President Biden, don’t make the same mistakes in rural America

March 3, 2021 10:00 am

A farmer harvests corn near Slater, Iowa. on Oct. 17, 2020 (Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch).

On Feb. 23, Tom Vilsack was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, again.

In 2011, I helped write an op-ed called “What a good president would do — that would really help family farmers.” It stemmed from President Obama’s and then-Secretary Vilsack’s unsuccessful attempt to level the playing field and increase competition in agriculture. We argued that this failure not only resulted in increased corporate control of our commodity markets and food system, but also led to a loss of hope in the “democratic process” for rural Missourians and rural Americans.

Well, now, President Biden, it’s your turn. We need a good president, and there’s a lot at risk.

As family farmers, we continue to see the familiar corporate-controlled, anti-competitive direction of agriculture, fueled by federal policy and taxpayer money, that has led to a few meatpackers, seed/chemical companies, commodity traders and distributors controlling our farm and food system. Much is now owned by foreign corporations connected to foreign governments, like JBS in Brazil, Smithfield in China and Monsanto in Germany.

Again, and with even more urgency, this direction is not good for our economies, our national security, our water and air, our climate or a truly representative democratic process. And most recently, we saw a stark reality with the corporate “house of cards”, when the pandemic exposed the instability and inability of corporate ag to respond during a time of crisis. They not only couldn’t respond, but they truly didn’t care.

Who benefits from this direction of agriculture? Well, that’s obvious—the corporations that have high-dollar lobbyists and that contribute millions in campaign contributions.

All the while, our country has lost hundreds of thousands of family farms and millions of good jobs on our Main Streets, our water and air is polluted by industrial factory farms and our farmland is being gobbled up into the hands of foreign corporations, Wall Street investors, pension funds and billionaires.

Our fight for democracy is at risk. For democracy to be real, we need competition and diversity in production, processing and distribution. We need diverse land ownership, with millions of family farms and rural landowners on the land. We need power in the hands of the people, not a few absentee multinational corporations.

Previous administrations failed us in this respect, and through this failure, fueled corporate power.

A good president will need to work to promote a path that provides for more families producing the food and fiber of our nation and sharing in the wealth generated from agriculture.

A good president will say: “This is what we’re going to do: my administration is going to work with Congress to change the rules and create open, fair and competitive livestock and commodity markets. A healthy functioning marketplace provides the foundation for good jobs and opportunities in agriculture. There is no place for price manipulation, discrimination, or collusion in agriculture or any other industry. Farmers, big or small, should be given a fair shot at getting the best price they can for the fruits of their labor.”

We need a good president in these times.  The steps forward are clear.

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Darvin Bentlage
Darvin Bentlage

Darvin Bentlage is a fourth-generation cattle and grain farmer from Barton County and a member of Missouri Rural Crisis Center.