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Agricultural workers work in Salinas, California.

Agricultural workers work in Salinas, California. (Photo: Michael Davidson/Flickr/cc)

Uprooting the Farm Crisis in Times of COVID-19

When we finally turn toward recovery from the COVID-19 crisis we must thoroughly re-examine the policies that left us so vulnerable not only to the disease but also to the cascade of problems in our economy, including the food and farm system.

The COVID-19 emergency exposes numerous catastrophic failures in our economies and societies. Fragile, concentrated supply chains have broken down, leaving consumers anxious about their food and farmers forced to dump milk and produce they cannot sell or harvest. In South Dakota, one of the nation’s biggest pork processing plants was shut down after more than 400 of its workers fell ill with the virus. Farmers, already reeling from low prices and the market chaos created by Trump’s trade tantrums are entering uncharted waters.

When we finally turn toward recovery from the COVID-19 crisis we must thoroughly re-examine the policies that left us so vulnerable not only to the disease but also to the cascade of problems in our economy, including the food and farm system, caused by over-reliance on so-called free markets and the corporate concentration they created.

The causes of the farm crisis run deep. The issue is not only that so many farmers have been hit hard by the current COVID-19 emergency, but that years of the interlocking system of trade and farm policies had shifted risks to farmers and profits to ever larger corporations, eviscerating more resilient diversified farm and rural economies. It is not so much a crisis of COVID-19 or prices as a Crisis by Design.

That is the title of an article written by IATP founder Mark Ritchie and Kevin Ristau in 1987 in the midst of another farm crisis. It was a watershed document that has been the cornerstone of IATP’s work ever since and has catalyzed further analysis and action by family farmers and their allies. It traced the origins of farm policy, starting from the historic pattern of boom and bust cycles through the Agriculture Adjustment Act in the 1930s. Ritchie and Ristau described how organized political pressure led to the establishment of federal legislation that set minimum prices for farm goods that met farmers’ costs of production — called parity pricing — and supply management to balance the volume of production. The parity program also created a national grain reserve to stabilize prices in times of droughts or other national disasters.

They also described the steady assault on those programs over the decades that followed. In 1987, when Crisis by Design was written, farmers were again in crisis. Farm debts and bankruptcies skyrocketed, and land values and farm prices plummeted. Those calamities spread throughout rural communities. Ritchie and Ristau noted, “Like any worker whose wages are cut in half, farmers faced with falling prices must work twice as hard and sell twice as much just to cover their bills.” This led to the abandonment of many soil and water conservation practices. Grain corporations took advantage of the situation to expand export sales of grain at below the cost of production, underpricing farmers in other countries, a practice known as dumping.

Now, more than 30 years later, we at IATP decided to take a fresh look at the analysis and predictions made in Crisis by Design to understand how the farm situation has changed and assess the impact of current and past policies. Using U.S. Department of Agriculture and other official data, especially from the Census of Agriculture, we analyzed nine aspects of the farm economy over the last 30 years in Revisiting Crisis by Design: Three Decades of Failed Farm Policy:

We found that current U.S. farm and trade policies are not just inadequate to address the dire situation confronting farmers, eaters and the planet. They are causing it. The good news is that proven ideas like supply management and parity pricing are taking on new life as alternative solutions. While U.S. farm policy has yet to effectively respond to climate change, farmers are increas­ingly adopting practices, including building soil health, that can both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen climate resilience. The elements — and the social movements needed to back them up — already exist for a new approach to farm, climate and trade policies that take steps to resolve rather than reinforce the current crisis.

Unfortunately, nearly all of the themes and predictions outlined in the original Crisis by Design still resonate today, with new challenges from the COVID-19 and climate crises, financializa­tion and globalization. As we completed this new analysis, we contacted Mark Richie for his perspective. He answered,

For those who worked tirelessly to drive farmers off the land, they had great success for quite a few years. But there’s a whole new generation of young farmers, rural and urban, that are reversing the policies that have intentionally pushed their parents and grandparents off the land. This includes millions of new arrivals who have come to our country, like the Germans and Scandinavians last century, to make a prosperous life in partnership with the land, the rain, the sun, and their neighbors. They are making the case for the necessity of public policies that promote both sustainable production systems and robust resilience. Consumers and producers are finding each other and together co-creating a brighter future for all.

The challenges we face in our farm economy and rural communities will not fix themselves. As we consider how to emerge from the COVID-19, climate and economic emergencies and to rebuild for the future, our policy framework needs a new design — a design focused on thriving rural communities, more farmers on the land and ecological resilience.

© 2021 Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Karen Hansen-Kuhn

Karen Hansen-Kuhn

Karen Hansen-Kuhn is International Program Director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Her work has focused on bringing developing countries' perspectives into public debates on trade, food security and economic policy.


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