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Est. April 5, 2002
Mar 18, 2021 - Issue 857
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In the mid-1980s, there was a farm crisis (when isn’t there?) and a milk strike among family farmers in the Northeast, but a close look at where U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidies were going at the time revealed some surprises.

At that time, USDA produced a map of the U.S. showing where the subsidies were going and they did that by placing a red dot in areas where the subsidies were being paid. To the surprise of many, New York City was covered in red dots. Now, that was true of some other urban areas, but NYC is one of the most important centers of commerce in the world, so it was one of the areas of concentrated subsidies for farm programs. Simply, it was the investments in farms and farmland that resulted in the subsidies.

Just as it is today, farmland and food systems are manipulated so that one can “invest” in farming without being a farmer, or even setting foot on the soil. Those in the top 10 percent of wealth and income, or even in the top 1 percent can invest in such things. People with “excess” money, such as entertainers, sports figures, pharmaceutical magnates, industry entrepreneurs (especially the new tech ones), and other rich persons could invest in the food system, starting with farm land itself.

In the 1980s, black farmers began to petition the USDA and others to make waves about the illicit taking of their land by a racist system that allowed it throughout most of the 20th Century. In the early part of the last century, there were some 920,000 black farmers in America and, by the 1980s, there were only about 17,000. The methods of the taking of their land has been told many times over the past three decades. In 2012, the number of black farmers in the United States was 44,629, according to USDA, by some miracle of mathematics, and this was a 12 percent increase since 2007, when the last agriculture census was conducted. Nationally black farmers were 1.4 percent of the country’s 3.2 million farmers in 2012. Ninety percent lived in twelve southern states.

Farm programs were administered at the local level by white farmers, many of whom wanted the land that black farmers had owned for generations, many of them since Reconstruction, and many of them since the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose promises of land for black citizens were not fulfilled. Manipulation of those farm programs were aimed at impoverishing black farmers to the extent that they would be moved off the land and, for many, into the cities or into impoverished rural enclaves, where they are today. Many are fighting to regain ancestral lands and will not move.

For the past century, farmers have been told by the government and by some of the farm organizations that supposedly represent their interests to change with the times. “Get big or get out,” has been the advice given to farmers, white or black. Family farmers, under this philosophy, are a vanishing breed. Enter the agricultural investors. When farmland and farming is commoditized, investors can put their money into things that will never go out of People must eat to live and work and investing in the food system is a sure way to “grow your money.”

That’s what so many rich Americans have discovered and that’s how the nation comes to a time when Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, two of the richest men in the world, have come to invest in farmland and that which follows, the production of food on that land. As landowner-farmers, Gates and Buffet can benefit from ownership of farmland that pays interest in the form of growing value of the land itself (there isn’t any more being made), and the government subsidies that go with being “farmers.”

In 1970, Henry Kissinger, counsel to many presidents, said, “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control people.” He was not warning about what might happen if the control of oil and food was in fewer and fewer hands, but just stating facts as he saw them a half-century ago. Much of what he observed has come to pass. The concentration of wealth and income in the U.S. has reached a crisis stage and the concentrated control of the food system is just one of the elements of the crisis, but it may be the most important of the crises.

To accomplish that magnitude of control, the number of farmers needed to be reduced. After all, when there were 15 million or 20 million farmers, they were hard for “the market” to control. Rather, when commodities were being produced by mega-farms (more industrial than farms), the market could be controlled more easily and money could be made by investing in agriculture as a financial vehicle, instead of seeing agriculture as a widely diverse, ecologically sensible part of a natural system. Reducing the number of farms and farmers was an easy decision to make for those who make such monumental decisions. That’s how it came to be in 2021 that there are only 3.2 million farms and many of them are so big that they never could be considered “family farms,” even though one family might be the owner. No family could farm 3,000-5,000 acres without massive industrial methods and equipment. So-called agricultural interests are accommodated in government programs, so that the biggest and most mechanized (including liberal use of toxic fertilizers and other chemicals) operations become the recipients of the largesse of government programs. In other words, U.S. taxpayers’ money.

Gates and Buffet are the recipients of this taxpayer money, as are untold numbers of rich investors, and the trend in government programs to subsidize and insure farms and crops is simply to continue in the same direction. These rich folks have invested well and the money will keep flowing for the foreseeable future from their farming investments.

Vincent H. Smith, director of agricultural studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, and professor of economics at Montana State University, and Eric J. Belasco, a visiting scholar at AEI, wrote this month in MarketWatch: “While many agricultural support programs are meant to ‘save the family farm,’ the largest beneficiaries of agricultural subsidies are the richest landowners with the largest farms who, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, are scarcely in any need of taxpayer handouts.”

Consolidation of power and wealth is not healthy for any nation or civilization, but it has happened and is happening in the U.S. at an alarming rate. Even the rich are somewhat alarmed at the potential political and societal repercussions of the disparity in wealth and income as exist in the nation today, but the path is laid out and is of long-standing and will be difficult to widen or change, but the effort must be made.

In farming, as in ecosystems generally, diversity is what makes things healthy, especially the end recipients of the food, the human population. Without the diversity of millions of small farms, the ability to recover from plant diseases or insect infestations, the mega-farms are forced to use the toxic and destructive methods that have developed over the past half-century, and that has continued to degrade the environment and contributes immensely to climate change and global heating.

In the meantime, investing “farmers” like Gates and Buffet can just keep counting the money that rolls in from their investments, much of it from taxpayers, wage-workers bearing the brunt of the burden. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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