A protest movement that drew 10,000 farmers bitter over low prices to a Friday rally in Plains, Ga., has moved into Virginia and Maryland with rallies and organizational meetings.
A group of about 40 farmers from Fauquier and Loudoun counties in Virginia met Friday near Warrenton to set up a state headquarters for the American Agriculture Movement. The movement has called on farmers to quit buying equipment and selling produce on Dec. 14 until they win the higher prices they seek.
Leaders of the movement, based in Colorado, plan a series leading up to a Washington protest in which a tractor from each state will parade around the White House and Capitol on the eve of the strike. They have been successful so far in getting large turnouts as farmers have been caught this year in a squeeze between record crops and low prices.
Movement leaders, claiming the support of 800,000 of the nation's 2.5 million farmers, are voicing a simple demand - full parity prices for their products. Parity is an index of farmers' purchasing power now compared to what a unit of production - a bushel of gain, for example - would have bought in 1910-1914.
Movement officials say they want to return to a free market system without government subsidies. They also say they want the government to back the full parity price of $5.02 a bushel for wheat and $3.45 for corn. (Six weeks ago the price of wheat was $1.90, now it is $2.45.) The movement officials say they will achieve full parity prices by cutting production through farmer controlled production committees until prices reach the desired levels.
Wayne Eakin, a Greenwood, Del. farming supply business owner who is leading the movement in this region, said, "We're after the ability to price our products. We feel we can determine the amount we need to grow to fulfill domestic and export needs."
"We don't want the government to guarantee us anything. We'll guarantee the price by our production," he said.
Eakin, who reflected the bitterness toward the Carter administration and Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland common to the movement said, "Farmers aren't going to plant next year. After the Washington rally, they'll load up and go home and that's the last you'll see of a farmer."
Eakin said the movement would not use violence against farmers who don't join the strike. But he said, however, that "We'll tell farm suppliers that if he hells that man one disc, we don't intend to every buy from him again. I don't think theyll plant any crops."
C. L. (Boots) Ritchie, a Fauquier farmer adn grain processor who said he lost $100,000 this year to poor prices and drought, said, "We're going t stop buying farm equipment. We're using 40 per cent of the nation's steel and we know it's going to have impact."
Administration officials have taken a position of agreeing with the farmers' goals but doubting their methods. Cliff Ouse, an assistant to Bergland and, like him, a Minnesota farmer, said, "The secretary understands the problem and sympathizes with it."
Ouse said that "parity" does not take into consideration the vast increase in farm productivity in the past 60 years.
The new farm bill, attacked by the farmers' group, sets a target price of about $2 a bushel for wheat and $2.10 for corn next year, levels that are supposed to equal the average cost of production. Farmers will be able to get corp loans or subsidies to guarantee them that price.
"If a farmer has a poor corp, he'll lose money. If he has a good yield, he can come out pretty good," Ouse said.
The administration also will cut acreage by 20 per cent for wheat and 10 per cent for corn through a "voluntary" program, Ouse said. Farmers who do not volunteer will not be eligible for supports and disaster loans so the voluntary program is actually most economically mandatory for farmers.
Ouse said he doubted that the strike could be effective. "Farmer strikes started in the 1770s in Virginia with tobacco and they've been effective," he said. "I've been a farmer all my life and I've tried to organize farmers myself."
"We did not get into this surplus overnight but many people felt with the change of administration it would go away overnight," Ouse said.
Ouse said the administration fully agreed that prices this year were so low that farmers were losing money on every bushel they sold. However, "I don't think farmers understand yet how it will change next year," he said. Understanding of the new programs will take the steam out of the strike movement, he said.
"This is a program farmers can use. They have to determine their own destiny," Ouse said. "They're the only unorganized group in an organized society and if the American Agriculture Movement is the organization to get farmers organized for it then I'm all for it."
Ritchie acknowledged that it was not clear to him and other farmers how welll the new farm bill would work, but he said he had heard and read that it was "a disaster."
"I'm not sure that 100 per cent of parity is the best way or that our strike is going to work," Ritchie said. "But we've got to get together and it's the first chance we've ever had to get organized at all."