We’re Talking About Power

What power do people really have if we can’t even control what’s in our dinner and where it comes from?

In 1971, Susan DeMarco, Susan Sechler and I teamed up in a Washington-based public interest group (rather wonkily named Agribusiness Accountability Project) to launch a muckraking foray into the little-examined, multibillion-dollar labyrinth of America’s farm and food policies. But other progressive activists back then were bewildered by us. They were all working on big, high-profile issues like ending the Vietnam War and urban poverty. So, they asked, why were we talking about tomatoes, land-grant colleges, Earl Butz and such arcane concepts as oligopolies?

“We’re not,” we replied, “we’re talking about power.” After all, what power do people really have if we can’t even control what’s in our dinner and where it comes from? This requires keeping a democratic grip on food and farm policy, which requires knowing what those policies do and who is making them.

We know about monopoly, the anti-competitive gouging of consumers when a very few corporations control the sale of a product. But what about mo-nop-so-ny? That’s when very few buyers control the purchasing of products or services offered by many. For example, when most local farmers go to market to sell their commodities, instead of having multiple processors and marketers make competitive bids, nearly every American farmer who produces grain, milk, veggies, meat, etc., faces monopsonies, with only one or two buyers offering a lowball, take-it-or-leave-it price.

This same kind of manipulation and domination of the so-called free market is also crushing working families. Mass corporate consolidations in manufacturing, hospitals, newspapers, hardware stores, farm equipment dealers and practically all other sectors mean local job opportunities shrivel to one place paying a low wage … or take a hike. The intentional creation of these cartels has already enveloped 60% of U.S. labor markets and is a major force in wage suppression and widening inequality in America. Yet, our public officials — Democratic as well as Republican — have heretofore refused to see corporate monopsony as the antitrust crisis it is. President Joe Biden has proposed an aggressive anti-monopoly agenda; let’s press him for action.

There’s nothing genteel about being a dirt farmer. Although working in and with nature can offer a deeply satisfying life, it tends to be a hardscrabble go — as food writer and small farm champion Christopher Kimball recently put it: “Farming is full of manure, mud, blood, large stubborn animals, dangerous equipment and days when things just never go right … It’s first and foremost about hard work and hard choices, trying to scratch a living from the soil, 365 days a year.”

That’ll test your mettle. But add another factor: You’re Black.

Uh-oh. That has long meant that the public’s expansive ag support system (favorable loans, assorted subsidies, technical help, etc.), which give farm families a fighting chance against the cruel twists of nature and monopolists, are not there for you. This blatant racial discrimination has driven hundreds of thousands of good, Black farmers off the land.

This year, though, we’ve witnessed an astonishing Republican-led uprising in opposition to unfair racial exclusion from ag programs! Hallelujah — is that party finally resurrecting its inner Abe Lincoln?

Hardly. A group of GOP goobers like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Texas ag commissioner Sid Miller have risen up on their hind legs to rage against a Biden proposal to provide long-overdue debt relief to farmers of color who’ve been systematically cheated. The whine of these ultra-white, newly born civil rights activists is that any help targeted to African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, et al., is “reverse racism,” so they’re demanding that money intended to alleviate Black farm debt caused by racist lenders and farm agents must be split with privileged white farmers who’ve endured no discrimination.

Funny, isn’t it, that Lindsey, Sid, and their gang of race raiders expressed not a peep of protest last year when then-President Donald Trump doled out tens of billions of our tax dollars in a special ag giveaway that was gobbled up almost entirely by rich, corporate and even foreign farm owners — with nearly all Black farmers excluded? You’re right … it’s not funny.

You needn’t be Black or a farmer to join the National Black Farmers Association and support its mission to “fight against hunger, prevent land loss, and secure food sovereignty.”

Jim Hightower