Small Farms and Direct Marketing Generate Grassroots Jobs and Promote Economic Democracy
Aug. 1, 2013 – Jim Hightower has been “battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be” for decades, his web site declares. A native of Denison in north Texas, he got his start in politics after college and grad school as a legislative and campaign staffer in Washington, D.C., culminating in a stint as manager of the short-lived 1976 presidential campaign of Oklahoma’s “last liberal senator,” Fred Harris.
The Cooperative Extension in North Texas treated a farmer who asked for advice on going organic ‘as if he were wearing a pink tutu or something.’
Books by Jim Hightower:
In his one and only stint in elective post, Hightower served two terms as Texas agricultural commissioner, narrowly losing in 1990 in an election for a third term to political up-and-comer Rick Perry.
Since 1990, Hightower has offered his populist prescriptions for all that ails America as an author of numerous books, a radio talk show host and a syndicated columnist based in Austin. In the most recent issue of his newsletter, Hightower Lowdown, he skewered Walmart for opposing fair wage laws, asserted that higher education in America should be free, and blasted Republicans in Congress for stripping food aid for the poor out of the farm bill while loading it up with “ridiculous taxpayer handouts to the biggest and richest agribusiness operations in our land.”
Agricultural and food policy has been a particular interest of Hightower’s ever since he served as state agricultural commissioner. During his tenure in the post in the 1980s, he launched a number of initiatives that today underpin the burgeoning farm-to-table movement, including setting up a state organic certification program and working with local groups to start farmers markets. I caught up with him for a telephone interview two days before he was scheduled to be keynote speaker at the First Annual Farm to Table International Symposium in New Orleans.
Q: You’ve always been an advocate for the less advantaged, but organic farming and the farm-to-table movement are criticized by some for being elitist and out of the price range of working stiffs. Are you bothered by that?
A: I don’t think of it as elitist, though it kind of begins that way, just because of the market, when you don’t have the volume. But gradually, it changes. Right now, you can get tomatoes in season at a farmers market around here in Austin for as cheap, and sometimes cheaper, than at the supermarkets. And as the farmers market providers and artisans mature, they are finding ways to bring in cheaper product and to serve specifically low-income communities. One of the great things about the movement is that it is a community movement. And the people who are in it tend to be fairly progressive. They don’t want to be elitist. They want school kids and low-income people and working stiffs to be able to have good fresh food. So I don’t fault them at all as elitists. I see them working on that issue and overcoming it.
Q: Is direct marketing a big enough deal by now that it is improving the fortunes of significant numbers of small farmers?
A: Yes, particularly for younger farmers. I think it has created a tremendous opportunity for younger people. We are in a tug-of-war between agribusiness, which thought it had already won this fight 30 years ago, and agriculture. [President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture] Earl Butz said, ‘Get big or get out. Farming is no longer a way of life, it’s a business.’ Well, it is a business and it is a good business because it is a way of life. Smaller farmers who are direct marketing want to put themselves and their lifestyle back into agriculture and into their product. These folks understand that it is more than about just putting a certain level of nutrients on the table, and about more than just making a big profit. They are putting culture back into agriculture.
It’s not easy, but it definitely is working. Here in the Austin area we have at least 15 farmers markets, and these farmers are able to make a living and some of them are making a little better than a living and are expanding their operations in one way or another. Because of these markets, it is economically a viable thing to do.
Old Timers Going Organic
Q: What about old-time farmers? Are they getting left in the dust by the arugula-farming newcomers?
A: Some of them are, but others are adjusting to the new opportunities. I have seen that going all the way back to my time as ag commissioner. We launched what at the time was the most comprehensive organic certification program in the country. Other states had private certifiers, but we were the first state certifier. But the extension service wasn’t teaching it. In fact, they scoffed at it.
I know of one guy out in Gaines County, way out on the New Mexico border, with a big, 2,000-acre farm, producing grain and other commodities. He was just ridiculed by the extension service when he told them he wanted to know something about organic farming. It was as though he had walked into the office wearing a pink tutu or something.
They didn’t know anything about organics. They said, get out of here, you can’t make a living doing that. So, like all the pioneers, he had to go out and find people all around the country who knew something about it, and who shared information and who talked to him. Sure enough, he converted to organic.
In the first year, his production was cut in half, but in the second year, it was up to three-quarters, and by the third year, it was a little better than the old production. By the fourth year, as I recall, he was producing 20 percent more than he was with conventional farming, and he wasn’t paying for all the chemicals. Suddenly, farmers in the area were coming around and saying, tell us about this organic stuff. He was a convert.
There was another guy in the Rio Grande Valley who raised grapefruit and other citrus. He had been a big opponent of mine. He hated the organic stuff I was doing, but sure enough, he, too, got into it. He is now probably the biggest organic citrus producer in the state, and he loves me. He now says it was the right thing to do.
Q: You also launched some direct marketing programs when you were ag commissioner, didn’t you?
A: Yes, absolutely. That’s where we started. We realized you can’t go to farmers and say, you ought to produce this or go organic or raise blueberries are get into cut flowers if they can’t find a market. So we saw our job as being a catalyst for their enterprise, providing information and connecting them to markets. The ‘free’ in ‘free enterprise’ is not an adjective. It is a verb. You have to free up the enterprise of people because, simply put, monopolistic markets shut them out.
One of the examples I use all the time was a group of African-American farmers down near Houston. They raised wonderful watermelon, but they sold them off the side of the road for whatever they could get. We went down to Kroger’s, which dominated the Houston market, and we said why don’t you sell Texas melons. They said, we can’t go up and down the road picking them up, so we said we would organize a co-op that would provide melons to their specifications and in the amount they needed.
They said okay, we’ll take a load of melons. And had a marketing program called Taste of Texas and we let Kroger’s run their ads for the melons with the Taste of Texas label. Texans being chauvinists bought up every last one of those melons. It worked for Kroger’s, it worked for the farmers and it worked for us. We were able to hook them up and we were out of it. We didn’t have to own anything or run anything. We were just the catalyst to plug them into the marketplace.
Where Have All the Farmer Markets Gone?
Q: As ag commissioner, what did you do for farmers markets?
A: When I first ran for ag commissioner, one of the issues I ran on was why we didn’t have farmers markets. When I grew up in Denison, in north Texas in the 1940s and 50s, there were farmers markets everywhere By the time I went to college, there were none. The conventional wisdom in the 1960s was that mom-and-pop farms were too small. We can’t do anything for them. Well, I had spent time in Washington D.C. I had lived on Capitol Hill, and was a regular shopper as the Eastern Market there, which was a fabulous place. I also had an uncle who sold at farmers markets. So I knew what they were.
When I ran for ag commissioner, the Dallas News ran an editorial saying how ridiculous Hightower was to be talking about that because if people wanted a farmers market, the free enterprise system would’ve created them. But again that’s not how it works.
When I became ag commissioner, we didn’t create the markets, but we did a number of things to get farmers market reestablished in Texas. We hired a staff that knew how to work with local folks and find people who wanted to start a market. Sure enough, within a few years, we had 100 of them going in the state.
Besides farmers market, we also began to contact the white tablecloth restaurants. We also took Texas products into international markets. The point is, if you work with people, you can diversify the economy, you can democratize the economy, and instead of trickle-down economics, you have what I call percolate up economics. We are working with local people to generate home grown enterprises.
Yes, Grow Endive
Q: When he ran for president in 1988, Michael Dukakis was ridiculed for telling Iowa farmers they should grow endive. Barack Obama was lampooned for telling Iowa farmers they should grow arugula. It sounds like what you are saying is, damn the ridicule, farmers should grow endive and arugula.
A: Yes, grow endive and arugula or another specialty crop. We tried to tell even established farmers that instead of just producing cotton and cattle or wheat and cattle — it was always something and cattle — they should have maybe a few acres of organic production that they could take to a farmers market or local market, or some other specialty crop. At the time, we were trying to establish the Texas Blueberry Commission, to take advantage of the fact that in the blueberry circuit, our harvest is early, ahead of Michigan and New Jersey and other well known blueberry states. Blueberry producers are everywhere in Texas now. The farmers who converted 30 or 40 acres to grow blueberries are finding they are making more money on the 30 or 40 acres than on the rest of their one of two thousand acres.
Q: What if anything does the farm-to-table movement need from policymakers now to continue to grow?
A: What we first need to focus on, certainly at the federal level, is supporting the type of agriculture that the public benefits from. We should look at who benefits from the massive grain farm operators that current farm policies promote? The ones who benefit from that are Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland and the other big grain traders. They hold farmer prices down and they raise the price of a box of Wheaties.
Q: Should the farm bill and its array of subsidies for agriculture be eliminated, since it has been so completely commandeered by agribusiness?
A: We need a different kind of subsidy. Those giant farms don’t need the subsidy, and yet they are the ones getting the bulk of it by far. But most farmers, and I am talking 80 percent, don’t get a dime out of it. So for much less money, we could be investing in a whole new system of farming. We could also by trying to help move as many farmers as want to move into the value-added aspects of farming. When I was ag commissioner, we got behind things like the Texas wine industry, which was just beginning back then, and now the brew pubs and the craft beers and that sort of thing.
When we support that type of agriculture, what we as a society get back is for one thing, a gentler production system in terms of the ecology. And yes we can produce great volumes of in small units. But we also get democratization of our economy, which keeps more money at a local level and actually generates grassroots jobs. And we get an ambience out of it as well, farmers markets being the obvious example. Society benefits enormously from that type of enterprise. It just feels good as well as generates good local money and spirit.
– Mark Thompson