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Editorial for Countering Corporate Capture Issue

by Elizabeth Henderson, guest editor

In this issue of TNF, we focus on concentration in the food system. As the cover image chart shows, major conventional food corporations have snatched up formerly independent organic brands. Phil Howard has been documenting this process for two decades as the number of independents has shrunken to the point that you can count them on one hand. In an article that summarizes his research, Howard lays out the extent of concentration, explains how it works to maximize profits for shareholders, and suggests ways to resist.

Even where BuyFresh/BuyLocal has been most successful, as in Vermont and the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, 90% or more of the food people eat still comes through third parties according to USDA. The price markup by these markets is 100% or more. If a customer at a grocery pays $2 for lettuce, the farmer gets only $1. The contrast between what the farmer gets and the final price is much starker for “commodity” crops like milk, processing vegetables, and grains. If a customer pays $4 for a box of organic cereal, the farmer may only get 10 cents. The overall farmer share of the consumer dollar has been falling steadily since Congress gradually reduced parity pricing and supply management from the late 1950s through the 1996 Farm Bill which disappeared parity altogether as corporate capture of global food chains made Washington, D.C. a command center. In tightly consolidated markets, farmers have to take whatever price is offered without the power to negotiate. The systemic racism that underlies the US/global food system singles out African-American and other BIPOC farmers for especially brutal treatment.

Too many young farmers spend 10 years mastering the craft of farming, accessing land and farming resources, only to throw in the towel when they discover that they cannot earn a middle-class living with their farm business. Understanding the social and economic realities imposed by corporate capture may reduce the tendency to see this failure as personal. The system is stacked against mid-sized and smaller farms. The long history of racism and theft of land from native peoples sets the context for undervaluing food production and food chain workers. But rather than despair, let’s take heart from the many forms of resistance our community of farmers and conscious eaters has created.

For over 50 years, NOFA chapters have put a lot of energy, resources, and creativity into developing direct sales markets for organic farmers. We took seriously the teaching of Booker T. Whatley - “Shun middlemen like the plague.” The NOFAs have made major contributions to building networks of farmers markets, CSAs and Covid-inspired online ordering hubs. Despite these successes, organic farms are struggling to earn enough to cover production costs and provide living wages for themselves and their employees. Even with quality embellishments like certified organic, and grass-fed, the federal “cheap food” policy limits what farmers can charge.

Iowa farmer and champion of farmer justice George Naylor explains how price supports, supply management and conservation combine in a system that has the power to reign in the so-called “free market,” allowing farms to diversify crops, reduce reliance on toxic materials and save monarch butterflies. Fellow champion, Michael Sligh, an organic farmer and one of the Agricultural Justice Project founders, lays out the rights that farmers should have. It may surprise you to realize that organic vegetable farms that sell over a million dollars a year to major retail buyers do not have written contracts and could be dropped in a heartbeat with no recourse. We reprint a summary of what to look for before you sign a contract based on guidelines from the Farmers Legal Action Group.

Grace Oedel, Executive Director of NOFA-VT, explains how crucial it is for the health of the planet to redouble our efforts to support local community-based farms. Edith Couchman, a long-time conscious eater and member of the NOFA-NH Board, holds up the Real Organic Project for campaigning against the National Organic Program’s tolerance of distorted versions of organic and turns our gaze inward to test how ready we are as NOFA networks to oppose corporate domination.

Then we turn to some of the many creative ways to build economic and actual territory based on solidarity values.

Laura Edwards-Orr introduces us to the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) which is clearing paths for mid-sized and smaller farms to sell to institutions that historically have bought only from the lowest bidder. GFPP provides a ranking system based on five interrelated values: support for local economies, environmental sustainability, a valued workforce, animal welfare, community health and nutrition. In “Building a Food Hub for Economies of Collaboration,” Headwater Foods, Inc. founder Chris Hartman describes how a values-based food broker is helping NY farms meet the market opportunity that GFPP offers.

Ed Maltby, Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers’ Alliance, brings us up to date on the Danone/Horizon story of dropping its contracts with 89 northeast organic dairy farms without just cause and then gives a glimpse of the promising new ventures that could liberate dairy farmers from dependence on corporations with no commitment to our communities.

In an interview with Chuck Blood, we hear from a dairy farmer who is an active member of Organic Valley, the farmer cooperative that unites 1600 organic dairy farms. Chuck’s story shows the relentless dedication required for farmers to keep control of their coops and have a say in production and sales.

Emily Reiss, an expert in grain production, tells how Farmer Ground Flour serves a similar function for grain growers, enabling them to group together for market power, longer-term planning, and stable pricing.

Finally, Jared Spears, a staffer at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, introduces us to Berkshares, an alternative local currency that circulates in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts. By using Berkshares, you can remove your reliance on the dollar to buy goods and services and stop the steady leak caused by credit card fees.

In Section A of this issue, you will find the NOFA Interstate Council Principles for the Farm Bill. Distilled from listening sessions with members, the Principles paint our vision for a Farm Bill that will transform rather than reinforce the status quo. We endorse bills like “Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2022,” which would halt corporate concentration. Given the 2022 election results, the path to the 2023 Farm Bill will be long and contentious.

The moment has arrived to demand farmer and community protection through federal food policy so that everyone gets the same service at the same price with no discrimination or vertical integration. In her testimony on credit, Dania Davy of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund makes it clear that the first step towards market fairness must be reparations to existing and would-be Black farmers.

As the New Deal demonstrated, it is within the powers of the federal government to change the rules of the marketplace. But the transformation we need will only take place in response to massive grassroots movements. Organic farmers, the NOFAs and our allies have everything to gain by joining the front lines of these movements.

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