Federation of Southern Cooperatives
U.S. Cotton Program & Black Cotton Farmers in the United States: Part Three
By Jerry Pennick* and Heather Gray**
Part One of the “U.S. Cotton Program & Black Cotton Farmers in the United States” was an “Historical Overview” and Part Two was “Findings and Analysis of Interviews with Black Cotton Farmers.” In this last section of the study - Part Three - we will offer recommendations for agriculture policy based on the research findings.
We determined that the entire agriculture policy in the United States needs to be re-designed – a whole new mindset needs to be incorporated. This would include a re-invigoration and improvement of policies developed by agriculture experts from the past who had in mind the protection of family farmers. U.S. policy makers need to be mindful of the safety and protection of independent family farmers, as well as the American consumers, rather than advocating for America’s corporate giants. Ultimately, everyone loses from government policies that benefit only one sector and in this case it is corporate America. The following are brief recommendations:
Just policies for Farmers of Color: Farmers of color need and deserve special attention because it is this segment of the world’s farming population that is most victimized by agriculture policies – even many of those policies considered family farmer friendly - because those policies for the most part are conceived and administered in a discriminatory manner. Current policies of the government and many organizations advocating for change in the current system are essentially fighting over which group of white people and corporate entities will control America’s production agriculture system and have ignored or marginalized farmers of color.
Public versus private agriculture: The growth of food and fiber is essentially a “public” issue and not a “private” issue. To equate agriculture with any other economic sector is inappropriate – it is too important to be included in the “free-trade” scenario and left to the whim of the markets. This would be not only impractical but also immoral. The role of government in agriculture should be to protect farmers and consumers, rather than handing over agriculture to corporate entities and the “free market” which is invariably “unfair”. The “privatization” of agriculture has already gone too far. If we continue with this trend we do so at our peril.
Agriculture is different than other economic sectors: With markets that are increasingly globalized, the impact of agriculture policies in one country resonates in another. The radical shift in the United States to an intensive focus on an export-oriented policy in the 1990’s has impacted the world’s agriculture system in any number of ways. It has led to the increased industrialization of agriculture in the developing world and the often-devastating use of monoculture systems along with a shift away from the important diversity in agriculture.
The government’s role should be to ensure diversity in agriculture and not just diversity in size and income, but also in race and culture.
The acreage set-asides developed in the 1930’s were important for a number of reasons. Most experts agree that if there is acreage available, farmers will produce on it. Agriculture is different from other economic sectors and needs to be treated differently. It cannot effectively serve at the whim of the market forces. For example, there is only so much food that people can eat regardless of their income. If someone has a lot of money it does not necessarily mean they will purchase more food or even more expensive food. The point is that regardless of how much food is produced, human food consumption will remain constant, and, importantly, humans must eat to survive.
With more money, individuals might, however, purchase a more expensive car or two cars and an abundance of computers. But they can live without a car and they can live without a computer, but they cannot live without food.
Carmakers might stop production of certain cars in order to lower production to match demand with prices, but farmers don’t have the luxury of playing to the market in this way.
We have given farmers the responsibility of growing products for us. Yet the farmer’s crop takes enormous preparation at considerable risk. What they grow, however, is essential for us humans. It is a huge responsibility that farmers hold on their shoulders. They can’t and won’t stop growing because of the market – most farmers in the world understand this.
Additionally, if there is too much produced then it benefits no-one, least of all the farmers themselves, as over-production drives down prices and much of what is produced can be wasted. The New Deal farm advocates under the President Franklin Roosevelt administration recognized this important point.
Farmers are asked by consumers to grow affordable food and fiber. They are not attempting to make corporate stockholders wealthy by doing this. Most agriculture entities are not publicly traded businesses. Most of the millions of farmers in the world are, thankfully, independent family farmers and are experts in what they do. They grow for the people and for themselves. That’s another reason why the role of government in agriculture is so essential in protecting this exceptionally important economic sector of our world’s and country’s society.Diversity in rural communities: WalterGoldschmidt's research mentioned in “Part One” of this study concluded that communities with a mixed farming system faired better than those that were monolithic or where there was concentrated wealth. Therefore, it can be argued, that for Black/minority farms and farming communities to be economically and socially vibrant, a mixed farming structure of small, medium and large farms needs to be established. Cotton production fits very well into this structure.
Farmers need to get paid: An additional point to be made here is that, importantly, farmers have to get paid for what they do. The public needs to develop and support policies to make sure that farmers and their communities are protected so that they can continue their work for themselves, their communities and the rest of us. Managing farm production and ensuring loan rates that are reasonable are just someof the ways of assisting farmers in getting paid a fair price.
The tradition of growing cotton has been a long and important one for the Black farming community. As with many of the farmers in Africa today, cotton is a good cash crop for Black farmers in the United States and always has been, even though there are fewer Black cotton farmers now than before. But there are fewer Black farmers today, largely because of a combination of racism emanating from the USDA, and elsewhere in the economy and U.S. culture, along with bad farm programs that benefit corporate agriculture rather than family farmers. The remaining Black cotton farmers are now threatened through no fault of their own.
Ever since the Roosevelt administration introduced and passed the New Deal and subsequent programs beyond Roosevelt’s legislative initiatives, there have been efforts by corporate interests to deregulate virtually everything in American business. This is true also in agriculture. After WWII, corporate agribusiness has tried every conceivable trick in the trade to control all aspects of agriculture – its production, packaging, distribution, and markets. Everyone in the world has to eat so the market is a given. Huge profits are in the offing in the world of agriculture. You don’t have to do a market survey to decide whether food and fiber are wanted or needed.
One of the major impediments and competition to the corporate take-over of agriculture has been the independent family farmer. Corporations have been making in-roads into destroying this competition through GMO seeds, chemical in-puts and other tactics that are leading production agriculture all over the world toward a modern day sharecropper system.
Like the threats to the privatization of social security and the diminishing of programs for the poor and elderly in, for example, health care, education, and housing, corporate America is also threatening to privatize agriculture. They haven’t been completely successful at doing that yet. Unless agriculture policies are radically overhauled, corporate America will make sure it reaps the benefits on the backs of the taxpayers, consumers and rural communities.
Government has a role in agriculture, but the role needs to be to assist independent family farmers, especially when threatened in an industrial agricultural system that is essentially a government corporate privatization scheme. Walter Goldschmidt said, ultimately, that if American agriculture was to be industrialized then agriculture policies need to adjust accordingly. It would mean that farm workers should have protection through unions, collective bargaining and all the benefits that accrue to workers rights. Farmers would also be included in the package to at least receive a minimum wage and health benefits, etc. What happened the past century, of course, is that agriculture became more industrialized without those protections in place.
The other critical role government can have, of course, is to develop policies that will help independent family farmers receive a fair price for their crops rather than a handout; to help manage the production nationwide to prevent over-production; and to protect the environment through soil regeneration programs.
Corporate agribusiness has benefited tremendously the past half of the last century. It’s as if Congress has been the collective bargaining agent in agriculture; but the problem is that Congress has been doing the collective bargaining for corporate America and not for independent family farmers.
Finally, the Federation is advocating for policies that will protect all “independent family farmers” but specifically to insure the survival of farmers of color in the U. S. as well as in the developing world. This will require an unapologetic global affirmative action approach to agriculture and trade policies.
Agriculture Adjustment Act (AAA) - U.S. Senate Agriculture Legislative Archives (on-line)
Cobb, James - The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992) Oxford University Press
Culver, John C. & John Hyde - American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace (2000) Norton
Goldschmidt, Walter – As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness (1978) Allanheld, Osmun & Co.
Goldschmidt, Walter – “What If???” (1993) – (Source: Al Krebs – “Agribusiness Examiner” archives)
Gray, Heather and Jerry Pennick - “Assessment of Risk Management Tools in the Black Farming Community” (2001), Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (a study funded by the USDA’s Risk Management Agency)
Krebs, Al - The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness (1992) Essential Information
Krebs, Al – “Agribusiness Examiner” article archives - 2000, 2002
Lewis, E.E. - Black Cotton Farmers and the AAA, Opportunity, Journal of Negro Life, National Urban League publisher (March 1935)
Ray, Daryll - “Weekly Agriculture Policy Columns”, University of Tennessee (www.agpolicy.org)
United States Agriculture Census (2002)
We especially thank the following for lengthy discussions and guidance in better understanding the government commodity programs as well as agriculture philosophy and history: Rhonda Perry, farmer, Missouri Rural Crisis Center; Dr. Daryll Ray, agriculture economist, University of Tennessee; Harwood Schaffer, Ph.D. candidate in Sociology, University of Tennessee.
* Jerry Pennick is the Director of the Federation/LAF's Land Assistance Fund
**Heather Gray is the Director of Communications of the Federation/LAF
Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund