A Rant About Big Ag.
“The competitor is our friend and the customer is our enemy… There isn’t one grain of anything in the world that is sold in a free market. Not one! The only place that you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians. People who are not from the Midwest do not understand that this is a socialist country.”
-Dwayne Andreas, then-Chairman, Archer Daniels Midland in a 1995 interview
I read this quote in Raj Patel’s book, “Stuffed and Starved,” and couldn’t help laughing. If only people in the Midwest actually realized just how deeply true this statement is. And how deeply false. While it is true that government subsidies allow grain farmers to sell their goods at less than it cost to grow them, the marketplace has consistently allowed corporations, like Archer Daniels Midland, to reap the greatest rewards from these subsidies by controlling the inputs, processing, and distribution of farm goods to producers who have increasingly diminished options for how to grow and process their products.
The contracts that tie farmers to large corporations like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Syngenta, Tyson Foods, and others carry the stink of a vassal declaring his allegiance to the local lord. My own father, a turkey farmer, used to be an independent producer who also managed our state’s turkey cooperative, which processed and sold birds under the Norbest label. That brand disappeared six years ago, with the onset of the Great Recession and the subsequent failure of most of the farms in the cooperative. My father, one of the largest producers, was able to work out a decent contract with a processor in Iowa. But for most, the terms of these contracts are completely up to the processor, with the individual farmer free to either accept or decline. Of course declining effectively means going out of business. So mostly, they accept whatever is given them.
This scenario is repeated today, around the world, for every type of agricultural commodity. No longer is it sufficient for small farmers to get together and leverage their produce in a local or regional marketplace. A truly socialist government, as Dwayne Andreas claims this country to be, would support farmers who want to stay on the land and provide assistance to the families who want to produce our food. Instead, what our support system does is incentivize the biggest producers to become even larger, purchasing ever more inputs from multinational corporations eager to serve them. Economies of scale demand huge harvests, processed in just a few facilities, and distributed worldwide by just a few companies. This is efficiency. This is the market doing its job. This is the slow death of the rural class.
Though I am hopeful about the pushback occurring amongst a new generation of farmers, people who see the value in small, diversified farms and niche products and strengthening rural communities, the fact is that much of our rural population has already died of old age or fled to the cities. For rural communities hoping to rebuild and revitalize, this means they will have to largely reinvent themselves. Many will be populated by people who are a generation or more removed from the land. They will bring new ideas, new technology, and new values with them. They will have to be industrious and entrepreneurial to survive in the climate of big business that prevails today. I hope they come. I hope no one expects our ‘socialist’ government to give them a handout. As Dwayne Andreas put so eloquently in 1995, big agribusinesses are profiting hugely from government supports. As Midwesterners know all too well, the ‘socialist’ system Andreas is talking about isn’t for you or for me. It’s for him and his competitors.