and those of corporate agribusiness in general when he adds
that "this incorrect assertion often prefaces the assertion that family
farmers must organize to control production, raise farm prices and in
general find their ultimate economic security in greater economic bargaining
power." (Emphasis added.)

While totally ignoring the role and character of modern-day corporate
agribusiness (multinational, economically concentrated and profit hungry by
its very nature), Tweeten explains away his position. "First, farmers are
too independent and numerous to congeal into the tightly controlled
bargaining organization required to affect farm economic outcomes.
"Second, the auto and steel labor unions have demonstrated that even
powerful bargaining groups are unable to preserve jobs and earnings when
domestic industries operate in an open global economy.

"Third, given that a facilitative public policy is required for farmers to
bargain collectively, the public is unlikely to give any group arbitrary
control over food supplies. To do so would place the public at risk and at
the mercy of groups whose first concern would be self-interest rather than
safe, abundant, quality food supplies at reasonable prices."

By insisting that the family farm system does not suffer from federal
neglect and that farmers do not need more economic and political bargaining
power, Tweeten only demonstrates the validity of a major concern of the
agrarian reform movement of a century ago: that the nation's "communities of
economic interests" remain unalterably opposed to farmers organizing for
their own economic and political survival.

"Agrarian reformers," in the words of historian Lawrence Goodwyn, "attempted
to overcome a concentrating system of finance capitalism that was rooted in
Eastern commercial banks and which radiated outward through trunk-line
railroad networks to link in a number of common purposes much of America's
consolidating corporate community. Their aim was structural reform of the
American economic system."

The fact that populism thrived for nearly a decade in the late 1800s by
preaching that genuine political democracy was impossible without economic
democracy explains why, in the century that followed, "agrarian revolt,"
corporate America and its experts like Tweeten have sought to discredit and
demean any renewed moves by the nation's farmers to assert that same
economic and political power they so forcefully applied in the late 1800s.
A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, which
publishes the online newsletter The Agribusiness Examiner; email
avkrebs@calamityhowler.info.
>From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 15, 2006