Tag Archives: farming

Fast Track to nowhere: Part 1 – Get big or get out

We already have an example of how free trade fails in NAFTA, passed in 1993 and still wreaking havoc in agriculture in Mexico and the United States. NAFTA and the 1996 Farm Bill worked together to force a “get big or get out” agenda.

Confused about the fast track trade debate? You’re not alone. The eye-glazing complexities of trade policy make a lot of people throw up their hands and give up. But you shouldn’t do that. Trade policy affects air, water, soil, plants, pollinators, immigration, workers’ rights, local control, zoning … the list goes on and on. “Free trade” legislation sells out all of our rights. This is the first of a series of posts explaining, in plain language, some of the reasons “free” trade costs all of us.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, headquartered right here in Minnesota, analyzed NAFTA’s impact on livestock farming, noting that the top four beef-farming companies — Cargill, Tyson, JGF and National Beef — increased their market share from 69 percent in 1990 — pre-NAFTA — to 82 percent in 2012. IATP explained:

“Those corporations take advantage of the rules in NAFTA to operate across borders. U.S. companies grow cattle in Canada and pork in Mexico that they then bring back to the U.S. for slaughter and sale. Along the way, independent U.S. hog and poultry producers have virtually disappeared. Efforts to at least label those meats under Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws have been vigorously opposed by the Mexican and Canadian governments. Meanwhile those factory farms contribute to grow environmental devastation in all three countries.”

NAFTA devastated small Mexican farmers, flooding their markets with cheaper U.S. corn. In the United States, IATP reported:

“… commodity prices dropped like a stone, and Congress turned to “emergency” payments, later codified as direct payment farm subsidies, to clean up the mess and keep rural economies afloat.

“Then, as new demand for biofuels increased the demand for corn, and investors turned from failing mortgage markets to speculate on grains, energy and other commodities, prices soared. It wasn’t only the prices of farm goods that rose, however, but also prices of land, fuel, fertilizers and other petrochemical based agrochemicals. Net farm incomes were much more erratic.”

NAFTA is already in full force. Next up: Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which are like NAFTA on steroids. While their texts are still secret, some provisions have been made public and some have been leaked by WikiLeaks. These include provisions such as prohibitions on Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), which tells consumers where food comes from, and limits on individual countries’ ability to restrict GMOs or food additives.

Today, Congress is considering “fast track” provisions for these trade agreements. As Minnesota Congressional Representative Keith Ellison wrote recently:

“We in Congress don’t precisely know, because the rules governing negotiations mean we don’t have access to full draft texts and staff cannot be present when we see individual sections. We also cannot provide negotiating objectives for the US Trade Representative. The administration’s request for “fast track” authority is a request for Congress to rubber-stamp a text that more than 500 corporate representatives were able to see and influence.”

Fast Track means that Congress agrees, in advance, that they will not make any amendments to the trade deals presented, but will just vote yes or no. The president will negotiate the gigantic trade deals, under the pretense of increasing trade and benefiting the economy. . Congress could then vote the deal up or down, but could not amend them to remove any specific problems.

For detailed analysis of the trade deals and debates, I recommend the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. And keep watching News Day for more short articles on specific parts of the deals.

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My brother, Professor Brown and avian flu

turkey and henProfessor Brown, Belushi, Bronzie and B2 strutted toward me across the June-green farmyard, accompanied by their entourage of hens. Back toward the barn, the neat little Production Red laying hens and glossy Black Jersey Giants scratched in the gravel, overseen by Goliath and the other Jersey Giant roosters.

They’re obviously healthy, and even state-certified healthy, but in quarantine nonetheless. Why? Because some unidentified commercial flock in the area, tens of thousands of birds that never once walked outdoors in sunlight or scratched the ground for bugs, was infected by avian flu and destroyed to the last bird. Continue reading


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From bib overalls to hazmat suits

“They had hazmat suits,” the farmer said, “and they sprayed the tires of their truck with disinfectant, too.”

“They” are inspectors checking for avian flu. Coming from all over the United States, the teams travel farm to farm, testing poultry for avian flu. The highly contagious disease has killed more than five million birds — mostly turkeys — in Minnesota and more than 25 million — mostly egg-laying chickens — in Iowa. There is no known treatment or vaccine. Once it hits a flock, the H5N2 virus kills quickly, and kills 90 percent of the birds in those flocks. Continue reading

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Why you should read Bluestem Prairie

Photo by Justin Meissen, published under Creative Commons license.

Photo by Justin Meissen, published under Creative Commons license.

Sally Jo Sorensen calls out all kind of nonsense in her Bluestem Prairie blog, especially in the legislature, and especially on rural issues. As Republicans flex their new majority muscle in the MN legislature, one of their first targets is the Citizen Advisory Board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Sally Jo skewers this vendetta, which is triggered by the one-and-only decision to require a mega-farm to produce an Environmental Impact Statement as part of the permit process. Continue reading

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Farming by the numbers

Like numbers? The 2007 U.S. Agricultural Census has lots of fascinating numbers for anyone who farms or cares about the food system. You can go on-line to download or read everything– national numbers or a state-by-state breakdown. (Minnesota here.) Among the more interesting findings:

• Minnesota farm figures track national trends in most areas. Farm numbers increased nationally, but growth came mainly in the biggest and smallest operations. While Minnesota gained a few more farms, overall farm acreage in the state decreased by a little more than half a million acres.

• Big farms keep on growing. In MN, the number of farms with sales of more than half a million dollars went up by 2,801 farms. (The number of farms with less than $2500 in sales went up by 1,654).

• Nationally, the number of farms with sales greater than $500,000 increased by 46,000 from 2002 to 2007, while the total number of farms grew four percent to 2,204,792. That number is somewhat deceptive, as the greatest growth came in farms with sales of less than $1,000 — clearly hobby farms. (Remember that the sales figures are gross sales — a farm with $100,000 in sales has a profit margin that is far lower.) The number of farms in the $100,000 to $249,000 category shrank slightly, while all higher levels showed growth. Less than half of all farm operators said farming was their primary occupation.

• Family farm numbers declined in Minnesota. MN farms larger than 2,000 acres and those smaller than 180 acres increased in number, while the state lost about two thousand middle-sized farms. The number of MN farm operators identifying farming as their principal occupation dropped by about 20 percent, going from 50,808 to 39,628.

• Organic farms are a big growth sector. Even as the number of family farms in Minnesota continued to decline from 2002 to 2007, family-operated organic farms increased. MPR reports:

For the first time, the census of agriculture includes information on organic farms. According to the census, in 2007 there were 718 Minnesota farms producing organic crops. That’s a 66 percent gain from the best previous estimate, a 2005 state report. Jim Riddle runs an organic farm outreach program for the University of Minnesota and he said organic food should be a growth area for years to come.

“It’s still a supply and demand driven market and there’s just a very strong demand for organic products,” said Riddle.

Nationally, organic food sales have been growing at 15-20 percent per year until the recession hit, and even now continue to increase by about five percent per year.

• Nationally, farms with more than one million dollars in sales accounted for 59 percent of all agricultural production nationwide. In 2002, the million dollar farms accounted for only 47 percent of all ag sales.

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