Bristow, Va. — Independent presidential candidates Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader accepted Willie Nelson’s invitation to attend Farm Aid on Sunday (Sept.17) and got an earful from American family farmers concerned with current federal farm policies.
“In this election year, when we talk about including everyone, don’t forget to include family farmers and ranchers,” Nelson said while thanking the candidates for coming.
Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Al Gore did not attend, but sent North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan to represent him. Republican candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush also was invited to participate, but declined to attend or send a representative, according to Farm Aid organizers. Richard Rominger, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and five congressmen were also on hand for the discourse.
Held in a tent outside the Nissan Pavilion here, before the annual benefit concert began, the hour-long panel discussion was an impassioned plea from farmers to repeal the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996, which family farmers have dubbed “Freedom to Fail.” Critics say the legislation has caused an overproduction of livestock, grain and dairy products, which has driven prices too low for family farmers to compete with corporately owned farms.
“From 1996 to 1999 the average national market price of corn is down 81 cents a bushel, a 30 percent drop,” said John Hanson, President of the Nebraska Farmers Union. “While ag commodity prices and net farm income have been falling through the floor during the last four years, farm operating expenses have shot up nine percent.”
Farmers on the panel broke the very complicated debate into three urgent concerns. In addition to falling commodity prices, they are worried about a monopoly of meatpacking plants that also own livestock. They also oppose foreign trade policies that favor global businesses rather than individual American farmers.
“Prices for pork products are up 30 percent, but production costs for packers are the lowest in history,” said Missouri livestock farmer Rhonda Perry. “There’s no room for independent family farmers. We have to restore competition to the marketplace.”
After listening to farmers on the panel, each candidate was given five minutes to respond to farm concerns. Sen. Dorgan said he voted against the Freedom to Farm bill and called the legislation the “corporate hijacking of rural America.”
“In the Senate, we’re about four or five votes short on all these issues,” Dorgan said. “We need a president who says [Freedom to Farm] ought to be repealed. We need a Congress with enough votes to repeal it, and Al Gore says he supports that.”
Buchanan, a former Republican who helped create the Reform Party, agreed the Freedom to Farm Act “failed and should be changed.” He also voiced his opposition to the domination of the agriculture business by corporate farms.
“If the Clinton administration can use anti-trust laws to bust up Microsoft, why can’t they use it to bust up these agricultural monopolies?” he said, to wild applause.
Buchanan also drew cheers by criticizing trade treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Permanent Normal Trade Relations for China (PNTR) that don’t benefit individual farmers.
“The global economy has been established of, by and for the multi-national corporations,” Buchanan said. “Take China. They sell us 40 percent of their exports. They buy 1 percent of ours. This policy with China is adopted for the benefit of multi-national companies, not to sell there, but to move factories there. These trade deals aren’t being done for the benefit of Americans.”
Green Party candidate Nader drew thunderous applause when he talked about specific companies that he says “own the American government and run agricultural policy” through corporate campaign contributions.
“We’re talking about Continental Grain, Perdue, Tyson, those are the companies that run the national capital in Washington, D.C.,” he said, calling for campaign finance reform. Nader offered support for livestock farmers who can’t compete with big companies.
“We need to do what the Elkins Act did,” Nader said. “It prevented railroads from owning coal mines, and we ought to prohibit meatpackers from owning livestock.”
The audience, packed with family farmers and members of the press, was relatively polite to the visiting politicians during the summit, despite the emotion wrapped up in the subject. Toward the end, however, the moderator scolded the crowd for goading the candidates who danced around questions. Overall, politicos won points just for showing up, but reaction among farmers was mixed.
“It sure seems like it’s Tweedledee and Tweedledum with the Democrats and Republicans,” said Missouri grain and livestock farmer Roger Allison. “We’ve been killed by this farm policy, and the candidates up there know exactly what’s going on. These corporations have hogged the ball and it’s time to break them up.”
Mark Seitz, a 25-year-old farmer from Marshall, Va., works on someone else’s farm now, but hopes to own one someday. The candidates’ appearance at Farm Aid has made him cautiously optimistic about farming’s future.
“That tells us that farming still has a place and that they realize that,” Seitz said. “They had a lot to say, but I don’t know whether they’ll back it up or not.”