July 15, 2004

Who Really Runs Minnesota Agriculture?

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- I did a major double-take when I heard Governor Pawlenty, in a press conference last week at the Gar-Lin farm in Eyota, criticize the dangerous levels of political power that Minnesota townships have amassed and are using to throw the future of Minnesota agriculture into mortal peril.

Decision-making has gone seriously amok at the state's 1,802 rural townships, in which roughly a quarter of Minnesota's population resides, the governor suggested. In his 15-minute remarks, Pawlenty stressed how local governments in Minnesota ­ counties too! -- are failing to exercise their civic responsibility to the state when they forbid new agribusinesses and factory farms from opening in rural jurisdictions.

The press conference was called to announce the findings of a task force the governor appointed last year, to determine how Minnesota's livestock industries can become more globally competitive. It was a fine summer day, a little chilly, with the governor flanked by a dozen gorgeous fat dairy cows obliviously chewing their breakfast of enriched corn fodder.

"Be productive," the governor joked as he passed one of them.

Facing Failure

The task force's main finding, the governor told the crowd, is that Minnesota agriculture is healthy except for four major obstacles that endanger its ability to exploit the rapidly changing demands of the global agricultural marketplace. Three of those obstacles are 1) a confusing environmental permitting and review process; 2) limited access to capital; and 3) insufficient funds spent on new products, systems, and technologies.

But the biggest obstacle of all is local Minnesota government.

"Barriers are making it difficult for livestock producers to grow, change, and modernize," Mr. Pawlenty said. "These barriers are being put up at the township and local level, sometimes it seems based on politics rather than good science or good facts."

Tensions between rural and state government, especially between independent farmers and clueless bureaucrats in St. Paul, are as old as the state itself. But those stresses are starting to rise again, possibly on their way to new levels, as a result of the genuinely new trend sometimes called globalization, or more accurately, global economic integration.

It is absolutely true, as the governor said at the Gar-Lin farm, that the demands of a global agricultural marketplace are putting new pressures on local farmers and on the state itself to respond flexibly, or face failure.

Agrarian Life

Yet it's really important to be clear about the exact nature of the phenomenon ­ that is the whole system that puts food on our tables. And especially important to be clear about whom it is that runs that system, who benefits and who loses, and what parties if any are being played the fool.

For that, a much better report than the livestock task force report to consult is one by Dr. William Heffernan, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, called (pardon the ungainly title) "Multi-National Concentrated Food Processing and Marketing Systems and the Farm Crisis."

Basically, Heffernan's work demonstrates the exact opposite of the trend that the Pawlenty task force describes. He shows that over the past 20 years, power has flowed away from local farmers and local governments and into the hands of an increasingly small group of giant agricultural companies.

Only two companies, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, today control about 75 percent of the grain and corn that's traded in the world, Heffernan says. The three largest beef processors sell about three-fourths of the beef in the U.S.; the four largest pork processors handle 60 percent of country's pork; and four companies process half the nation's broiler chickens. And so on through virtually every agricultural sector.

Global Agribusiness

In such a situation, the very definition of farming must change. Indeed, today's farm crisis is equally about identity as economics. Nearly all farmers are torn between their commitment to the agrarian life, which entails a proud tradition and history, and a deep personal ambivalence about working on a contract basis to a single buyer, and to following strict rules for farming "production" set down by many entities beyond their control.

The real power hasn't flowed from state to local government or the reverse, but rather from local farms and government to business. In particular, to the handful of global agribusinesses that control the lion's share of all markets.

By rights, then, a representative for global agribusiness should have stepped forward at the Gar-Lin press conference to explain its activities and influence on the Minnesota economy and rural life across the state.

But come to think of it, considering the philosophy behind the governor's task force report as well as its recommendations, perhaps one did.

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report