In the Aug. 22 issue of their Spokesman, the Iowa Farm Bureau listed its 2012 "Friends of Agriculture for Northeast Iowa." These are candidates for seats in the Iowa House and Senate and the U.S. House that were selected by "a process that emphasizes Farm Bureau policies over partisan politics." Nine individuals were listed and all but one are Republican. This calls into question their policy of making "non-partisan" evaluations of the candidates.
More important, however, is the dubious nature of friendship involved, since the policies put forth, supported and lobbied for are much more friendly to large corporate agri-business interests than to small and medium-size farmers. There is also a problem with the Bureau's claim of support for Iowa's rural communities, in that population figures show a steady decline in farmers on the land, a decline that is largely due to the increasing quantities of fewer varieties of farm commodities and livestock being produced with ever larger machinery, a trend their policies have supported all along.
Massive dairy farms and huge hog confinements and correspondingly large animal, milk and grain processing operations, some using immigrant labor to enhance profit margins, are all elements of a movement toward ever-larger-scale operations that pose unprecedented environmental hazards and threaten the integrity of rural communities.
Taxpayers are footing the bill for this. According to a USDA report from last March, massive farms with more than $500,000 in annual sales received 54 percent of commodity program payments, up from 22 percent in 1991. The share of support for small farms (with annual sales less than $250,000) has declined from 49 percent in 1991 to 20 percent now. In other words, the massive agri- business corporations with already-huge profits are receiving the bulk of taxpayer-funded assistance at the expense of small-scale family farms.
And where do these dollars ultimately end up? Only a very small percentage stays in the local area, namely with local banks and other agriculture-related businesses. Most of the money moves on to large corporations like Pfizer, Monsanto, ADM, Exxon, and John Deere. Genetically engineered seed stock and the chemicals and fertilizer associated with their uses have made many farmers dependent on the full range of their products in a pattern that has historically led to chronic over-production and low farm commodity prices, except for the occasional exceptional years like 2012.
Higher yields and lower prices are great for multinational corporate interests, since their profit is based on quantity, not the value of commodities produced by local farmers. Low prices are also good for food manufacturers and processors even though a relatively small fraction of their cost is for the raw material produced by farmers. A strong global market for conventional crops like corn, soybeans and wheat may keep prices high for both commodities and farmland itself, but this also increases pressure to pull back on many of the land, air and water conservation programs that were first established in the 1930s but have never really been adequate.
The Farm Bureau has consistently resisted any government-sponsored conservation initiative that does not include generous monetary incentives and subsidies. Otherwise, they support no regulations and voluntary conservation practices. Right now they are lobbying for continuing taxpayer subsidies for "crop insurance," a misnomer, since what they want is income assurance, in effect a guaranteed annual income, while refusing to accept mandatory conservation practices in exchange. They also oppose any meaningful local control over the location of large hog and dairy confinement operations, and they have no problem with the lack of emission controls and other inadequate regulations of how the animal waste generated in these operations is stored and used.
Two years ago the Farm Bureau waged a significant but fortunately unsuccessful campaign to defeat the Water and Land Legacy amendment to our state constitution, which was affirmed by 64 percent of voters. When implemented, this will create a trust fund dedicated to expanding programs to improve our polluted waterways and protect existing clean-water sources while reducing soil erosion that, at the average rate of five tons per acre per year, is not sustainable.
The strategic goal of Farm Bureau policy is to focus on short-term gain for the largest farmers and the corporate interests they serve while shifting its costs to the general public. Their support for increasing the state fuel tax is also part of this strategy, since it could go toward rebuilding the roads and replacing the bridges in rural Iowa that are no longer wide enough to carry the ever-increasing production and super-sized machinery that is especially difficult to accommodate in areas like much of Northeast Iowa, with its rugged terrain. This is particularly egregious since farmers pay neither sales nor fuel taxes for purchases and activity related to farm operations.
With all this in mind, and if we wish to be friends of the planet earth, Farm Bureau designated "Friends of Agriculture" may not be the people we want making our laws in Des Moines and in Washington, D.C.