In Search of Prosperity--and Parity

Last month more than 5000 farmers from 41 states descended on Washington, D.C., to publicize their plight and to demand higher government-supported food prices. That demonstration, and the general farm strike that accompanied it, were not unprecedented, but they were unusual. They were organized by the American Agricultural Movement--a rather unorganized group itself. It does not have officers, dues or members.

As a result, many of the farmers in Washington did not know where they were supposed to be on a particular day until midmorning of that day, or even until after events had taken place. As one Texan said, "It is the most unorganized, disgusting thing I've ever been in." But he added, "It still works." It worked in the sense that, despite the lack of organization, tractor-drivers were able to block traffic with the help of sympathetic truckers, and farmers were able to overflow conferences arranged with Congressmen and Department of Agriculture officials.

The success of the strike, in this respect, was due to two factors: the sheer number of farmers, and their anger against a system they believe has treated them unfairly. Whether the strike was successful in getting something done, however, remains to be seen. The farmers claim they are being forced out of business by the price-cost squeeze involved in trying to run their farms. In fact, many are lsoing their farms or are running into debt annually, as the rising cost of essentials such as machinery, feed and grain pushes their production cost above the prices they receive. To reverse this trend and ensure survival they want 100 per cent parity--that is, they want food prices to balance out production costs.

The Department of Agriculture defines parity as the ratio of production costs to food and livestock prices that existed during the years 1910-14, when prices and costs were thought to be in reasonable harmony. Farmers, however, define parity differently, and much more simply: "It is a return on our labor in relation to our cost," one man said last month. "Parity is kind of like a minimum wage," another explained. This discrepancy between definitions may be part of the problem.

The Department of Agriculture feels that 100 per cent parity--a fully restored balance between costs and prices--is impossible. First, it would be too expensive for the taxpayer to support prices that high. Second, it would result in extreme production control. Third, it would mean vast temporary government ownership of stocks. Instead, the Department of Agriculture's solution to the trouble more and more farmers are finding themselves in is to increase exports of farm products and develop high-paying new markets abroad.


The Federal Farm Bureau, the largest private farm organization, would augment the government's proposals with relief from federal regulation and more liberalized credit. Neither the Agriculture Department's nor the Bureau's suggestions would solve the farmers' problem, though. The farmers don't want to see parity evolve on its own. The evolution would be too time-consuming, and would not necessarily succeed. Instead, they want parity immediately--and they plan to get it.

"We've got to go for broke because we're going broke, nationwide. We won't accept anything less than 100 per cent parity or we'll have to be back next year," an Alabaman said last month. One way to gain parity, farmers feel, is to keep a contingent of demonstrators in Washington until the government grants the price increase. If this does not work, many plan a more drastic move: They will plow under their fields. This, they believe, will be their most effective action: it is the last card up their sleeve.

I spoke with one middle-class, conservative wheat farmer from Freonia, Tex., who said, "If we plow up our fields I predict within two years we'll be under an entirely different form of government, because we'll run out of food before we get another crop."

He added, "The American farmer and small businessman is the last stronghold of free enterprise in the world today." As far as he is concerned, the American Agricultural Movement is trying not only to keep him in business, but to uphold his America, and the free-enterprise system, as well.

The movement has worked through volunteer meetings that were "nearly always opened with a prayer and a salute to the flag," he said. But after the prayer and salute the farmers often discussed tactics involving violence--vandalism and window-breaking. These measures were considered, the Texan explained, "Because, you know, you have to break the law to be noticed."

The fact that these farmers, who are probably among the most conservative Americans, feel the need to resort to violence means, to me, that they must be in dire straits, or nearly so. They have their backs against a wall, a wall of failure. They have nothing more to lose than their farms, and since they will lose those anyway if the cost-price squeeze continues; there is nothing preventing them from following through on their threat, and plowing under their fields. The Farmer's Creed reveals their desperation: "We the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful; have done so much for so long--with so little--we are now qualified to do anything with nothing."

When the Texan wheat farmer claims, "If we don't survive you don't survive," he has a point.

Anna Simons '80 is a resident of Winthrop House and Washington, D.C.