I am a fifth-generation farmer. Our farm has been in the family since 1880. I graduated with an agricultural degree in soil science from the University of Tennessee, where I met my wife Cindy, who was studying animal science. We have been happily married ever since and have three children and four grandchildren.
As you might expect, 1960s-era university agriculture training meant that I was pretty well indoctrinated into industrial ag. I didn’t question it but just went along with it. Somewhere along the way, though, I began to realize that I was turning my farm into a hazardous waste site. That is not what I wanted to leave to my grandchildren, so about ten years ago, we quit spraying. We hadn’t been making very much money before, and we are not making very much now, but we are happier and we don’t have to breathe the sprays. Currently, we raise and sometimes sell grass-fed beef, we have a few hogs and some chickens, and we board horses.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE FAMILY FARM
I am going to talk about restoring the family farm, but to do so, I first need to explain what happened to the family farm in the twentieth century. It goes back farther than you think. In 1900, farmers were using horses. If they needed a new horse, they bought one from their neighbor and kept the money in the community, or they raised horses themselves. When they needed “fuel” for that team of horses, they bought oats from their neighbor and kept that money in the community, too.
John Deere and International Harvester started making a few tractors in the early 1900s. By 1917, Henry Ford had come out with the Fordson tractor. It was cheap and a really good tractor for the day. Meanwhile, World War I was going on. Many of our horses—a million and a half—were sold to Europe to eat or use in the war effort. At home, commodity prices were high, with corn selling for as much as three dollars a bushel (in early twentieth century dollars), so everybody bought a tractor. What happened? When a farmer bought a tractor, the money no longer stayed in the farm community, it went to Henry Ford. When people had to buy fuel for that tractor, the money didn’t go to the neighbor who had oats to sell, it went to John D. Rockefeller. All of a sudden, money was leaving the community at an unheard-of rate.
That was bad enough, but the implications for commodity prices were even worse. Before the advent of tractors, farmers used about a third of their cropland to grow the crops needed to feed the horses. Horses were like solar-powered engines, eating oats that converted energy from the sun. After tractors took over, farmers had a third more cropland to put in production, and that broke the market. That extra land that farmers had been using to feed their horses literally broke the corn and wheat markets. Corn had been three dollars a bushel in my community. At a mill that my great-great-granddaddy built in 1796, there are receipts showing that they were paying three dollars per bushel of corn in 1918. (Understand that corn prices today are still averaging a little over three dollars a bushel in current dollars, but three dollars in 1918 would be worth about fifty dollars today!) Although three dollars a bushel in 1918 was an unusually high spike, it is still true that the farm economy never fully recovered from the sudden surplus in production.
In 1933, Russia decided there were too many farmers in Ukraine, so they starved and killed nine million farmers, which was pretty rough on Ukraine’s family farms. At the time, Ukraine as the breadbasket of Europe. It was like the corn belt in America. Just to put the date in perspective, my father was 33 years old when that happened. Twelve years later, after World War II, the American government, too, decided that we had too many farms and too many farmers. Because the U.S. couldn’t just kill farmers like Russia did, our government took a different route and decided just to slowly starve them off the farm. Every farm policy for the next fifty years was designed to move farmers off the farm into the cities to work in the factories, and that leads us to where we are today.
RAW MILK RENAISSANCE
I first entered Tennessee politics as a member of the state house of representatives in 1988 and served on the ag committee. I got defeated in 1992 and was gone for twelve years, and then I returned to the House in 2004. Four years ago, I was elected to the Tennessee state senate. I was chairman of the ag committee in the house and now serve as vice-chairman of the ag committee in the senate.
I want to tell you a few things we have done in Tennessee. In the last six years, we have been lucky enough to have a speaker of the house who was raised on raw milk—and who was also the first female speaker of the house in a southern state legislature. In addition, the speaker of the senate had worked on his grandfather’s farm and was raised on raw milk. I myself drink raw milk every morning.
Even with the advantage of having politicians who understand the benefits of raw milk, it was still hard to make change. After four years of trying, we finally passed a raw milk bill that allowed cow shares. Now Tennessee has more raw milk dairies than commercial dairies. Raw milk dairies operate on a different scale and don’t milk nearly as many cows as commercial dairies. A raw milk dairy farmer close to us is probably milking twenty head of Jerseys in one line for raw milk, and he has another herd for his pasteurized milk and buttermilk.
When I worked on passing the cow shares bill, the department of agriculture fought me all the way. Then they said, “You passed a bill to sell raw milk, but you cannot sell raw cheese, buttermilk or butter.” Rather than go back with another piece of legislation, I asked the attorney general for an opinion. When a bureaucrat argues with a law, if you can get your legislator to ask the attorney general for an opinion, you may win fairly easily. We asked the attorney general, “If you can buy raw milk, can you buy buttermilk and cheese?” The attorney general said, “Of course you can.” So we won that one.
Our code, which is the law, said you didn’t have to have a permit to sell eggs from your own flock. Our department of agriculture said, “Eggs are a hazardous food so you have to have a fifty-dollar permit to sell eggs from your own chickens.” Even if you have only one chicken and sell one egg, you need a fifty-dollar permit. I asked the attorney general again. The attorney general said, “No you don’t have to have a permit. The law clearly says you don’t. The law trumps the rule.” So we won again.
MORE LEGISLATIVE ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Not long after that, the speaker of the house invited Art Laffer to come and talk to us. Art Laffer, you might remember, was Ronald Reagan’s economist and developed the Laffer Curve. He told our caucus, “If you abolish the inheritance tax and gift tax, in two or three years you will have more money than you will know what to do with.” Those taxes were the thing that was hard on small family farms. So we abolished the inheritance tax and gift tax, and sure enough, today in Tennessee we have a billion-dollar surplus. And we have cut the tax on food twice.
A lot of family farms are close to towns and cities. We came up with an annexation bill that says, if a city is going to annex an area, they have to do it with a referendum and let the people vote on whether or not they want to be annexed. While we were at it, we threw in a provision that lets you have veto power if you have a farm and you don’t want to be annexed. You can tell the city to leave you alone because you do not want to be annexed. The farmer has veto power on being annexed in Tennessee today.
Since the 1960s, the federal government has had a twenty-thousand-bird small-farm exemption allowing smaller farmers to slaughter chickens on the farm. We put that in the code, and now Tennessee farmers can slaughter up to twenty thousand chickens on their farm and sell them to restaurants, stores and individuals. That regulation is very popular. People can turn their money over fast with chickens.
This year, our revenue department decided that if a farmer had a commercial kitchen or commercial enterprise in one end of his barn or in the basement of his house, the farm would be taxed as commercial at 40 percent instead of agricultural at 25 percent. We raised enough stink about this that they rolled that back so that whatever you do on the farm, it will continue to be taxed as agriculture, not commercial. Incidentally, we also passed a law where you can bake goods in the farm kitchen and sell them at flea markets, churches, etc. All you have to do is have an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch sheet of paper saying that the goods were not baked in a commercial kitchen and list the ingredients.
Back in 1950 when they came up with the zoning laws, they put in the laws that agriculture was exempt from local zoning ordinances. They also said anything incidental to agriculture was exempt. Through the years, the little local planners, who are overzealous socialists, generally decided that houses were not incidental to agriculture and that you had to subdivide your farm if you wanted to build another house. Even if you had one house on a thousand-acre farm and you wanted to build a new house, they were making you subdivide the farm into a two-lot subdivision and survey it out before you could build another house for yourself. The attorney general ruled with us, but the local planners ignored the attorney general. So we passed a law that formally made it clear that houses are incidental to agriculture. Now if you have a farm and you have an old house and you want to build a house for your daughter, your milkman, your foreman, or anyone else, you do not have to subdivide your farm.
The federal government tried to pass a rule two or three years ago that said you have to be eighteen years old before you can drive a tractor on the farm. We immediately passed a law saying that if they want to enforce that, they will have to come down and enforce it themselves, because no state energy, personnel or money will be spent enforcing it. They backed down.
BILLS WITH SPIRIT
Tennessee is the home of Jack Daniels and George Dickel whiskies. Tennessee has had a monopoly on whiskey for about a hundred years, so we passed a microdistillery bill to go along with our microbrewery bill. Now we have microdistilleries popping up everywhere, and people are selling heirloom corn to these distilleries making heirloom whiskey. They are saving some of these old varieties of heirloom corn; it gives them a reason to exist. And customers are willing to pay a premium for healthier heirloom ingredients.
We have also done a lot for the wine industry. We have let them self-distribute, which was a big deal. The distributors had a monopoly on everything. We let them have satellite locations out on the main road so they can sell their wine. We passed a bill called the “bulk crush.” If you are raising grapes but you cannot afford a winery, you can take your grapes to a winery and let them turn it into wine, put your label on it, pay the taxes, and bring it back to your farm and retail it off your farm. That was really popular with the wine industry. We also created a farm winery. A farm winery is different than a regular winery, which can buy juice from out of state. A farm winery means they raise all of their grapes. They can raise the grapes, take them to a winery, have them turned into wine, pay the taxes and they can sell the wine on their own farm.
MORE ON THE HORIZON
We have several things coming up in 2017. We are looking at herdshares for meat killed at custom meat processing facilities, because we have a shortage of USDA meat processing facilities. You cannot get into a USDA facility for months because they are overcrowded. We tried passing legislation on custom facilities last year and barely missed it. We asked the attorney general, and we may get a good ruling on this.
Currently, we have a dual system of meat processing facilities set up by USDA. The way the USDA set up the system, a USDA inspector is on-site all the time at the USDA facilities, whereas the other custom houses (of which there are many more) were considered by USDA as “customer-inspected.” USDA said they would let the customers inspect it, and if they don’t like it, they won’t go back. One model works as well as the other—but the catch is that you cannot market anything killed at a custom house to the consumer unless the customer buys it before you kill it. For example, I can sell you a half steer on Tuesday, kill the steer on Wednesday and if you come back on Thursday and say you want to buy the other half of the steer, they say you cannot because that is illegal. That is nonsense! That is the kind of thing we have to get rid of.
LITTLE AG, BIG AG AND GMO FOODS
Another thing we need to keep in mind is the problem of dual agriculture—Big Ag and Little Ag. Big Ag doesn’t need to cuss Little Ag, and Little Ag doesn’t need to cuss Big Ag. They are serving two different markets and have two different sets of clients. I tell people, “Let Big Ag feed the world and let Little Ag feed the community.” If Big Ag chooses to ship genetically modified (GMO) corn around the world, rather than hybrid or heirloom corn, and other countries want to receive that corn, that is their choice. In my community, though, I want my grandchildren eating good food.
Countries like Russia are stricter on their food than we are and don’t want GMO foods or ingredients. In India, some states are going back to organic and traditional grains. When we went into Iraq, we outlawed the old traditional varieties of wheat that they had raised for five thousand years to make them buy our wheat and GMO seeds. Europe said that before they would adopt GMO corn, they were going to watch our children and see how they do. Our children don’t appear healthy now. There is a lot of obesity, and it is a different kind of fat. So Europe is generally rejecting the GMO crops, and their yields have gone up faster than American crop yields. Hogs fed on non-GMO corn reach market weight eleven days sooner than on GMO corn.
I have never seen land grant universities compare the nutrition of different types of corn. Some of the old open-pollinated varieties of corn had 11-12 percent protein. You could fatten a hog on twenty-five bushels of some open-pollinated varieties. When I was in college, we were using hybrid corn, and we figured it was about 9 percent protein. Now this GMO corn is down to 5.5-6 percent protein, and all they want to do with it is to make ethanol. If we could do one thing, we should quit subsidizing the ethanol industry and put a lot of the land currently given over to GMO corn (and soybeans) back into pasture.
A dirty little secret about GMO corn is that there are no minerals and no nutrition in it. Monsanto won’t let you do a side-by-side comparison of GMO and non-GMO corn. When you are feeding your animals and children GMO corn, it looks like corn, it feels like corn, and it might even smell like corn, but there are no minerals in it. I heard on the radio that the USDA said our corn has lost 70 percent of its calcium in the last thirty years. Our fruits and vegetables also have half the minerals that they had thirty years ago. I heard that said one time by the USDA but have not heard it again. I guess the USDA had to throw it out there just once, so if they ever got sued they could say, “No, we told everyone about it.”
I am really disappointed with the land grant universities, which have become mouthpieces for the big corporations. I don’t know what happens in Europe, but Europeans manage to come up with research that is one hundred and eighty degrees different from our research. In America, the taxpayers build the buildings at the universities and they pay the researchers’ salaries, but to do a project, researchers have to get a grant from a corporation, and for a million dollars they will prove anything. There was a time when the land grant universities were trying to help farmers and get out good information, but they are not even trying to do that job now. It is ridiculous to see some of the stuff they come out with. They say the world is six inches away from starvation, but I don’t see the wisdom in forcing our topsoil down the Mississippi River to feed people around the world who don’t even like us.
Seed companies have hybrid corn that will out-yield GMO corn, be more nutritious, and cost a third less, but you have to use more than one herbicide. The world has never used and relied on just one herbicide (Roundup) to the extent that we do now. Our soils are getting tighter all the time, and agriculture specialists are worrying about trying to loosen the soil up.
I would like to have GMO labeling, but we are probably not going to get it. Consumers have to go the extra mile and buy products certified as organic and non-GMO and vote with their dollars. If you see some guy selling local green beans, go buy some, even if you don’t want them today. Buy some and pay a little extra so that he’ll be there next year. Local food might cost a little more, but it is cheaper than doctor bills.
STATE AGRICULTURE COMMITTEES
At the federal level, there are big changes going on. I was talking to someone who was having trouble with the state agriculture committee: the Farm Service Agency State Committee. The director and the committee are presidential appointments. The state director will have responsibility over the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and over the federal money coming into the state. With the new administration, they are all going to be changed. Luckily, we have had a pretty good committee under Obama. In all states, they have been primarily Democrat ag committees, but Trump is going to appoint new ones. I’m not sure if Trump will go the traditional route. He seems like he has been a little untraditional. Now is your time to have some input on who these committee members and chairmen are. They control a lot of the give-away money and a lot of things in the state, although they don’t have anything to do with changing laws. If you have any sway with anyone, now is the time to try to get some people on that committee. The farm bureau usually has a lot of input in most states, so they also would be good to contact.
KEEP COMING BACK
William Faulkner, a great Southerner—he wrote sentences that were too long, but other than that he was good—he said you would never know a Southerner was mad at you until he killed you. You have to remember that when you are lobbying the legislature and trying to pass a bill. Don’t let them know that you are mad at them until you win. It is a long, drawn-out process, and you probably won’t succeed the first time you put forth a bill—so you have to keep coming back.
GETTING BILLS PASSED
The key to getting bills passed is to know your legislators. How many people know their state legislators or state
senators? You need to know them on a first-name basis. You need to send them literature. If they have a fundraiser, go to it. They don’t care if you give them money or not because the lobbyists will give them money—they just need a crowd. If you are there and talk to them, stay a little late and mingle. They’ll appreciate it.
There are a few people in the legislature who are really important. How many people know their ag committee
chairman? In some states, if the chairman doesn’t want to hear a bill, he can simply say, “We are not going to hear that bill this year.” That is called a pocket veto. The chairman is powerful and can get things done. You need to know the chairman of the ag committee in both the house and the senate.
Moving on up, the one who is really powerful is the speaker of the house. How many people know the speakers of
the house or senate? They are just regular people and regular state representatives. In Tennessee, they pay us minimum wage. Our salary is twenty thousand dollars a year. I am just thankful they don’t pay us what we are worth. The speakers are regular people, so don’t be intimidated by them. I always tell my daughters, “No one can intimidate you unless you give them permission.” Don’t give these legislators permission to intimidate you. Go see them and talk to them. If you have limited time and can only get to know two people, spend time on your speakers. You should know those two—the speaker of the house and senate are key. They can make things happen. They are elected by the other members. They make a little more money and work a little harder, and they can get things done. If all of sudden the speaker is interested in a bill, most people on that committee will be interested in that bill.
Moving up again, there’s the commissioner of agriculture. Sometimes they can help you, but most of the time they are in the pocket of Big Ag. They generally won’t help you too much. If you happen to know the governor, that is great, but when it comes to passing legislation, I would rather know the speaker of the house or senate. They are the ones that actually get it done.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2017.🖨️ Print post
Brad Wilson says
This is a fascinating article. Here are a few additional thoughts. First, restoring the family farm also means restoring the farm economy all across our farm states, and then making a profit on farm exports, so it’s pro-business, pro-US, and at the same time it eliminates the need for farm subsidies. Second, while the loss of draft animals put a huge pressure toward oversupply and cheap farm prices, we also had cheap farm prices most of the time for 60 years prior to the Great Depression, (with a few exceptions, as noted,) because free markets don’t work very well at all for agriculture on either the supply or demand sides. This was fixed by market management (of price and supply) in the New Deal farm bills, (without a need for subsidies). It provided minimum price floors, similar to minimum wage, and it overcame the change from draft power. What Congress did to farmers after World War II actually started in 1953. They lowered price floors for the major crops, more and more, until in 1996 they eliminated them. A key factor is that low/no Price Floors forced farmers to subsidize the loss of their own livestock to CAFOs, resulting in a loss of grass, alfalfa, clover and oats, (livestock feeds,) resulting in a loss of sustainable crop rotations. One way that “draft power” is relevant today is in grassfed systems, where animals harvest their own feed and spread their own fertilizer.
Brad Wilson says
I forgot to mention the two current proposals to restore fair prices to help local and grassfed systems and eliminate the CAFO subsidies that farmers pay (i.e. below cost prices for feed ingredients) are the Food from Family Farms Act of the National Family Farm Coalition and the Market Driven Inventory System of the National Farmers Union. See links to more information about these solutions here: https://zcomm.org/zblogs/primer-farm-justice-proposals-for-the-2012-farm-bill-by-brad-wilson/ . Proposals for mere subsidy reforms do nothing to eliminate the free market CAFO and junk food subsidies.