George Naylor on the Family Farm Crisis and the Struggle for Food Sovereignty

Christina Schiavoni interviews George Naylor, the former President of the National Family Farm Coalition, who shares his insights on the flaws of current farm policy and his visions for a new food system based on the concept of food sovereignty.

To raise awareness of the struggles faced by family farmers in the US and throughout the world, former WhyHunger Director of Global Movements, Christina Schiavoni, interviewed George Naylor, the former president of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC). NFFC represents family farm and rural groups across the country who face the challenge of the deepening economic recession in rural communities caused primarily by low farm prices and the increasing corporate control of agriculture. George raises 470 acres of corn and soybeans near Churdan, Iowa. In addition to his leadership on national food and farm issues since the mid-1980s, he is actively engaged in international farming movements.

Photo: George Naylor in Iowa, from FRESH the Movie

The Family Farm Crisis

WhyHunger: George, what first led you, as a family farmer, to take on political activism and organizing?

George: Returning to the family farm in the early 1970s with the intention of being an organic farmer was a political act in the first place–an Earth Day victory. Due to my Vietnam War activism, I hoped that being a farmer would get me as far away from the military-industrial complex as I could get. Little did I know, multinational corporations ranked federal farm policy at the top of their wish-list. An army marches on its stomach, but the military-industrial complex marches on modern agriculture’s production of cheap commodities, its production of chemical and technological inputs, and its displacement of farmers world-wide to become cheap labor. Since my folks (landlords) didn’t let me take the organic route, locking horns with this behemoth became my destiny.

Because of the world food crisis, we farmers here in the US were told by former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz that raising corn and soybeans was the way to go, and we wouldn’t have to worry about prices since we could supposedly always export–that exporting corn/soybeans would save us. Actually, corn prices dropped from over $3 per bushel from the time I took the plunge in 1975 down to $1.50 by my second harvest in 1977. Post-Vietnam War inflation drove up the cost of living and the cost of farming, so the cost-price squeeze became very personal. Fortunately, I met some old farmers who were active in historic farmer struggles, from the Populist movement of the 1890s to the Cold War, and who understood the importance of this struggle for everybody on the planet. Also, the American Agriculture Movement began tractorcades to protest the beginning of a new farm crisis that intensified and led to many new grassroots organizations in the 1980s.

WhyHunger: In summary, what are the predominant factors driving family farmers off of their land today?

George: The cost-price squeeze has to be number one. Costs going up with prices going down, or the lack of parity, can mean only one thing: fewer farmers. Going back to the 1970s, the floor price for corn was set at $2.00 per bushel and the average price by 1978 was $2.25. Because the current Farm Bill doesn’t even have a floor price, let alone one adjusted to meet increases in costs of farming, the price of corn at my elevator today is $1.45. Today’s price would have to be $6.75 per bushel to have the same buying power as the 1978 price. It takes 4 bushels today to buy the same thing one bushel would buy in 1978. This is not just a problem for corn farmers. Cheap corn and cheap soybean meal, the chief ingredients of manufactured livestock feed, fuel the vertically integrated industrial production of livestock – poultry, hogs, and cattle in large confined, polluting, unhealthy factory farms – so that livestock prices stay low. This threatens diversified family farm production and has a disastrous impact on the environment.

Farming outside this system to meet the new demand for organic and sustainably-raised food requires new, fair markets. It also requires that farmers, especially new farmers, have access to reasonably priced land and capital, which is not the case now. The value of land currently has no relationship to farming. Land near cities is priced speculatively for development, and other ground is priced speculatively for recreation like hunting clubs. Now imagine the globalization of these trends, and you’ll see why family farmers fall by the wayside around the world while multinational corporations expand their control over the countryside and our lives.

Are Free Markets the Answer?

WhyHunger: What are some of the major factors in US agriculture and trade policy that are undermining family farmers and rural economies? Who stands to benefit from the current system?

George: Multinational corporations exploit the myth that free markets are good for all people all the time. They have used this to dismantle farm policy in this country, and now with the World Trade Organization (WTO), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and other trade agreements, they are doing it internationally. The USDA Farm Bill no longer requires these corporations to pay a fair price for commodities, and it gives them the ability to access commodities anywhere in the world, regardless of the consequences to the environment, farmworkers, and rural communities. Without federal law to set a support price for agricultural commodities (a price floor much like the minimum wage works for labor), there’s no telling how low farm prices might go.

Farmers’ only logical response to such low farm prices is to try to increase production to have more to sell, which only drives the price lower. The environment often suffers in this endeavor, so farmers become locked in a poverty-resource degradation cycle. This phenomenon is apparent in our country when you see corn and soybeans raised from horizon to horizon and very little livestock with hay, pasture or small grains. Without alternative markets, a farmer’s only choice is to maximize the production of carbohydrates, protein, and oil ”the basic ingredients of manufactured livestock feed and highly processed foods.

Farmers need a price floor but, in order for this to happen, there has to be a food security reserve that absorbs production in bountiful years and saves it for use in low production years. Also, conservation programs can prevent land from being used to produce a surplus. These components became the law of the land in the New Deal, but were eroded from the mid 1950s until they were completely destroyed in 1996 with passage of the infamous Freedom to Farm Act. Now farmers have no choice but to plant fencerow-to-fencerow, driving down prices for the benefit of corporate agribusiness.

Subsidy payments from the government keep this whole system functioning, but since the true cost of production isn’t achieved even with the subsidies, many farmers quit farming every day. Our country hypocritically forces other countries to follow the same path through the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. Their farmers end up in poverty while their agricultural system is transformed into an agribusiness sector exporting food to other countries. Any country that wishes to set up a food sovereignty framework needs to have the right to prevent cheap imports from undermining its domestic agricultural sector.


Commodity Payments: “Threat” or Support?

WhyHunger: There is a lot of discussion these days about government subsidies for the production of commodity crops such as cotton, corn, wheat, and soybeans. What is your take on commodity payments? Do you agree with those who are calling for a subsidy cap (i.e., a limit on the amount a single farmer can receive for a specific commodity, regardless of the amount produced)?

George: If farm policy were intended to achieve fair prices for farmers, government subsidies for commodity production wouldn’t be needed. If Cargill had to pay farmers a price that reflected increased costs, like the $6.75 per bushel of corn I mentioned earlier, we d have thousands more family farmers, and livestock would still be on family farms with hay, pasture, and small grains in the crop rotation. Local processing plants would still be the norm, and rural communities would benefit from all this economic activity.

Under today’s subsidy system, farmers have no alternative but to plant fencerow-to-fencerow and take whatever price the Chicago Board of Trade determines day-by-day. Nobody knows how low prices can go, and therefore, the system couldn’t function without the promise of billions of taxpayer dollars to make up some of the difference. Can you imagine a banker loaning a farmer to plant another crop with low prices guaranteeing a loss and the prospect of prices going even lower? No way. Even with all the subsidies, a corn farmer will still only get the equivalent of about $2.40 per bushel, still less than the cost of production.

Subsidies keep this system of cheap grain, cheap cotton, etc. functioning for the benefit of multinational corporations. We need thousands more family farmers, but capping payments doesn’t address this issue at all and instead acts as a diversion. Neither the inequity nor the inadequacy of the subsidy system is addressed by payment caps, nor is its effect of creating low prices for farmers in developing countries–they usually don’t get any payments at all.

WhyHunger: Some may argue that record-low commodity prices are beneficial to US consumers, as well as hungry people both at home and abroad. What is your response?

George: More corporate propaganda. Cheaper isn’t always better – there’s no free lunch, as the old saying goes. There are a lot of losses not factored into the price of cheap commodities–the loss of rural communities, biodiversity, economic opportunity, fresh local food supplies, food security, and democracy itself. Cheap corn, soybeans, and wheat provide much of the ingredients for the ubiquitous highly-processed, high calorie foods that plague our health while assuring lots of margin for corporate profits and marketing campaigns. Having food produced thousands of miles away (the average miles for food on our dinner plate is 1,500 miles) – and becoming more reliant on a corporate food system – diminishes our lives bushel by bushel, bite by bite.


Food Sovereignty: A New Framework

WhyHunger: George, we have heard you mention the term food sovereignty. Can you explain what this concept means?

George: Food sovereignty is the rallying cry of the international family farmer and peasant movement called Via Campesina, of which the National Family Farm Coalition is privileged to be a member. Via Campesina and many supportive NGOs believe these two words offer a new mindset that will lead to more just and ecological food and farming systems, new democratic decision-making in our governments, and new international market cooperation aimed at fair prices for farmers.

In a nutshell, food sovereignty is the right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, pastoral, labor, fishing, food and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically, and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. It includes the true right to food and to produce food. It means that all people have the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and to food-producing resources and the ability to sustain themselves and their societies. Food sovereignty means that trade and farm policy should respect every country’s right to establish policies based on needs and traditions for food security, conservation of natural resources, and distribution of economic opportunity.

WhyHunger: What efforts are taking place in the US to promote food sovereignty?

George: The National Family Farm Coalition is developing a U.S. food sovereignty campaign. The three goals we have set are: 1) that farmers should have the first right to markets in their own region/country and receive a fair price for their products; 2) the concept of food sovereignty will be popularized and supported in the US; and 3) international trade cooperation must ensure food sovereignty, which would mean taking agriculture out of the WTO and other free trade agreements. Our folks also came up with a collective vision of what we think food sovereignty should look like:

We envision empowered communities everywhere working together democratically to advance a food system that ensures health, justice and dignity for all. Family farming is an attractive and viable livelihood that supports economically, environmentally, and socially diverse and sustainable communities where future generations will thrive. Farmers, ranchers and fishers will have control over their lands, water, seeds, and livelihoods, as well as the ability to steward the land, take good care of animals, protect biodiversity and conserve and increase farming knowledge. Farmworkers and food workers have respect and decent incomes, and farmers have the first right to produce food for local and regional markets, so that the planet’s energy and the soil and water are conserved. All people have access to healthy, local, delicious food.


Creating Global Solidarity

WhyHunger: It seems that for true food sovereignty among nations to be achieved, a massive global effort is necessary. What sort of international coordination is taking place? What is the role of the National Family Farm Coalition in these efforts?

George: NFFC is working with Via Campesina along with the Food Sovereignty Network and many other US and international NGOs to derail further liberalization of international trade by the WTO. As long as the WTO acts as a neo-liberal institution which only serves the interests of multinational corporations, we want agriculture out of the WTO. The Doha Round of Trade Negotiations (which began in 2001) was supposed to be a development round, but the US and the EU, on behalf of their multinational corporations, continue the false promise of more market access to expand trade and increase income. This only intensifies the competition among farmers internationally and keeps international commodity agreements out of the discussion.

The NFFC has helped inform the debate by insisting that the same market forces are destroying U.S. farmers livelihoods; that we’ve heard the same type of corporate promises in the US; and that getting bigger with borrowed capital and new technology hasn’t changed the equation one iota. Unfortunately, I’m afraid the spirit of democracy and appreciation of family farmers is greater in many other countries than it is here. This is the real challenge of the NFFC, to rekindle the democratic ideals of family farming and to mobilize our citizens to regain control of our government out of the hands of multinational corporations.


Creating Systemic Change

WhyHunger: From what you have described, the concept of food sovereignty flies in the face of neo-liberal practices enforced through the WTO, “free trade” agreements, and multinational corporations. How can we begin to dismantle these predominant forces? What alternative systems do you envision?

George: Cultural changes pave the way for institutional change. Food awareness and appreciation of fresh, sustainably-produced food is growing worldwide. Conferences like WhyHunger’s, Food Justice: Change Your Diet, Change the World, show the way. But we also live in a world of laws and lawlessness that serves multinational corporations. Democratic institutions need to set new agriculture and trade rules to achieve food sovereignty. The 2008 Farm Bill is now being debated and we need everyone to tell Congress that the current direction must be reversed so that our agriculture system serves all the people and a healthy environment, not just corporate greed.

The next farm bill must have price floors, food security reserves, and conservation provisions, along with a respect for other nations food sovereignty. We need trade cooperation. After all, other countries produce wonderful food items we cannot produce here. What we don’t need are the WTO’s formulas for trade wars or the international dumping of commodities that undermines food sovereignty. This means that big countries with the ability to generate huge quantities of commodities need to share the responsibility of preventing dumping by establishing international price floors and food security reserves. It needs to be recognized that poverty causes hunger, and changes in our nations’ economies to improve employment and incomes are needed, rather than simply producing more cheap commodities.


Building Common Ground

WhyHunger: Far too often, farmers, anti-hunger advocates, environmentalists, and others striving for food system change are pitted against each other. We find ourselves fighting for the same crumbs when the majority of federal spending on food and agriculture is diverted to a relatively small number of powerful agribusinesses, as you have described. What do you consider to be our common ground? How can we better collaborate and create a more unified front?

George: The battle over the 2006 federal budget illustrates the situation you describe. The USDA budget includes farm subsidies, conservation programs, and nutrition programs. In the latest budget reconciliation debate, $3 billion was to be cut from the whole USDA budget, obviously putting farm income payments, conservation programs, and nutrition programs such as food stamps all on the chopping block. While the President’s original budget statement indicated that reducing subsidies by 5% and capping payments would save about $600 million, the fact is that if the farm program were adjusted simply to raise crop prices high enough to eliminate the need for subsidy payments, a total of $10 billion could be saved. This could be done without decreasing farm income, without decreasing conservation programs, and without decreasing nutrition programs. We could save ten billion dollars, and even much more if corporations were required to pay a truly fair price. Such measures would go a long way toward providing better nutrition for our citizens and transforming our food and farming system. Just as farm income could be improved by establishing a price floor, the minimum wage could be increased and our trade policy changed to be sure we have good jobs here in the U.S. These kinds of policy changes wouldn’t cost the federal government anything, and would actually increase income tax revenues.


Reaching the Public

WhyHunger: If we do succeed in creating a more unified movement, how then might we better engage the broader public? Why should people care about where their food has come from, and how can they be involved in positive change?

George: Access to affordable, healthy, food that is raised, marketed, and sold in a way that neither exploits natural nor human resources is a public good–everyone has a stake in it–in this generation and for generations to come. Public policy must support diversified, family farm agriculture, or the public and ecological health is very much at risk. Unfortunately, it seems we’ll be experiencing more food and energy disasters that are already programmed into our system where food chains are broken and virtual epidemics ensue, like mad-cow disease and obesity. No one is immune from the problems caused by the current corporate farm and food system.

A major obstacle will be the misperception that multinational corporations have the solutions to the problems their system has created. I know this happens in the farm economy with pesticides and bio-tech crops, and I suspect much of the news and research on food and nutrition encourages the same illusion. Politicians need to know that we ourselves have solid answers, based on our democratic history and institutions. These are not the answers of multinational corporations or the WTO. We need more public involvement in organizations like WhyHunger and NFFC. It’s truly amazing how many wonderful groups exist (I think we’re already the majority), and I believe that unifying our message and actions opens the possibility for a new rebirth of participatory democracy–and good eating.

WhyHunger: George, many thanks.

For more information on Family Farms, see in-depth resources and analysis on the Family Farms topic on the Food Security Learning Center, as well as the website of the National Family Farm Coalition.


Updated 8/2014