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
Decision-making has gone seriously
amok at the state's 1,802 rural townships, in which roughly a quarter
of Minnesota's population resides,
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.
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
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
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.
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