In 1986, corn was selling at $1.80 a bushel. Today, in the summer of 2014, corn is selling for under $4.00 a bushel. If we adjust for inflation, the $1.80 corn of 1986 would be worth $3.90 a bushel today.
In 1986, the response from farmers to the $1.80 bushel of corn was as close to a populist uprising that this country has ever experienced. A prairie fire of protest spread across the country. Tractorcades, penny auctions, lenders forced to renegotiate farm loans and a whole lot of hell raising in farm country.
In 2014, $3.00 corn has failed to provoke much of a reaction. Why? What has changed?
There were 6 million farmers in the U.S. in 1986. Today there are around 2.2 million farmers, with the bulk of our commodity crop production coming from some 150,000 of them. Between 1970 and 1990, nearly 7 million farmers were forced off the land because of low prices, high interest rates and crushing farm debt. This was the culmination of the “Get big or get out” policies of the Nixon/Reagan era.
The wholesale elimination of millions of family farms sparked the rural rebellion of the late 70s and 80s. Farm families witnessed the end to a way of life that many had inherited from their parents and grandparents. Organizations like the American Agriculture Movement, Farmers Legal Action Group, Farm Aid, the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy came into being in response to this crisis. Looking back, farmers and their allies put up a good fight, but in the end, the powerful forces of agribusiness, banks and the pusillanimous politicians of both parties set our nation on a course where farmers were replaced by machines, petroleum, chemicals and monoculture cropping. For those who survived, farm incomes improved and farms got much bigger.
Last month, President Obama issued a memorandum to create a national strategy to promote pollinator health. The strategy includes creating a pollinator health task force and taking steps to increase and improve pollinator habitat. The fact that pollinator decline is starting to be addressed at the Federal level signals increasing recognition of the severity of this problem. Nearly one out of every three mouthfuls of food we eat relies on a pollinator, and without the bees, butterflies, moths, flies, bats and other pollinators, the world food supply will become increasingly unstable.
The two largest threats to pollinators are habitat loss and pesticide use. Of particular concern are neonicotinoids, an increasingly popular kind of insecticide that control a wide variety of insects. The most common way that neonicotinoids are applied is as a seed coating. This means that the pesticide is on the seed before it’s even planted, and it travels through the plant’s vascular system as it grows. This transports the pesticide throughout all parts of the plant, including leaves, stems, flowers, fruit, pollen and nectar.
Over 94 percent of the corn and half of the soy planted in the United States is pretreated with neonicotinoids. As a result, many farmers are not even aware that they are using neonicotinoids. Awareness of the problem is growing however, especially in parts of Europe, where they have been banned. Non-neonicotinoid treated seeds are available in the U.S. too, but they need to be specifically sought out and can be hard to find.
Teaching children about food and where it comes from is an important part of many childcare programs, but many childcare facilities want to go a step further and build a Farm to Childcare program that connects local farmers with young children by providing fresh, healthy foods in childcare meals.
In response, IATP has just published a ready-to-use Farm to Childcare Curriculum developed in partnership with childcare provider company New Horizon Academy (NHA); and a complementary Farm to Childcare: Highlights and Lessons Learned Report that tells the story of using that curriculum to start a comprehensive Farm to Childcare program currently operating at 62 NHA childcare centers throughout Minnesota.
The Farm to Childcare Curriculum Package contains information on designing a Farm to Childcare menu and implementation schedule, recommendations on how to highlight local farmers to make the connection real for children, detailed examples of family engagement strategies and extensive experiential learning activity suggestions to incorporate Farm to Childcare themes into Circle Time, Math and Science, Sensory and Dramatic Play, Arts and conversations at mealtime. It also includes resource recommendations for further ideas.
When my kids were young, one of our favorite nighttime books was Fungus the Bogeyman, a story about a subterranean bogeyman who spends his waking hours scaring humans. The kids and I loved all the disgusting bogeyman slang like pus and muck. As life would have it, the notion of fungus that frightens people has become only too real and instead if putting children to sleep, it has become the kind of story that really does keep us awake at night.
Recent news of the fungus wiping out shade-grown coffee in Central America was preceded earlier this month with reports of a wheat fungus in Africa that could wipe out this essential food crop. Major varieties of bananas in Asia and Africa are already being decimated by the deadly fungal Panama disease. Many important commodities are being plagued by fungal diseases and this increase in fungal diseases is not limited to plants. Just this week spores of a soil fungus that causes valley fever, or coccidioides, were discovered in Washington state. This fungus is normally found in regions with dry, arid climates.
The Obama Administration’s feverish cheerleading for genetically modified crops is being put to the test with growing evidence that the technology is unpopular with consumers, causing problems in the field and facing increasing rejection in the marketplace.
The state of Vermont is set to become the first in the country to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. Maine and Connecticut have also passed mandatory labeling bills, but they require neighboring states to also pass such bills before they come into law. More than 25 states have GMO labeling laws working their way through state legislatures and ballot initiatives. Hawaii, a major testing ground for new GMO crops, has become another battleground as several counties now require greater disclosure and tougher regulations for GMO plantings.
This is a big deal and the biotech seed industry knows it. The industry has already spent millions to defeat ballot initiatives and state-based bills. Its next line of defense against the states is litigation, where it will likely sue states’ requiring labeling for violating the interstate commerce clause (restricting trade between states).
The Board of the Federal Reserve asked this question, in essence, and 25 questions related to it in an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. IATP responded, because while banks generally do not own and trade agricultural commodities, the energy commodities they trade, including fertilizer (occasionally), oil, gas and electricity are agricultural inputs and, hence, affect agricultural prices. (The Fed has posted all comments here.) (On April 22, Barclay’s, which traded agricultural commodities, announced that it would be selling most of its commodity trading division. Greater regulatory scrutiny and declining profits were cited as reasons for the sale.)
Of Minnesota’s 55.6 million acres, 27 million acres are taken up by farmland. Currently, crop production is dominated by summer annuals like corn and soybeans, which need to be replanted each year and grow only in the summer. The consequence of this type of cropping is that for most of the year, no active roots exist in the soil to filter water, reduce runoff, or prevent erosion. Covering the ground with crops for a larger portion of the year by adding winter annuals and perennials to the landscape provides multiple benefits, including diversifying agricultural operations, protecting soils and waterways, and increasing wildlife habitat.
Part of the reason that perennials are not already more widespread on the landscape is that seed suppliers have a vested interest in annual crops. Annuals require farmers to purchase seeds every year, thereby boosting profits for the seed suppliers. These suppliers include large stakeholders such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta, all of which have the resources to wield powerful influence over farmer decision making. However, increasing ground cover throughout the year is imperative to ensure continued production in the face of climate variability, especially in a state like Minnesota where nearly half of the land is in agricultural production.
The food crisis of 2008 led to a broad agreement in the agricultural development community that the lack of appropriate investment in agriculture had been a key contributing factor to unstable prices and food insecurity. The crisis coincided with an increase in land grabbing in many parts of the world, but especially in Africa. It is in response to these events that the idea of developing some criteria on agricultural investments came up in international policy and governance arenas.
The food crisis also led the United Nations in 2008-09 to reform its Rome-based Committee on Food Security (CFS) to address both the short term food crisis, and the long-term structural issues that led to it. It involved bringing new people to the table where decisions were being made, and this included a new Civil Society Mechanism (CSM).
In October 2010, the newly reformed CFS was faced with a challenge: Should it endorse the international Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment that Respect Rights, Livelihoods and Resources (PRAI) developed by the Inter-Agency Working Group (IAWG), composed of FAO, UNCTAD, IFAD and the World Bank, or refuse to endorse it in response to the CSM position rejecting the PRAI?
It’s a big week in the agriculture world. Just days before Obama signed the new Farm Bill into law, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the locations of seven regional hubs for climate change adaptation and mitigation. These hubs will attempt to address the risks that farmers increasingly face due to climate change—including fires, pests, droughts and floods—by disseminating research on ways landowners can adapt to and adjust management strategies to build resilience.
This is a notable step forward in climate policy and has important implications for rural communities. Many rural communities tend to view large governmental agencies negatively, especially those agencies that regulate the agricultural activities that dominate many of those communities’ economies. However, farmers feel the direct impacts of extreme weather more than anyone. The climate hubs will help by linking a diverse network of partners, including universities, nongovernmental organizations, federal agencies, state departments, native nations, farm groups and more. Broadcasting climate change research and information from this wide array of sources, including sources that farmers trust and regularly interact with, could make climate change adaptation and mitigation a more accepted and commonly desired goal.
Encouraging action on climate change is paramount not only from an environmental perspective, but from an economic perspective as well. The drought of 2012 cost the American economy an estimated $50 billion between 2011 and 2013. It’s too early to assess the costs of the current drought punishing California, which produces nearly half of the country’s fruits and vegetables. Clearly, the risks posed by volatile weather events have implications not only for farmers, but for the economy and society as a whole.
A Spanish version of this commentary originally appeared in La Jornada.
One of the clearest stories from the NAFTA experience has been the devastation wreaked on the Mexican countryside by dramatic increases in imports of cheap U.S. corn. But while Mexican farmers, especially small-scale farmers, undoubtedly lost from the deal, that doesn’t mean that U.S. farmers have won. Prices for agricultural goods have been on a roller coaster of extreme price volatility caused by unfair agriculture policies, recklessly unregulated speculation on commodity markets, and increasing droughts and other climate chaos. Each time prices took their terrifying ride back down, more small- and medium-scale farmers were forced into bankruptcy while concentration of land ownership, and agricultural production, grew.
It’s hard to separate the impacts of NAFTA from another big change in U.S. farm policy: the 1996 Farm Bill, which set in place a shift from supply management and regulated markets to an accelerated policy of “get big or get out.” Farmers were encouraged to increase production with the promise of expanded export markets—including to Mexico. But almost immediately, the failure of this policy was evident as commodity prices dropped like a stone, and Congress turned to “emergency” payments, later codified as direct payment farm subsidies, to clean up the mess and keep rural economies afloat.
Then, as new demand for biofuels increased the demand for corn, and investors turned from failing mortgage markets to speculate on grains, energy and other commodities, prices soared. It wasn’t only the prices of farm goods that rose, however, but also prices of land, fuel, fertilizers and other petrochemical based agrochemicals. Net farm incomes were much more erratic.