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Federal farm policy needs some fundamental fixes that aren’t likely to come from the current leadership of either political party, says an organic dairy farmer who was recently named president of a national family farm organization.
“The way politics works in this country, the way policy gets made, I’m afraid the situation’s not going to change any time soon,” said Jim Goodman, a Wisconsin farmer and newly elected president of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC).
“It’s unfortunate, but the reality is that the way we approach farm policy, agribusiness is the one running the show. They’ve convinced farmers to overproduce, to try and ‘feed the world,’ but all that’s done is to drive down prices [prices paid to farmers for the crops and livestock they raise] and put many farmers out of business.”
Goodman points to the results of federal agriculture policy since the 1980s. “Cheap grain, cheap milk, cheap cattle, cheap hogs, cheap poultry. Produce so much that only the largest farmers can afford to stay in it. And all the while, the agribusiness companies benefit.”
The Wonewoc , Wisconsin, farmer’s experience in the dairy industry has been a crash course in the economics of overproduction.
“As the number of Wisconsin dairy farms has fallen from 14,265 to 9,230 over the past 10 years, those that remain have obviously gotten larger, much larger,” Goodman wrote in an op-ed in The Capital Times in Madison. “The concentrated animal feeding operation, CAFO, is the preferred model for the future of dairy production in Wisconsin, as CAFO numbers have grown from 50 in 2000 to 252 in 2016,”
The ideology of increasing production to stay in farming has played out in Goodman’s own neighborhood.
“I have this neighbor who, when the feed-the-world idea was at its strongest, expanded his herd to 150 cows, which is pretty big to me for a family operation. He kept telling me ‘why don’t these other countries just let us grow all of the food. We’re more efficient. They can’t compete with us.’”
Goodman’s neighbor is no longer a dairy farmer. The downward pressure of dairy prices due to overproduction did him in, Goodman said.
The Goodman family has been farming in southwestern Wisconsin since the 1840s, when they relocated from Ireland during the Potato Famine. To stay in business, they have innovated and participated in local markets that paid a bit more than the conventional market. They went through the organic certification process in the 1990s, kept costs as low as possible and linked up with a local manufacturing facility producing high-quality cheese as an outlet for their milk. They have sold organic beef directly to customers at the weekly Dane County Farmers Market in Madison for the past two decades.
Still, Goodman doesn’t see much of a future for family farm dairy producers, or farmers of any type, without a radical change in the farm bill. The trend toward corporate control over markets and economic policies that benefit agribusiness are hurting family farmers, he said.
He was glad to be elected NFFC President because the organization, “has always talked about price being the most important thing about farm policy.”
NFFC and its network of dozens of member groups is working for a 2018 farm bill that “supports a price for farmers based on their cost of production. This is achieved by setting a price floor for commodities (grains, dairy, storable crops), re-establishing strategic grain reserves, and idling marginal lands. U.S. farm policy followed these practices for decades, and many other nations have similar policies.”
Goodman said that the NFFC approach to the farm bill is not seeing a lot of traction from the Republican majority or the Democratic minority, though more and more farmers are starting to see how supply management policies could lead to better prices.
“It used to be, not too many years ago, that a lot of Democrats were more open to the kind of farm policy we support. But the nineties changed a lot of that with the Democratic Central Committee, and now the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee). There are some progressive exceptions, but a lot of farm policy is still based on the feed the world, produce more, Farm Bureau approach,” Goodman said.
Though the 2018 farm bill negotiations are not likely alter the trajectory of farm production and farm income provisions, Goodman is confident in making progress on some programs critical to family farmers and NFFC member groups. “We’re confident we can see some positive things happen with the 2501 program and other policies that can be put into effect that limit discrimination,” Goodman said. 2501 is the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program,
“There’s still a lot of discrimination happening in farm programs against minorities, against women,” Goodman said. “We think it’s important to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, the Me Too Movement, and build on that.”