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By Gilles Stockton | 9/11/2017
The discussion over the future of NAFTA is heating up. The commodity organizations deny any problems in the existing agreement and demand no changes, a position no doubt dictated to them by the global Big Ag corporations. The reality that I lived through tells a different story.
Right from the beginning of NAFTA in 1994, Canadian cattle started to be dumped on the US market depressing prices. I don’t need my intuition to tell me that this was true, because it was a finding by the trade authorities that came to light only as a result of legal action taken by R-Calf. Earlier, while NAFTA was in the process of being ratified by Congress, Senator Max Baucus assured me, to my face, that he would fix any problems that arose. Neither he nor Congress, nor the then existing or future Presidents did anything to stop the dumping of cattle in our market.
It was not until 2003 that we got some relief in a backwards sort of way, when a BSE (mad cow) infected cow imported from Canada was discovered. Countries that imported beef from the US banned imports and we in turn stopped live imports from Canada. And guess what, the cattle market jumped twenty five percent (25%) overnight. This showed that not only were Canadian cattle being dumped on our market, they were being dumped in a coordinated manner by the beef packers to control prices paid for cattle. In other words, Canada was one big pool of captive supply cattle, that was being used to manipulate our market.
We could not stay with that happy situation. Using the NAFTA regulations as an excuse we reopened cattle imports from Canada, even though it was clear that they had not eradicated BSE. In essence, we voluntarily adopted Canada’s disease status resulting in more beef on our markets, a continuation of blocked exports to Asia, the risk that an American consumer would contract a fatal brain disease from eating beef from Canada, and of course, lower cattle prices.
In the meantime, Congress, after intense demand from cattle producers and consumers, passed Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). It took more than a decade for the labeling to become a reality as COOL implementation was blocked by the Big Packers, their captive organization the NCBA (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association), Republican Congressional leaders, and the governments of Canada and Mexico. Eventually a NAFTA tribunal declared COOL to be trade illegal and the Republican dominated Congress happily rescinded COOL all together.
So what has NAFTA brought to US cattle producers:
From the perspective of US cattle producers, NAFTA clearly needs to be reformed, if not rescinded altogether. This does not mean that other segments of agriculture and other industries have not had a more positive experience. Montana’s wheat farmers may have had a better situation over all, but I have read articles that suggests that the market for wheat has been all one way – into the US. Somehow Canada manages to keep US wheat out of their market and out of using their market infrastructure.
It bothers me that the NCBA and the Farm Bureau have declared totally in favor of NAFTA as it currently stands, when it is clear that big problems exist. We need better representation then that if this country’s independent cattle producers are to survive. Reinstating COOL would be a good start. This would reestablish the principal of our national sovereignty and allow consumers the choice of supporting American producers.
What COOL will not do is stop the use of Canadian cattle as part of the captive supply manipulation which is killing our markets. That, however, is something we can do all by ourselves by passing the Captive Supply Reform Act. Not only will the Captive Supply Reform Act require packers to publicly bid on domestic fat cattle, it will apply to Canadian imports.
Patriotism, like many other virtues, is easily counterfeited. Gruff old Dr. Johnson called it “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” It has one thing in common with charity, “it covers a multitude of sins.” It often expends itself in mere bawling. Our holiday oratory brings out no end of inspired and inspiring utterances; but allowance ought to be made for considerable leakage of gas. Indiscriminate praise of everything American is a cheap way of drawing applause, but the truest friends of the country are they who make us worthier to be free, who helped to save mankind, ’till public wrong be crumbled into dust, and drill the raw world for the march of mind, ’till crowds at length be sane and crowns be just.
–courtesy of Tom Giessel – July 28, 1899, Tiller and Toiler newspaper, Larned, Kansas
The Twentieth Biennial Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture was published in 1917. The very first chapter was dedicated to the topic of Rural Welfare and began with an article by George E. Putnam, Associate Professor of Economics in Lawrence, Kansas. He devoted the first twenty pages to the topic of Farm Tenancy in Kansas. The concern of farm tenancy was a front- burner issue of the day. His report was a rather extensive document of the percent of land ownership, versus rented lands. Coupled with those numbers, was an equally thorough examination of the overall evils of tenant farming, and its impact on rural communities. In those early days, tenant farmers were under the thumb of outside interest and money. He further stated “A new factor is being introduced into the agricultural situation through the development of huge estates, owned by corporations and operated by salaried managers upon a purely industrial system.”
The tenant was seldom equipped for cultivating a large farm intensively. The tenant could cultivate a large farm extensively, or a small farm intensively. He continued, “stating all of these factors resulted in a decay of initiative, independence and citizenship.” Other consequences of tenancy included an absence of, or backward educational facilities, little incentive to improve his temporary home, depopulation of rural communities, and the prevalence of land speculation. In a short period of time, World War I would shift the focus away from the tenancy issue. A multitude of economic woes developed in the 1920s, which lead to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Here we are, a century later, and we find far fewer farms and ranches. Today, many are owned and operated by family farms and corporations. We never read much, if any, reference to farm tenancy and burdensome debt. Could it be that farm tenancy has been masked and taken a much different form? Has outside capital and huge corporate interest re-created a new generation of farm tenancy?
Meet the 21st Century farm tenant. Producers [no longer referred to as farmers] almost exclusively plant seeds that are purchased and cannot be saved and replanted. They assume all liability and responsibility for those genetically modified organisms. They assume all environmental liability. They sign long-term technology agreements without negotiation, compromise or protection of individual rights. They prepay all research and development expense to multinational corporations, and buy the product back at a later date. They no longer make the decision as to which [if any] chemical to apply, that has been pre-determined by which seed has been purchased. They no longer drive their own equipment, or even repair it. They defer decision making to a computer program, designed by some far-away company and a computer programmer that could not recognize the difference between a kernel of wheat and a soybean. They contract/sell into a system in which they have no control. But they claim to be independent and believe they have the freedom to farm.
So what has changed in the last century? The obvious claim and truth would be technology. It has allowed us to produce vast quantities of commodities with many fewer people. Plant sciences, along with all facets of engineering, have made tremendous leaps and gains. But what did we trade for those so-called advancements?
One hundred years ago, our predecessors combatted the evils of farm tenancy and the daily struggles of life on the farm, with their own creativity and ingenuity. They did not buy most things they needed. They created them. They built their farms and ranches, from the ground, up. They were also organized as a neighborhood or group, forming cooperatives and creating communities. They held a high regard for education, both in the classroom, as well as on the farm. They captured the wealth of the land and transformed it into the future. They did not rely on information, management or skills from far away to guide them. They trusted in themselves, their family, and their neighbor across the section. They understood the importance, of not only making a living, but also to make a life, and with it, their responsibility to the future.
Farmers today are blessed with many gifts, manifested in multiple ways. They have an inherent understanding that making a living is more than making money. It is imperative that we strive to maintain a balance between the many tools that technology allows us, and taking ownership of our responsibility to the land, our resources, our communities, our future and ourselves.