For most Americans, the Occupy Wall Street movement has been largely an urban phenomenon, but last Sunday, December 4th, farmers and rural activists flocked to New York City to join the Occupy Wall Street Farmers’ March in a show of solidarity with their urban allies.
While the mainstream media has tried to paint Occupy Wall Street as a bunch of wild eyed-hippies, for many of us who live in small towns in rural America and fight to reform food and agriculture, we know better. Which is why many of us traveled from as far as Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maine to join with OWS to occupy food, farms and the land.
Family Farmers are the 99%!
It’s not for nothing that one Hudson Valley farmer carried a sign (one of my favorites) that said: “Civilization was built on Agriculture, not a Trading Floor!”
Unfortunately, due the rampant collusion between Republicans, Democrats and Wall Street, civilization may end on the trading floor if things continue as business as usual in our economic and political capitals.
Even though it took the massive mortgage crisis and economic collapse to wake the American people up to the vast harms caused by unchecked corporate power, farmers have been acutely aware of these issues for decades, if not centuries; one only has to remember that our nation was founded by an alliance between urban rebels in Boston and Virginia farmers.
In the tradition of uniting urban and rural, the Farmers March was planned as “a celebration of community power to regain control over the most basic element to human well-being: food. The food system has been taken over by multinational corporations to the detriment of communities, ecosystems, local economies, and soil all over the world,” said Paula Winograd and Seth Wulsin, members of the Occupy Wall Street Food Justice group.
Taking on Economic Injustice in The City
According to AlterNet, more than “500 rural farmers, urban farmers, food laborers, community activists and former occupiers” showed up for the beginning of the day at an East Village community garden, which began with Bronx urban farmer Karen Washington telling an energetic crowd of her journey over the past two decades to create a healthy food environment for her neighborhood.
Washington, who helped found the City Farms Markets, a series of community-run farmers markets, was stunned to hear that “food was a privilege and not a right”. So she set out to change that, mainly by putting her hands in the dirt, planting seeds and feeding her community. Through her work in the Bronx, Washington is helping combat the major issues of obesity, diabetes and lack of access to healthy food faced by underserved communities.
Washington announced proudly, “I’m an urban farmer. I grow food. I feed people’s body and mind.”
Confronting Corporate Concentration from the Prairie to the Plains
Over the past three decades, the U.S. has adopted economic policies promoted by Wall Street investment banks and agribusiness monopolies that have led to massive concentration in food and agriculture. Today market concentration is so great that only four firms control 84 percent of beef packing and 66 percent of pork production, which has resulted in forcing more than 1.1 million independent livestock producers out of business since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.
No one knows that better than Colorado and Kansas rancher Mike Callicrate, who has been at the forefront of the battle against giant meat cartels in cattle country since the 1990s when he became a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against IBP, now owned by Tyson Foods.
As a result of poorly designed federal policies and failure to enforce antitrust legislation, a hallmark of Reagan laissez faire attitude towards economic policy and justice, Callicrate has watched an entire generation of family livestock farmers liquidated from farming, including more than 600,000 independent hog farmers and 500,000 cattle producers since 1980.
The crowd gathered at La Plaza Community Gardens was stunned when Callicrate told them just how out of touch the federal government is with protecting family farm agriculture when he mentioned that in the lawsuit he was originally involved in, he and other cattlemen were awarded $1.28 billion for IBP “rigging the market and stealing their cattle” but the judge reversed the decision. Even worse is the fact that when the Supreme Court had a chance to oversee tougher legal protections for family farmers, it balked, choosing to hear the Anna Nicole Smith case over the plight of America’s cattlemen.
This fact was brought home recently when the White House and the USDA refused to stand up for fair market livestock rules for family farmers known as GIPSA, which would have protected them from unfair and discriminatory contracts and implemented a packer ban on the ownership and sale of livestock, something President Obama promised on the campaign trail. Instead, the Obama administration failed to stand up for family farmers and instructed the USDA to gut their own rules to appease the Industrial Meat cartels and out of touch members of Congress.
Fighting for Seeds and the Future of our Democracy
Even worse than livestock is the concentration in the seed industry. Today one company (Monsanto) controls the patents on genetically engineered seeds for corn, cotton, soybeans and sugar beets that are planted on more than 90 percent of the acres of commodity crops farmed in the U.S., which means an estimated 80 percent of the processed food American’s eat contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and as a result of their manipulation of our regulatory system, most Americans have no idea what they're eating.
In an effort to protect the rights of organic farmers and the integrity of our agricultural seed stock, Maine organic potato farmer Jim Gerritsen joined the Public Patent Foundation's lawsuit against Monsanto and as President of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association is the lead plaintiff, along with 83 other organizations, including Food Democracy Now!.
Gerritsen made his first trip to New York City to join the Farmers March to share his concern about the loss of organic seeds to genetic contamination and the threat this poses to farmers, eaters and our food supply.
Farmers March to Zuccotti Park/ Join Occupy Wall Street in Solidarity at Liberty Square
In what can only be described as a sacred renewal of our nation’s most basic democratic rights, rural family farmers joined with urban farmers and food justice activists on a soulful three mile march, winding from the La Plaza Cultural Community Garden through the East Village, the Bowery, Chinatown and the Financial District to reach the birthplace of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Zuccotti Park, now appropriately renamed Liberty Square.
Hundreds of fellow Occupiers awaited the crowd as they marched through the metal barricades, now lining the park into an emptied square cleared of tents only weeks before with the famous OWS drummers playing as people gathered in a Circle of Solidarity and farmers and activists shared their stories. One of the most memorable was Wisconsin organic dairy farmer Jim Goodman, who talked about milking cows, feeding people and standing up for democracy.
As twilight gathered over Liberty Square, citizens eager to plant real food and justice in their communities took part in a traditional seed swap, exchanging tomato, beet and kohlrabi seed from the Hudson Valley Seed Library, open pollinated seed from the Turtle Tree Seed, and Gerritsen’s organic wheat and corn from Wood Prairie Farm in Maine.
For those who attended the Farmers March, feelings of hope and solidarity lasted well into the night and following days, reminding us that as Americans, a diverse set of individuals that believe in liberty, freedom and justice, we must continue to stand together, rural and urban, farmer and eater, to advocate through our right of peaceful assembly to reclaim, rebuild and transform our nation to protect our health, our land and our democracy. As many signs at Occupy Wall Street camps across the country remind us: “The Beginning is Now!"
And while the mainstream media toes the line that Occupiers don’t have an identifiable plan of action that they can grasp, you can bet your organic seeds that the folks who put on and showed up to the Occupy Wall Street Farmers March not only know the root of the problems with our food supply, but are already working on building solutions as well. For many of us 99%ers, urban, rural, eaters and family farmers, we find hope that a new generation of activists is joining the call to action in reforming our food, farms and democracy.