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Saving Family Farms and Bringing Economic and Social Justice to the Rural South

August 2006

Corrina and I just returned from a whirlwind three-state tour of the South. Our trip began in Alabama, took us to Mississippi and ended in New Orleans, Louisiana. The landscape was beautiful, the heat and humidity bordering on oppressive, the vowels pronounced long and slowly, the people welcoming and the food delicious.

We went to Birmingham and then Epes, Alabama for the annual meeting of a Grassroots International partner–the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. The Federation has been around for close to 40 years and developed out of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement “to bring social and economic justice to the rural south.” Its mission is to develop sustainable communities with programs that increase income and enhance other opportunities for small farmers and low-income people.

The Federation has saved thousands of African American farmers from losing their land. The Federation continues to do amazing work, but it is an uphill battle as it works with a population that many Americans consider practically extinct–family farmers. They make up a seemingly insignificant 1.7% of the American population. According to the USDA, since 1935 the number of family farmers has decreased by more than 60%. Some people estimate that up 500 family farms are lost every week. Every family farm lost is also a loss for the environment, thriving rural communities and locally sourced healthy, nutritious food.

The following quote said by a Federation employee puts into context the work of the Federation around family farming and land loss prevention: “We are losing the land even faster than we are losing the farmers.”

The Federation is a member of the National Family Farm Coalition, another Grassroots International partner. They have formed an even larger coalition and movement to influence agricultural policy, specifically, the U.S. Farm Bill. The U.S. Farm Bill is up for renewal in 2007. Jerry Pennick of the Federation managed to succinctly sum up the importance of this work: “Agricultural issues cross all lines–color, culture, borders and countries. We are going to influence agriculture and trade policy. This time, we are not simply going to be at the table; we are going to help set the table.”

Family farmers around the world recognize U.S. agricultural policy as international policy. Farmers and rural advocates from Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Kenya and Malawi attended the annual meeting and each had opportunities to share the experiences of family farmers in their respective countries.

Justus Monda, the Ngoma Campaign and farmer from Kenya, speaking about Kenya’s agricultural system said, “Things started out so well after independence. But now we are in a position where we don’t know where we are or how we got here.” Rafael Gonzalez Yoc from the Committee for Campesino Unity in Guatemala spoke about the devastating effects CAFTA will have on his country. Carol Kayira from Action Aid Malawi explained how prolonged food aid perpetuates the problem of food insecurity in Malawi. She called on U.S. farmers to keep in mind the issue of dumping and to help her advocate for transitioning food aid into cash aid as a better means of attaining food security. Elisangela dos Santos Araújo of the Unified Workers’ Confederation from Brazil spoke of the injustice of family farmers in Brazil accounting for 77% of the country’s agricultural production while receiving a mere 23% of the country’s agriculture budget.

George Naylor of the National Family Farm Coalition said that the Farm Bill should be thought of as a farmer/consumer Bill of Rights. He stated that there are good people in every country who can raise good food and that every consumer should have access to healthy food.

George gave three examples to illustrate the magnitude of what is wrong with our current agricultural system.

1. The price of corn today is $1.76/bushel. The average price of corn has remained at about $2.00/bushel over the past 30 years. That is roughly 1/3 of what the price of corn would be today with adjustments for inflation. With those adjustments, the price of corn would be about $6.00/bushel. Workers get salary adjustments to account for inflation, why are farmers exempt?

2. When George speaks on panels he often places a pound of corn in a Ziplock bag. That pound of corn is worth 3 cents. “I tell people how much the corn inside the bag is worth and then I still have to point out that the Ziplock bag is worth more than the corn inside.”

3. When Mother Nature blesses us with a good crop, abundance, what should be cause for celebration, is not. Our system has Mother Nature’s gift set up as a curse because it will just drive the price of corn down.

Grassroots International continues to listen to, document and share the experiences of our partners and allies as they advocate for their rights to land, livelihood and access to healthy food. What they are asking for is so simple–a fair price for crops that covers the cost of production. But, as one farmer said, “The American people are addicted to cheap prices.” There is a big gap between a cheap price and a fair price and until we reconcile that gap, family farmers will continue to be the big losers.

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