We can’t bargain with little faith


The voices of U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and Minnesota ag economist Richard Levins sing the same tune when it comes to improving agriculture’s lot in life.

But the collective bargaining song they sing doesn’t seem to be destined for the Top 10 charts any time soon.

No one’s listening, except for the folks at Successful Farming magazine and National Farmers Organization members.

“Farmers acting alone is suicidal,” Levins says. “Working more hours and farming more acres are no longer solutions.”

Levins has single-handedly pushed the collective bargaining concept for farmers for many years.

Holding power. Collective bargaining has the potential to improve economic power in the farm sector, Levins says.

“A strong group representing the economic interests of all farmers could offset the economic power of ever-larger corporations in the food system.”

The lack of market power, Levins says, is the root of today’s price problems.

Likewise, Kaptur is a lone voice on Capitol Hill raising the same song.

“We believe contemporary, producer-driven bargaining concepts can help farmers regain a bigger share of America’s food dollar… and this opportunity is available to all producers by becoming part of a collective bargaining group,” Kaptur said in 2001.

Past effort. In previous years, she has introduced legislation that would have provided for good faith bargaining between processors or handlers.

Past efforts to organize farmers to work together have typically fallen victim to the farmer’s universal yearning for independence. And I don’t see that changing.

Levins himself tells stories that compare organizing farmers to carrying frogs in a wheelbarrow: They just keep jumping off.

Is it time? Just this month, 315 Vermont dairy farms that account for nearly a third of the state’s milk organized under Dairy Farmers of Vermont. The farmers have asked the group to negotiate higher prices from the state’s three largest dairy co-ops.

The group faces an uphill battle, as Agri-Mark cooperative is refusing to sit at the bargaining table, saying it doesn’t buy milk from this group, but from its farmer-members.

Think of the power you individually wield, then collectively could wield, if joined with other farmers.

It seems an impossible effort, but if there are only two voices singing, the music will never be very loud. It is worth the dialogue, the debate.


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