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Fighting for agriculture's future


Tue, Apr 11th, 2000
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Area women travel to Washington D.C. farm rallyBy Al Mathison

Last month Fillmore County farmers, Judy Emery and Sue Phillips, ate a tasty charcoaled beef sandwich along with baked beans, potato salad, country slaw, cookie and milk in Washington D.C., and it only cost them 39 cents. Called the ‘farmer’s share lunch’, the cheap price illustrated the fact that the American farmer receives only 39 cents of a typical $8.00 meal.

Emery and Phillips are members of the Minnesota Farmers Union and traveled by bus along with 500 other Minnesotans to the nation’s capital for the largest farm rally held there in more than two decades. Many other partic-ipants joined with the Farmers Union in Washington, including the AFL-CIO, the American Corn Growers Association, the Izaak Walton League, the Na-tional Milk Producers Associa-tion, and dozens of other church, labor and farming or-ganizations.

The event was called the Rally for Rural America and brought together more than 3,200 people to draw attention to the fact that in spite of the daily headlines of the prosperous and robust economy, there is a sector of rural America that is quietly going under. Judy Emery and Sue Phillips are among those who have decided that they cannot be quiet any longer.

"It’s not just the farm that’s at stake. It’s our whole way of life in rural America," Phillips said. "It’s the businesses on Main Street, the hardware stores and the feed elevators."

"As the profits leave our farming community, the people do, too," Emery agreed. "We’ve got declining school enrollments in rural areas which are forcing consolidations."

"Our churches are affected, too, when farmers can’t afford to support them" Phillips added.

So what can be done?

"We can talk all we want among ourselves, but it is Congress and the Secretary of Agriculture and the President who need to hear the message," Minnesota Farmers Union President David Frederickson, said before leaving for the Washington rally.

One politician who did not need the reminder was Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone (D). Wellstone, who helped organize Rally for Rural America, said at the beginning of the cur-rent congressional session he would work to overhaul federal farm policy. He also introduced his Rural Information Technol-ogy Initiative, which he said would "provide grants to rural organizations to train, connect and employ people in information technology."

"Senator Wellstone gave us a spirited send-off in Minneapolis as we left on the buses," Emery said. "He said ‘we have to fight for what we want!’"

Wellstone was in Washington a couple days later to meet with the group and to speak at the rally. Every single U.S. senator and representative was invited to the March 21 rally and the events that preceded it. Minnesota’s other senator, Rod Grams (R) and 1st District Representative Gil Gutknecht (R) did not attend the rally or any of the related events

"A group from our area did go to Gutknecht’s office and met with one of his aides for about 45 minutes," Emery said.

"They were disappointed they couldn’t meet with Representative Gutknecht," Phillips added.

The main rally was scheduled for high noon, March 21, on the steps of the capital building but because of an all-day rain, the event was moved to a large tent on the Mall. Phillips described the partici-pan-t’s mood as grim and somber. Speakers called for a morato-rium on agribusiness mergers in order to restore competition in the marketplace and for negotia-tions of fair trade agreements with foreign coun-tries.

Agricultural Secretary Dan Glickman, speaking earlier at the "farmer’s share lunch’ must have known what the attendees wanted to hear when he said, "It is time to rewrite the 1996 Freedom to Farm bill."

The 1996 Freedom to Farm bill was an attempt to wean farmers from federal price supports. The bill did away with set aside acres which had been imposed in order to limit crop production which would keep prices up. The result has seen huge surpluses of grains that have led to below-cost-of-production prices for farmers.

Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Agricultural Committee has stated that he has no intention of holding hearings to rewrite the bill. His spokesman, Andy Fisher, was quoted in the St. Paul Pioneer Press last month, saying, "We’ll rewrite the farm policy in 2002 – we have a seven year contract with American farmers, and it was something they wanted."

MFU President David Frederickson was upbeat about the rally and the effect it had on Congress. Pointing out that legislation was being introduced to reform crop insurance and to place a moratorium on agribusiness mergers, Frederickson said, "Our message echoes in the halls of Congress."

The trip to Washington and the rally reaffirmed the commitment that Judy Emery and Sue Phillips have for fighting to preserve their farming way of life.

"We’re not asking to live in mansions," Phillips said, recalling the words of one of the rally’s speakers, "but we do want a fair price to make a fair living. We want to live with dignity."

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