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Obama Steps into It on the Family Farm

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The upcoming presidential election may well have saved the American family farm — at least, temporarily. The votes in several agricultural swing states are up for grabs, and so the Obama administration has declared a strategic cease-fire in its assault upon small agriculture.

A family farm is commonly defined as “a farm owned and operated by a family, and often passed down from generation to generation.” For centuries, it was the bedrock of American agriculture.

Numerically speaking, the American family farm has been on the decline for decades. The 2005 Family Farm Report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) states,

According to the Census of Agriculture, the number of U.S. farms fell sharply until the early 1970s after peaking at 6.8 million in 1935. Falling farm numbers during this period reflected growing productivity in agriculture and increased nonfarm employment opportunities. Growing productivity led to excess capacity in agriculture, farm consolidation, and farm operators leaving farming to work in the nonfarm economy. The decline in farm numbers slowed in the 1980s and nearly stopped in the 1990s. By 2002, about 2.1 million farms remained.” (PDF)

It is not possible to ascribe the numerical decline to a single factor, although, certainly, a mass migration away from rural areas into cities is connected to it. Government intervention has distorted the dynamics of growth and decline through contradictory laws and policies. Some policies aim to subsidize family farms at taxpayers’ expense. Others advantage what has been called corporate agriculture at family farms’ expense.

The government’s market distortion makes it difficult to accurately answer a core question: Can family farms compete and survive in the current marketplace? As someone who lives by a prosperous Mennonite community, I believe they can thrive.

They can also adapt. Other farmers I know use innovative methods such as co-op farming and the promotion of local products as a “moral good” within their own communities. Others convert to labor-intensive crops such as organic vegetables, or they fill niche markets such as the demand for buffalo meat. The only real answer, however, is to watch and see. Remove the laws and regulations that cripple family farms as well as those that subsidize them. Then the family farm will prosper or fail depending upon market demand.

Politics visits the family farm

Federal laws regulating the family farm date back at least to President Herbert Hoover, who established the Federal Farm Board in 1929 through the Agriculture Marketing Act. The board’s purpose was to stabilize prices for various farm products ranging from foodstuffs to cotton. The agency’s two basic strategies were to buy and then store or sell surpluses, and to lend money to farm organizations on highly favorable terms. The Board’s effectiveness is debatable, but its significance is not. It set a precedent for massive federal involvement in the family farm and for regulation of farm-product prices.

The following president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, aggressively expanded on Hoover’s precedent through the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. The act addressed declining prices by providing price supports to farmers. It also attempted to raise prices by reducing production; farmers were paid not to grow crops. Many modern farm policies are directly rooted in this act.

Although Roosevelt’s agricultural policies may seem to have advantaged farmers, in a typically contradictory manner many of them were harmful, because they dictated the minutiae of farm operations. Wickard v. Filburn is a case in point. Roscoe Filburn was a farmer who grew “surplus” wheat for consumption by his own family and animals, and not for sale. In other words, he grew more wheat than the government quota allowed under the second Agricultural Adjustment Act (1938). Filburn argued that private consumption was not covered by the act.

When the matter became a lawsuit, a federal district court decided in favor of Filburn. In 1942, the United States Supreme Court reversed the decision, saying that Filburn had violated the Commerce Clause in the Constitution, which regulates commerce between the states. How? Wheat was traded on a national basis, which made it a federal matter. By producing his own wheat, Filburn no longer bought chicken feed, and this in turn drove down the national price.

Obama as the new Roosevelt?

Obama frequently refers to Roosevelt as his role model. Indeed, in arguing for the constitutionality of his health-care program, his administration has cited Wickard v. Filburn as a precedent that establishes broad federal authority over private consumption.

Obama has also continued Roosevelt’s legacy of aggressive intervention into family farming. This intervention is an integral part of the Obama administration’s campaign to legally impose “healthy” eating upon Americans.

In the first year of his presidency, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 passed the then-Democrat-dominated House of Representatives. The act sought to impose the same enhanced “safety” regulations on all farmers and food processors regardless of their size. The new policy included a yearly licensing fee, reporting requirements, and criminal penalties that would require lawyers to fight. Thus small farmers would be at a competitive disadvantage against large producers — who, predictably, pushed for the act.

The Obama administration stated, “The Administration strongly supports House passage of H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009. The legislation includes many of the recommendations of the President’s Food Safety Working Group.” Nevertheless, the bill died in the Senate. There were simply too many senators from agricultural states who worried about reelection.

Obama’s latest assault on family farms began on August 31, 2011, when the Department of Labor (DOL) issued a news release entitled “US Labor Department Proposes Updates to Child Labor Regulations.” The DOL already prohibits children from “agricultural work with animals and in pesticide handling, timber operations, manure pits and storage bins.”

The DOL’s changes “would prohibit farmworkers under age 16 from participating in the cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco.” As well, they could not use electronic equipment, including communication devices, while operating power-driven equipment like tractors. Those under 18 years old could not be “employed in the storing, marketing and transporting of farm product raw materials. Prohibited places of employment would include country grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.”

Children have performed these chores for centuries; that’s one reason the agricultural units are called family farms rather than mom-and-pop ones. Chores are the way children learn the skills of farming. And they constitute an integral part of the rural lifestyle, teaching children the value of work and responsibility.

The Daily Caller (April 25, 2012) interviewed Rossie Blinson, a 21-year-old North Carolina college student, about the new DOL policy. Blinson stated, “I started showing sheep when I was four years old. I started with cattle around 8. It’s been very important. I learned a lot of responsibility being a farm kid.”

Of equal importance, many family farms operate on the margin, and the contributions of children are essential to financial survival.

Amid a tsunami of backlash, the DOL withdrew the policy changes on April 26, 2012.

Many other attempts to regulate the family farm have occurred between the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 and the retracted DOL proposals. Michigan Live (June 14, 2010) reported on one attempt: “The … EPA is classifying milk as oil because it contains a percentage of animal fat, which is a non-petroleum oil.” Under the EPA’s Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) rule, dairy farmers would then have been required to develop and implement “spill prevention plans for milk storage tanks.” This was the EPA’s new interpretation of a decades-old rule.

Again, the backlash was so severe that the EPA exempted milk and milk producers from the SPCC requirements on April 18, 2011. Indeed, Obama found it necessary to repudiate the “milk-is-oil” regulation in his 2012 State of the Union address. USA Today reported,

Obama’s stand-up moment came during a discussion of unnecessary federal regulations.

“We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill — because milk was somehow classified as an oil,” Obama said.

“With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.”

USA Today continued, “Some lawmakers in the audience groaned, while other rolled their eyes; Vice President Joe Biden smiled in pity.”

Political fallout from the war on family farms

The future of the family farm is no laughing matter. Much like same-sex marriage or abortion, it has become a political minefield through which both Romney and Obama must tread. Obama is particularly vulnerable due to the attacks on small farmers throughout his presidency. The family-farm issue could damage him in several important ways.

If he moves against family farmers, farm advocates across America could harden and energize against a second term; this would be especially damaging in agriculturally based swing states such as Ohio and Wisconsin. Moreover, Democrats in Congress who come from agriculturally-based states could withdraw active support from Obama for fear of losing their constituents. Indeed, both dynamics may have already begun as a consequence of earlier measures.

On the other hand, if Obama does nothing, then he risks losing the support of several left-leaning groups — from environmentalists and food-safety zealots to advocates against child labor.

No wonder “some lawmakers groaned … while others rolled their eyes” when Obama made light of the matter. Even Biden, who is renowned for having foot-in-mouth disease, “smiled in pity.”

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).