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As a result of the farm crisis of the 1980s
nearly one million farmers were forced out of business.

Family Farms and U.S. Trade Policy

U.S. family farm leader speaks to European farmers

by Bill Christison,
Brussels, Belgium / Chillicothe, Missouri, U.S.A.

Bill Christison, president of both the U.S. National Family Farm Coalition and the Missouri Rural Crisis Center delivered this speech in March of 1998, in Brussels, Belgium to the Confederation of Paisans, a confederation of farmer organizations in 16 European countries representing two million farmers. Also present were delegates from the European Parliament and the European Commission.


I am Bill Christison and I bring you all greetings from the family farmers of the United States. I am the newly elected president of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), a coalition of more than thirty organizations in thirty-five states. I am also the president of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, a statewide organization with approximately 4,000 farm families in our membership.

First I would like to express our gratitude for the invitation to be here today and for the support that helped make it possible. Also I want to introduce a highly respected family farmer and organizer from Wisconsin who is also the vice-president of the National Family Farm Coalition, Mr. John Kinsman, who you will have the opportunity to speak with later.

It will be great to renew acquaintances here and we look forward to meeting many new people. I can tell you, there is a great respect in the United States for European family farmers. Last year, in connection with Greenpeace working on biotechnology issues. I visited several European countries. In each country we held press conferences, met with farm organizations and various importers and government officials. Since that time we have had news media from six or eight countries visit our farm. These issues are important to all of us as farmers and citizens.

NFFC represents family farmers who continue to struggle with their families to remain on the farm and earn a decent living working the land. We are committed to working on international issues through our work influencing policy in the United States and through exchange of information, strategies and experiences around the country. As I make this presentation today we emphasize the need to learn from each other, implement joint strategies as we face the same perils: the excessive role of corporate agribusiness. It is exciting to be here with you today but I know our ability to work together is based on increasing the capacities of our organizations to work together and coordinating action on key issues at strategic times.

The Impacts on Family Farms of 20 Years of Corporate Trade Agreements

The NFFC recognizes that the fight for the future of the family farmer whether in the U.S., Europe or Asia is dependent on each country having the right to not only determine but to implement sensible farm and food policies that respond to and meet the needs of farmers and consumers within their own country to provide for food security. Our organizations must expand our links and develop joint strategies to formulate solutions that lay the groundwork for a more sustainable future. The need for this coordination is even greater as we see trans-national corporations reap record profits by promoting government policies and international trade agreements that dismantle domestic policies that have responded to farmers, growers, and consumers for decades.

U.S. corporate agribusiness has been imposing their agenda through international trade agreements for the past two decades. U.S. farm policy has been tinkered with for many years with ConAgra and Cargill and other transnational corporations often directly influencing the legislative process as well as the regulatory process through their influential role within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There has been a revolving door in the United States -- Daniel Amstutz was the U.S. Trade Representative after serving on the Board of Cargill and then went back to the boardrooms. Clayton Yeutter after serving as USDA Secretary joined the ConAgra Board of Directors. During this past week in Geneva and in D.C. they are globe-trotting celebrating 50 years of GATT and its "success". NFFC along with the Citizens Trade Campaign will be joining hundreds at a protest in front of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. this Wednesday. We know better than anyone who it has been a success for and what is being sacrificed in the process.

In 1996, passage of the FAIR Act dismantled the farm programs that have been in place since the New Deal which had been developed to "protect" farmers from market volatility and provide a consistent supply of food for domestic consumers. During the 1980s, we were in the forefront criticizing the deficiency-based program since it had ignored the real needs of farmers and helped cause the farm crisis. What farmers needed then and still need is an effective supply management program. The total loss of meaningful commodity loan rates through the caps in the 1996 Farm Bill destroys a minimum floor for farm commodity process. Farmers producing crops covered under the deficiency payment program are now receiving declining payments which have been "decoupled" from production levels. The levels of these payments were dictated by a budget agreement, not the needs of farmers. There is massive volatility in commodity prices, with wheat prices down below $3.50/bushel, corn at $2.50, and soybeans at $6.95/bushel. Dairy farmers are facing their lowest prices in a decade and disastrous weather conditions.

Originally a goal of Republican members of Congress who introduced decoupling legislation in 1985, this policy has now been institutionalized in the World Trade Organization (WTO) as the most acceptable approach to domestic agriculture support. The insecurity of the future of the payments is compounded by the removal of an effective mechanism for farmers to store commodities that had increased the ability of farmers to market their harvest when it made economic sense to sell, not simply at harvest when prices were lowest. Dairy farmers as well are facing declining prices resulting from increased corporate control of the market exerted by cooperatives and processors.

Until 1996, the U.S. Congress had refused to go along with this decoupled policy. The FAIR Act was forged from the convergence of a congressional budge battle, the support for decoupled policy from the WTO, and declining support for a strong, effective government role in farm policy. U.S. domestic policy in response to international trade agreements continued to threaten the food security in this country. It limits the responses and tools that the government has to respond to crises in production, marketing and distribution throughout the food chain.

Unless some safeguards are put in place to ensure farmers receive a fair price for their product, regardless of the political, environmental, economic or any other conditions in other countries, we will continue to see the number of farmers in the United States and in other countries decrease because the economic risk of producing food is simply too great. As a result of the farm crisis of the 1980s nearly one million farmers were forced out of business. Based on the 1992 Agricultural Census there are 1.9 million farmers in the U.S. - that counts everyone who has gross sales of over one thousand dollars. This is out of a total U.S. population of 260 million people. That means that farmers account for less than 73 hundreds of one percent. The startling fact is that only 333,000 farmers, 13 hundreds of one percent of the population, is producing 83% of the food and fiber in the U.S. Remember, these are 1992 figures and the impact of our farm bill, vertical integration of the livestock industry, and trade policy mean even fewer farmers today.

In Missouri alone, the number of family hog farmers dropped over 50% from 1994-1997; with national numbers of hog farmers declining from 207,980 in 1994 to 138,000 in 1997.

Family farmers of the world have the right and obligation to produce a safe adequate supply of food at a reasonable cost for the consumers in their respective country, and for this we should be compensated with a parity price for that production. We are falling far short of that today with farmers in the U.S. receiving 37% of parity for wheat., 39% for corn, 44% for hogs, and 47% for wheat. The highest level for any commodity is soybeans with only 51% of parity. The current pricing and marketing situations is not sustainable - for our farms, families, rural communities, and our food security.

Politically there has been a recognition by some that things cannot continue in this direction. When President Clinton signed the farm bill, nearly two years ago on April 4, 1996 , he committed to supporting legislation to "fix the safety net". Now, two years later after no legislative action, as thousands of farmers are facing natural and economic disasters, there have been indications of some attention yet so far only reports and talk, not yet action. the USDA's Small Farm Commission issued a report entitled "Time to Act" which includes 146 different recommendations to shift policy and practices to better respond to the needs of family farmers. Unfortunately the report is based on the premise that these changes are in response to the "success" of the GATT round and the reduction of subsidies worldwide, not due to the inequities created by the current global trading and corporate control. In addition there are some members of Congress who recognize the need to raise the cap on commodity loan rates and hopefully increase their level to at least 75% of the economic cost of production. This would reinforce a government role in helping to ensure marketing opportunities instead of a continuation of dumping on the world market due to the race to lower prices at all costs.

The major thrust of every nation's agricultural production should be domestic food security. While the United States often prides itself as the wealthiest and most food-abundant country in the world, we have a despicable rate of hunger with poverty increasing and food insecurity at record highs - among children and the elderly. Increasing numbers of people go hungry while the U.S. government dismantles important provisions of its welfare system. Threats to future food access and security are increased by changes in the U.S. food and farm policy. Farmers to continue to face increasing price volatility with thousands of family dairy farmers being forced out of business during the past two months as they face the lowest net prices in a decade and disastrous weather conditions. Other farmers are facing increasing influence of corporate America through the use of contracts - contracts to sell products as well as the control of the planting, production and distribution that is being imposed through Monsanto and Roundup Ready Soybeans. Increased vertical integration of food corporations means that farmers are losing their independence, their ability to have any control over their marketing and ultimately the loss of consumer confidence in both the safety and health of the food supply. Under the system of contract farming, family farmers will be reduced to a subservient lifestyle with the controlling corporations making all decisions, yet assuming little of the financial and environmental risk. We must work together to bring about a viable labeling law as it pertains to products produced with GMO's (genetically modified organisms). Country of origin should be printed on food products. Genetically altered organisms present an array of problems such as health, environmental and economic consequences which are all very real.

Another issue that demonstrates the role and excessive control of agribusiness in the U.S. policy process is the current debate over the proposed regulations for the U.S. national organic definition. In 1991, the need to establish a national standard was recognized by Congress when the legislation was included in the 1990 Farm Bill. There were extensive public input sessions, and a National Organic Standards Board was created which incorporated the opinion of the public, scientists, consumers, farmers and others into their recommendations to the USDA. After a lengthy delay, USDA published its proposed rule on December 16th with a deadline for public comment of April 30th. This process would be fine except for the major fact that USDA ignored many of the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and has now asked for public input on some of the most contentious issues including the acceptance of genetically modified organisms, sewage sludge, and food irradiation as elements of organic production. USDA was responding to the pressures of the food industry and in particular the biotech firms who wanted to expand their ability to export genetically modified crops and view this proposed rule as a threat. These are issues that the NOSB had determined should not have been part of the proposal, yet we now need to mobilize a national response and international strategy to deal with this situation - one that has serious implications for organic farmers around the world as well as consumers who deserve to know what they are eating.

Forward to:

  • Part 2: Citizen Opposition to Corporate Domination of U.S. Trade Policy

Bill Christison, president of National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), is a fourth-generation family farmer from Chillicothe, Missouri. Bill and his wife Dixie, operate a 2,000 acre farm on which they produce soybeans, corn, wheat, hay and cattle. He is also president of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC), a grassroots farm organization with over 3,6000 member families. MRCC is a NFCC member group.

Bill is strongly opposed to use of genetically engineered soybeans and has worked actively to develop alternative marketing channels for farmers who wish to avoid using Monsanto-produced seeds. During the 1980s farm crisis, he was active in winning passage of federal credit legislation that enabled tens of thousands of family farmers to reschedule their debts, and has assisted numerous Missouri farmers in successful credit appeals and bankruptcy restructuring.

Through MRCC, Bill has been active in confronting and often stopping the advance of corporate factory hog farming in his state. MRCC has developed the Patchwork Family Farms Project, an innovative direct marketing program linking family hog farmers and low-income consumers in Missouri.

Published in In Motion Magazine - July 14, 1998