From Disparity to Parity

Garrett Graddy-LovelaceHistory of Parity

Fair Prices & Farm Justice for Racial Equity & Food System Resilience
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Garrett Graddy-Lovelace

Associate Professor at American University, School of International Service

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Why Parity? Why Now?

In 2020, a deadly global pandemic and its economic fallout erupted, and shortly thereafter, a global uprising erupted to counter the deadly pandemic of anti-Black racism. Meanwhile, hunger and food insecurity have risen drastically, especially in communities already facing systemic racism. Climate-change related catastrophes compound these inequities, as do unchecked corruption and disinformation.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its public health and economic aftermaths have laid bare the vulnerabilities of concentrated, convoluted supply chains. Farmers are going bankrupt while people are going hungry. Supply coordination and management expertise are major information gaps. Holistic governance is needed to ensure fair prices for farmers, to allow them to weather the pandemic’s storm – and feed our communities nourishing, affordable foods. Smart supply coordination and management needs to support diverse farmers – particularly small and medium-size growers, farmers of color, and farmer cooperatives who are providing food for local, regional, direct markets, and food hubs. Research is needed to find out what these policies and programs would look like, and how to implement them as soon as possible.

Agricultural governance seems peripheral to our present swirl of crises, but in reality, it lies at the heart of many problems – and their potential solutions. We think that we can move from disparity to parity in farm policy, and in turn, provide some solutions to the issues plaguing this country:

From Disparity

Current farm policy incentivizes a treadmill of commodity crop overproduction: small and medium-scale farmers – in a cost-price squeeze – face debt, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and land consolidation. These are especially aggravated for farmers, ranchers, and fishers of color who experience systemic racism. At the same time, farmers are perpetually reeling financially from climate disasters, while supply chains hit bottlenecks and disruptions, food prices and corporate profits rise, and food insecurity soars, with communities of color taking the largest hit.

…To Parity

Wiser agricultural governance could transform such disparities into parities, by centering and updating the concept of parity itself. Farm justice, which is the very tenet of parity, lays the groundwork for food, environmental, and labor justice. We invite you to join us in learning more about supply management, farmgate price floors, and cooperatives, and how such parity policies – coupled with antiracist land tenure, lending, and trade regimes – could forge a way out of current crises.

This policy report aims to broaden alliances needed to strategize and advance supply coordination for overproduction prevention, all alongside farmgate price floors that ensure the economic security of small-scale producers during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parity and Supply Management: A Brief History and Current Practices

Supply management – the cornerstone of 20th century US agricultural policy – became the untouchable third rail in the late 20th century neoliberal food regime. Like a train’s electrified third rail, the subject was considered politically lethal. Yet, the systemic evasion of even discussing the crisis of surplus production served as a driver for a food system premised on capitalizing on – and hiding – overproduction. How did this happen?

In a neoliberal flurry, the 1996 Farm Bill ended price floors for farmers, meaning there was no longer a minimum price – or minimum wage – that farmers could get paid for their products and work. Immediately, median yearly farm income earned by farm households crashed to below zero, where it has stayed for 23 years. The 2018 median farm income earned by farm households – a key indicator of true agricultural viability – remained 1,735 dollars below zero (USDA ERS 2020). In 2019, for the first time since the fateful ‘96 Farm Bill, this figure rose above zero to 296 dollars – because of the Market Facilitation Program trade aid checks the USDA wrote to the largest soy producers. In 2020, COVID-19, ad hoc disaster assistance programs and Paycheck Protection Programs pulled median yearly farm-related household income up to 934 dollars. The USDA admits: “The increase in median farm income in 2019 and 2020 is largely because of increases in government payments to farm operations.”

Meanwhile, the practice of overproduction continues to grow. Throughout 2019, crop surpluses piled higher, festering in climate-induced floods and storms and in tariff battles. Meanwhile, dairy farmer bankruptcies abound, with one third going out of business in the last decade (Dairy Together 2020). These issues have grown starker in recent months amidst the pandemic-caused rapid collapse of the restaurant sector and its wholesale supply chains.

The concentrated nature of US agri-food industry and supply chains leads to bottlenecks, backlogs, and huge food loss when disruptions – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – occur. Rather than revamp the systems for decentralized, adaptive, direct, diverse, and localized/regionalized supply chains, the federal government continues to write big checks to prop the status quo. In 2018 and 2019, billions of dollars in ‘trade aid’ federal direct payments made their way to the richest producers of the feed grain glut. Concurrently, additional billions in disaster payments flowed to the largest landholders. Then in 2020, USDA pandemic-relief payments sent out another 40 billion dollars – but again, largely to the largest commodity crop (over)producers. Federal disaster payments in 2020 continue to move disproportionately to the wealthiest and largest farm owners, leaving most small and medium-size operations unsupported and empty-handed.

The largest US farmer organizations (the American Farm Bureau Federation and the major commodity groups) remain stuck on the treadmill of high input agriculture with all of its destructive environmental externalities – from the hypoxia-eutrophication dead zones of nitrogen fertilizer run-off to the toxic fecal cesspools of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, from the pollinator to the songbird die-offs, from the unprecedented levels of topsoil erosion, to the fact that a third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions come from industrial agriculture. These farmer organizations remain committed to exports as the solution to surplus in general, and agrofuels and industrial meat as the solution to grain and soy surplus in particular. From the dominant agricultural economic paradigm, a program of price supports and production quotas seems quaint, if not downright risky; in this view, such a policy shift could cause US farmers to lose market share, and raise prices for US consumers, exacerbating food insecurity.

A tragedy unfolds here. A true agricultural viability crisis grows, even as it grows harder to see. Foreclosures are multiplying, but government responses merely exacerbate disparity and land concentration, obscuring the vicious cycles of overproduction, exploitation (people, animals, and land), as well as political-economic consolidation. This further excludes and locks out the wave of diverse, young people who want to enter agriculture – to grow nourishing foods for their community, to steward land and water, to make a living farming. Who can afford to jump into this relentless treadmill of overproduction? Who can shoulder these risks and disparities? A recent report by the National Young Farmers Coalition chronicles how the high cost of farmland has prohibited young, beginner, and farmers of color from accessing land to start farming.

A suite of supply management techniques including reserves, non-recourse loans, set-asides, and cooperatives have worked to mitigate the tendency toward self-defeating overproduction. This history, largely obscured in the post 1990s amnesia of neoliberalism, has much to teach us about preventing and curbing commodity crop glut. That said, in practice, many of these programs retained and even entrenched societal biases and inequities: they helped mid-size farmers keep farming – but mostly Anglo, white, male farmers. As such, the process of recalling and updating supply management and price floor programs requires extricating them from white supremacist, classist, and male-dominated power dynamics of farming, trade, and land tenure. But, at their core, supply management policies and programs were an attempt to achieve farm ‘parity,’ wherein the income derived from farming covers the cost of production and affords a reasonable livelihood – comparable to (at the time: white, Anglo, male, landed) farmer incomes in World War I, and to urban workers’ incomes. This central honesty – about agro-capitalism’s race-to-the-bottom tendency to overproduce and consolidate power – certainly merits remembering and reviving.

Big Farmer Bailouts as the Opposite of Parity

Farm ‘aid’ is the very antithesis to the premise of parity. The crowning achievement of the 2014 Farm Bill was its cessation of Direct Payments to farmers; the whole political spectrum overcame intense divergence to advance this lone point of consensus. Progressives denounced how such decoupled payments had gone only to the wealthiest, largest landowners, exacerbating consolidation and environmental degradation. Austerity-touting conservatives decried the waste of federal funds. The 2018 Farm Bill, a largely status quo omnibus package, continued the stoppage of Direct Payments, while expanding crop insurance and related modes of risk- and loss-based coverage.

Nevertheless, big, direct payments have returned. The Trump administration sparked tariff battles with China, the main purchaser of vast quantities of United States soybeans and other agricultural commodities. The export valve for crop glut then snapped shut, leaving mountains of unsold beans. To ease crop growers’ anxiety, and to curry political favor from the agricultural sector, the USDA made a series of sprawling, direct aid payments to farmers impacted by trade battles – all without Congressional oversight, debate, or input. Twelve billion dollars was promised in late 2018 – right in time for mid-term elections – and 16 billion dollars was promised the following summer. By the end of 2019, over 19 billion dollars had been paid out. A third ‘and final tranche’ was promised in early spring 2020.

Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash

In spring 2020, Senator Debbie Stabenow charged the Government Accountability Office to investigate the trade payments, their (in)accuracy, and possible fraud, waste, and abuse. In one of the many bitter ironies of this situation, the Farm Service Agency made the ‘magic money’ farm payments under the authority of the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) Charter Act – the vestige of the original New Deal Agricultural Adjustment Act itself.[1] Yet, even with voluminous bailouts and huge disaster payments, the USDA forecasted that farm debt would continue to rise in 2020 to the height of 1980s farm crisis levels, when adjusted for inflation (Reuters 2019).

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic and financial crash turned the world upside down, threatening to upend global food supply chains and availability – and the already exploited laboring communities therein – altogether. The US Congress quickly passed a multi-trillion-dollar, hastily written emergency mega-bailout package that included agricultural supports.

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Yet, these followed the same broken logic of the preceding supports: expensive band-aids on wounds of overproduction. These lavish payments, disproportionately paid to the largest producers and processors, bring many dangers, exacerbating both climate-emissions-inducing production and agribusiness concentration. They further entrench the lingering problems in agriculture – racial and gender and class disparities, the input treadmill, debt bondage, and labor exploitation.

Direct payments further distract the public from the actual needs of farming, farmers, and those who wish to farm, if only they had the land and resources to do so. They further distance those driving the tractors from those whose SNAP benefits just got cut again. They lock in the subsidy myth and alienate needed alliances between rural and urban communities fighting the same foes of political economic greed and graft. These hush-money checks to big producers overshadow a burning truth at the heart of this situation: that there is an enormous, but unrealized public good of sustainable, biodiverse, regenerative agriculture that nourishes people and provides dignified livelihoods for those making the nourishment happen.


The Pandemic’s Disproportionate Effect on BIPOC Communities and Farmers

Today, COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on people of color manifests starkly in agriculture (Walker 2020). Food and farmworkers risk and lose their lives as “essential” workers in meat processing plants, yet are still subject to the violence of detention and deportation. Meanwhile, hunger and food insecurity continue to rise drastically, especially in communities already facing racism. As food and agriculture spheres begin to reckon with their current and historical racism, they also face systemic disruptions that lay bare many longstanding vulnerabilities in the United States food and agricultural system – chief among them supply chains. Supply chains have faltered for produce, dairy, meat, milled flour, and other staple products – with shocks and bottlenecks choking the flows of food from fields to markets to meals. Egregious contradictions ensue, with farmers having to destroy thousands of acres of crops and millions of animals, while one in every five children in the US go hungry (Brookings 2020) – all with farmworkers on the frontline of these public health risks.

Farmers have been struggling against low farmgate prices (what farmers receive for a product as it leaves the farm itself) for nearly 80 years, but with COVID-19’s recent supply chain disruptions, they now face financial catastrophe. Bankruptcies continue to rise. For small- and medium-scale farmers, farmers of color, and beginner farmers, the situation is even worse. The federal government released billions of dollars of post-COVID-19 stimulus payments in 2020, but these flowed mostly to the largest landholders, the biggest cattle (~four billion dollars), dairy (~1.8 billion dollars), and hog (~600 million) operations, as well as to vast corn (~1.8 billion dollars), soybean (~501 million dollars), and cotton (~260 million dollars) row crop operations (USDA 2020). The biggest California specialty crop growers garnered hundreds of millions, while small and medium-scale and organic growers of fruits and vegetables received a few thousand dollars and modest food-box contracts that did not cover their increased expenses to maintain safety for workers and customers. Nevertheless, these direct-sale healthy food producers worked hard to pivot to online, curbside, outdoor, and home delivery markets – all with scant government assistance.


How Climate Change Is Harming Farmers and How Parity Can Help

As federal government and USDA leadership avoid the term “climate change,” the reality of climate catastrophes slams agriculture and food systems relentlessly, and leaves farmers and farm workers in financial peril. Topsoil, water, air, biome, biodiversity, climate, and nutrition all suffer under the toxicity and waste of industrial agriculture, though farmers attempting to build resilient food systems are discouraged from doing so given their added costs of production. Yet, agriculture is responsible for releasing a third of anthropogenic greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and climate change in turn wreaks havoc on farming and fishing systems.

Wildfires scorch Oregon orchards, California wineries, and the country’s fruit, nut and fresh greens basket, endangering the lives of those toiling in the fields and those toiling to fight fires. Hurricanes bluster and drench, flood and flatten rural and urban areas alike throughout the Gulf, the Caribbean southern coast, and the southeastern seaboard. Climate-induced freshwater salinization and ocean acidification meet with egregious nitrogen fertilizer run-off, hypoxia, and eutrophication ‘dead zones.’

The Farm Bill’s underfunded Conservation Title strives to incentivize farmers to protect topsoil, waterways, and biodiversity. But such voluntary measures pale in comparison to the economic coercion for maximized production.

To avoid a climate change tipping point, regenerative soil practices, grain perennialization, agroecological intercropping, and reforestation need to be multiplied, researched, expanded, and supported immediately.

Beyond mere payment for ecosystem services, agricultural governance has the potential to set a price floor that remunerates excellent stewardship.

Fire in Sonoma Hills

Agriculture as a Public Good

What do farmers and non-farmers owe each other? And what does this framework of mutual responsibility mean for agricultural governance, particularly in the United States? At the nexus of this mutual dependence is a tenuous contract, straining against the chronic crisis of commodity crop overproduction. This old secret crisis of surplus undermines food system resilience, agricultural viability, rural wellbeing, racial justice, ecology, and health.

Many can’t see beyond the paradox that those still making a living farming command vast landholdings and massive machinery while receiving large direct payments from the government. Where is the public good? In 2015, the National Young Farmers Coalition released a report on farming as a public service (Hansen et al. 2015). This lens of farming as a public service, grounded in racial equity, food sovereignty, and agroecological wellbeing, could highlight the urgent shared fate of farmers and non-farmers. Mounting data attests to the cascading ecological, economic, public health, and social impacts of toxic, exploitative commodity crop overproduction – as well as the racialized and racist disparities (Horst and Marion 2020; Penniman 2019).[2] The current public “bad” of such agricultural systems shows the potential for extensive public good.

In general, these urgent diverse needs have garnered piecemeal USDA supports at best – tucked usually in the final Miscellaneous Title of the Farm Bill. But, the confluence of crises – pandemic, hunger, climate, land loss, disparity – demands real transformation. This begs a larger question: What is the role of government in turning the public bad of current overproduction to a public good of sustainable, nourishing, fair agri-food systems? This is not a new question, though it arises again amidst news (though not enough news!) of big payments to wealthy landowners amidst cuts in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program supports. A century ago, amidst desperate bread lines, farmer destitution, and a continental soil erosion Dust Bowl, popular/populist consensus converged: the chief role of government was to help stave off commodity crop surpluses and save family farms from bankruptcy or foreclosure.

Agricultural parity would mean viable prices to the farmer that cover costs of production, as well as corresponding land and water stewardship through agroecological conservation compliance, alongside affording living wages for all farmworkers. With no price floor, such asks remain unfeasible, if not unfair.

A Plea for Parity

What would a more resilient, adaptive set of agri-food supply chains look like in the United States? This policy report has brought together a team of practitioner-experts and interdisciplinary researchers to ask and help answer this pressing question. In particular, we have focused on the key, overlooked role of farmgate price floors and supply management – set to cover the cost of production for growers producing nourishing foods sustainably.

So, can the farm justice concept of ‘parity’ be updated to serve the needs and visions of farmer-of-color led coalitions and cooperatives of farmers (and ranchers, fishers, agroforesters, urban growers, and even farm and food workers)? Could such ‘parity’ proactively serve economic dignity, racial and gender justice, as well as climate and environmental justice and agroecological resilience? Could it help foster economic imaginaries and practices and markets that afford good livelihoods but are not exploitative to humans or the Earth? We believe it can.