Hundreds of angry Northern Plains farmers mounted partial blockades at Canadian border crossings in Montana and North Dakota yesterday to protest U.S. trade policies, declining commodity prices and the growing concentration in the livestock and grain industries.
The farmers halted agricultural traffic across the border for several hours but said their protest was not aimed at Canadian farmers dumping low-price wheat and livestock in the U.S. market--the basis for several similar border demonstrations last year. Rather, they said yesterday's blockade was intended to call attention to what they see as a need to revise global trade compacts and try to restore price stability for American crops.
Helen Waller, an organizer of a protest at Sweetgrass, Mont., said more than 600 farmers demonstrated peacefully there, refusing to let farm trucks cross the border but not impeding other traffic. Border demonstrations were also held in Portal, N.D., and rallies were held in Idaho and Washington state, organizers said.
"We're just making a point that a sad situation exists in rural America and our congressional delegations don't even seem to know about it," said Waller, a farmer from Circle, Mont. "We need more thoughtful deliberations on our long-term agriculture policies."
Missouri farmer Bill Christison, president of the National Family Farm Coalition, said, "Our farm and trade policies are designed to transfer money from farmers to multinational corporations and subsidize the expansion of factory farms with cheap grain."
Christison, who helped coordinate yesterday's "Reclaim Rural America" day of protest across the Plains states and elsewhere, said the farmers also are upset that the Justice Department on Thursday gave an agribusiness giant, Cargill Inc., permission to buy the grain operations of its largest competitor, Continental Grain Co. Farmers have opposed the merger as another step in the concentration of the grain and livestock industries at the expense of the family farm.
Christison called it a "tragedy" that the Clinton administration allowed Cargill, which has annual sales of $35 billion and, he said, already controls 42 percent of the U.S. corn market, to grow even larger. "Apparently, no one at the Justice Department thinks this is concentration," he said.
The coalition of farmers called for emergency price supports, a block on the Cargill-Continental merger, new agricultural antitrust investigations, mandatory price reporting for grain and livestock, and a new focus by the Clinton administration on the health of the family farm.
Protest leaders also complained that international trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade encourage farm concentration and have resulted in unfair competition because Canada and some European Union countries subsidize farms so heavily that they can sell their commodities here practically at cost.
However, Dena Hoff, a Montana rancher and chairwoman of the Family Farm Coalition's trade task force, said the protesters were not blaming Canadian farmers. "We won't let agribusiness divide farmers to make us forget that corporate manipulation destroys the family farm economy in both countries," she said.
The protests coincided with the release of a new report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington that said the combination of export dependence and deregulation that has guided U.S. agricultural policy for the past several years has failed to reverse declines in commodity prices, resulting in financial ruin for a growing number of family farms.
The nonprofit policy group blamed the 1996 Freedom to Farm deregulation law, which phased out farm subsidies that dated from the Depression era, for transferring substantial risks to farmers while failing to generate export-led growth.
"There is nothing wrong with expanding trade in agriculture as long as it can be accomplished in ways that benefit U.S. farmers," said the author of the report, EPI economist Robert E. Scott. He said a combination of "inequitable" trade agreements and an unstable global economy has produced a net loss of $13 billion in the U.S. farm trade balance between 1996 and 1998.
Agricultural groups have pressed Congress for emergency assistance of between $6 billion and $9 billion this year to offset losses from low commodity prices. Although Congress adopted a record $5.9 billion in emergency subsidies last winter, farm lobbyists say that amount has not been enough to counter the decline of family farms.
CAPTION: Stephen Anderson of Alma, Kan., conveys his view of U.S. farm policy with a wheelbarrow filled with horse manure at a rally in Sweetgrass, Mont.