New England Farmers Join Occupy Wall Street

December 6, 2011
By

Farmers from around the country, including Connecticut, officially joined the Occupy Wall Street this past Sunday. Stretching two blocks long on a crisp fall day, over 400 people marched to Zuchatti Park in Manhattan, ground zero for the Occupy movement.

David Murphy, executive director of Food Democracy Now!, an Iowa-based sustainable farm advocacy group helped organize the march, pulling in farmers from states such as Wisconsin, New York, Maine and Connecticut, he says. “Farmers have been at the forefront of fighting economic injustices for more than two centuries. Our founding fathers were farmers and were against the very inequalities we see today.”

Murphy left a job in Washington and returned home several years ago to help his sister fight off the encroachment of a Minnesota corporation that wanted to build a huge hog farm near her home. His effort saved his sister and her children from living next to a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). It was also a personal eye-opener for Murphy on abusive corporate powers.

“The message we are sending is that farmers are the 99 percent and corporations have been abusing us for decades and we’re joining to put an end to this abuse because if we don’t small and family-owned farms will be gone in a decade.”

A handful of corporations now have control over their food, he says. A target of frustration among small farmers is Monsanto Corporation’s control over seeds. Monsanto, a $2.3 billion seed and agricultural products manufacturer, makes genetically modified organisms (GMOs), such as “Roundup Ready” alfalfa, which the company says produces “high-quality, weed-free forage and hay.”

Kathy

“Monsanto controls the genetics and farmers are paying a premium for

Photo by Eddie C., Daily Kos

the seeds,” Murphy says.

Recently, 83 farmers, seed businesses, and agricultural organizations, including CT NOFA, filed papers in the federal court of the Southern District of New York, to defend their rights to seek legal protection from the threat of being sued by Monsanto for seed patent infringement. Sometimes there is accidental contamination of seeds on farms. One farm may be using GMOs and Monsanto has sued farmers for patent infringement. The Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) represents the plaintiffs in the suit, “Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association (OSGATA), et al. v. Monsanto.”

Murphy says both parties have failed the country and he is hoping a third party or political voice emerges from the movement. “My father who is an ultra-conservative stock broker and who has been helping farmers plan their retirement and send their kids to college supports this movement. Like me, he wants economic fairness.”

Getting a fair shake in farming is likely to become more challenging as Wall Street takes a greater interest in food production as demand for global food increases. A recent report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization said that global farm output must increase 70 percent to feed the 9.2 billion global population in 2050. The need to produce more food has boosted overall farm net income in the United States. The American Farm Bureau expects year-over-year net income to increase 27 percent.

Emily Brooks, founder of the Connecticut-based Edibles Advocate Alliance, recently pointed out in a recent blog post that Wall Street is pretty giddy over farming these days. Jim Rogers, an investment whiz and best-selling author, recently said in a Time Magazine interview that if you want to become rich, become a farmer. Brooks writes that Rogers predicts farming incomes will rise dramatically in the next few decades, faster than those in most other industries – even Wall Street.

This bodes well for large agricultural organizations. According to Food Democracy Now!, only four firms control 84 percent of beef packing and 66 percent of pork production. This has forced more than 1.1 million independent livestock producers out of business since 1980.

The risk of Connecticut farms being gobbled up by big conglomerates to meet food demand is small, says George Krivda, legislative program manger and public information officer for the state’s Department of Agriculture. “We mostly have small farms; we don’t have factory farms,” he says. “The bigger danger is being swallowed by developers.”

Although developers are clearly a risk to farmers, Connecticut is serious about supporting the agricultural industry, says Bill Duesing, Executive Director of Connecticut’s Northeast Organic Farming Association. About one percent of the food consumed in the state is produced in Connecticut and lawmakers would like to increase that to five percent, he says. “This would have an enormous impact on our economy and health of the community.”

Another sign of support is the step to preserve small farms, as small as two or three acres. The state Department of Agriculture has earmarked $2 million in funding for farmland preservation. The program, run through the department’s new Community Farms Preservation Program, will help municipalities preserve small farms, Krivda says. The farmland preservation program was launched in the 1970s and has been a model for the nation, he adds. Towns must meet criteria such as establishing an agriculture commission as part of the application process. “We want towns to have skin in the game, too.”

So while Connecticut may indeed be a model for the country, state farmers still struggle with other problems, such as not having affordable insurance coverage for disasters. Insurance premiums for small farmers in this country are very expensive and only cover a fraction of their losses. Many Connecticut farmers lost their entire harvest this year due to severe weather. Some didn’t qualify because their losses were based on a five-year average.

As a result, many farmers felt it was another injustice from corporate America, where they were not being heard during a devastating time. Jim Gerritsen, owner of Wood Prairie Farm, in Bridgewater, Maine, who marched with farmers from Connecticut and from around the country, says it’s time to be heard and that the Occupy movement will provide that voice. “We are the 99 percent and we are united,” he says. “Our country has been stolen from us and we will resist. Our friends and allies have the support of the American farmers.”

Kathleen Kiley has been a journalist for 20 years. She began her career on Wall Street writing for Investment Dealers’ Digest, reporting on mergers and acquisitions. She has written for national business magazines and The New York Times.  Kathleen became interested in reporting on farming after writing a story about how a group of women (The Fairfield Organic Teaching Farm) made it their crusade to create an organic teaching farming in Fairfield. She will be writing a column on farming every other Thursday. You can reach her at kathleenjkiley@gmail.com.  FOLLOW KATHLEEN  On TWITTER

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