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A Discussion with George Naylor on the Farm Bill

George Naylor is a corn and soybean farmer from Churdan, Iowa, and the president of the National Family Farm Coalition.

Listen to the interview:

I farm 470 acres in west-central Iowa. I raise corn and soybeans like just about everybody else. About 320 acres of the farm here has been in the family since 1918 or ‘19, and my family has been in Greene County, Iowa, since the 1880s. I’ve seen a lot of changes in my community. A lot fewer farmers than there used to be. A lot less livestock on farms. Much less diversity and, of course, the economic depression that has resulted in our rural communities. So things haven’t been going in a good direction for a long time here.

Does your farm receive subsidies?

Oh sure. Anybody that raises any of the commodities, any of the program crops—corn, soybeans, wheat. Corn is a feed grain, so other feed grains get subsidies. Oil seeds, like soybeans, get subsidies, and other food grains like wheat and rice get subsidies and then you add in cotton, and that’s about all the program crops and most anybody that raises those crops are going to get subsidies.

How effective do you feel the farm bill has been in helping you to farm? It sounds like you are describing a large economic recession in your area. Do you think that the farm bill has alleviated some of the problems or made things worse?

The first farm program came about in 1933, in the New Deal, and there wouldn’t be farm programs if it hadn’t been for the New Deal. People should understand that the programs that came about after 1953 when Democrats and Republicans both aimed to dismantle the New Deal farm programs, have all worked against the institution of the family farm. And of course, since 1996 with the Freedom to Farm Act, big business got its way completely, and all we are doing out here is raising cheap commodities to feed the industrial manufacture of food and livestock.

So it sounds like you had a very negative experience with the more recent farm bills?

Well, everybody has. I mean it’s a myth that farm bills have done anything since 1953 for family farmers or were written to help family farmers. They have not. But, the question is, what institution should we have had that would not only have kept the bottom level in line with inflation but also made sure that people were employed?

Along those lines, a lot of people have said that in order to make the farm bill more equitable and less orientated to big business, they should reduce the payment cap. Right now it’s at $360,000 to $250,000 per farm. Do you think that would be more helpful in spreading the money more evenly?

If we were charging the real beneficiaries of our agricultural system—which are the multinational corporations that buy our commodities—if they were charging them a fair price for it and every farmer had a share of the national market like we used to under the real New Deal programs, then government payments wouldn’t have to be a major feature of the farm program. And we wouldn’t be talking about limiting payments to farmers. Because the real beneficiaries of the government programs, for many years now, have been the big corporations that buy very cheap commodities.

So the farm bill right now keeps the commodity prices low for the multinational corporations and the large corporations to buy at a lower price?

Exactly. And therefore take over the livestock sector of agriculture because they’re buying corn and soybeans very cheaply, that they turn into industrial animal feed to feed in industrial feed lots, whether it’s hogs, or cattle, or chicken, or dairy cows.

So do you feel that agribusiness has a very strong influence over the current legislation?

Oh absolutely. Absolutely.

Along the same lines, according to some estimates, the government provides about $1.3 billion to Americans who don’t farm right now in direct payments, do you have an opinion about things like that, how they hurt the farm bill?

Well, that’s just an artifact of the subsidy system. You see, if you don’t have a farm program that actually makes sure that you’re charging the big corporations for their commodities, then you have to have a subsidy system to make the system work. And if Ted Turner or some big rich person owns farmland and they actually farm it as a farm, then they are obviously going to get payments, government payments. If you had any kind of a system that benefited farmers, benefited let’s say through the price of the commodity, they are still going to benefit because they own the land. It’s a matter of land ownership, you know land tenure. If we don’t address ownership of land, land tenure, then you’re not going to get away from people who own land that aren’t farmers actually benefiting.

Some have alleged that the current farm bill tends to discriminate against minority farmers, small farmers, obviously you have mentioned that, and farmers who are not producing one of the five main commodities. So do you feel that by creating a system where they would provide an equitable, fair pay for farm products, that would eliminate the problem of farmers being left behind?

Well it would help a heck of a lot if the products that minority farmers sold were being sold at a fair price in the first place, that’s for sure. Then of course, there’s racism that raises its ugly head every time you turn around in our society and dealing with government agencies is a likely place where you’re going to find racism. So the application of government programs, no matter whether they are good or bad, if you don’t deal with the racism that’s involved there, you are still dealing with racism and discrimination.

The overall riding issue in all of this is whether we’re going to let the free market determine farm product prices. As long as we are running agriculture under the WTO or NAFTA so that big corporations can get fruits and vegetables or grain or meat or whatever anywhere in the world, then regardless of what kind of farmer you are, you’re likely to get a lousy price for it. And the farmers in those countries will get a lousy price for it too, because it’s all one world market now, one international market for agricultural commodities.

So it’s really free trade and free markets that are the culprit and the only reason that the United States, hypocritically, uses subsidies is to keep its agricultural system from falling completely apart. So, yes, there needs to obviously be a serious attempt to get rid of racism in all of our society, particularly in how our government agencies deal with minority farmers, no questions about that.

If you were able to sit down and talk with some of the people who are legislating the current farm policies, such as the current farm bill that’s about to come up, what would be your advice or your caveat to them? What would be the message you would want to leave?

They have one question to answer—and that’s whose side are they on? Are they on the side of the working people in this country and family farmers, or are they on the side of multinational corporations and wealthy people all around the world who benefit from those people’s labor? It’s not rocket science to figure out labor laws and farm programs and trade rules that will benefit family farmers and working people on the one hand, versus those that basically depend on free trade and free markets, like big corporations want. They can make their choice.

For more information about CAP’s policies on the Farm Bill, see:

 

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