WOOSTER, Ohio – If family farmers are going to have any say in changing American agriculture, it will not be agribusiness that will help them do it.
According to Richard Levins, agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota, farmers do need a big voice to help them influence farm policy and the future of farming.
Farmers have tended to think of agribusiness as their logical ally, Levins said, because they have commodities in common.
But, he stressed, if sustainable or responsible farming is the goal, farmers would be better off cultivating connections with consumer and ecological groups, constituencies with which they have real interests in common.
Levins was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of Innovative Farmers of Ohio Jan. 27 in Wooster.
According to USDA figures on the profits in food marketing, in the past 10 years profits in food processing have increased by a factor of 50 at the same time that farm profits have increased by a factor of four.
“Higher profits and concentration are ways of building power,” Levins said. “They give you a chance to change the rules of the game.”
And the rules of the game are changing, he emphasized.
Agribusiness, Levins said, has no interest in promoting more sustainable agriculture, and agribusiness has more power than farmers.
Farmers remain frozen in the free enterprise mode of competition, he added. But as long as they choose to compete against each other, they will continue to reduce their economic power at the same time that agribusiness continues to concentrate power.
Running in place.
Sooner or later, Levins said, farmers have to adopt what agribusiness is promoting, whether they planned to or not, if they continue to act as individual producers.
It’s been called “treadmill thinking,” he explained. Producers end up having to jump on if they are going to compete with their neighbors, and then they have to keep going.
“Farmers acting on their own,” he said, “can be induced to do things they might not be liable to do if they were acting as a group.”
When all the factors of income, ownership, and management are considered, Levins said, there are not more than 300,000 family farms remaining in the United States.
“And if you push the definitions,” he said, “you would have a hard time finding 100,000. This is a seriously endangered species.”
But it is the only sector of agriculture that has an economic interest in promoting sustainable agriculture. This is a small base on which to put the burden of changing agriculture, he said.
Levins said he has concluded that the individual farmer will not be able to influence the problems of agriculture, but that all farmers working together can. Even if farmers work together, they will need some friends.
“There are lots of people who are interested in consumer and ecological issues,” Levins said. “They could be very helpful. Farmers will have to articulate the story, but they are going to need bodies to help carry that story out into the world.”
Levins said there are three target messages, as he sees it, that sustainable agriculture interests can promote. They can ask consumer groups who they want to grow their food, and then argue for the advantages to consumers of a family farm over a factory farm.
They can ask how healthy consumers want their food to be, and compare conditions on the two kinds of farms.
And they can appeal to environmentalists about the role of sustainable agriculture and the place of family farming in the protection of natural resources.
Each of these, he said, is a powerful issue that already has a large, organized constituency. Each has the kind of large face that family farming needs to ally itself with to create the power it needs to resist the power of agribusiness.