History of the American Agriculture Movement The American Agriculture Movement was born in the fall of 1977 out of desperation. Congress had just enacted another farm bill that insured four more years of prices paid to farmers below their cost of production. In other word, every time a farmer produced and sold a commodity, he or she went a little further in debt and lost a little more equity in their land and equipment.
The American Agriculture Movement spread like wildfire. Less than a week after a hand full of farmers met in Springfield, Colorado and called for a "strike", farmers from all over the nation drove tractors to Pueblo, Colorado in order to tell the Secretary of Agriculture that the family farm system in America was in trouble. The Farmers also warned that if the situation was not remedied, a depression in the farm sector would drag the rest of the nation down, too.
The Secretary gave the farmers an often to be repeated message, "just wait a while and things will get better. Give the administration's programs time to work." It sounded all too familiar. Farmers had been living on hopes and dreams for 30 years. They did not buy what the Secretary was selling this time.
Gerald McCathern National Wagon Master 1978-1979
Marvin Meek, TX National President Aug. 1979-Jan. 1983 Farmers who identified with the American Agriculture Movement became spokesmen, going to other states to spread the word. Within weeks, a network of AAM farmers had been set up which spanned the United States as well as parts of Canada. Considering the fact that the movement had no formal means of communications, this feat alone was remarkable.
Farmers said they would go on strike on December 14, 1977, if five conditions were not met. These five conditions became the five points of AAM, but to this day, they have not all been met. On December 10, 1977, farmers driving their tractors paraded to almost every State capitol. These processions soon became known as "tractorcades", but it should be noted again that only the word of mouth was used to spread the plan. December 14, 1977, strike day, was the beginning of a massive protest all over the nation. The news media, intrigued with the idea that formery quiet, steady, peace-loving farmers were protesting and striking gave the movement full play.
Most of the farmers involved earnestly believed that all they had to do was to bring the problem to the attention of the nation and the legislators, and then farmers and lawmakers could sit down and work together to solve the problems. One example of the farmers naive thinking was that of Otis Chapman, a Baptist lay preacher from Scott, Arkansas. As he prepared to go to Washington, DC, his wife started to pack his Sunday suit, but Otis told her, "No, all I want is a clean pair of overalls. I want them to know I'm a farmer. Better pack me two pair. I'm going to stay until we get something done, even if it takes all week."
How innocent they were as they took up the task that would change so many lives. Farmers who had never spoken in front of anyone before now traveled around the country speaking to hundreds or even thousands. Farmers who had never been out of their home towns were now boarding a plane for Washington, DC and visiting their congressmen. Farmers who once had considered it a disgrace to be outside the law were now picketing and demonstrating. Farm wives who baked the bread and raised the children joined with their husbands. One group of ladies from the town of Panhandle, Texas even stopped their own train.
Gerald McCathern, an early AAM spokesman who later wrote several books about the movement, related how a startled manager, confronted by 30 tractors outside his food warehouse, demanded, "What in the heck is going on here?" A gray haired balding farmer removed his strike-emblazoned AAM cap and replied, "By God, we're going to picket you, if you'll just tell us how!"
And so it went, AAM's tactics in those early days brought harsh criticism, but also much needed publicity. Farmers learned to tell their story in front of TV cameras and on radio talk shows. Soon the whole nation knew there was a problem, whether they agreed with the farmers or not and whether they condoned their tactics or not. When congress reconvened on January 18, 1978, 50,000 farmers were in Washington, DC to greet them. Again, all of this was done with no formal communications network. On March 15, 1978, 30,000 farmers marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in one of the largest farm demonstrations ever. Some farmers from Missouri had brought along some goats, and somehow they got loose just as the parade approached the Capitol. The versatile goats nimbly climbed the steps, the statues, the fences or whatever else they wanted to. Police, not used to herding goats, tried to catch them. The news media barely noticed what the farmers were saying for the antics of the goats.
Tommy B. Willis, TN National President Feb. 1983-Jan. 1985
Corky Jones, NE National President Feb. 1985-Jan. 1988 After the rally at the Capitol, several thousand farmers decided to visit the US Department of Agriculture. USDA officials heard the farmers were coming and locked the doors. This angered farmers, for they felt that farmers had as much right as anyone to go to the USDA. As thousands stood outside in a cold drizzle, the Secretary of Agriculture slipped out through a window. Stormy beginnings. The capitol city didn't know what to make of the farmers, and the farmers were equally green at lobbying tactics. Farmers visited every Senator and Representative telling their story. Some took their income tax returns and receipts showing how much fuel and fertilizer had gone up, while the price they got for their crops had gone down. One urban California congressman flatly told them he had more farmers in his office at that moment than he had in his whole congressional district and he had no time for them.
At first there was much hope. Congress did pass some laws that were essentially no more than a temporary band-aid. But they did not get to the root of the problem... low prices at the farm gate. Consumers were afraid that if the farmer was paid more for his raw product, their food bill would go up. Even now, farmers still have a hard time convincing people that the price the farmer gets has little or no relationship to the price the consumer pays in the grocery store. For instance, a loaf of bread contains 5 cents worth of wheat. When wheat goes up, it is a good excuse for bread prices to go up, but when wheat prices plunge, bread prices seldom come down. Farmers tried to explain that the family farmer cannot survive without a profit. If the family farmer goes out of business, is America prepared to depend on imported food as we depend on imported oil?
AAM organized a gigantic tractorcade the following winter, which reached Washington, DC in early February of 1979. Farmers driving tractors left the countryside, collected along the highways and traveled in convoy to the nations capitol at 15 miles per hour. The trip took 18 days for some of the tractors could only travel about 100 miles per day. Through snow, sleet and mud they pressed on, camping along the road when necessary, stopping in parks, shopping center parking lots or a farmers field when available. They endured a blizzard in the mountains, were snowbound in Illinois and inched their way through traffic in cities like Dallas and Atlanta. For farmers it was a harrowing but memorable event.
Parade permits had been secured once they reached Washington, DC. The citizens and the police force could not handle it, however, when thousands of farmers and tractors converged on the city from four directions on the morning of February 5, 1979. Before the day was out, 19 farmers had been arrested, 17 tractors impounded, and police had penned the farmers into an involuntary prison camp on the Washington Mall. Bureaucrats waxed indignant about the farmers' presence, the damage they had allegedly done to the mall and the very fact they would even undertake such a foolish trip. The Secretary of Agriculture said on "Good Morning America" that the farmers were greedy, and the next day told Congress that farmers were making plenty of money. Farmers pointed out that they had filled 11,000 pages with testimony before congress the previous year, but it had not gotten the lawmakers attention, so maybe the tractors would.
Harvey Joe Sanner, AK National President Feb. 1988-Jan. 1991
Johnny Porch, TN National President Feb. 1991-Mar. 1993 Farmers on the mall were the villains until Washington was hit with 20 inches of snow overnight, and the farmers used their rubber-tired iron monsters to help dig out the city. For a few days tractors were about the only vehicles that could move. Farmers worked on mercy missions around the clock, transporting doctors and nurses to hospitals, helping the fire departments, giving blood and transporting government officials. AAM women even cooked and cleaned in hospitals because the regular staff was unable to get to work. The city finally dug out.
Farmers stayed on the mall for several more weeks. Hearings were held, and more hearings, and more hearings, but nothing was done about the basic problem of a fair price for farm products. The farmers finally went home, but they left behind a permanent office for AAM. From that office, even today, farmers not high paid lobbyists continue to tell their story to Congress and the Administration.
Since those colorful years, AAM has become a major player in agricultural policymaking in Washington, DC... as well as a key link for grassroots rural organizing. In 1981, 1985, and 1990 AAM members testified in hearings all across the country in order to let congress know what was essential in the drafting of the three farm bills, which were written in those years. Even though AAM did not achieve its goals of higher prices for farmers, they made a real difference in the outcome of all three farm bills.
Since its inception in 1985, AAM has worked closely with Willie Nelson and Farm Aid, which has helped take the message of rural America into the homes of all Americans. In 1987, AAM was a major participant in the passage of the 1987 Farm Credit Act, which made it possible for thousands of farmers to avoid foreclosure by restructuring their debt. In 1989, AAM, along with soybean farmers across the nation, filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Board of Trade for its emergency liquidation order, which cost America's soybean farmers an estimated $4 per bushel. In 1990, AAM was the only farm organization invited to speak at Earth Day in Washington, DC. AAM has built a true working relationship with the environmental community by illustrating that family farmers are much more environmentally conscious than corporate agriculture. AAM has worked closely with organized labor on legislation which involves jobs and job safety for rural workers as well as all working Americans. AAM believes that if the working man does not make a living wage, he cannot afford to buy the farmers production.
In addition, AAM has had many other accomplishments. Here are just a few: AAM has begun to make Americans more aware of the importance of agriculture as the largest single sector of our economy. AAM has helped America understand how a depressed farm income can play a significant role in bringing on a national economic depression. AAM has helped expand public knowledge of and concern over the role of agribusiness in the manipulation of both national agricultural policy and the commodity markets. AAM has helped consumers to realize the gravity of the situation facing agriculture today and the impact that changes in the structure of agriculture can have on the future of a reasonably priced food supply. AAM has helped to make the public aware that farmers have not been responsible for food price inflation. AAM has worked to expose the role agribusiness plays in shaping ag policy which favors themselves, often at the expense of both farmers and the nation as a whole.
David McCarty, LA National President Mar. 1993-Jan. 1994
Bob Thornton, TX National President Feb. 1994-Jan. 1997 AAM uncovered facts about beef import practices and revealed them to the nation and the USDA. AAM discovered and revealed that Mexican beef was being brought into the US and placed in boxes labeled as domestic beef. AAM action resulted in stopping the use of imported beef in school lunch programs. AAM has exposed the fact that chemically contaminated produce is being imported into the US with labels saying "domestically grown". AAM is working to obtain legislation requiring all imported commodities be labeled as to country of origin. AAM uncovered and released information about the purchase of US farmland by foreign investors, which led directly to investigation by the Congress and the news media... and resulted in Congressional action to require registration of foreign purchases of US farmland. AAM has worked to focus public and Congressional attention on the tax advantages available to foreign owners of American farms giving them a competitive advantage over American farm producers. As a result of this effort, legislation is now pending to tax foreign investors in farmland the same as US citizens.
AAM farmers have become directly involved in the political process pressing politicians to take stands on agricultural issues and exposing those who have not taken appropriate positions. AAM leaders have run for office and have been elected as delegates to political conventions at the state and national level. They have helped write platform positions and shape national political debate. AAM members have helped elect to office in many states those who have taken more favorable positions on agricultural issues. AAM action has directly caused existing farm groups to become more responsive to the best interests of both farmers and consumers. AAM has exposed USDA's manipulation and distortion of farm income and production cost statistics.
AAM has worked for inheritance tax reform as this tax affects agriculture. Bills have been drafted and submitted for congressional action directly as a result of AAM's work. AAM has been responsible for various changes and improvements in commodity set aside programs. AAM has helped to intensify the political support for legislation favoring the development of alcohol and other biomass fuel. AAM is directly responsible for Congressional action increasing federal research and implementation commitments for Integrated Pest Management. The purpose of this work is to reduce agricultural production costs as well as excessive agrichemical dependence. AAM has been directly responsible for a USDA demonstration program showing the longer term serviceability and profitability of organic agriculture.
AAM's successes have shown that individual citizen efforts can make a difference. Currently, AAM plans to expand its base to include not only agricultural issues but rural issues. AAM is working on the problems of rural health care, property rights, and other problems facing not only farmers but their rural neighbors. AAM has expanded it role to include the problems of the inner cities by initiating legislation to help feed the hungry. Referred to as "Parity Giving", AAM has proposed legislation to give taxpayers incentives to purchase commodities from farmers to be donated to accredited non profit organizations for distribution to the needy. The tax incentives would be based on the parity price of the commodity instead of the price paid.
Bob Hemminger, MO National President Feb. 1997-Jan. 2001
Above all, AAM has provided a farmer-created, farmer-built organization within which farmers themselves have been the leaders, speakers and organizers. In becoming involved with government and politics, farmers have spoken for themselves, much more than in the past. They have not relied on hired lobbyists and other staff, but have developed the skills to express the agricultural viewpoint themselves.
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