Letter from Langdon: Recognize Me?

Trade, antitrust violations and a complacent government have helped to wear away the face of rural America.

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An hour before departure time in the airport at Minneapolis, I was reading a book at Gate 4. That’s when a guy sitting two seats down looked my way. 

“Excuse me, Sir. Haven’t we met?” he said

We were both on the way to Rapid City. His name was Zeke. He asked if I was from South Dakota. “Nope,” I said. “I’m from Missouri.” He did look familiar. We compared notes for awhile and we agreed it was just a case of mistaken identity.

That happens a lot. Whether we’re at home or hundreds of miles away, it’s nice but unexpected to see a familiar face in the crowd. Sometimes, someone you thought was an old friend turns out to be a new one instead.

We’ve tried to keep up on our farm by making new friends and keeping some old ones. We’ve adopted technology and new practices on the same familiar soil. We even plant GMO seeds. That’s about all we can buy.  Just like the guy in the mirror, farming for us has matured over the years. Still, I still know it when I see it, even though the crowd of participants has thinned. 

Farm-wise, we’re kind of like the four faces carved into Mount Rushmore: time worn, washed by rain and windswept, but recognizable.

[img:Rushmore528.jpg] Some erosion to an ancient edifice like farming is inevitable I suppose. That’s how Mother Nature made the soil we call home. We navigate the sands of time as best we can, but it’s darned hard to negotiate with them. 

That’s what bothers me most about our negotiated positions on food and farming these days: it’s getting harder and harder for these old eyes to recognize the face of U.S. agriculture.

We’re supposed to be the good guys in white hats, a little like the friendly home-bound Wyoming rancher named Zeke. We feed the nation and sell a few leftovers to a world that would really rather feed itself. At the same time our government signs away our own home marketing rights with trade agreements that are far from free — agreements that cost us more in our domestic markets than we’ll ever hope to gain in exports.

Economic Research Service
This chart shows this country’s imports and exports of processed food.
 Thanks to current trade policy, the only things I feed the world are the things I can’t sell here. In the meantime more and more of what Americans consume comes from someplace else. Demand once measured need for a product. These days, demand for products is structured by bureaucratic hurdles so high we can’t walk out of the barn without running into them.

Over the next 40 years, the world’s population will grow from 6.8 billion to 9 billion souls. As that day approaches, Third World countries will need all the food they can grow. America will, too. But our government seems bent on taking the wheels off American agriculture by opening our borders to everything the Third World has to offer. Just as we are with foreign debt and foreign oil, our nation is becoming more dependent on imported food at a time when food needs everywhere are growing. 

That’s why free trade agreements look to me like a case of mistaken identity. 

Every year a new farm crisis depletes the country of more farm talent. When livestock markets or dairy prices fail, old acquaintances disappear, run off by failed policy. When prices of patented seeds or petroleum climb too high, still more rural producers slip away. When we try to find new markets for the things we grow here at home, no sooner than we do, free traders and corporate raiders go after the fruits of our labor.

Like Claus, our yellow lab that loves to fetch, farmers are bred to do a job — and love doing it. America never needed genetic modification to produce the people who won the war on hunger at home. But big companies, faceless business suits that control much of our food supply, do things strictly for money. Monopoly and market domination are in their genes. 

Gutzon Borglum designed Mt. Rushmore and carried out the construction of the monument. Here he is in his studio working on a model.
 They call it “efficiency,” and efficiency is supposed to benefit everyone. But as a familiar face to Missouri agriculture, Jim Foster of Montgomery City, Missouri, said, “We found out from the banks that it doesn’t work that way. They keep that efficiency in their pocket.”

Financial institutions proved two years ago that it’s bred into them to take the money and run. Corporate bonuses are paid even as stock prices, companies, and even nations, collapse. But corporations are immortal. They can rise again, disguised as someone new.  

That’s how the most powerful patented seed company in the world came into being.

Just as I was created by my Maker to do an important task, earning profits at any cost is solely what these companies were created for. Now, the very laws that once protected my rights to competitive, efficient markets have been turned inside out. My right to succeed has become a corporate need for me to fail so that corporate growth and profit can be sustained — at my cost.

In fact, it seems like the only time they appreciate me these days is when they want what I have. But lately our government has been looking into antitrust laws and agriculture. Detractors say that because these laws have rarely been enforced over the last 50 years, they have become unenforceable today. Others, like Senators Saxby Chambliss (Georgia) and Pat Roberts (Kansas), caution against acting too hastily, lest corporations take a hit. 

A corporation saved is a penny earned, I guess. 

Attorney General Eric Holder thinks he might see a problem for independent family farmers. Time will tell if he finds anything that looks like real oversight from courts, the Department of Justice, and USDA.

I sure hope they recognize us.

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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