How does the occupy movement relate to farmers?

January 2012

Dear Farm Aid,

I saw Willie's "Occupy the Food System" op-ed on The Huffington Post recently. It really got me thinking, and I'd love to hear more about how the occupy movement relates to farmers?

Bill D.
Omaha, NE

It's only been four months since the first Occupy camp set up in New York City's Zuccotti Park, sparking a protest that caught fire worldwide. The Occupy movement channeled anger over corrupt big banks that fueled a colossal economic crisis, unchecked corporate power and the growing disparity between the very wealthiest Americans and the rest of the country.

To us here at Farm Aid, it was a much welcomed megaphone for what we've said for the last 27 years, as hundreds of thousands of family farmers have been forced off the land: our food belongs in the hands of family farmers, not multinational corporations. While the Occupy movement started with a focus on big banks, corporate control affects all facets of our lives and our food system is no exception. In fact, from seed to plate, our food system has more concentrated corporate power than our banking system!

Corporate Hands in Our Food

As we've discussed in earlier columns, our food system is extraordinarily concentrated. Today just four corporations control 84 percent of the beef market, 66 percent of pork production and nearly 60 percent of broiler chicken markets. A full 93 percent of soybeans and 80 percent of corn planted in the U.S. is genetically engineered and patented by just one company, Monsanto.

The consequences are no laughing matter. Between 1982 and 2007, an average 592 small and mid-sized family farms were lost each week.[1] Today, the remaining family farmers receive only 17 cents out of every dollar we spend at the supermarket—a drop of more than 50% from what they received 50 years ago. And as packing and processing companies consolidate, those farmers must often sign unfair contracts with large agribusinesses—just so they can have a buyer for their goods. Historically, those contracts have been cancelled by companies without cause or notice, leaving farmers high and dry with no way out of debt.

We hear from these family farmers everyday on our 1-800-FARM-AID hotline as they reach out for help, solutions and an opportunity to connect with others.

Many of these farmers and ranchers had hoped the scales would tip back in their favor under the Obama administration, particularly in 2010, when the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a series of public workshops to examine antitrust and anticompetitive conditions in American agriculture. Brave farmers across the country shared their stories and shed light on abuses they endured or damage they witnessed in their communities due to unbridled corporate power. But sadly, corporate food giants won out, as both agencies caved to lobbying pressure and failed to take action against bad corporate actors. More recently, top antitrust officials who were fighting for the rights of family farmers have resigned from their posts, unable to fulfill their commitment to farmers. Many farmers and leaders in the Good Food Movement left the whole process feeling disillusioned and frustrated from broken promises and a game rigged toward corporate interests.

As you can see, family farmers, perhaps more than anyone, know all too well the consequences of unfettered corporate power. So, when the Occupy movement sprouted up throughout the country, farmers immediately saw how the message translated to their own situation and joined in.

Occupy the Food System

This fall, Farm Aid launched Occupy the Food System, an online space for farmers and eaters to come together and share their stories about corporate abuse in the food system and brainstorm solutions for leveling the playing field. It's been an important forum for dialogue and helped spark further initiatives around corporate abuse at a time when the political process has clearly failed.

Farm Aid staff joined several demonstrations at Zuccotti Park, including last month's Farmers' March to Occupy Wall Street. Mike Callicrate, a rancher and rural advocate from Kansas, explained why he was joining this effort: “In the last thirty years we have lost 90 percent of our pork producers...we've lost over 40 percent of our ranchers; we've lost over 80 percent of our dairymen because of big, corporate, abusive power.” Watch his speech in the video on the right.

Later this week, farmers (including this month's Farmer Hero Jim Gerritsen) will gather at a Manhattan district court for oral arguments in Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, et al vs. Monsanto – a lawsuit filed on behalf of 300,000 organic and conventional farmers to protect them from expensive and unfair lawsuits from the genetically-engineered (GE) seed giant. To date, Monsanto has filed 144 lawsuits and settled over 700 out-of-court cases against farmers for patent infringement when patented GE crop genetics were found in (read: contaminated) non-GE fields. This legal action by Monsanto has bankrupted several farmers and created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation throughout American farm fields.

Know Your Power

The problem isn't that we don't have power. It's that we don't use our incredible power at the checkout counter, on the ballot and in our daily lives. Willie's call to all of us to occupy the food system reminds us of our collective power and helps people connect the message of the Occupy movement to the very important issues facing farmers and eaters. Corporate abuse of power, whether in the banking system, on our plates or elsewhere, is a reality of our lives, but it's not inevitable.

For starters, there is a growing demand for family farmed food. When we choose to buy directly from our family farmers or choose brands that support them, we take the power back into our own hands. Local food systems strengthen our local economies—when we buy local and choose to support local farm and food ventures, we buttress our community, our environment and our own health.

We know that the rules are often written by powerful elites behind closed doors—but we must weigh in on policy matters, especially this year, as members of Congress prepare to draft the next Farm Bill. In fact, right now you can take action and help occupy our food system by joining us in the Just Label It! campaign to demand that the Food & Drug Administration labels all foods containing GE ingredients. Instead of eating in the dark, labels can ensure that you have a choice about what you put in your body and agricultural practices you support when you walk down the grocery aisle!

Our food and farms are too important to be trusted with a few corporations. We hope you'll join Willie and all of us here at Farm Aid in occupying our food system.


1. USDA ERS 2011. Small and mid-sized farms refer to farms making between $10,000 and $250,000 in gross sales in a given year.

Further Reading

  • Read Willie Nelson's op-ed, "Occupy the Food System"
  • We asked Occupy Wall Street's Food Justice Group what motivates them and how we can all Occupy the Food System.
  • Read about our Farmer Hero Jim Gerritsen, an organic Maine farmer who traveled to New York City to attend The Farmers March as part of Occupy Wall Street.
  • Share your story and find out how to get involved on our Occupy the Food System Facebook page.

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