Next time we'll bring our tractors
By Ken Root
"Oh boy!" That was the text of a handwritten sign held up by a young man at the recent Farm Bill Now rally in Washington, D.C. I saw it on Facebook and didn't get any profile of the author/holder except that he was too young to remember the American Agriculture Movement and the farmer's strike of the 1970s. I operate on the premise that if we don't remember history, we tend to repeat it. In the case of the farmer's strike, it was colorful and exciting but, looking back, it was bad policy. Still, the idea of making a bold statement and accentuating it by parking tractors on the National Mall has an activist appeal that is hard to deny.
Here is a news account of the timeline:
"The movement began in Springfield, Colo., where a group of farmers got together and developed the strike idea. They called on farmers across the country to stop buying or selling anything on Dec. 14, 1977, unless their demands were met. Within a week, the group had a name--the American Agriculture Movement (AAM)--and the strike had gathered enough attention that the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland met with farmers in Pueblo, Colo. He did little to placate the anger of the Movement."
The basis for the farmer unrest was high input prices and declining revenues. AAM called for "parity" between costs paid and income received. The flaw in the concept was that parity can only be established for a split second in time and farmers were bargaining like labor when they were ownership and management. The belief of the American Agriculture Movement that farmers, as decision-makers, would organize and collude on cutting production could not be put in practice.
Nevertheless, the anti-business, anti-government energy was as great as I've ever seen. I don't know if it was exasperation, aggravation or desperation but it was real, and at times, it was scary. Farmers tried to block bridges from Mexico. They tried to block trucks going into distribution warehouses, saying foreign produce or meat should not be allowed into the country. People became angry and violent in a culture that had never seen such actions by gentle and law-abiding people.
The first assemblies, or strikes, were staged at state capitols. In Nebraska, Gov. J.J. Exon was reported to have ridden to the rally on an open tractor to address a crowd of over 6,000 farmers and supporters who brought 5,000 tractors. Exon said this to the crowd:
"They said it would be a cold day in hell when farmers would get together. I can't tell you how warm it is to have you here in Lincoln. I only wish we had had such a rally two or three years ago. 'Strike' is not a usual word with farm people, these are not usual times. We need to get the message across to everyone that there is a problem. The farmer gets 31 cents of the food dollar while the labor processor gets 33 cents and the transportation and marketing segment get 36 cents. Unless we can get more than 31 cents for the farmer, we won't have our food plant sustained."*
With momentum gaining, many of the farmers set out for Washington, D.C., in the greatest showing of protest and unity in modern times. Farmers were in the capitol city in 1978 and again in 1979 and received mixed reviews. Labor supported them and liberals wooed them but even the Jimmy Carter administration doubled back on the protesters. After stopping foreclosures, it resumed them and farmers threw raw eggs at Bergland.
When it warmed up in the spring, what farmers learned was that most of their ranks would not go along with the production cutbacks demanded by the AAM. Agricultural production increased each year and corporations only paid lip service to the growers' demands. Looking back, the 1970s were the "good times" compared to the 1980s when inflation and interest rates switched places and creditors began to roll back values on machinery and livestock. By the end of the decade, many farmers found themselves insolvent and in the worst recession since the 1930s.
The 1980s brought out the best and worst of human character and there are still "walking wounded" who lost property and families due to events set in motion by the changing times. The unity of a brotherhood of protesting farmers sounded pretty good but the era showed that you really can't count on anyone but yourself in tough times. Willie Nelson sang, politicians talked, economists forecast, preachers prayed, bankers reasoned but only time brought an end to a period of history that started with unexpected prosperity and ended with uneventful recovery over 10 years later. Farmers picked up the pieces and the AAM shrank into obscurity.
The ethanol era (2006 to present) has created the longest period of prosperity in agriculture's history, and this drought year has resulted in a brief run-up to record corn and soybean prices. The cost of all inputs has risen to meet demand in the marketplace, and growers have compounded the rise by buying land at inflated prices.
Now we are at a point that looks familiar to old eyes. A rally in Washington, D.C., with some who see themselves as the "farming class" feeling that they are entitled to a profit and protesting to government to get guarantees. The symbolism of a tractorcade to threaten politicians with a food shortage. It didn't work 34 years ago but would it work today with fewer and larger farmers? Would they stand together? Would anyone stand with them? Would government relent and link farm legislation to parity? Or will these circumstances replicate the late 1970s and set up a precipitous fall that cascades into foreclosure and chaos?
From my perspective, leave your tractor in the shed.
*The National Farmers Union puts the farmer's share of the consumer food dollar at 15.8 cents in 2012.
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.