GREAT BEND, Kan. - It all started with Earl Butz, Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, who had to resign due to a racial slur. In the early 70's grain and commodity prices were high, and the family farm was still intact. But the city people at the supermarket complained about high food prices, and that's when the New Deal farm programs started to come apart, and with it, the Great Plains.
It happened slowly. But looking back at Western Kansas over the last 30 years, it has been a steady and slow decay of "life as we knew it." I doubt we can reverse things, but we can know who did this to us and hold them accountable. And we can start to turn the ship around back toward pro-family farm policies.
Everybody on the Great Plains knows something horrible has happened over the last 30 years, but they really don't know what happened or why. They just see their downtown buildings boarded up, the abundance of thrift stores, and young people who turn to methamphetamines rather than working at McDonalds.
I KNEW Earl Butz was no good, and I was just a kid. Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is outstanding, but Chapter Two, called "The Farm," with a subsection called "The Sage of Purdue," about Earl Butz, is worth the price of the book.
The old New Deal farm policies aimed for high crop prices at the elevator. This was done by limiting production by having farmers set aside ground, and also by allowing farmers to hold their grain in exchange for "non-recourse" government loans. The farmer could then wait for grain prices to go up, and then sell, and the government non-recourse loans would keep the farmer afloat.
The inflation crisis at the supermarkets made city dwellers so angry, that Nixon and Butz began to change the entire purpose of the New Deal Farm Programs. As Pollan points out, the New Deal policies were sort of like the biblical idea set forth by Joseph in the Bible. Don't flood the market with surpluses, but store the grain during the "fat years," and sell it during the lean years. From FDR until Nixon, the idea was support
the ACTUAL price of the commodity at the elevator, and limit production.
Butz changed everything. The Republicans told farmers to plant "fencerow to fencerow," and convinced them that they would profit through increased production. Farm subsidies shifted from the non-recourse loans to direct farmer subsidies. In other words, the farmer was told to produce as much as possible, and to sell it right away at harvest, no matter what the price. The subsidies would make up for any price deficiency.
This massive shift away from grain storage with non-recourse loans, and limiting production, had bad consequences for small farmers. The Nixon policies led to what Pollan calls "the overproduction trap," as farmers raised more and more bushels, but got less and less at the elevator.
This march away from New Deal policies did several things. First, it kept food cheap at the supermarket, to prevent shopper discontent. Second, it made grain so cheap that a handful of corporate agri-giants could buy it for less than the price of production, and make a huge profit from the grain or corn, using it either as food for feed lots (corn), or for thousands of new, inexpensive food products (e.g., Doritos).
Finally, this "overproduction trap" drastically reduced the number of farmers. Butz told farmers to "get big or get out," and you had to have a huge mechanized operation to make money with such low grain prices.
Limiting the number of farmers was very important to "the powers that be." Farmers are some of the most politically active hell raisers out there, and too many Mary Elizabeth Lease-types led to political instability. Lease famously told Kansas farmers in the 1890's to "raise less corn and more hell." As farmers proved many times, best exemplified by the rise of the Populist Party in the 1890's, farmers were dangerous to "the powers that be."
As noted by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, this shift away from small farmers to corporate agri-giants saw it's complete triumph with the "Freedom to Farm Act" in 1996, which was bad for small farmers, but great for five or six large corporate agri-giants.
After "Freedom to Farm" became law, wheat went from a high of $6.50 in 1996 to $2.25 in 1999. The "overproduction trap" wreacked havoc. As Thomas Frank puts it:
...the crisis got so bad so fast that the federal government resumed making massive payouts to farmers in order to stop the bleeding---not as price supports this time, but simply on the basis of production, so that that the larger farms, the ones that needed the money the least, got the most. In Kansas in 2000 and 2001, such federal handouts were actually greater than what farmers earned from farming itself. For ADM, Cargill, ConAgra, and the rest of the food trust, "Fredom to Farm" couldn't have been better if they had written the law themselves." (p. 65)
Seeing the decline in Western Kansas over the years, I knew something had happened, but I didn't know WHAT happened until I read Thomas Frank's book. And five years later, chapter two of Michael Pollan's book brilliantly explains "what happened."
And the most remarkable thing is that 99% of people on the Great Plains don't know this story, because it has never told or repeated. I have tried for years to find books about the food monopoly and the death of the family farm, but there's nothing out there. It's like a conspiracy of silence.
And what have Democrats done to fight this repeal of the New Deal farm policies? Not much. Sure, there is the occassional Jim Hightower populist, but there really are no Democratic elected officials out there teaching and persuading "We the People" about "what happened." And in presidential elections, the Democrats get about 30% of the vote on the Great Plains if they are lucky.
Back when Democrats cared more about farmers (there were more farmers then), Jack Kennedy would get 44% in my home county, Barton County, and Harry Truman, 46%. Today, John Kerry and Barack Obama are ballot box disasters out here, snaring 29% of the vote, maybe 31% if they get lucky. What Republican farm policies have done to the Great Plains is pathetic. But the Democratic party has done so little on this issue, conceding the Great Plains in every presidential election.
Of course, the five or six corporate corporate agri-giants give tens of millions to politicians, and Farm Bureau doesn't seem like a big voice for small farmers any more. I remember being at the annual Democrat "Washington Days" gathering in Topeka a few years ago, and reading in the program that one of the sponsors was "Archer Daniel Midlands," and I thought "Why are Democrats taking money from them?"
I guess I was naieve. Randy Yowell's hapless congressional campaign may have been the last time a Democrat congressional candidate gave us "the straight stuff."
Yes, today, there are a few pockets of resistance: the Farmers Union, various "organic farming websites," the farm journalism of A.V. Krebs. The recent work of Thomas Frank and Michael Pollan is encouraging. The "Land Institute" in Salina is doing some good things. But mostly, it's just silence out here on the Great Plains, that "high, lonesome sound."