Commentary: Invest in farmers for the future

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Margarita Corona weighs strawberries and inputs data in a UC Davis strawberry field in Watsonville. - Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/TNS

The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered many restaurants, factories and stores, causing the U.S. economy to grind to a halt. As Congress works to deliver a massive stimulus package, let’s not forget rural America and the American farmer.

This is our opportunity to bring about a rural renaissance, characterized by fair incomes, competitive markets and a new generation of farmers.

In fact, the reinvigoration of small-scale American farming is one of the primary ways that we can guard against future pandemics.

The new coronavirus is emphatically not a “Chinese virus,” as President Donald Trump has claimed. But its origins can be traced to China, and its roots are in the international food market.

Recently, industrial farm operations in China have expanded to meet the country’s dietary needs for its growing urban population, causing farmers to include animals of questionable origin into the food chain. The Chinese poultry industry, which domesticates wild birds for slaughter and consumption, has been particularly singled out for enabling viruses to make the leap from animals to humans.

In the United States, our markets are increasingly international. From 1999 to 2017, U.S. spending on imported foods and beverages shot up more than 300%. We now import around half of our fruits and a third of our fresh vegetables. And about 90% of the fish consumed in this country is of foreign origin.

Let’s use the government stimulus to make agriculture local and sustainable, which would improve the dwindling fortunes of rural America and also reduce the dangers posed by international commodity chains.

How?

Well, to start, the federal government is pondering the possibility of purchasing equity in companies that are on hard times. In agriculture, a government purchase of Dean Foods would make sense. This corporation was the nation’s largest milk processor and distributor — that is, before it filed for bankruptcy last December.

One potential buyer just backed away from the deal, paving the way for the government to buy Dean Foods and break it up into smaller processors. For struggling dairy farmers, more processors would mean more potential markets for their milk, which in turn will lead to competition and higher prices.

Also, farm incomes have been stagnant for the last five years. Part of the stimulus could be dedicated to the Commodity Credit Corporation to purchase products off the market to stabilize incomes for, say, beef, corn or soy farmers. The CCC could also make direct payments to small and medium-size producers who are experiencing economic difficulties.

This will also build up emergency reserves of key commodities, which may come in handy in times of acute need — like the one we are now facing.

Debt forgiveness should also be considered. Student loans could be forgiven for people willing to engage in agriculture, while the government could also forgive all federal loan debt and suspend debt payments for all producers.

Call or write your representatives. Tell them that you care about your food system. Tell them that you want farmers to stay on the land and want more small-scale producers, so that we can localize our food supply and make farming a sustainable profession.

The COVID-19 outbreak is going to prompt trillions of dollars of federal spending. Let’s spend a chunk of that to help revitalize our rural economies. Let’s invest in the people who feed us.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Anthony Pahnke (anthonypahnke.com) is vice president of Family Farm Defenders and an assistant professor of international relations at San Francisco State University. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is operated by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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