While it’s true that control of CAFOs is a state issue, I was nevertheless struck at the National Rural Summit last Thursday by the fact that I didn’t so much as hear the term mentioned. After all, the proliferation of CAFOs might have a great deal to do with some of the damning statistics that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gave us in the opening session:
What I saw was a silent crisis in rural America. Too many of our small towns are struggling. Although they are some of the hardest working folks I know, rural Americans earn, on average, $11,000 less than their urban counterparts each year. And they are more likely to live in poverty.
More rural Americans are over the age of 65 and few have graduated college. More than half of America’s rural counties are losing population and with it, political representation.
My travel on the rural tour also reminded me of the strength and resilience of the American agricultural economy. American agriculture supports 1 in 12 jobs in America, a critical contribution to the strength and prosperity of the country. And American farmers are the most productive in the world — providing food, feed and fiber for our entire nation. This productivity has given Americans access to a cheap food supply and provides us with 10 to 15 percent more discretionary income than much of the rest of the world.
But here too the dynamics are changing. In the past 40 years, the United States lost more than a million farmers and ranchers. Many of our farmers are aging. Today, only nine percent of family farm income comes from farming, and more and more of our farmers are looking elsewhere for their primary source of income.
That’s one helluva grim picture he’s painting. But there’s no mention there, or among any of the remarks of those on the stage that day, of the way that factory farms are grinding independent farmers into the ground. Certainly, other factors contribute to the demise of rural society, and the Department of Agriculture is trying to alleviate as many problems as it can, in hopes of luring young people back to the country to farm. Indeed, many of those problems were mentioned and discussed. But not the problem of CAFOs. It was an elephant sitting on the stage, unremarked.
I wanted to shout the unspoken word to the 300-400 attendees. But I held my tongue. It’s not a federal issue. It’s a problem the Missouri legislature ought to, but never does, deal with–too many Republicans deep in the pocket of the Farm Bureau, don’t you know. And it’s a problem where our Attorney General, Chris Koster, is on the wrong side of the fence.
Although I didn’t hear the acronym used, a few souls slipped in references to the problem. During an afternoon Breakout Session on the subject of making farming more competitive, Tim Gibbons of Missouri Rural Crisis Center pointed out that the feds could do more to use existing legislation to help independent farmers and that he also wanted to see taxpayer dollars used to help independent farmers instead of corporate interests.
I asked him to explain what legislation should be enforced differently. Though I didn’t quite catch the name of the law he mentioned, I got the gist of his remarks. He’s concerned, for example, that CAFO owners take out huge loans to finance the raising of many thousand hogs. When economic downturns come or the H1N1 flu threatens, hog prices plummet, and many of these operations are threatened with bankruptcy. Back in the day, the market was more flexible, with “inners” and “outers”, that is, independent farmers who got into or out of the hog market depending on the prices. In the current situation, though, the federal government rescues the large operations with pork buy outs worth millions of dollars. Meanwhile, with prices falling below the cost of production, the independent guys are driven out, further consolidating the hold of Big Ag on pork production.
As I asked a follow up question, the moderator smoothly stepped in and said that they needed to move on to allow as many people as possible to have their say. Since some of those people had the floor longer than Gibbons did, I had to wonder if the moderator was a shade touchy about the subject of pork buyouts.
That may not be true. Maybe I was just paranoid.
Or maybe, maybe the pervasive silence that day about CAFOs among the event organizers was not an accident.
By the way, that’s Rep. Belinda Harris, D-Hillsboro, on Gibbons’ right. She’s a farmer who spoke about her difficulties as an independent producer. I’ll be interviewing her for a later posting.