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060819-bara-opn-zweifel-column

My first job as a reporter when I joined The Capital Times’ staff back in 1962 was to cover the farm beat. Family farming was a huge deal in those days, fueling the economy of many small Wisconsin communities and well deserving of a newspaper beat all its own, just like the police, the courts, city hall, the University of Wisconsin and, yes, the state Capitol.

But the cracks in the farm economy started to appear way back then. The unfairness of the nation’s economic system was especially tough on the farmers. Those who did the bulk of the work to bring food, milk and other staples to the dinner tables of American families were the ones who got paid the least.

During the 60s, the inequities became acute enough that for one of the few times in U.S. history, farmers decided it was time to organize just like the unions in urban America. It marked the birth of the National Farmers Organization, which dedicated itself to organizing farmers to go on strike to get a better share of the market.

The “middle men” were the villains. The price farmers got for their milk was about a tenth of what it sold for in stores, while the big processing companies and wholesalers gobbled up most of the profit.

The NFO actually did call strikes, or what were euphemistically called “holding actions.” Instead of sending milk to market, members would ceremoniously dump the product in their fields. They also withheld other products, like hogs that many Wisconsin family farmers raised back then, from hog buyers, including the Oscar Mayer plant here in Madison.

I covered this scene, and as a farm kid, sympathized with this new militancy to force some fairness into the system. But organizing farmers was akin to corralling cats, and the “strikes” didn’t amount to much, except to bring the public’s — and some politicians’ — attention to the family farmers’ plight.

Unfortunately, a flurry of programs, marketing orders and policies did little to help. Soon, many family farmers gave up. Others combined operations to form larger, hopefully more economical farms, and corporate “factory” farms rose to take their place. In Wisconsin and elsewhere, we’re witnessing the advent of huge concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Operated by corporate interests, they find their own ways to bully their way through the political landscape. Just last week, the big farm interests made it known they want nothing to do with Gov. Tony Evers’ new clean water rules. The only way to make a buck in farming, it seems, is to push the little guy out of the way.

Still, not much has changed in all these years. My friend, the former Texas agriculture commissioner and progressive gadfly, Jim Hightower, dedicated his latest issue of the “Hightower Lowdown” to what he calls the “devastation of farm country” across the land.

He notes that much has not changed after all these years in the farmers’ share of what consumers pay for the products they produce.

He takes, for example, a simple large bucket of fried chicken. The consumer pays roughly $28.99 for the bucket. The corporation that contracts with farmers who raise the birds takes $5 of that. The chicken processor, distributor and retailer take $23.41, and the farmer who raised the chickens for market gets 58 cents — just as it was back there in the early ‘60s.

Hightower notes that the farmers’ condition has been exacerbated by the advent of the monopolistic processor. Dean Foods, for instance — an $8 billion behemoth — controls 90 percent of dairy markets in Wisconsin and Michigan. He adds this absurdity: The prices that monopolies like Dean pay farmers for their milk are not based on supply and demand, but on a convoluted formula that includes the price of a block of cheddar cheese on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

He claims that the cheese price is notoriously manipulated by the processors to lower milk prices. Now add President Donald Trump’s tariffs to the problems, and the situation is even more dire. Hightower chides his own progressives for piling on, dismissing farm and small-town residents and vilifying them as the clods who elected Trump.

While it’s true Trump is adding significantly to the hurt, it’s also true that the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama didn’t help either. They effectively, Hightower says, “sacrificed farmers to Wall Street, Monsanto, oligarchic middlemen and factory farms.”

“We must go directly into rural communities with an honest willingness to hear what farm families are saying, join them in developing a comprehensive overhaul of the exploitative corporate ag system and welcome them as full partners in our overall struggle for populist justice,” he insists.

I’m afraid, though, that we won’t see a farm beat ever again. They’ll cover the corporate farms on the business pages.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. He can be reached by email at dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.

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